by Adrian Ludens

I ate too much ice cream at the Mexican restaurant. The baby fussed. My wife made a snide remark about the mariachi band.

We were punished.

When we returned home from A Través de la Manada, we discovered that our two oldest kids--one boy and one girl--were gone. Taken.

The Metsys knows best.


I got a new vehicle; a Big Black Truck. It’s shiny as polished obsidian, with a beastly engine under the hood.

But the two oldest children are gone. The Metsys gives and The Metsys takes away. A harsh lesson, but to whom would I dare complain?

We must remain amiable, moderate and polite. Go along to get along. Those qualities are rewarded.

I can’t remember the names of the older children.


My wife is hosting a party.

The women in her theater troupe have assembled at our home for their Recognitions. My wife is all aflutter. I suppose that is to be expected. The women have congregated in a room separated from the rest of the house by a vault-like door.

There is sad news, but my wife seems to be enjoying her moment so I bear the news alone.

The baby has done something wrong. Perhaps a sin of pride or anger but I don’t know for certain. I came in to the room after it happened. The punishment had already been carried out.

The Metsys has put the baby down one of the many white plastic Punishment Tubes that protrude from the living room floor. Most of their length runs beneath the house. The tubes are only about six inches wide but I know she’s down there.

I kneel and listen.




Her voice is urgent, but not yet fearful. That will come. As for what comes after that, I do not know.

Sometimes if The Metsys doesn’t think the offender has learned the appropriate lesson, he or she simply stays in the tubes. The Punished One remains alone below, until they go mad, starve and depart. Only then will a member of the Departure Department arrive. I have heard the empty shell is sucked back out through the tube. It must be quite a job when disposing of a full-grown.

For their part, the family is expected to go about their daily routine while all of this is happening. The guilty is always within earshot, never in sight.

The baby calls me again. More plaintive this time and coming from a different tube, judging from the sound of her voice.

I lick my lips and crouch. I reach my hand into one of the tube and pull out a fist full of leaves, small sticks and a variety of dried flower petals.

Each of the tubes contains something different. One has gum balls. Another holds smooth stones. This one is filled with shiny copper coins. That one is packed with hourglass sand. But they all serve the same purpose: separation between those on the inside of the house and those banished to the tubes.

The detritus falls from my hands and scatters on the floor. I grab two more fists full before I realize what I’m doing. I can’t fight The Metsys’ decision on this matter, nor can I pull a baby from a six-inch-wide opening. I hurriedly sweep up the twigs and petals and put them back in the tube’s mouth. My heart pounds.

For a moment there I defied. Eyes and Spies everywhere and I forgot my role, my duty in this society. I hold my pose and my breath. Will The Metsys come for me?

I admit the sound of my baby’s cries makes me sad, but the thought of The Metsys exacting punishment on me for defying a Decision Made chills the marrow in my bones.

We must all remain industrious, humble and truthful. Aspire to acquire, shirk sin, and never break the rules. Rules subject to change without notice.

The Metsys knows best.

I find something else to do. I remember my wife’s party, the women in her theater troupe.

My wife put their head shots on display in our living room, though the party is behind locked doors. I get my camera. I take pictures of their pictures. (Perhaps I photograph their photographs?) Yes, that sounds more ‘upscale’. They’ll want copies. I’ll need their contact information.

I go to the door where the party is. I try the knob but it’s cold and unyielding. This mirrors the mood of the women within. I had hoped to be allowed access. To be passed around, even; to use and be used. Not all of the women are beautiful, but some of them are. I would go willingly. I would do or say whatever they asked of me, if only The Metsys would lend me some guidance.

I am submissive, attentive, and self-sacrificial. I keep expecting to be rewarded, but no. I wonder if I am going about it all wrong. The lapses in judgmentlike reaching into the tube earlierdo not help my station. This humble man must rise to a new low.

I hear laughter and music from within; a muted trumpet and sliding double bass.

My wife bursts from the locked room, sees me waiting and puts her smile away for a more suitable occasion.

She staggers past me and in her hurry to leave me behind knocks over some acquired items from an end table. I set things right and she returns with her arms full.

A bottle of wine. Another of champagne. Flavored lubricant.

A gleaming meat cleaver.

Her left pupil has fully dilated. I feel curiously off balance when she looks at me.

Which side of her brain is she thinking with?

?with thinking I am brain my of side which

My wife tips her head at our various antique sound systems interspersed throughout the living room. She fixes her gaze on a palm-sized device lying on the corner of an end table. I press the ‘Play’ button. Her curt voice issues from its tiny speaker.

“I’m taping a tape and recording a record. Keep them going until I get back.”

I start to reply but she is already returned to the party. I remember then that I wanted to tell her something important. The big news! Good grief! How had I forgotten? I meant to let her know what had just happened.

I hurry after her but she closes the door in my face.

I wanted to tell her that I took photographs of the photographs.

She’d want to know that.


After working the expected allotment of time I power down the terminals, turn off the lighting and use a hand signal to release the spooky little sparrow of a coworker. She steps out the door. I mentally set the alarm code to the building and enter the parking garage. I see the girl’s black trench coat billowing in the night air. She doesn’t look back but I know that she knows.

She relishes this part of the job more than I do, though I will never admit as much.

I count to twenty to give the girl a head start. Then I start my Big Black Truck.

The pipes roar as I press down on the accelerator. The houses line up along the street for inspection. I angle onto the sidewalk and race down the block in the direction she has gone. My tires roll over a kid’s bicycle, a doll (I think) and two plastic fruit bushes, but not the girl. She’s hidden herself well and is as easy to find as a shadow at moonless midnight. I circle one block, then another.

The girl loses herself in the darkness and so gains another day of WorkLife. We’ll see each other again in the morning. This system was put in place to by the Council of Bosses. I can’t complain. If I didn’t have tenure, it would be me running each night at closing time.

I roar down the highway in my Big Black Truck. I turn up the sound system. The music is a bombastic cacophony of computer generated sounds. I turn it up and try to keep a beat by pounding my fists on the steering wheel, the dash, and my temples.

I try not to think about the information processed today. I collect reports of incidents of obsolescence. The girl and I tabulate, compare, graph, chart, compile. Today four incidents of obsolescence came in regarding the tabulation, comparison, graphing, charting and compiling of incidents of obsolescence. That’s up three from yesterday. This trend distresses me.

How long will I be able to justify my WorkLife?

I force myself to consider other matters.

The sky looks gorgeous at this time of night. Through my windshield I see bright blues and vibrant reds, colors so vivid I struggle with their reality. I think the reds are bad and the blues are good, but I’m not sure. The Metsys is ever changing, though paradoxically always remaining the same.

I feel lost. Not quite one with The Metsys.

My tires slice through the puddles of recent rain that pockmark this stretch of road. My Big Black Truck fishtails for a few moments, then finds the asphalt and shoots forward. I press down on the accelerator. The engine roars, bellows, shrieks in response.

I still want to go faster.

I outrun all the other transports on the freeway. Could I use my Big Black Truck to outrun my life? There’s a part of me that wishes...

But no.

Being industrious, loyal and conscientious should be enough to achieve happiness. Recycle. Tell the truth. Keep the balance. Bounce back from setbacks.

Be a cork. Corks don’t sink, no matter how deep, how polluted the ocean.

The Metsys knows best.

An old-fashioned police cruiser passes me going the opposite direction. For a brief moment I’m fearful of a ticket or further punishment. Then I realize a policeman would never stop me. Everyone knows Big Black Trucks are gifts from The Metsys. The police, largely figureheads to begin with, can only assist motorists. They cannot punish. That’s the role of The Metsys.

I turn my thoughts from the police back to my life. I tremble as I pass the next mile marker.

I bellow my impotent rage at the radiant skies. My truck echoes my sentiments.

My Big. Black. Truck.


Lying in the dark beside my wife, I stare at the ceiling and try to think. It's hard to stay focused. The baby screams all night from somewhere in the pipes.


Today is the proper day for me to pay my respects to The Metsys.  My wife has yet to emerge from the party room. I hope she remembers today’s significance.

A Beautiful Greeter with a serene smile waits at the gates surrounding the great marble structure. By way of an elegant gesture she indicates that I may pass.

Alongside the narrow street I spot the girl. Today the spooky little sparrow floats within a crimson cape and hood. I admire her dedication. I know why she’s here. We all want to impress The Metsys today.

I realize she’s hoping I will help elevate her standing. I press down on the brake pedal and swerve my Big Black Truck. She dodges at the last second, but staggers and leans against the marble wall, playing it up. I flip her off and stomp on the accelerator. She disappears in a black exhaust cloud.

It never hurts to put on a show when one knows the Eyes and Spies of The Metsys are watching. Surely The Metsys will be pleased with both of us.

Inside the great marble structure, I kneel and face the floor until an Emissary approaches.

“Your son is already here,” he tells me. His voice is condescendingly jovial.

I know right away he’s not talking about the oldest boy. This is my five-year-old he’s referencing.

Damn it. That kid is always in my hair, demanding my attention. We spent Quality Time together only two weeks ago and now he repays me by making me look bad in the eyes of The Metsys.

I should get a second Big Black Truck for putting up with this. Or a go-round in my wife’s party room with her theater troupe. I have the patience of a saint.

“We would hope that you’re wondering why we had to bring him here,” the Emissary presses. I don’t have to see his face to know he’s sneering at my bald spot.

“The Metsys knows best,” I reply. Know your place. Perpetuate stereotypes.

The Emissary thrusts a hand beneath my down turned face. Enormous, jewel-encrusted rings grace his fingers. Warts protrude wherever there are no rings.

I kiss each of the rings and murmur phrases of allegiance.

The Emissary twists his wrist so that I end up kissing as many warts as rings.

My knees pop as I stand. The Emissary beckons me to follow him up a narrow, steep flight of stairs. I get to two hundred sixty-six and give up on counting.

At last we enter the Emissary’s chambers. He ascends and seats himself upon a seven-foot-tall throne. Facing him, and seated atop an antique holy relic only the oldest among us would have recognized as a wooden ladder, is my younger son. His eyes plead with mine as I climb the steps on the ladder.


His cheeks have been rouged to make him look more cherubic. The makeup applied to his eyes and lips borders on garish. His hair is plastered to one side. He wears a white pressed shirt, black slacks and a miniature necktie. There’s terror in his eyes, but my arrival has instilled a glimmer of hope as well.

“Tell the man I’m a good kid, Daddy! He doesn’t believe me.”

Has he altered his appearance to sway my opinion of him? Or did the Emissary do it as a formality for the hearing?

“This is not a hearing,” the Emissary says as if reading my thoughts.

A multitude of Eyes and Spies watch me now. I could turn my head to look for them, but I know I won’t see them.

“This is simply a clearing of the air, if you will.” The Emissary waves a glittering hand expansively. “An opportunity for your son to admit his wrongdoing and atone for it.”

“Daddy, I didn’t--

“What has my son done?” I ask. I know the blood has drained from my face. I do everything I’m supposed to do. I spend more than I can afford. I tell the truth to others and lie to myself. I am proud of my level of humility. I try to be a floating cork in the face of adversity. I don’t need my own family creating stumbling blocks along my life’s path.

The Emissary leans forward in his throne and for the first time I see him up close. A shaved, bullet-shaped head. Bristling spider-leg eyebrows. Tree-trunk neck. The burst blood vessels crisscrossing his bulbous nose seem to form the shape of a small key.

The symbolism is not lost on me. The Emissary, with his bejeweled fingers and fine robes, could gain entry into my wife’s party room, where I could not. He would make the rounds once, twice, a third time, practicing the art of dentistry, in a twisted manner of speaking.


I’ve let myself become distracted. I’m shaking now, clinging to the ladder, but not to my son.

“What has he done?” My voice sounds strange. My mouth is dry as dust and it feels as if my tongue is a mummified corpse curled in the corner of my mouth.

“He found the purse-book of Miss Cherry Jewel. She’s quite famous, as you know.”

I don’t know, but nod anyway. If the Emissary knows her I should too.

“Miss Jewel, of course, carries photos of herself in her purse-book. Name a self-respecting woman who doesn’t,” he challenges.

My son is weeping. Tears stream down his cheeks. Seeing me watching him, he tries to put on a brave face and wipes at the wet streaks with the back of his hand. He only succeeds in smearing his rouge.

His lips part as if subconsciously urging me to speak some words of encouragement.

Instead I give him a sermon of silence.

“Certain Eyes observed your son looking at Miss Jewel’s photo of her toenails,” the Emissary reveals with obvious glee. “And he tried to steal Miss Jewel’s photo of her nostrils.”

The words tumble from my son’s mouth. “NoDaddyI’mnotlyingIwasonlylookinginherpurseforsomethingtoeatanappleoranonionbutIswearDaddyIdon’twanttopeekathertoenailsanymore!”


There it is, then. The damning word that proves his guilt.

I know Eyes wait, and the Spies listen, for my response. The Emissary’s mocking smile is directed at me, when it should be on my—

My son. Such a burden. Always making my life more difficult.

But a tiny part of me still cares. A small voice (a nearly forgotten ghost from Before) implores me to worry about pleasing my son the way I worry about pleasing The Metsys.

I hear an unexpected, high-pitched titter. I look at the Emissary then at my son. I look around at the cold marble walls.

Must be me who’s giggling.

Giggling and grappling.

Decision time.

I steady myself and open my arms to embrace my son. He throws himself against me and begins weeping. His relaxed limbs tell me that for him, a tremendous burden has been lifted.

A tremendous burden.

I let him go.

The Emissary gazes down at my five-year-old writhing in pain on the floor seven feet below us. He looks back at me and favors me with a brief nod. “Well done.”

I stare back at him and say nothing.

“You might make a good citizen out of him yet. We look forward to following his development. Of course you’ll need to trade in your Big Black Truck for a Hospital Voucher. ”

My heart sinks.

The Emissary leers, looking over my shoulder. I turn to see a black rectangle widening in the marble, a missing tooth in a wall of enamel. My wife emerges from the darkness, looking dazed but calm. My oldest son comes next, wearing a militaristic uniform. He’s shadowed by my oldest daughter, looking composed but somber. Deflowered.

They were gone. Now The Metsys has returned them to me. But for how long, I do not know.

The two older children help our five-year-old to stand. Even from the top of the ceremonial ladder I can see the break in his tibia. His face is chalky, but he’ll live. I hope someday he’ll understand that I did what I had to do.

Then I realize someone is missing: the youngest.

I look quickly at the Emissary and immediately regret giving him the satisfaction.

His sad smile is theatrical and false. He shakes his head.

I am so tired of all of this. So tired of playing this game. For the first time, a question and its doppelganger occur to me: do I fail the Metsys, or does the Metsys fail me?

I know I should begin my descent, but something—emotion?—makes me pause. The Emissary looks down his nose at me.     

How cruel that I only miss her now that she’s gone.

“Emily.” I say, to no one in particular. “Her name was Emily.”


Adrian Ludens is a radio announcer in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His short stories have appeared in the anthologies: Blood Lite 3: Aftertaste, Zombie Kong, Darker Edge of Desire, and Blood Rites, among others. Magazine appearances include Woman's World, Morpheus Tales, Crossed Genres, and Big Pulp. His collection, Bedtime Stories for Carrion Beetles, is available on Amazon in multiple formats. Visit Adrian at