Friday, June 14, 2013

Fix That Annoying Kindle First Line Indent

Kindle Authors:

Is that pesky Kindle first line indent driving you crazy? It drove me crazy when I first got into formatting ebooks. Here's the quick and dirty on how to solve the problem once and for all.
First, a summary of the issue: the Kindle automatically inserts a first line indent for every paragraph where the author has not entered a first line indent value.

So while your manuscript may look like this:

bla bla blabitty bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty
           bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla
The Kindle will make it look like this:

           bla bla blabitty bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty
           bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla bla bla bla blabitty bla

You probably don't want this to happen because you probably want the first paragraph of each of your chapters to be un-indented. I say probably because this is a style preference, but a prevailing one and one that I believe gives the writing a cleaner look.

So assuming you want to stop the Kindle from automatically indenting the first line of each of your paragraphs, this is what you do, assuming that you are working in Word:

Whether you have a complete manuscript or not, select all of the text in the document (Ctrl-A), right-click and select Paragraph. (You can also do this by going through the Styles menu and modifying your dominant paragraph style, but that is less straightforward.) In the Paragraph menu under Indentation, Special, select First line from the drop down menu and key in "1 px" without the quotes. This will revert to 0.01, which you could also key in instead of 1 px, but I like 1 px...because it's cooler.

Click Okay. That's it. Setting the First line indent to one pixel or 0.01 gives the Kindle auto-formatter what it wants, which is a value to plug in for its first line indent, so the Kindle auto-formatter will not impose its own value.

Now, what about all the other paragraphs other than the first paragraphs of chapters, for which you do want visible first line indents? If you just went through the above steps in a work in progress where you had indented subparagraphs, the indents are all gone! Crap! You're going to have to put all of those back manually, or create a separate subparagraph style with your desired amount of first line indent for subparagraphs.

To get around the subparagraph problem, I like to set the first line indent to one pixel before beginning a manuscript, then set the indent for subparagraphs to the desired spacing by using the ruler tool. Once you set the spacing, complete a paragraph, and hit the return key, the next paragraph will begin with the indent that you have set. A simple backspace will remove the indent, and the lack of indent that you see in your manuscript (provided that you've set the first line indent to one pixel per the above) will correspond to a lack of indent in the final .mobi file viewed on the kindle.

If you have a manuscript where you just lost all of the indents for the subparagraphs, the way I prefer to fix this is by selecting all of the subparagraphs in a chapter (yes, chapter by chapter) and then using the ruler tool to indent to the desired spacing. There are other options, but I've found this be the least error prone.
Make sure to download the kindle preview file from your KDP dashboard and view your manuscript as the Kindle sees it. This way you will be able to confirm that the first line indents are gone, and determine if any other areas need to be cleaned up. Gone are the days of using the Kindle Generator in MS-DOS to check your manuscript...hooray!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Beginning of Sven the Zombie Slayer

Sven the Zombie Slayer

Guy James
Copyright 2011 by Guy James

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Chapter 1

Matt Sarelson stared into the thing’s eyes, and he knew, with the most terrible of certainties, that he was about to die.


Nine minutes and fourteen seconds earlier, Matt Sarelson had parked his Toyota Highlander behind Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. It was still dark.
His head began to nod, and he took another sip of his tepid coffee.
As part of his weekday routine, Matt made himself coffee every morning before he left for work. That morning, Matt had made himself a cup of strong Kona, but departing from his meticulous coffee-making practice, he had committed what he deemed a coffee preparation atrocity.
Matt’s coffeemaker had self-destructed a week earlier, and while he waited for its replacement to arrive, Matt used his trusty French press in the broken coffeemaker’s stead.
On that unfortunate morning, Matt was especially groggy when he forced himself out of bed at ten minutes past four. The grogginess led to an exceptional bout of clumsiness in the kitchen: the French press slipped out of his fumbling hands as he carried it from the sink, and though he juggled the press for a few turns, his circus skills did not save it from shattering on the kitchen floor.
Broken French press or no, Matt had to have his coffee, so he got out a small saucepan, in which he boiled some water. To the boiling water he added ground Kona, and he let the mixture simmer for a few minutes while he stirred it, distastefully, with a wooden spoon. Then he poured off the top layer of the mixture, striving to keep the grounds out of his cup.
But grounds had come, and now, as he sat in the parking lot in his Highlander, he felt the demonic grounds poking around his mouth, mocking him. He wondered how people had done it back in the day before coffeemakers. The thought made him shudder.
Matt swallowed the tinged mouthful and sighed a coffee breath sigh. Imperfectly prepared coffee was just another in the series of sacrifices he made for his job. Letting grounds run rampant in his coffee was bad, it was true, as was the broken French press, but today—getting in early today—was worth all of that.
He opened the car door, got out, and ducked back in over the driver’s seat. He retrieved his coffee mug and tucked his stack of marked-up deal documents under his arm. Matt kicked the door shut with a loafer-clad foot, took a deep breath, and crossed the empty lot.
At the entrance of the dark alley that connected the parking lot and mall commons, Matt paused. It was a creepy shortcut during the day—lined on either side with dim, cavernous recesses—and was even more troubling at night, especially with one of the two overhead lights having burned out. Matt wondered if someone was going to replace that light any time soon. Didn’t anyone work anymore?
Matt took long, tired strides through the alley, and then abruptly stopped in the middle. He had heard something…something that sounded too much like a scream. He couldn’t tell where the sound had come from, so he looked behind him, and, seeing nothing, turned back around and started for the mall again, quickening his pace.
By the time Matt stepped out onto the mall commons, he had put the sound out of his mind. He was too tired to concentrate both on that and on what he had to accomplish at work that day.
The mall commons were empty, save for a smattering of the sleeping homeless, and they were still dead to the world. The place was still.
As Matt walked past the familiar shops, he felt a sting of resentment. All of the shops’ owners and employees were in bed, and he should have been too—not with them but in his own bed—if it wasn’t for that lazy, no good—
He heard a cry, and spun around to face the direction from which the noise had come.
He peered into the distance.
No one.
The mall was empty.
Matt decided it had been a particularly disharmonious bird, or, even if it had been a person, it didn’t concern him. He had extremely important things to do that day.
He resumed his walk and stopped in front of the building, looking up at it. Bremmer Title Associates, it said to him—to everyone that passed.
But not forever, Matt thought, gripping his coffee mug tighter, one day, it’ll say Sarelson Title Company. It shouldn’t say “Associates” anyway. That was stupid—remarkably stupid. It was a company, and it should announce that fact to all of the potential clients that passed by it.
There were three residential mortgage closings on Matt’s desk that day, and he was coming in early because in his quite correct opinion, he was the only Bremmer Title Associates’ employee that could get anything done. Today was the day, Matt knew, that he would make Mr. Bremmer notice. Today was the day that Mr. Bremmer would finally see how talented Matt was, and how incompetent and worthless that suck-up Jon was. God, how Matt hated the two of them—Bremmer and Jon—always gushing over each other and following each other around while Matt got stuck with all the work. And to add insult to injury, Jon was Matt’s junior! But Jon’s father was a fancy so-and-so and la-di-da and—well, that wasn’t going to matter anymore, not after today.
Each of the three closings was to take place when Jon was out of the office on one of his usual three-hour workout and golf sessions—Matt had seen to that bit of timing. Jon would be dropping the ball—not the golf ball of course, the work ball—and Matt would rise up to save the day. And he would make damn sure that Bremmer noticed.
Matt took another sip of his lousy coffee, which was no longer even lukewarm, unlocked the title company’s door, and walked in. He locked the door behind him, flicked on the lights, and walked past the empty receptionist’s desk toward his own office.
He was beginning to replay one of his favorite fantasies in his head—the one where he beat Jon senseless with the lazy suckup’s own nine iron—when he saw a light coming from the back of the office hallway. He walked closer, and was startled to find that it was coming from Jon’s office.
Jon’s office was tucked away in the back of the floor, and Jon had had the privilege of picking it out because Mr. Bremmer loved him so much—so very, very, nauseatingly much. The position of Jon’s office let the lazy bum sneak in and out unnoticed, avoiding work and leaving Matt to run the business under Mr. Bremmer’s uninvolved and increasingly ungrateful glare.
God, how stupid they all are, Matt thought. That idiot Jon can’t even turn his damn light off.
Sighing in frustration, Matt put his coffee and documents down at his own office’s closed door, then crossed the length of the hall to Jon’s door.
Just as Matt reached his hand in to flick off the lights, he was overcome by a stench so overpowering that it felt like a punch to the gut. His head began to swim, and the shapes around him got fuzzy. He almost retched, but managed to keep his coffee—grinds and all—in his stomach.
So now Jon was keeping rotten food in his office?
That’s exactly something Jon would do, Matt thought.
It wasn’t even five in the morning yet and already Matt felt livid with anger. He clamped his fingers over his nose and resolved to dispose of whatever decaying matter he found within Jon’s office and get right to work. Even if no one else at Bremmer Title Associates did anything, Matt had a responsibility to the clients, and he was going to see it through. The work mattered.
Matt walked into Jon’s office, facing the divider that Jon had rigged up so that no one could see his desk from the hallway. When Matt came around the divider, he almost gasped. But the caffeine had started to do its trick and he remembered not to breathe in. Stifling his surprise-fueled want of a breath, Matt looked down, and had to revise his theory as to the source of the odor.
Jon was slumped face down on his desk. Looking at the pale-yellow, viscous fluid that was collecting at the left side of Jon’s head, Matt determined that the smell was vomit.
Great, he thought, now I have to waste my precious time cleaning up after this idiot.
Matt’s eyes darted to the corner of Jon’s office, where a letter opener stood, peeking out of a pencil stand. The letter opener seemed to wink at him, and he considered it for a moment. Wouldn’t that be nice? I could just stab him in the back of the head and end his misery.
Then Matt’s eyes shifted to the golf-bag propped up against the wall. Or, I could grab that nine iron sticking out of the bag, bring it up, and…
That was the better way to do it, he decided, flavorfully ironic.
Matt quickly walked out of the office, unclamped his nose, and took two deep breaths. Then he put his hand back over his nose and went back inside.
“Hey!” Matt yelled with his nose still clamped. “Wake up, it stinks in here.”
Jon moaned, but didn’t move.
“Come on, I have work to do and your stink is distracting. Jon! Jon, come on wake up you can’t do this in here.”
Jon moaned again, softer this time, and his head wobbled a little, then settled back into place. The puddle of pale-yellow fluid was spreading outward, making its way to the edge of the desk.
Then it’ll drip on the floor, Matt thought, and I am not going to be the one to clean it up. I am not.
Matt looked at the clock in Jon’s office and realized he needed to get started on his work. He couldn’t waste any more time trying to deal with Jon. Matt felt himself growing angrier, and the bit of stench that managed to seep past his fingers and into his nose was making him light-headed. He walked to the corner, picked the nine iron out of the bag, and not-so-gently prodded Jon’s shoulder with it.
Jon stirred, moaned, and in an apparent attempt to raise his head, fell off his chair, hit his head on the side of the desk, and landed in an awkward position on his back, with his arms folded together and in front of him, like he had fallen backward into a too-small coffin.
Matt had to stifle a laugh. Maybe Jon was now dead. Maybe his head impacting on the side of the desk had broken his neck. The vomit-laden fiasco may turn out to have a silver lining…no, a golden one.
After taking a shallow breath through his mouth, Matt poked Jon again, in the sternum this time, and hard.
That did the trick.
That did the trick in a way that Matt never expected, and in a way that he never intended.
Jon’s eyes shot open, and Matt stumbled backward, knocking something over and almost falling before coming to rest against the wall behind him. Jon’s eyes…they were...they were completely black, even where the whites should have been. It was a dull black, and it made Matt’s stomach drop to look into it, like he was looking into pure, unabashed evil.
Matt’s mind scrambled, trying to think of something to say or do, anything that might make those eyes look away from him, but no thoughts came. He began to feel a muddiness in his brain, and realized that the only thing he wanted to do was to get out of there, close the door behind him, and go back home. He could make some more bad coffee for himself and look for a whole new job—a different one. He decided that he didn’t like title work all that much anyway, the clients were arrogant and insatiable, and—
Before Matt could complete his thought, Jon’s mouth fell open, and a thick yellowish liquid poured out of it, splattering Jon’s button-down. It was a vile thing to see, and then Jon was trying to sit up, and Matt was trying not to breathe.
But he had been holding his breath for too long then, and he had to, he had to take a breath—a full one this time. The hand unclamped from his nose.
Matt inhaled. The smell had gotten so much worse, unspeakably worse.
The office began to spin around him, and a strange numbness began to nip at Matt’s skin, as if trying to find a way in. He continued to hold the golf club in front of him, pressing it against Jon, trying to keep Jon down.
“Don’t get up,” Matt said. “Please don’t get up, I’ll get someone, some help.”
Then Jon grabbed the end of the golf club and pulled, and then—everything was getting fuzzy and that smell—Jon gripped Matt’s elbow, and his grip was so strong, pulling Matt in.
It wasn’t just a numbness now, it was a debilitating, creeping paralysis. In spite of the relative lack of sensation, Matt felt something in his shoulder give way and pop, sending a terrible shooting pain across his collar bone and down the side of his body.
Damn you, Matt thought, damn you and your working out and—
Jon’s straining forearm stuck out of a rolled-up shirt sleeve. The skin of the forearm looked dry as paper, like it was crackling. Lines were forming lengthwise up the forearm, as if the skin was conforming to the muscle strands underneath. Then one of the lines of skin tore inward, and Matt could see muscle fibers ripping over paper-thin skin and—
Matt’s failing mind tried to think of something, something nasty, about how he hated Jon, but he couldn’t quite form the thought with the cotton ball fuzz that was now proliferating in his brain. And what about the forearm, hadn’t it just—
He blinked, and his eyes focused on Jon’s—Jon’s stale black eyes. That was when Matt knew, even through the fuzziness in his brain, that death was only another moment away.
Matt’s eyes were closing again as his dulled sense of touch felt the bite. They tried to reopen in shock, in pain, in anything…but they didn’t.

Chapter 2

“You ready?” Lars was sniffling and rubbing his nose.
Sven nodded.
“How many you going for?”
“As many as I can get,” Sven said. “Just don’t drip any of your cold on me.”
Lars nodded, then turned away suddenly and sneezed. “I’m fine, must be allergies or something. Let’s go, you got it.”
Sven took a deep breath.
He squeezed his shoulder blades together and dug them into the bench. He fixed his grip on the bar one final time. Then, with a mighty heave, he lifted the 435 pound weight off the pins. Every muscle in his body tensed, his mind filled with a crystal clear focus, and the bar and its plates became a part of him.
Sven lowered the bar to his chest. He raised it. He repeated the motion, counting in his head. One. Two. Three. Four. Come on Sven. Five. Six. Come on, come on.
The bar began to slow. Sven strained under the bar, squeezing the hell out of it, squeezing it to death. Four more. Come on. Come on. Seven. There you go Sven, come on just three more. Let’s go. Eight. There it is, you got it, you got it. He felt his face flush with heat and a numbness begin to creep down his forearms. His breathing came in short, ragged gulps between clenched teeth.
He lowered the bar for the first half of his ninth rep. When he began to lift the bar again, it stalled three inches above his chest. Lars’s hands shot out at once, forming a shadow underhand grip under the bar, in case Sven’s muscles failed and the bar began to descend. It didn’t descend, but continued to hang in place, obstinate. Sven stared at it, willing it up with his mind. Just get it past the sticking point. Come on, let’s go. But the bar just hung there, motionless.
Sven dug his heels into the floor, pushed even harder, and found a few more untapped muscle fibers to contract. The bar burst through its sticking point to just short of lockout. Nine. He had conquered nine. That’s it. You got it. One more. Just one more.
Sven stared at the bar. I got this, this is all mine. Come on, let’s go. He began to lower the bar to his chest for the tenth rep. His arms shook and his chest burned. His head felt like it was about to explode.
It’s a good thing Lars is here, Sven thought, a great thing. And just as he thought it, he got the sense that Lars was moving backward, around the bench press and away from it. Sven couldn’t look up or around to check for sure, but that couldn’t have been happening, not when Sven was in the middle of what would probably be his final rep, and after having nearly failed on the previous one. Even if Lars had suddenly decided to spot Sven from the front, Lars wouldn’t be switching in the middle of a rep so deep into a set as painful as this one. Lars was too experienced and careful a spotter to do that.
Then the shaking spread from Sven’s arms and took over his whole body. He was losing control of the bar and he knew it. He was pleading with it now, trying to make his hands grip tighter, trying to recruit more muscle fibers by sheer strength of will.
Then Sven lost control.
The bar came down too fast, hit Sven’s chest, and knocked the air out of his lungs with a painful whoosh.
But that wasn’t supposed to happen, because Sven had a spotter! Lars had been there just a few seconds earlier, standing behind the bench press for situations just like this one. Lars was a veteran spotter, and he had never let anything like this happen before. Where had he gone? Why would he have gone?
Sven lay there, pinned and bewildered, as the bar began to crush him.

Chapter 3

Jane took a sip of her coffee. It didn’t taste good. Maybe it was too much milk, or too much sugar, or maybe it was just too much coffee. She had begun to lose her taste for the stuff in the past few weeks.
Jane took one last, crunching bite of her sesame bagel, then tossed it in the trash. She emptied her half-empty coffee mug into the kitchen sink, shaking her head as she watched the vile stuff go down the drain.
Now came the moment she dreaded every morning—leaving for work. Jane liked her job well enough, and the hours weren’t terrible, but it all just seemed so pointless. Sometimes she wished a big pile of money would drop out of the sky and land in her front yard. She would collect the heaven-sent loot, count it, quit her job, and do some traveling.
It’s alright Jane, she told herself, there must be a few more corners to cut so that I can save up for a real vacation. Sighing, she reached for—
A pained moan came from the living room, interrupting Jane’s morning self-pity self-talk.
Jane walked out of the kitchen, through the foyer, and into the living room. Vicky was in the exact position that Jane had left her in before she went to fix breakfast—sprawled out on the couch, under two large, heavy blankets. There were two boxes of tissues on the floor next to the couch, surrounded by used, crumpled up tissues in various stages of sogginess. One of the boxes was empty and lying on its side.
Jane was beginning to worry. Vicky did get sick a lot, but her colds never progressed so rapidly, and they never appeared so suddenly. Vicky had started coughing at five in the morning, and now, only a few hours later, she was completely indisposed, burning up with fever and getting paler by the minute.
Jane picked up the glass of water on the floor next to the couch. It was cloudy and had nasty looking particles floating in it—probably backwash. She took the glass to the kitchen, dumped out the water with its host of floaters, rinsed the glass out, and refilled it at her Brita faucet filter. Jane brought the glass back out to Vicky, and leaned over her prostrate roommate.
“You have to drink this, really.”
Vicky moaned and turned away, trying to hide in the brown, woolen blanket around her shoulders.
“I’m serious, you’re not gonna get any better if you don’t drink your liquids.”
Vicky didn’t respond.
“Will you take it?”
Vicky still didn’t respond.
Jane sighed, frustrated. “I’m going to put some of that fizzy vitamin C in it—you know, the kind that you like—and set it by you. Just promise me you’ll drink it.”
When Vicky didn’t say anything, Jane said, “Okay, if you don’t say anything then you promise.”
Then Jane waited a moment for an answer, and when no answer came, she said, “There it is, you’ve promised to drink the water I bring out to you.”
She went back into the kitchen, smiling to herself and thinking how clever she had just been. But the smile faded quickly as her thoughts turned to her sick roommate. Vicky looked like she was getting worse, and Jane was beginning to think she should consider staying home to look after her.
Jane set the glass down on the kitchen counter and opened the cupboard. She took a raspberry vitamin C packet out of a box in the cupboard, then closed the cupboard.
She was about to rip the packet open when a noise from outside made her jump. It was a simple scraping sound, probably nothing more than a squirrel scratching at a screen door, but the way it broke through the quiet startled Jane. Then the scraping stopped. Jane went to the window over the sink and looked outside. The street looked serene, empty. Must have been a squirrel.
Jane went back to the counter, ripped the vitamin C packet open, and tipped it into the glass.

Chapter 4

Sven could feel the droplets of sweat running off his forehead and down the sides of his angular face. It was an odd thing to notice, considering the circumstances. He couldn’t take a full breath, and the bar was squeezing the remaining air out of his already-burning lungs. He was pushing as hard as he could, but the bar wasn’t going back up, and he knew it wouldn’t. Sven was only keeping it from crushing the life out of him, and he only had a minute or two at the most until his muscles failed and the bar made him very, very dead.
I need Lars, Sven thought in desperation. Where the hell is he?
With the bar’s weight on him, Sven could only turn his head an inch or two in any direction, and there was a sharp, stabbing pain in the left side of his neck when he tried. Where was Lars? Why would he have walked away in the middle of the set?
Lars had been acting a little strange that day, sure, but he had just lost out to his arch-nemesis in the Virginia Beach Bodybuilding Pose-Off, so Sven hadn’t thought much of it. But leaving Sven in the bench like that? That was more than strange.
Trying to avoid the stabbing pain in his neck, Sven took in his surroundings by moving only his eyes. He turned his eyes up, to the left, and to the right.
Lars was supposed to be there, spotting! That was his function when Sven was benching, and one of the reasons the duo worked out together, for exactly this situation.
Spinning his eyeballs around had gained Sven nothing. Lars was nowhere in sight. Sven turned his eyes up again, looking behind the bench now. That was where Lars was supposed to be, doing his spotting duty.
A bead of sweat rolled off Sven’s forehead and into his right eye. He flinched at the sting, involuntarily relaxing his grip on the bar. The bar took the opportunity to sag further into his body, evoking a ragged, spluttering cough from the compressed strongman.
He managed a low rasp. “Lars…”
There was no answer.
“Lars…” He rasped again, a little louder this time.
Still no answer.
Each time Sven had called for Lars some air was let loose from Sven’s lungs, and the bar had sunk lower, deeper into Sven’s chest. His strength was failing, and his ragged gulps of air weren’t finding their way home. He was suffocating.
Dead bench-pressers flashed in Sven’s mind—the ones who died benching alone in their basements without spotters.
But that’s not me, Sven told himself. I have a spotter! That’s not my story. Where is Lars? Sven didn’t want to be remembered that way, as an idiot bodybuilder that crushed himself in his basement, all the people judging and offering their opinions on his stupidity. It was better not to be remembered at all.
Sven’s burning face pulsed, like his heart was beating out of his face, instead of out of his chest, as the expression properly went. Sven pleaded with the bar, pushing against it with all of his strength, but it went nowhere.
Then, as Sven continued to push, the bar began to move upwards. But it was only for a moment, and the bar immediately settled on Sven’s chest again.
He would not be racking the bar. There were only two options left—roll, or tilt.
If Sven could roll the bar down his body, he would avoid suffocation. Now accepting that he was alone and had to save himself, Sven pushed his chest into the bar as hard as he could. He loosened his grip on the bar and tried to roll it forward. It didn’t budge. Sven curled his back and tried to roll the bar again. This time, the bar rolled forward an inch, shooting pain through Sven’s body as it shifted. His chest burned, and it felt as if his ribs were about to break.
The bar was stopped, stuck after its too-short journey. Sven couldn’t roll it any farther. The weight was too heavy. If there were 200 fewer pounds on the bar, Sven could have done it with ease, if only...damn you Lars!
Stars entered Sven’s field of vision, popping and crackling about as a searing pain began to ripple up and down his body. He would have to try to tilt the bar off. That was it. The last option.

Chapter 5

Milt sat comfortably at his custom-built battle station. He had designed it himself, so that he could sit behind it for hours at a time without having to get up. There was a time when Milt would have used the word bespoke to refer to the battle station of which he was so proud, until that rapper had ruined the word in that song…that song about dandy American lads prancing about. It made Milt shudder to think of it.
There were four bags of miniature Snickers candy bars on the desk next to his oversized monitor. A cooler filled with Coca-Cola bottles sat next to Milt’s furry-slipper-clad feet. They were the good kind of bottles, the old-fashioned, glass kind. Plastic bottles were not suitable for a warrior of Milt’s caliber. Those were for crass, stupid people—the losers. The only problem with the glass bottles was that they required a bottle opener, so Milt had three scattered about his desk. One of the bottle openers—the one he had used most recently—lay next to the unceremoniously torn Snickers bags.
The bottle opener’s most recent victim stood balanced atop Milt’s belly, which, over the years, had formed to become the most perfect of cup holders. The top of his belly became a stable, flat surface when he positioned himself in his battle station. Sometimes he had two Coca-Cola bottles set on top of his belly at the same time, and it could easily hold more. Right now, there was just the one bottle.
The front of Milt’s comic book and video game store was curtained and had no displays, so that most passersby wouldn’t dare to walk into the uncertain lair to disturb whatever inhabited it. For those that were adventurous enough to venture in, a huge neon sign greeted them as soon as they walked their unintelligent bodies through the door.
The sign read:
There was a place at the counter where customers could drop off their money to pay for an item. Milt despised customers, but he was exceedingly proud of his store, so he submitted himself to the compromise of allowing the common people entry so that they may see—and covet—his collection, while prohibiting them from accosting him with their stupidity, which he believed to be contagious and transmittable through conversation.
Should a customer ignore the sign and attempt to confront Milt directly, Milt had two cans of pepper spray with which to remedy the situation. In the event of a confrontation, he could give the meddling customer a quick spray and get back to business without losing too much time dealing with the intruder. He had sprayed customers before, and it always got them to leave. Once, a sprayed customer had had the nerve to sue Milt for assault, or battery, or some such nonsense. The idiot judge had made Milt pay a fine, and that made Milt question whether he should keep his store open at all, but keep it open he did, figuring that all the other sprayings he had committed solved the problem without further incident of lawsuit, therefore future sprayings should, in all likelihood, not result in another dim-witted, though apparently legal, tongue-lashing.
Should nature call when Milt was engaged at his battle station, Milt had a way of dealing with that too. He had a way of dealing with everything, of improvising, innovating, and coming up with ingenious solutions to all kinds of problems. At his feet, in its own cooler, was an empty, liter bottle of Coca-Cola, with its top cut off. It made for the perfect urinary receptacle, and the ice in the cooler helped reduce the smell. There was also some raspberry potpourri in the cooler, and that helped the smell too. Notwithstanding all of these precautions, customers did sometimes ask about the smell. “Do you smell that?” the ninnies would ask. “Do you smell pee?” Milt always sprayed the urine-questioners, and got back to business. It was true that the store didn’t always smell like a magical fairy tale, but that was war, and Milt, when he was engaged at his battle station, was at war.
Milt was fully engaged at his battle station now. The war was on, and he was so close.
Milt smiled, picked up the half-full Coca-Cola bottle on his belly and gulped down its contents greedily. Then, without taking his eyes off the screen, he felt around on his desk until his pudgy hand found one of the Snickers bags. He smiled again as he reached into it, remembering how smart he always was to tear the bags open before his grand work began. His well-cushioned palm and fingers closed loosely around two miniature Snickers candy bars. Milt pulled the bars out of the bag, and in a single, deft motion of his fingers, he popped the bars out of their wrappers, launching them on a brief flight through the air and into his mouth.
He gave the bars a sloppy chew. Some of his chocolate and caramel-infused saliva dribbled out over his bottom lip, collecting at the left corner of his mouth, like it always did. It dripped now and then, staining the shirt he was now wearing at the left nipple. Each of Milt’s plain, white XXXL shirts was stained brown in the same place, at the left nipple. Milt knew this gave him character. The dribbling gave his mouth character and the staining gave his shirts character. Dried Snickers splotches of yesteryear decorated most of Milt’s clothing, his store, and his living space, underneath the store.
The fragrance of the Snickers splotches, mixed with the fragrance of flat Coca-Cola, urine, and raspberry potpourri gave the place a distinctive air—it was the way the lair of a deadly warrior would smell. Milt was this deadly warrior, and he relished all that came with it. With great power, Milt knew, came great responsibility, and of course there were what some of the unenlightened would call drawbacks, but Milt knew better. Milt refocused his strained eyes, fumbled around for a fresh bottle of carbonated refreshment, opened it, and stood it up in its rightful spot on his belly.
Then he returned to clicking his mouse in furious fits, reaching up every now and again to feel for pimples on his scalp.
Milt was dimly aware of someone wandering around the back of the store—a stupid customer, probably. But as long as whoever it was didn’t try to bother Milt by asking questions or trying to purchase something without the exact change to pay for it, Milt could ignore the wanderer.

Chapter 6

Sven’s mind was frantic, and filling with thoughts of death. He tried to stay focused, but the tears that rolled from his eyes weren’t just tears of physical pain. They were tears of anguish. He didn’t want to die, and he was horrified that this was it—the end.
Sven closed his eyes and pushed his chest into the bar again. The bar had sunk lower, and it was in an even worse position. Though every movement hurt like hell, he kept pushing. He tightened the grip of his right hand, then slid his left hand around the bar, turning the grip to face him. Now his right hand was facing away from him and his left hand was facing toward him.
He pushed with his right hand and pulled with his left.
The bar began to tilt down to Sven’s left, the left side of his chest taking more of the weight. The pain became worse, more focused. The bar tilted some more, and, at last, the plates began to shift. Sven told himself not to get ahead of himself. He wasn’t out of harm’s way yet, and he couldn’t let himself get overexcited at the prospect of survival. There was still a lot of hard physical work to be done to get out from under the bar, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it if he let his mind think the struggle was over, or even halfway through. Mental pacing and preparedness were key.
Sven was able to take a shallow, uncomfortable breath now that some of the weight was off his right side. He knew that if he could shake a few plates off the left side of the bar, he could get out from under it. He kept pulling and pushing, imagining that as he did so, he distanced himself from becoming the subject of a humiliating headline: “Greased-Up Bodybuilder Lifts Too Much, Crushed In Own Basement.”
There were six plates on each side of the bar. Four of the plates were forty-five pounds, one was ten pounds, and one was five pounds. The heaviest were on the inside, and the smallest were on the outside. The two outer plates on the left side—the ten and the five—were the first to shift. They clanked to the edge of the bar and fell off. The sound of metal on metal bolstered Sven, but the four forty-five pound plates had only moved a few inches toward the left edge of the bar. Sven kept the bar on its tilt and wiggled it this way and that, moving it only a few inches in any direction, though his effort was enormous.
After one slow minute, one of the forty-five pound plates fell off. It clanked against the smaller plates. Sven didn’t notice. All of his focus was on shaking the next plate off.
Seconds later, after the second forty-five pound plate fell, the remaining weight on the right side of the bar finished the job. The right side of the bar was now 105 pounds heavier than the left, and Sven supported the bar as it was pulled around his torso to the right. The plates on the right side came off in a jumble, and Sven pushed the bar, with the two plates still on its left side, off him with a weak, grating roar.
He rolled off the bench to his right, almost knocking his head against the plates. Now that the bar was off his chest, the pain was much worse. His left side felt destroyed. The skin and muscle burned where the bar had been, and there was a dull ache deep inside his ribcage. That wasn’t counting all the muscles that had been pulled and strained in the struggle. But that was alright, because Sven had made it. The injuries would heal. He was going to live.
Sven’s vision was blurry, his ears were ringing, and he was ready to throw up. He put his face in his shaking, battered hands, then pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.
And that is why, he told himself, you never, ever, use clips when you bench. If he had, he would be dead. He never used clips at the gym, and there were none in his basement.
Benching doesn’t kill people, Sven thought, clips kill people. He almost laughed hysterically, but anticipated the pain and stopped himself.
Crouched next to the bench, Sven was breathing in shallow gasps. He still couldn’t breathe all the way in, and he considered sitting up to help the air get in—and to remedy his painfully dry throat—but it was too soon to be straightening up. He still needed a minute or two to recover, to appreciate the fact that he was alive.
Suddenly, a sound came from the back room of the basement, like a box falling. Sven’s ears perked up. Maybe that’s where Lars is, Sven thought, messing around with the supplies in there. But why would he be doing that? Growing angrier, Sven listened for more sounds, but none came. If he hadn’t been in so much pain, he would have called out to try to find out what was going on in the back room.
After a few minutes, Sven’s heartbeat had settled to a level just below panic, and he lifted his head out of his hands. He sat up on his knees, straightening up painfully, and looked down at his trembling body to assess the damage.
There was a deep red line where the bar had rested on his chest. The left side of his chest was turning purple already. Sven poked at it. It wasn’t tender yet. He got up to his feet. More pain. The basement spun. He couldn’t make the spinning stop, so he sat down again. After a few more minutes of ragged breathing, he got up.
The room had stilled enough for him to walk. He walked to the door to his storage room. It was more of a kitchen than a storage room. There was a sink, a refrigerator, two coolers, and shelves filled with non-perishable food supplies.
It was good to have a kitchen in the basement so that Sven could make himself a snack after working out. It was also good to have it there because Sven’s basement doubled as a home theater. When friends were over, the storage room was the beer locker.
He walked with a hunch in his back, not due to a lack of back training, but because it hurt too much to straighten out all the way. It hurt to breathe. Sven reached for the door handle and saw the door was slightly ajar.
“Lars,” Sven called. “Where the hell are you? I almost died in here.”
There was no answer.
Sven pushed the door all the way open and walked into the storage room.
“Lars?” On impulse, Sven spun around to look back into the basement’s main room. It was still empty.
“Lars?” he called again, this time it was a whisper.
Sven looked back into the storage room. The refrigerator was open. Not all the way, but enough that Sven could see the light peeking out of it.
So, Sven thought, Lars tries to kill me and jacks up my electric bill. Great. Where is that jerk?
Sven walked to the refrigerator. He took out a bottle of water and drank all of it. Water had never tasted so good. He closed the refrigerator, turning the storage room dark. He set the empty water bottle down on the counter, and his hand brushed up against something.
A sound came from deeper in the storage room where he kept the cat litter for Ivan. Ivan liked to play around in the storage room.
He reached for the light switch and flicked on the lights. A half-eaten sandwich sat on the counter next to the refrigerator. Sven picked it up with his thumb and forefinger. He sniffed it.
Nasty, Sven thought, I don’t know how Lars can eat that crap.
He peeked around the refrigerator and in and around the shelves. No Lars there. No Ivan either.
Then he got some ice out of the freezer for his chest and some Burt’s Bees’ muscle balm off a shelf. He flicked off the lights, walked out of the storage room, and closed the door.
The sandwich was left alone, on the counter, in the dark.

Chapter 7

Milt grinned, and a half-chewed Snickers peanut toppled out of a fold behind his tongue, landing in the open Coca-Cola bottle sitting on his belly with a tiny plop. Milt nodded in approval when he heard the peanut’s magnificent, sugary splash. He loved it when his two favorite energy-givers gathered together.
After taking notice of the plop, Milt blocked out his surroundings. He turned his peripheral vision blank. He focused all of his brain power on the screen. There was nothing but the battle for him now.
The Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael was almost in his grasp. Milt was slobbering now, but he didn’t notice that either.
For World of Warcraft artifact collectors, the Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael was worth a lot of money. There was only one Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael in the whole World of Warcraft, and Milt was sure that if he got it, he could get at least $15,000.00 for it on eBay. It would be his greatest conquest yet. He had only to destroy the idiot dwarf that called himself Bane Brisgold the Dragon Slayer, and the almighty hammer would be his.
Bane Brisgold the Dragon Slayer was a stupid name for a dwarf. How many dwarves slew dragons? Milt didn’t know any. Milt had a real warrior name. He was Miltimore the Sword-Wielder, an expert fighter and sword handler.
Milt had spent almost the entire month tracking Bane and the hammer, and now he had both of them ensnared in the next game chamber on his screen. All that was left to do was to go into that chamber, annihilate Bane, and seize the hammer.
It wasn’t a matter of money anymore. Milt didn’t need any money. He had been a well-compensated computer game developer in his previous life, and along with his savings from that job, he had stashed away close to a hundred thousand dollars from selling World of Warcraft artifacts on eBay. He had enough savings now that he didn’t have to worry about money or actually selling anything from his store. That was especially true because Milt was smart enough to live in the basement beneath his store, so he didn’t waste money on a house, above ground apartment, or anything stupid like that.
Milt was going to capture the hammer not for the money that it could bring him at auction, but for the glory of it. Milt was the best World of Warcraft player in the world—no, Milt was the best World of Warcraft player that had ever graced the planet with his wisdom. He was going to get hold of the hammer, play with it for a while, sell it, then win it back, and repeat the praiseworthy cycle.
A viscous slobber droplet fell from Milt’s lower lip and landed on top of his protruding belly, next to his Coca-Cola bottle. Because the droplet didn’t land at the regular droplet destination that was Milt’s left nipple, Milt noticed, and realized that it was time for one last refueling before he entered the next chamber. Refueling before a battle was of the utmost importance, and Milt made sure that his brain was infused with all the sugar and fat it needed to function. That was why it was so unreservedly imperative to eat at regular intervals. Milt was no novice.
Milt felt around on his desk for two more miniature Snickers bars, grabbed them, and popped them out of their wrappers and into his mouth. He grinned as he bit into their chewy insides, remarking at his own incredible skill with the miniature candy bars. After his conquest came to fruition, he would reward himself with several Snickers ice cream bars.
He made himself stop thinking about that, there would be time for that later, and now was the time to be focused. Milt’s grin widened as he thought about the hammer, but it could only widen so far, because the thick, sticky caramel, nougat, peanut, and chocolate paste in his mouth kept his grin from reaching its full magnificence.
He picked the Coca-Cola bottle up off his belly and gulped down the rest of its contents. That helped to clear his mouth of the goo. As he drank, the peanut that had gotten into the fizzy drink made its way through the mess in his mouth and lodged, most uncomfortably, in his throat.
Milt gagged and coughed and sprayed chewed Snickers bar fluid and Coca-Cola in a wide arc that covered all of his battle station. He sprayed and spun from left to right and back again in his chair until the evil peanut shot out of his mouth and plinked into his monitor. It didn’t bounce off, but stuck by virtue of some caramel and chocolate on it. Milt watched, red-faced and still gagging a little, as the peanut began to slide its way down his screen, leaving a trail of candy bar goo behind it.
“You evil-doing ruffian!” Milt yelled at the peanut. “You, no doubt, are in league with that damned hooligan Bane the dragon-loving dwarf. I know what to do with treacherous scum such as you.”
Milt waggled a pudgy finger at the peanut, wobbled some of his bulk in his chair to bend forward an inch or two, picked the peanut from the screen, and popped it into his mouth.
“Now I’ve got you where I want you,” Milt said with the peanut lodged in a fold in his left cheek. “Do you have any last words?”
The peanut didn’t respond.
“I thought not,” Milt said, and crunched the peanut in a rage-filled chew. Then he opened another bottle of Coca-Cola and washed down the peanut particles with the delicious beverage. The Coca-Cola took care of the scratchy feeling in the back of his throat. The debacle staged by the treacherous peanut was over.
Milt gave his desk a quick survey to assess the damage to his battle station. There were fresh masticated candy bar and Coca-Cola spots all over. Some of the spots were little bubbling puddles with small bits of caramel and peanut scattered in them. Milt nodded. This was how a real battle station should look, one that was well-used and inhabited by a true warrior.
He turned back to the screen, and was relieved to see that Bane and the hammer were still in his ingenious trap. Now it was time to poke at his moronic dwarf quarry.
Milt focused hard on the screen as he probed around inside the folds of his right cheek with his tongue. He found a chunk of nougat, flipped it out of its fold with his tongue, and began to suck on it.
Then it all began to go wrong.

Chapter 8

Back in the basement’s main room, Sven thought that something seemed off. Everything looked normal, but there was a strange, unnerving smell in the air. Sven couldn’t place it, suddenly feeling confused at his own surroundings. Carrying the ice and muscle balm, he turned his back on the storage room and went upstairs. The air cleared, and the confusion left Sven’s mind, leaving no trace that it had been there.
Sven lived in a house on Lewis Mountain Road, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the last house on the block right next to the University of Virginia Alumni Hall. The house had four bedrooms, not counting the basement. The floors were wood. There were four parking spots, not counting the front and back yards. It was a good old house, and like all good old houses, it had some character. It made lots of funny creaking noises, and it wasn’t good at keeping the cold air out in the winter…or at keeping the hot air out in the summer. The lack of weatherproofing wasn’t a problem, because the winters in Charlottesville were too mild to notice, and Sven tolerated the heat well.
Sven opened the door at the top of the basement stairs and strode into his living room. It was largely Spartan, but had all the basic living room stuff—a couch, a reclining chair, a bean bag, a TV, and a coffee table at the center of it all, cleverly positioned for the placement of food and drink items.
There was no answer.
Sven sat for a moment while he rubbed in some muscle balm. Then, putting the ice pack to his chest, he walked around into the dining room. It was empty save for the seldom-used dining room table and the equally seldom-used chairs around it. He walked into the kitchen—no one there either. At least the kitchen refrigerator was closed, unlike the one in the basement had been. Where could Lars be?
Sven went outside and stood on the porch. The front yard was empty. Sven’s SUV was parked in its spot. Lars’s car was behind it. Sven walked into the driveway, and peered into Lars’s car. Empty.
Sven walked around to the back of the house. There was no one in the back yard either. Sven walked back to the front of the house and stepped out into the street. He looked toward the University of Virginia grounds and up the street the other way. There were no cars out. That was normal. It was a quiet street.
Then he heard a scream—probably someone playing tennis or basketball across the street. As Sven surveyed the rest of his block, he saw some fast movement in his peripheral vision. He turned back toward the University of Virginia and caught the tail-end of a group of runners—no, sprinters—going north up Emmet Street. Sven thought it was a little strange that they weren’t dressed for sprinting. They were just wearing ordinary clothes and a few had backpacks. Maybe it was a student sprint.
Sven shrugged, turned back to the house and went inside. As he was closing the door behind him, he heard another loud tennis scream-grunt. Whoever it was coming from really took her tennis seriously, it was blood-curdling in its terror. Must be a tough set, Sven thought.
Inside, Ivan Drago padded up to Sven and greeted him with a meow. Sven had adopted the Russian Blue from a rescue shelter three years earlier, and according to Sven’s realty, the two of them were the longest-renting tenants in the house so far—apparently three and a half years was a record for the place.
Ivan hadn’t been fond of people at first, and used to run away from everyone but Sven. Ivan was especially afraid of long, cylindrical objects like brooms and rolled up magazines, and when Sven noticed this, he tried to do the sweeping and bug-swatting out of Ivan’s sight. Over time, Ivan had grown more comfortable with strangers and even with cylindrical objects, and had begun to act like a normal, contented housecat, but Sven still made an effort to hide the broom from Ivan. It had become routine.
Ivan meowed again, and Sven remembered something one of his college professors used to say: “When a cat meows at you, it’s not to say hello. It’s because he wants something.”
That wasn’t true, and as a cat owner, Sven knew it. Cats did meow to say hello. Ivan did it all the time. Ivan meowed for lots of other reasons too. He meowed when he wanted to go outside, and he meowed when he wanted to come back in. Ivan also meowed when he was pleased, and he meowed when he was displeased.
But Ivan was meowing now because he was hungry. Sven could tell because Ivan was meowing and trying to lead Sven into the kitchen. Sven obliged and walked into the kitchen where Ivan’s bowl sat on the floor. The bowl was empty.
“Did you eat all your food already?” Sven asked. “I gave you your full ration just an hour ago. How’d you eat all of that so fast?”
Ivan stretched, brushed up against Sven’s legs, meowed again, and then turned his green eyes up at Sven.
“You really like that liver huh?” Sven saw some of Ivan’s wet food on the floor around the bowl. That wasn’t like Ivan.
“Now here you go making a mess.”
Ivan meowed.
“It’s okay. I’ll get you some more.” Sven petted Ivan, and felt a searing pain shoot through his chest and neck. He flinched, and slowly straightened up again. He was trying to remember to limit his range of motion, so that he didn’t end up any worse than he already was. Stupid Lars, Sven thought, I’m gonna have to ice myself and rest all week. What a waste of time.
That reminded him. Sven glanced at his watch and remembered he had a training session at eight that morning. It was already half past seven and the gym was a fifteen minute drive away. The session was with one of his most important clients—important because the client always paid on time—and Sven didn’t want to ruin a good thing. He would feed Ivan and get on his way, injured or not. Then, Sven told himself, when I get back later today, I’m gonna have some serious words with Lars.
Sven jogged painfully to the cupboard for some of the canned wet food that Ivan enjoyed so much. He didn’t mind giving Ivan some more food—the cat wasn’t on a diet, after all. Ivan was very lean from running about the neighborhood, and he could be trusted to eat until he was full and then stop.
“I spoil you too much,” Sven said to Ivan, who was padding around Sven and meowing. Sven opened the cupboard. There were no cans of cat food there. Sven thought he remembered the cat food being well-stocked, but maybe he was thinking of the shelves in the storage room. He wasn’t sure.
Looking down, Sven was surprised to see a smear of a cat-food-like substance on the counter beneath the cupboard.
“Looks like I’m making a mess too. I’ll get you a can from downstairs. Come on.”
Ivan meowed.
Sven glanced at his watch again, feeling the stress start to build up. Lars was probably chatting up that girl at Mem Gym. What a good-for-nothing workout partner. She didn’t like Lars anyway, she liked Sven. Sven had meant to take her out or something, but he never knew what to do with her besides work out. I should’ve taken her to that polo match at King Family, Sven thought. Even better, I should’ve had her spot me on the bench today.
Sven started down the stairs into the basement. Feeling that he was being watched, he stopped midway down and looked over his shoulder. Ivan was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at him.
“Come on, Ivan. You come down with me.”
Ivan wouldn’t move.
“You want me to do your bidding while you chill out up there?”
Ivan didn’t answer, but flicked his tail along the ground.
Sven shrugged and walked the rest of the way down the stairs. The pain in his chest, side, and arms was getting worse. His back was tight in a way that suggested it would be in a lot of pain later. He must have tweaked it in his struggle against the bar. He hoped that nothing was herniated. Damn that Lars.
Sven walked across the basement and opened the door to the storage room. When he let go of the handle, there was something cold and greasy in his hand. Cat food. There was more on the doorknob.
Then Sven looked up and a chill passed through him. He had found Lars.

Chapter 9

The vitamin C powder fizzed and bubbled as Jane poured it into the glass. She liked the sound. It was satisfying.
Jane got a spoon out of a drawer and gave the drink a bit of a mix. She took a sip of the vitamin C water. It was delicious.
Jane brought the water out to Vicky and stood over her.
“Okay,” Jane said. “You’ve gotta drink this. It’s gonna make you better, and then I really have to go to work, okay?”
Vicky didn’t respond.
Jane stood there, glass in hand, watching Vicky lie there on the couch. Vicky was turned away, her face against the couch’s backrest, gulping air in ragged gasps.
“Honey,” Jane said, “you have to drink something.”
Jane put her hand on Vicky’s shoulder. It felt as cold as ice. She pulled. Vicky didn’t budge.
Jane pulled harder on Vicky’s shoulder. “Come on, turn over.”
Vicky rolled over and looked up.
Jane shrieked and jumped backward, forgetting to keep her fingers tight on the glass.
The glass fell to the floor and shattered. The vitamin C water made a purplish puddle, punctuated by small shards of glass scattered in and around it.
The puddle fizzed.

Chapter 10

Lars was kneeling on the cement floor of the storage room. He was in the back under shelves of protein powder and meal replacement bars. Lars had his back to Sven, and was bent over something on the floor in front of him. He was doing something to it or with it. To Sven, it looked like Lars was moving something back and forth on the floor. Sven heard an unmistakable sound—squishy chewing. Here was Lars, sitting in a dark corner and sloshing something about in his mouth, having left to sit there in the middle of his spotting duties? It made no sense.
Squish, squosh, squoosh. Squish, squosh, squish. Squish, squosh, squeesh.
There was a smell too, a strange, cloying odor. Sven began to feel a numbness inching up from his extremities, and a dizziness—
He shook it off. “Lars? What the hell are you doing over there? I was this close to being crushed in the—”
Lars turned, and the ice pack fell from Sven’s hand.
Sven stared at Lars in disbelieving shock. His workout partner’s skin was grey. His eyes were a dull black, and blood oozed from between his lips. A chunk of what could only be cat food tumbled out of his mouth and landed on the leg of his black man-tard. Small bits of Ivan’s wet food were strewn all over Lars, all over his skin and all over the man-tard. Cat food was all over Lars’s mouth—cat food mixed with blood.
Sven stepped backward, uncertain of the sight before him and feeling more lightheaded with every second.
Had Lars mixed weight gainer shakes again? But that hadn’t been this bad. Lars looked like he needed medical help. He looked extremely ill, maybe even on the verge of death.
“What happened? Are you okay?” Sven asked as he made himself reverse course and walk closer to Lars. Lars stared, black eyes unblinking.
The cat food-coated muscle man said nothing.
“Lars? Say something.” Sven walked close enough to see what was on the floor. Lars was kneeling before six cans of Ivan’s wet food.
There was cat food and blood all over the floor. There was cat food and blood all over Lars’s fingers, mouth, and lips. That’s where it was coming from—Lars’s fingers and mouth. Sven flinched when he saw that many of Lars’s fingernails were gone. Sven didn’t understand what he was seeing.
“Did you open those with your fingers and teeth? Dude we have to get you a doctor, you’re bleeding all over the place.”
Lars said nothing. His black eyes were fixed on Sven. Then Lars opened his mouth. Bloody cat food cakes rolled out. He must have cut himself on the cans, Sven thought, he must be really sick, I have to get him to a—
Lars groaned. It was a low groan, filled with what sounded to Sven like anger.
“Come on let’s get you up,” Sven said, but he didn’t walk any closer to Lars to help him. Something was keeping Sven back—Lars seemed wrong. Sven stood a few feet away from Lars. Then Sven made himself take a step forward. He had to help his friend. But his eyes, and his skin, what’s wrong with him?
Sven took another step forward, deeper into the wooziness that was now gripping his body. Lars kept up his mute, black-eyed stare. Sven put out his hand to help his friend. Looking at his own hand, he saw that it was trembling, but he couldn’t really feel it, it was as if the sensation in his hands and feet had been dampened.
“Come on,” Sven said, thinking that he might need a doctor himself if he kept feeling like this. Lars groaned again, then he raised his right hand and grabbed Sven’s arm just above the wrist.
“Alright,” Sven said, resenting the fact that Lars had thought it necessary to grab him that hard. Sven pulled. Lars’s body began to rise, but then sank back down. Lars was pulling hard on Sven’s hand, but he wasn’t trying to get up. Sven made a move to get in front of Lars for some more leverage, but he couldn’t do it. Lars was pulling on Sven’s wrist too hard.
“Let go, man. I can’t get you up if you don’t help me.”
But Lars wouldn’t let go. He pulled on Sven’s wrist with more force, and Sven had to grab hold of a shelf support to keep himself from falling down on top of Lars.
Sven felt like his wrist was caught in a vise. He tried to wrench his hand free but Lars wouldn’t let up. Then Lars’s gaze seemed to shift from Sven’s face to Sven’s forearm. Lars’s mouth opened wide—too wide—and he began to pull Sven’s forearm into his gaping mouth. Black saliva and bits of bloody cat food dripped from Lars’s mouth. The droplets landed on the floor in front of Lars and on the short legs of his man-tard.
Thoughts of rabid dogs flashed in Sven’s now unsteady mind. Sven pulled harder. He had to get free. Lars might have some kind of disease, and even if he didn’t, there was no sense in getting bitten. Sven pulled on the shelf support with his free hand. An enormous case of meal replacement bars tottered closer to the edge. Sven pulled again, harder this time. And then he pulled again.
Lars wasn’t letting up, but the case of meal replacement bars was getting closer to the edge. Sven’s muscles were beginning to fail, and it seemed like Lars could go on forever. The pain in Sven’s upper body from his near-death bench press encounter was agonizing.
Then Lars’s bloody, cat-food spattered teeth were less than an inch away from Sven’s forearm.
Sven braced himself for the bite.
Just then, the case of meal replacement bars fell from the shelf. It struck Lars on the side of the head. Lars’s death grip loosened and he slumped over onto his left side. Still pulling when Lars loosened his grip, Sven fell backward, sitting down on top of the cold ice pack.
Some of the feeling began to return to his extremities, the room stopped lurching. Sven’s heart raced. He was free.

Chapter 11

Milt heard a commotion in the back of the store. It sounded like someone falling, and was followed by a plainly brainless moan. The back part of the store was full of ancient DVDs and even more ancient video games—a section of primordial classics. There was even a Commodore 64 computer back there to set the mood. Milt wasn’t sure if anyone had ever bought anything from that section, and he wouldn’t be surprised if not one item had ever moved from it. The common people had no taste, and couldn’t appreciate the rarity and wonder of the wares in the back of the store. The newer, more plebeian stuff was in the middle of the store, toward the front, and it moved better.
“Please refrain from physical outbursts,” Milt shouted without turning away from his screen. “Pretend that you are cultured. This is a sophisticated establishment. Please make an effort to recall your etiquette training, though I doubt you have had any.”
Milt belched some caramel and listened for a retort from the ninny in the back, who, Milt suspected, likely did not know what etiquette training was. He regretted not closing the store for this battle—so much pride hung in the balance. The fool in the back would no doubt only distract Milt, and leave without purchasing anything.
No response came from the disturbance-causer, probably because he was stumped by Milt’s clever words.
Milt blinked and retrained his eyes on the screen, choosing to forget the distraction for the present moment.
The time had come. Milt entered the chamber where the naive dwarf Bane waited, trembling in his magical video game boots.
“I have come for the Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael,” Milt clattered into his keyboard. “If you surrender it to me without incident, I shall consider sparing your pathetic life. I assume, of course, that you know who I am, as I am sure my reputation precedes me, and so I suggest that you do not attempt anything foolish.”
Milt had no intention of sparing Bane’s life, but it was nice to toy with his victims a little before dispatching them to the netherworld.
“Yes, I know who you are,” Bane’s character typed back. “But you will never defeat me, for I have the hammer, and you are naught but a thieving, dishonorable scoundrel.”
A pleasant outrage seeped into Milt. He was surprised by the dwarf’s audacity, but Milt loved verbal jousting, and he would best the dwarf in banter before dispatching him to the gates of hell.
Milt was about to type a taunting response to the knave’s foolish challenge when there came another noise from the back of the store—a loud rattle this time—followed by a crash of breaking glass and the scraping of plastic.
Milt couldn’t spare the time to get up and look back there. Instead, he yelled, “Stop that racket this instant or I will be forced to retaliate. You are on notice that I expect you to compensate me for all of the damage that you have no doubt inflicted on that most precious part of my store. The items in it are truly irreplaceable and invaluable. You stay right where you are and ready your cash reserves.”
Milt was angry now, and had to have two more miniature Snickers bars to refocus his energies on the task at hand.
Milt began to type a belittling response to Bane, “I know you are but what am—” when he noticed that Bane was no longer in the room with him. What? But how could that be? Did that coward sign off and think that he could escape that way?
Then Milt noticed that it was his own internet connection that had gone dead. But that was impossible!
Milt huffed and puffed and knew that it wasn’t impossible, for his internet provider was Time Warner, and of all the dastardly evil-doers that made up the internet provider oligarchy, Time Warner had no challenger as the worst.
Seething and gurgling nougat, Milt dialed Time Warner’s customer support, which he had on speed dial on his phone, and was preparing a barrage of insults when the whole middle aisle of the store was tipped over and came to a clattering, video game case-breaking crash. That put Milt at a point of infuriation that he wasn’t sure he had ever experienced before.
Milt put the phone down—he wasn’t getting a dial tone for some reason—put his hands on his desk and used them to spin his great bulk in his chair to face the long open room of the store.
Then he saw the man—was it a man?—the thing, that had caused the ruckus.
Hyperventilating, Milt forgot about Bane, and began to fish his inhaler out of his pants with his left hand while fumbling for another Snickers bar with his right.
The empty Coca-Cola bottle that rested on Milt’s stomach toppled as he panicked. It made a dull clunk on the carpeted floor beneath him, and did not break.

Chapter 12

Ivan was sniffing around the kitchen, wagging his tail and looking for a treat. He liked treats. He liked fish treats most of all. Sven usually fed him by now. Why hadn’t Sven fed him yet? Maybe it had to do with the bad smell. The bad smell was bad. Some bad smells said stand and fight. But this bad smell said run and hide. It was a very bad smell. Ivan didn’t like bad smells. Couldn’t Sven smell it? It was getting stronger, and Ivan was finding it hard to focus on his search for fish treats. Ivan wasn’t even sure he still wanted a fish treat with that smell lingering in the air. Ivan hoped Sven would finish playing with his clanking toys and come up to give Ivan a treat. Was Sven playing with his clanking toys? He had been earlier, but Ivan couldn’t hear any clanking now. Sven liked to clank. He was probably clanking the toys. Ivan shook his head, and decided that if Sven didn’t come to feed him soon, Ivan would go downstairs and give Sven a good, hard bite.