Joshua James Jordan
Four moth heads stood over me while I lay on an operating table. They had split my abdomen wide open, and one of them held my liver in two claws while licking with its long straw of a tongue.
“That’s mine. Put it back,” I said. All four looked at me as if surprised that I could speak. Paralysis wracked my arms, but I pumped my fists and I could tell that I would regain control soon.
“It’s impolite to take what isn’t yours, especially when it was on the inside of someone else to begin with.”
They looked at each other with hundreds of eyes and then scrambled to shove my liver back into my torso while stitching me up. I could move my biceps again and practiced my motor skills while they worked. When they finished, the last one sent his tongue up my belly one last time as if it couldn’t help itself.
I sat up and in an unconscious movement covered both of my nipples with a forearm. “Where is she?” I asked.
The moth heads looked at each other and then back and me. One shrugged its humanlike shoulders.
“I know you know. Now tell me,” I said, lifting up the arm that wasn’t covering my breasts.
One of them pointed to an operating table nearby. Dried blood covered it from top to bottom, and I knew that Betsy had gotten the worst of it. It’s always the worst your first time. I knew that I shouldn’t have taught her how to zone.
I slugged one of the moth heads in its eye. Squish! The other three ran away hissing.
My clothes lay on the floor. They had cut everything down the middle to get access to my body. My shirt could still cover most of me. I wore it backwards so that the split was on my backside and it still covered my front. My pants were torn, but I used the otherwise useless split bra as a makeshift belt. I’d have looked crazy anywhere else, but it wouldn’t matter here.
The metal room had an open door with a trail of bloody footprints leading out. They likely removed each one of her internal organs, licking them up and down while she watched. She probably fled, cried, wondered how she was still alive.
Guilt bounced around through my chest, making my heart skip a beat each time. How else could I have taught her how to zone? You have to take the good with the bad. Right? I had to get her back, regardless. Otherwise, she could go crazy in here.
I followed the footsteps through metal hallways and rooms, each one rustier than the last. My own footsteps clanged on the solid metal but crunched on the rusted flakes. Eventually the metal rooms gave way to a grassy meadow with the tree line of a purple forest in the distance. Two blue suns hung in a starless pitch-black sky.
Tuna-sized fish with black and blue stripes swam through the air over the meadow. One floundered over to me and revealed a full set of white human teeth with an eerie smile. “Have you seen another like me?” I asked it.
It flicked its tail and moved side to side with its mouth open as if letting out a silent howl. “May yes. A taste of your flesh will remind me. Four fingers should do.”
“Two,” I bargained.
“Three,” the fish said.
“One,” I said. It revealed its full set of teeth again.
“Two then,” it said. I nodded and reached out a fist with an extended pinky. The fish swam closer and began sucking on my finger until finally biting down. It grinded and crunched on the small bones.
“Another?” it asked, approaching me again.
“Tell me first,” I said.
It swam away a moment as if thinking, then spun around and said, “She’s a guest of the Shadow queen.”
I had seen the shadows walking through the forest, but I never visited the shadow palace itself. The fish swam right up to my other fist and nudged with its snout but I didn’t expose any fingers. I started walking towards the shadow palace.
“Don’t leave yet. Another snack? A deal was struck,” the fish said, ever grinning.
“I know what I need and need what you eat,” I said.
The fish grunted. “I’m a shrewd debtor. I will collect your flesh in this world or the next.”
I laughed. I had never seen anyone other than Betsy and me successfully zone.
“Go fly into a shark’s mouth,” I said. The fish gave me one last smile and floated up into the clouds, its tail flicking powerfully left and right. I headed on towards the shadow castle, which I knew was through the purple woods.
The shadow castle sat atop a small hill. Despite its name, the stone itself glowed with a bright white light. A violet vine crept along the walls and up the towers. A two-dimensional figure stood flat against the wall. The shadow guard clutched a spear, a real one, which floated in front of the guard but always looked as if being held, the spear following its clenched fist.
“Here to speak with the shadow queen,” I said, walking through the gate. A spear blocked my way.
“Shadows only,” the guard said, the sound of its voice like a disembodied echo.
“I’m already inside,” I said. “You should go and get me out.”
“Oh, flickers,” the guard said. “How’d you manage that? Are you a doppelganger?” It slammed the butt of its spear into the ground. “Queen’ll feed me to the fire. Third doppelganger I let in since tomorrow.” The shadow figure trotted along the wall into the castle of light.
My own shadow ran inside, the legs stretching thin as the distance between us grew longer and longer. I almost wished my legs were that long. Betsy’s seem to be four feet long and I love her all the more for it. She always says that I have the better tits. She’s full of shit.
I followed my dark double into the fortress and found the shadow queen sitting at a grande table in a dining room. She was a giant black figure not stuck to the walls at all but sitting at a table. Betsy, looking unconscious, sat locked in a cage high up near the ceiling. The Queen stood up, grew in size, and slowly tore a strip of skin off of Betsy’s leg and placed the flesh on a plate. She sat back down and picked up a knife and a fork.
“I love it when my next meal takes the initiative to deliver itself to me,” the Queen said.
I could usually negotiate with my own body as food but I got the feeling that the Queen was well fed as of late. “I’ll trade my soul for our lives,” I said, pointing to Betsy.
“A soul?” The queen seemed to rest her head in her hands. It was hard to tell since she was just a silhouette. “Could I eat that?”
I shrugged. “I suppose not, but―” I stopped. I had to think about what the heck a being of darkness could possibly want. “It’d make all the devils jealous.”
The Queen stopped in the middle of cutting the meat on her plate. “Both souls,” she said.
I agreed. Not that it mattered. Just like our bodies would grow back once we left, who’s to say that souls don’t work differently?
They lowered down Betsy’s cage and opened the lock. This world had taken a lot of her. I held her in my arms and concentrated, closing my eyes. First I could feel my feet and legs relax as they faded, then my body. Then Betsy in my arms. Until finally every part of us had zoned back.
We were lying in bed, the same as when we left. Our bodies were whole. It felt like my soul was still there, whatever that felt like.
“Did that just happen?” Betsy asked.
“Did what just happen?” I asked.
Betsy had a confused look on her face. “I . . . I don’t remember. But I didn’t like it. Let’s not do that again.”
“Okay,” I said with a smile. I gave Betsy a peck on the cheek.
I sat up in bed and looked over to our fish tank. We must’ve been zoned for hours, maybe days, so I went over give them a pinch of food when I noticed the little castle in the aquarium had tipped over. I reached in to pick it up when I felt a sharp pain at the knuckles of two fingers. A new exotic-looking fish in the tank with black and blue stripes swam to the edge of the glass.
It stopped. Looked right at me and grinned with a full row of perfect white teeth.
JOSHUA JAMES JORDAN lives with his wife and two kids in Tallahassee, Florida. He writes all genres of fiction ranging from heroic fantasy to whatever the heck this piece is supposed to be.