Flammeus Gladius

Carmina et Verba pro Discipulis Meis

Month: June, 2012

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz: A Gnostic Journey

“The thing is, my green girlie, it is not for a girl, or a student, or a citizen to assess what is wrong.  This is the job of leaders, and why we exist.”

–The Wizard, in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.

He filled the chamber with reechoed ire.
We fled then as he planned that we would flee.
We fled as if from Heaven’s final fire
In a trite text of eschatology.
With gut response our hearts could not agree,
However — couldn’t quite say why we fled.
Was it the booming voice — or possibly
The great big puffy insubstantial head?
On a path to the witch then we were led
By a fate we had failed to understand.
We fetched the broomstick, charged with aimless dread.
That was one thing, we learned, that wasn’t planned.
The wizard’s shout turned out to be a buzz–
Far less effectual than Toto was.

–Tom Riley

The Intimidator

The Intimidator



He tries to be intimidating.

It’s really all that he can do.

Inside, his ego is deflating.

Outside, he says he’s good as new.

But you can see his face decaying,

The twisted frown that he’s displaying

Dissolving into fog unfeared:

He’s growing vague from hair to beard.

It’s hard to cringe at old and stupid,

At puffed-up imitation bears

Beyond all possible repairs–

About as tough as infant Cupid

As seen on vapid valentines.

The whole damn world is growing spines.



–Tom Riley

Dark Words

Dark Words

Queste parole di colore oscuro

Vid’io scritte al sommo d’una porta….”

Inferno, III, 10-11.

Out of the stuff we must regard as petty,

He fashioned what in verse is most sublime.

Italians often manage this: spaghetti

Covered with blood for sauce, truth shaped from crime,

Mere temporary things transcending time,

And Heaven touched through Hell.  If you should bet

Against these guys, you’d likely lose your dime

And even writhe in infinite regret.

Dante’s place in this company is set.

By such a student, Vergil is outdone.

My first infernal trip I won’t forget:

It was enlightening — and even fun.

I gaze on Dante’s words and cannot cope.

Facing such standards, I abandon hope.

–Tom Riley

Satanic Literature

Satanic Literature

(and Why I Love It)

Kirill Yeskov, The Last Ringbearer

A lot of people were aware of The Last Ringbearer over the last decade — without being able to read it.  When my sister-in-law and her husband went to Russia a few years back, I asked them to get me a Russian copy — which I hoped to flog myself through with the assistance of a handy paperback lexicon, a reference grammar, and my half-remembered high-school Russian.  I also asked for the even more mysterious Black Book of Arda.

My sister-in-law couldn’t find copies of either book, so I was spared linguistic failure on that intimidating front.  And now The Last Ringbearer has been made available in English translation as a non-commercial digital download.  I put it on my Kindle and read it right through.

By way of context, I should attest that I am both a Tolkien fan — the kind of person who learns at least a little Elvish — and an admirer of The Lord of the Rings and of the whole legendarium on literary grounds.  I agree with Tom Shippey (and with hordes of actual readers) that Tolkien was the author of the last century, who somehow managed to infuse his great philological erudition into a work that actually commanded a wide audience.  When I was in grad school, a popular image of James Joyce showed him in the act of composition, carefully weighing meanings, sounds, and words in a variety of impressive foreign languages.  Wow!

But Joyce was a Berlitz instructor, not a philologist.  Tolkien had more actual learning in his fingernail parings than Joyce ever had in his whole body.  Tolkien was the real deal — and his vast knowledge had more to do with the success of The Lord of the Rings than most fans can begin to understand.

So it might be suspected that I would resent any attack on The Lord of the Rings.  And The Last Ringbearer is indeed an attack on The Lord of the Rings.  In its way, it’s a brutal attack, employing the simple and bone-crunching techniques of Mordorian hand-to-hand combat.

In truth, however, I expected to admire The Last Ringbearer and I admire it even more than I expected now that I’ve acquainted myself with its surprising contents.

Yeskov’s version of the era of the War of the Ring is remarkable first of all for its boldness.  According to The Last Ringbearer, hobbits aren’t merely much different creatures than the ones portrayed in Tolkien: they don’t exist.  They don’t even exist as a folkloric tradition.  They’re something that Aragorn makes up on the battlefield at Pelennor, as a cruel joke on history.  No hobbits, no Frodo, no Bilbo: the center of Tolkien’s fiction is a zero in Yeskov’s.  This is re-imagination with a neutron bomb, not a word-processing program.

The Ring also is a joke — one played on the Lords of the West by the sophisticated Nazgul, and one that backfires badly.  In Yeskov’s story, the One Ring is just a stage prop that gets out of hand.

Despite its boldness and lack of apparent respect for the Tolkienian canon, The Last Ringbearer is a lot less insulting to Tolkien than all the various imitators, from Terry Brooks to Christopher Paolini.  Yeskov takes Tolkien seriously — and strikes where Tolkien is most vulnerable.  Yeskov asks, first, whether there really could be rational creatures who were morally lost from the moment of birth — and, second, whether the machine really is as destructive as Tolkien thinks, or the tree as sacred.

Once, long ago, I gave an exam in which I asked students to name the fallacy in the following syllogism: “Orcs cannot be trusted.  But Merry and Pippin trust Grishnakh to slit their throats.  Therefore, Girshnakh is not an orc.”  One clever student gave the correct answer — equivocation — but also added a paragraph objecting that orcs must trust one another, since they could not otherwise form armies and wage war.

And that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?  Tolkien’s occasional glimpses of orc conversation and interaction are compelling representations of human nature at its worst.  But orcs can’t really be like that all the time, can they?  If they were, then orc society would collapse in one generation.  Orkishness as Tolkien represents it is maladaptive to the point of being impossible.

Yeskov tries to see things from the orc’s point of view — and that has made all the difference.  In fact, his most successful and engaging character is Sgt. Tzerlag of the Cirith Ungol Rangers.  Tzerlag is an Orocuen — an orc — but he’s not the boundlessly corrupt and degraded monster of Tolkien’s imagination.  Rather, he’s just a human being of peculiar ethnicity.  The Orocuen are a desert race, short, strongly built, broad-faced and hook-nosed, given to the consumption of kumis rather than beer, and much inclined toward things mechanical.  Sgt. Tzerlag reminds the reader of many a tough, true-hearted sergeant in fiction.  But he reminds this reader in particular of Sam Gamgee.  Tolkien once commented that Sam was the embodiment of English enlisted men he’d known when he served as an officer in World War I.  Tzerlag embodies the same virtues — and it’s evident that Kirill Yeskov understands the correspondence.

So Yeskov humanizes the orcs and presents a more convincing picture of them and their motivations than Tolkien does.  Of course, it’s possible to push this point too far.  Tolkien’s masterwork, in a sense, is not intended to present a convincing image of the internal life of such creatures as orcs.  Rather, the orcs — like the Elves — are there to illustrate one particular part of human nature.  In The Lord of the Rings, the orcs are truncated humans, not actual fully-developed characters.  Tolkien is working in an older literary tradition — not, as some have wrongly assumed, the Classical epic, but the medieval romance and specifically the interlace.  Viewed in this context, the orcs succeed wonderfully: they do express something essential about human nature — and they markedly enhance the interest of the narrative.

The problem is that Tolkien presents his narrative in the form of a novel.  It may ultimately be a mistake to interpret The Lord of the Rings in such a way — but the book itself does invite such an interpretation.  And, by novelistic standards, Yeskov’s Orocuen is superior to Tolkien’s orc.  Even a Tolkien fan has to give credit where credit is due: Yeskov’s scored a real triumph in Sgt. Tzerlag.  The orc as humble hero is a success.

Related to this success is Yeskov’s attack on Tolkien’s exaltation of the agrarian over the industrial.  Tolkien was, as many have noted, a tree-hugger — and one of the most memorable parts of the trilogy is his revision of Macbeth.  In The Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare’s cheap stage trick becomes a riveting reality: the forest actually does go to war; the Ents march on Isengard.  Before they do so, the leader of the Ents, Treebeard, describes his enemy Saruman as having a mind of wheels and gears — a machine mind.  The line between living thing and machine could not be more clearly drawn — and Tolkien is without question siding with green and living things.

But Yeskov thinks that industrial society is, in the long run, better for most people — and the evidence tends to indicate that he’s right.  In Yeskov’s version of the story, that’s exactly what the orcs and Mordor are: people who have taken the industrial road, people whom the Elves and the White Council, headed by Gandalf, are eager to stop because Mordor’s industrial civilization will ultimately overtake the older, agrarian civilization beloved of Elvendom.  Unlike Tolkien, Yeskov is in love with progress.  And, unlike a lot of people who love progress, Yeskov understands why progress, in human terms, is a beneficial thing.  Only progress, in the material realm, allows for the construction of a city in the desert — an achievement like Barad-dur, “that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”  The image of the tower, which even in Tolkien is reminiscent of Babel, is an encouraging image for Yeskov.  He wants mankind to reach for the sky.

The Last Ringbearer is far from perfect.  It’s not even as perfect as The Lord of the Rings — and Tolkien admitted many imperfections.  Yeskov makes one error that seems truly blameworthy: he portrays Tolkien’s legendarium as the history of an alternate world, whereas in reality it is an alternate history of our own world.  Hence, at the end of The Last Ringbearer, we find an historical epilogue set in an industrially-modern “Middle-Earth.”  This is a real blunder and almost undermines the whole story.  Moreover, it reveals that Yeskov doesn’t understand one whole facet of The Lord of the Rings — its etymological inspiration.

Another real fault is that, in the middle, the story bogs down in an almost unbearable episode of espionage.  Voice of the Valar, Mordor and the Eye, was it hard to get through that!  It wasn’t that Yeskov failed to capture Umbar as a significant locale for adventure in Middle-Earth — but that the involutions and convolutions of the spy story just couldn’t maintain interest, since the reader knew all along what the upshot would be.

Spy stories never work well in fantasy settings, anyhow.  In a sense, it’s true, Yeskov is turning Tolkien’s fantasy setting into a science fiction setting.  But spy motifs don’t work in science fiction, either.  If one of the principal appeals of your story is the celebration of marvelous settings, if you are striving to appeal to the reader’s sense of wonder, then complex and dreary machinations on the part of cynical agents break the mood.  It’s like trying to kiss the elf maiden while treating her cold sores.

Curiously, this unfortunate foray into the realm of otherworldly espionage is not peculiar to The Last Ringbearer.  A similar excursion pops up in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.  I can’t explain this shared feature in any detail, but I don’t think it’s an accident.  The Last Ringbearer and Wicked belong to the same genre — which I, perhaps a little too archly, like to call Satanic literature.  It’s a genre that I truly love.

There actually is, of course, Satanic literature — literature centered around the worship of Satan.  I may be interested in such stuff at times — as I am in abnormal psychology — but it’s not what I mean when I label The Last Ringbearer and Wicked “Satanic literature.”  Rather, I mean that stories like Yeskov’s and Maguire’s reexamine the familiar from another point of view, so that the villains cursed and condemned out of hand — the orcs and the Wicked Witch of the West — are given their chance at justification, according to the lights of the authors.  We learn that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) and Tzerlag really do have something to say for themselves — as any sensible person would have expected.  Yeskov’s and Maguire’s narratives are Satanic in the sense that the Fiend in Frankenstein perceives himself as Satanic: in reality, Victor is far more evil than the Fiend.

There is, naturally, a profound problem with such exercises in moral understanding: they may very well degenerate into moral indifference, or even moral negation.  “A curse on those who call good evil and evil good!”  Confusion on issues of right and wrong is not something that a society such as ours needs any more of.

However, the opposite temptation — the temptation to smugness — is usually more troubling.  It’s just way too easy to imagine your enemies as utterly depraved and hopeless beings — like the orcs — and in the context of Tolkien’s world, at least, it seems unnecessary.  A scene that didn’t make it to the theater version of the movie was the encounter with the Mouth of Sauron:

But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans; for they established their dwellings in Middle-Earth during the years of Sauron’s domination, and they worshipped him, being enamored of evil knowledge.  And he entered the service of the Dark Tower when it first rose again, and because of his cunning he grew ever higher in the lord’s favour; and he learned great sorcery, and knew much of the mind of Sauron; and he was more cruel than any orc (LOTR, Kindle Edition, 19558-70).

The question is, if a living member of the human race can be “more cruel than any orc,” how can the orcs be seen as so utterly and irredeemably evil?  The idea that there can be worse people than orcs arises elsewhere in Tolkien.  But if there are worse people, then why are the orcs represented as beyond all hope of redemption?  On this level, the existence of orcs doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and doesn’t fit in with what’s best in The Lord of the Rings.  We are expected to pity Gollum — and indeed the pity shown to Gollum is what actually achieves the Quest.  But the orcs too have been tortured by evil powers.  Why shouldn’t we pity them?

It’s important to note here that, in earlier versions of the legendarium, the Dwarves were an evil race.  The battle between Beren and the Dwarf Lord after the death of Thingol was as clearly a battle of good against evil as the battle of Gandalf against the Balrog.  And this characterization of the Dwarves is firmly rooted in the folkloric and literary traditions from which Tolkien drew his concept of the Dwarves.

That’s why one of the most revelatory and uplifting moments in The Lord of the Rings is this one:

“Dark is the water of Kheled-Zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-Nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dum in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone.”  She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled.  And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding.  Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer (LOTR, Kindle Edition, 8203-9).

At some point in the lifelong development of the legendarium, Tolkien overcame the earlier, one-sided vision of the Dwarves — so that the noble-minded Elven Queen Galadriel could see and understand the depths of the Dwarf mind.

In bringing Sgt. Tzerlag to life, Yeskov has done the same for the orcs.  It’s not really a contradiction of Tolkien’s legendarium — but a development and an enrichment.

That’s what Satanic literature can do — and that’s what I love about it.

–Tom Riley

Evil Takes a Vacation

Evil Takes a Vacation

The Queen of Darkness had to take a break.
The war she’d fought for years against the light
weighed on her head and made her poor neck ache.
Her spine was stiff: abandoning the fight
never occurred to her.  But a nice flight
to Maui?  That was something she could do.
She mulled the tough decision overnight,
grabbed man and luggage, and was made anew.
Evil, my friends, appreciates the view.
Evil is not opposed to touring far
and wide.  Though it’s surprising, still it’s true:
evil takes pride in going under par
on an idyllic course.  However vile,
evil relaxes, too.  Look at that smile!

–Tom Riley

Liar for Jesus

Liar for Jesus


“O Jesus, I am right to lie for you–

Since you yourself can never truly lie.

I do for you what you can’t hope to do.

I juggle and deceive the Devil’s eye.

As you perceive all truth, you must see why

I have to offer falsehoods in your name.

But can you see that some rules don’t apply

To me, that I need not feel any shame?

Can you see that the gospel I proclaim

Is necessary supplement to yours?

I too am driven by zeal’s perfect flame.

I pray hard when I do dishonest chores.

Is all this, dearest Jesus, clear to you?

Do you approve?  I smile and say you do.”


–Tom Riley

Choosy Chuck

Choosy Chuck

(for Julie Brumley)

“You know,” said Sherri, “we’re in danger right now.”

“Why’s that?” said Lyssa.

“Because of Choosy Chuck.”

“Oh, yeah, Choosy Chuck. I think I heard something about him. But why exactly are we in danger from him?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute,” said Sherri. “But first I have to have a look at that blouse. Do you think I should try it on?”

A man could not have answered before Sherri was indeed stepping into a dressing room to try on the blouse. Lyssa –- who might, by right of superior timing, have managed to say something –- didn’t even try. Instead, she waited patiently for her best friend to appear.

“Well, what do you think?”

“You want my honest opinion?”

“Would I be asking for your dishonest opinion, Lyssa?”

“Well, then, it’d be okay for someone else, Sherri, but it isn’t for you.”

“You know what my grandmother says, Lyssa?”

“Your grandmother?”

“Grammamma Nan, we call her. She says you deliberately try to undermine me by telling me I look bad when I look good and then telling me I look good when I look bad. She says you want me to dress the wrong way.”

“And you believe her?”

Sherri glanced at the nearest mirror for a couple seconds. “No, of course not. And I’m not getting the blouse.”
Lyssa’s smile was a mirror in itself. When Sherri had changed back into her own clothes and returned the blouse –- again, with the swiftness of experience –- Lyssa asked: “So what’s this about Choosy Chuck?”

“Oh, I’ve been dying to tell you!”

“You tell right away!”

“Choosy Chuck is, like, this serial killer.”

“You mean like on CSI?”

“Exactly! But nobody can catch Choosy Chuck.”

“CSI must be on another case.”

“And Choosy Chuck has the most peculiar M.O.”

“Is M.O. something like body odor?”

“No, you dork! M.O. stands for modus offerandi. It means, like, how the criminal does the crime.”

“And how does the criminal do the crime?”

“No, see. It’s different with every criminal. It’s like fingerprints, only fingerprints of the brain.”

“Oh, I get it. M.O. is how you get your hands on the criminal’s brain.”

“Exactly! And every criminal’s brain is different and has different fingerprints on it. Oh, look: those guys are giving us the eye!”

It took the girls five minutes of whispering to determine that those guys weren’t worth the time of day.

“So,” said Lyssa, “what are the fingerprints on Brainy Chuck’s brain?”

“Choosy Chuck, you dork! Don’t you read the newspapers?”

“No, I don’t. Do you?”

“Well, no –- but it’s Choosy Chuck all the same. It’s been on the Internet!”

“Not what I asked, Brainiac. I asked, what are his brain fingerprints?”

“You mean his M.O.”

“Isn’t that what you told me brain fingerprints are?”

“Okay, Lyssa. No need to get all bent out of shape.”

“Just answer the question, Sherri. It’s what you wanted to tell me in the first place.”

“Point for you! Okay, here it is. What Choosy Chuck’s M.O. is, he always targets pairs of girls.”

“Just like us!”

“Exactly. And what Chuck does, he finds this pair in a secluded spot. And he’s dressed all in black.”

“Does he wear leather?”

“I don’t think it said.”

“Because I like guys in leather.”

“Oh, come on, Lyssa: that is so gay!”

“It is not.”

“Is so. And besides, you’re a liar. You have never gone for a guy wearing leather.”

“That’s true –- but I think I’d like a guy in leather if I met one.”

“Well, you are not allowed to like Choosy Chuck, whether he wears leather or not. Duh, he’s a serial killer!”

“Is he cute?”

“No one knows. He’s always wearing a mask.”

“Ooh, like the Phantom of the Opera! Maybe he’s really deformed, but handsome in a tragic way.”

“Choosy Chuck’s mask covers his whole face, Lyssa. He’s probably really dorky and ugly, with great big zits and stuff.”

“But nobody knows.”


“And that’s his M.O., dress in black, wear a mask?”

“Lyssa, stop being a pain. I haven’t even got to the crime yet!”

“So get to it, Einstein.”

“But what about those pants?”

There were several pairs of those pants, so the encounter was fraught with possible disappointment. Happily, in the end, each girl found a pair of pants that her best friend thought sensational on her –- or at least said so. They bought the pants. GIRLS: 20; MALL: a big fat ZERO.

“Do you think Choosy Chuck goes after pairs of pants?” asked Lyssa.

“No, stupid. I already told you. Choosy Chuck goes after pairs of girls.”

“I just thought there might be some connection.”

“You are so out of it!”

“Well, at least I can get to my point.”

“So I’ll get to my point. Choosy Chuck shows up, all in black, with a mask….”

“But not in leather.”

“And he has this gun.”

“You know what that means.”

“Oh, Lyssa, it does not!”

“Sure it does. Mr. Pedicaris says it always means that.”

“Mr. Pedicaris is gay.”

“He is not. He has a girlfriend named Heather.”

“Have you ever seen this girlfriend?”


“Has anybody?”

“Well, no one in class.”


“Oh, come on, Sherri. Now Mr. Pedicaris has to bring his girlfriend to school to prove he’s not gay?”

“If he really wants to prove it.”

“That is so unfair! Anyhow, even if Mr. Pedicaris is gay, what difference does it make? He could still be right about guns.”

“Think, Lyssa. Guys in movies are pointing guns at each other all the time. If that meant what you said, it’d mean all those actors are gay –- which is probably what Mr. Pedicaris is wishing!”

“News flash, Sherri: a lot of those actors are gay.”

“It would mean Russell Crowe is gay.”

Lyssa was taken aback. She was clearly on the losing end of this argument. But she thought quick. “So, is Choosy Chuck gay?”

Sherri was almost angry. “Choosy Chuck is not gay! He points his gun at girls!”

“So you’re admitting that’s what it means. Point for me!”

“Oh, you are just impossible! Come on. Let’s go to the bathroom.”

After the bathroom, it was the victorious Lyssa who got the conversation back on track. “So what does Choosy Chuck do after he points his gun –- or is that it for him?”

“That’s just the point, Lyssa. Now get this: after he levels his gun, Choosy Chuck shoots the hotter girl right through the heart!”

“How’s that?”

“It’s how he got his name. He chooses between the two girls –- and kills the better-looking one. He does it every time.”

“And what happens to the other girl –- the one he doesn’t choose?”

“He always lets her live.”

“Every time?”

“Every time.”

Both girls stopped walking. Lyssa gave Sherri a look as hard as a bulletproof windshield –- and saw the same look in Sherri’s eyes. For a couple of seconds, neither girl even breathed.

“Well,” said Lyssa, “I’m safe, then.”

“You are?”

“Sure. If Choosy Chuck comes after us, he’ll shoot you and let me get away.”

“Oh, no, Lyssa: it’s the other way around. If Choosy Chuck comes after us, he’ll shoot you and let me get away.”

“Sherri, you’re just saying that because you’re my best friend and you’re trying to be nice.”

“No, Lyssa. It’s really true. Choosy Chuck would definitely choose you over me. Any guy would.”

Warm, sisterly feelings were so thick in the air that not even the girls could stand them for long. “Anyhow,” said Lyssa, “how much danger could we be in, after all? There must be a hundred pairs of girls shopping in this mall right now. Our odds have to be pretty good, Sherri.”

Sherri, however, was looking around. “You know, Lyssa, I don’t see one other pair of girls anywhere. And we’re right in the most crowded concourse in the mall.”

“You know, you’re right.” Lyssa’s head was now swiveling, too. “I don’t see one other pair.”

“And if you think of it, we haven’t seen one other pair of girls all day.”

“Gosh, why would that be, Sherri? Normally we’d see more pairs than we could count.”

“Maybe other girls are afraid to go out in pairs. Maybe they’re afraid of Choosy Chuck.”

“Gee, do you think?”

“I can’t think of any other explanation.”

“Sherri, this is scary. If it’s too dangerous for other pairs of girls to be out, what are we doing here?”

“I think maybe we should go back to the car and get out of here.”

Lyssa nodded –- and together the carefree souls skedaddled.

Aside from the strange demographic shift –- no pairs of girls –- the mall had been far from empty. But under the cloudy late-afternoon sky, the parking lot seemed oddly deserted, as if a neutron bomb had wiped out everything living, leaving the surrounding infrastructure untouched. The girls’ heels made a sound that echoed eerily in the still air.

When she got to her Mazda, Sherri dropped her keys. She knelt to pick them up, and, when she stood, there he was.

“Choosy Chuck!”

“I hate that name,” said the guy dressed all in black.

“Way to give a warning, Lyssa!”

“Hey, I didn’t see him, either. He sure knows how to sneak up on a girl.”

“On a pair of girls,” said Choosy Chuck, leveling his pistol at Sherri.

“What?” said Lyssa. “You’re choosing her?”

Steady as a statue, Choosy Chuck’s gun hand shifted -– to point at Lyssa. “I changed my mind,” said Chuck. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry….”

“You two-timer!” shrieked Sherri –- and flung her key ring, heavy with keys that Sherri never used anymore, straight into Choosy Chuck’s face. As one of the keys scratched the surface of his left eye, he screamed and turned the pistol on Sherri.

Lyssa’s purse came down on his hand faster than thought. “Make up your mind!” Lyssa shouted, swinging again.

Choosy Chuck’s gun clattered on the pavement.

The smart thing to do then was to run. What Sherri did instead was pick up the gun.

The smart thing to do then was to turn the gun on Chuck. What Sherri did instead was considerably more original.

Her left hand she hooked into a trembling rake –- and tore at Chuck’s mask. In her right fist she held the pistol so that the barrel protruded between her thumb and forefinger. Her little finger covered the hammer. The grip projected downward over the little bone at the side of her wrist. With this club she battered at Chuck like a latter-day Valkyrie wielding a war hammer. She was beyond words as she waded into Chuck –- but there arose from her throat such a sound as nightmares are made of, half siren, half wildcat cry.

Feebly, Chuck lifted his arms to ward off her attack.

In the meantime, Lyssa, a howling figure of vengeance, continued to swing her purse. She seemed heedless of her target, and may have been aiming at Sherri –- but what she hit was Chuck. She caught him hard on the side of the knee, on the back of the head, and at last on his left arm, which dropped. At just that moment, Sherri brought the pistol down, her cry rising to a crescendo behind it. It struck an inch forward of the ear –- with a sickening crunch. Chuck crashed to the ground like a marionette whose strings have been severed by one sweep of the machété.

But Sherri wasn’t finished. Sobbing now with anger, she followed him down, clawing and clubbing. In a few seconds, she had pulled off his mask. Lyssa kicked him hard on the cheekbone.

“Actually, he is kind of cute,” said Sherri.

“And the mask is leather,” said Lyssa. She kicked him once again –- more gently this time, in the ribs. Then she took out her cell phone and summoned the police.

Several minutes passed before they arrived.

“He chose you!” said the girl who had been Lyssa’s best friend.

“He chose you!” said the girl who had been Sherri’s best friend.

In their eyes was a cold hatred that would never forgive.

–Tom Riley