Twenty-One Pennies

By Joel Best, illustration by Robert J. Beam, Jr.




says the itch in the small of Stone's back. Golems have strong, strange senses. He doesn't need his eyes to see her back there, hiding in his shadow. The smallness of her, the uncertainty.

looking at me


not sure whether or not to speak

The mouse folk live in this region of autopia. Little people standing no higher than his knee, painting their heads with grease. At high noon their body odor is the stuff of legend.

Stone has ears, but doesn't require them to hear the woman's whisper-soft breathing.


no, excited

Says the priest addressing the mouse folk from the hood of a battered mail truck, "Most nitrous systems are tuned for peak performance when the volume reaches 900 PSI. This occurs at approximately eighty degrees ambient; however, in cold climates, especially in fall and winter, it is advisable to utilize a bottle warmer in order to maintain consistent pressure."

A mob of blackened heads surrounds the man in tattered robes, swaying and chanting in rhythm to his words. Saying, we love you, we believe, tell us what to do.

Let's see if this lasts, Stone's thinking.

Mouse people resemble the creatures they raise for food

Flies hang in vast gray sheets. The sun ascends an invisible ladder. More of the local population appears, waving flags made of torn upholstery. Hurrah. For now. They swarm out of the wrecked cars and trucks that serve as their homes. Mouse folk resemble the creatures they raise for food. Small. Timid. Numerous. The population in this part of autopia doubles every twenty years. Every forty there is the inevitable implosion caused by famine or disease.

Life. It comes and goes.

"Always advisable is to check tire pressure before undertaking a lengthy journey. The prepared driver carries a tire gauge and knows how to use it. Inadequate pressure makes a new tire old before its time. If there's any doubt as to proper level of inflation, simply check the information panel mounted inside of the driver's manual."

Wailing, the mouse folk beat themselves with cracked and aged fan belts.

"To say nothing of proper maintenance and what it means to the longevity of the family station automobile," the priest intones.

They work themselves into a lather.

Stone's senses say:

she's about to speak

You couldn't call her beautiful, especially not with one of her arms a bundly of writhing, oily coils

"But what's he trying to tell us?" says the woman in his shadow, finding her voice. Stone swivels the misshapen lump that serves as his head. She's tall and bony. Definitely birdlike, he's thinking. One might say delicate. Her hair hangs long and mimics the color of the sun. Too large a nose, too weak a chin. You couldn't call her beautiful, especially not with one of her arms a bundle of writhing, oily coils.

"You're not from around here," Stone says.

"I'm from the north."

"So am I."

"Near the fiberglass mountains."

"I know them well."

"My people were the straight-walkers."

"Mine were the proud-eyes."

They had lived within a hundred miles of each other.

"These priests are all the same," the woman says. She makes no effort to hide the coils that dangle loosely at her side. "Priests talk and talk without ever saying one word that you can understand."

"Convolution is common with the clergy," Stone tells her.


"It always adds up to the same message, though. Be good. Stay in line. Don't cause problems."

He's met other straight-walkers. Long ago. None of them had coils.

Probably an encounter with some God.

He doesn't need any of that.

"Nice meeting you," he says. Nod. It's good-bye. Picking a direction, he begins to walk. One big square foot ahead of the other. Metal shivers with each of his steps. Stone stomps across a long row of car roofs. When was the last time he saw bare earth, how many years ago? He kicks at radio antennae. This part of autopia spans a deep gorge. You see holes here and there, dark places where a single misstep can end in a drop several miles straight down. Mouse folk scatter before him. The priest's recitation recedes.

Golem senses say:

she's following

Instinct tells him to get away while he can.

The woman moves just a little too fast for that.

His outer body is an amalgam of granite and shale

His outer body is an amalgam of granite and shale.





The internal organs are pure quartz.

Though not the heart, which is merely absent.

The God known as CrazyHat said a golem has no reason to own a heart.

Once upon a time Stone had a different name.

After CrazyHat, Stone seemed more appropriate.

It's a name and a description.

Hindsight indicates that it may have been a mistake to become a soldier. The problem with war is that you have a chance of losing and being put in the position of suffering the consequences.

CrazyHat dealt even more harshly with other prisoners of war. "I got off easy," Stone will say as a reminder when the temptation is strong to indulge in self-pity.

The woman says, "I love you."

Stone picks up the pace.

"Did you hear me?" she says, running, jumping, skittering over cars and trucks in order to keep up with him. The oily coils where her arm should be weigh more than flesh and bone. Her gait is an off-balance lurch. "Did you, did you?"

Stone stops abruptly. She collides with him and sits down very hard.

"Are you all right?" he asks.


He offers his hand.

The woman tries to pull him down beside her. "Please? Just for a minute."

"I have to be going," Stone says.

"A minute?"

His golem senses say

step on her

consider it a preemptive act

"You won't kill me," the woman says, reading his eyes.

"Guess not," Stone answers.

He awkwardly takes a seat. They share the roof of a delivery van edged between a school bus and a group of motorcycles, some of them upside down, some of them squashed like accordions. The sun is hot and directly overhead. No shade here. The woman fans herself with the coils. The generated breeze has a sickly sweet odor.

"I'm not sure we . . . ," Stone begins.

"I love you."

"You already said that."

"I meant it. I love you with all my heart."

"We just met."

"That doesn't matter."

"How can you love me?"

"I just do."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"To me it does."

"We're not alike."

"That isn't important."

"I'm not even a man." Stone claps his huge, flinty hands. Bang. Echoes bounce from autopia's endless sharp corners. "Man-shaped, yes. With a man's brain, but not a heart, not blood. You say you love me. I can't possibly love you back."

"That will change."

"It won't."

"I have faith."

"You're deluded."

"No, touched by a God."

"That's even worse."

"I love you and my name is Willa, which means light."

"I'm Stone," Stone says, weary and hot. His body is a magnet for the sun's fury. "Which means Stone."

Standing tall as the moon
His laugh a monsoon
This God did Point
Not to anoint
My comrades in arms
They possessed so few charms
I remained behind
The God being kind?
Was I to be sainted?
No, merely tainted.

Years ago Stone scratched this poem in the paint of a yellow convertible with the tip of his finger.

Then kicked in the side of the convertible.

He'll imagine calamities befalling the world. A meteor plummets from the sky and plunges through autopia. Lava boils from the rift and all are killed.


Chrome spiders crawl from the bowels of the earth and scramble across the landscape. They multiply exponentially and, in short order, consume every scrap of organic material from one horizon to the other.


A lonely woman with coils falls in love with him and it proves impossible to get rid of her.

No, that one is actually happening.

"You're not going away, are you?"


Stone stops walking in circles and heads for home. What's the point in trying to lose someone who refuses to get lost?

He moves steadily, no longer running a race. Willa walks along beside him. Down into a narrow gully, up a hill of petrified tires. The mouse folk are left far behind. "This is it," he says when they reach the top of the tire hill. Willa makes a few ooh and ahh sounds. As far as homes go, Stone's crumpled sedan isn't bad, isn't perfect. Away from the stench of the mouse folk, in a quiet spot, that's on the plus side. On the minus is the missing roof, inconvenient during a thunderstorm, and the dusty upholstery that clogs Stone's sinuses.

At night, the sound of sun-heated metal cooling is a steady tick tick tick invading his dreams. Stone, wandering through the works of a giant clock.

Feeling bad about the hill, he helps Willa into the front seat and makes sure she's comfortable.

Wedges himself in next to her. It's a close fit. Stone brushes against the coil arm, cool and slick, but otherwise not as repulsive as he would have thought.

Willa is very small and vulnerable.

The golem sense says

no good can come of this

Stone's thinking, How can I turn her away now?

too late

"Do they ever hurt?" he asks, meaning the coils, and Willa answers, "Constantly."

The most recent in a long line of Gods calls Himself G-By-The-Sea.

Who rose to power by assassinating Omicron Limbo.

Who vaporized Miss Pretty Lips Gumbo.

Who blew a kiss and annihilated Face of Eternity.

Who decimated the Cyclops Conglomerate.

Who slew the Inverse Trinity.


"I loved playing war with my friends."


"It's the testosterone."

"We played house."


"Blame the estrogen."

"There was also hunting crows, but we did that more for food than fun."

"I always hated crow meat."

"Better than starving."

"I lost my parents when I was seven."

Stone nods. "That's why you're so obsessed with love."


"What about the coils?"

"Mr. Knowitall," Willa says in a monotone.

They're sitting together in the sedan. Some nights in autopia seem never to end. Like your whole life might pass by before the coming of the dawn.

"I've heard of Him," Stone says.

The cooling sedan goes tick tick.

He looks up past where the roof ought to be. Overhead, the stars are flakes of glass caught in black fabric.

"Wasn't He the God Who drove the flying hearse?"

"You're thinking of Airway Lucifer."

"That's right."

You can lose track of all the Gods Who come and go

You can lose track of all the Gods Who come and go. Some are real shits. Like Mr. Knowitall. Like Airway Lucifer. Like CrazyHat.

When you think about it, like most of them.

"So how did He do it to you?"

"It started with Momma and Daddy getting sick and dying. After that I had to sleep all alone every night. We lived in a school bus. There was too much room for one little girl." Willa touches the coils absently with her good hand. "My heart ached. Oh, the emptiness. Then Mr. Knowitall blessed the Asphalt Precipice with His presence. You know how the Gods like Their flash. He drove a limousine made of mirrors. Look into it and see a thousand of you looking back."

"Now I remember Mr. Knowitall," Stone says. "He wore a pointed wizard's cap and carried a magic wand. You'd ask Him questions and He'd stir the wand in the hat and pull out a slip of paper with the answer written in glowing golden letters. He was the kind of God who would pretend to be your friend, then turn around and do something absolutely horrible."

"He took my arm," Willa says with a trace of sadness. "The day I went to His limousine and prayed. Mr. Knowitall said He would arrange it so I would find someone to love me. That's all I needed to make my life complete, He said, to be wanted. It sounded so good. Like I was dying of thirst and He offered me the sea."

"It was all lies," Stone says.

"Well, yes. All Mr. Knowitall wanted was my arm. His passion was for human arms, He had this incredible collection. I only found out about that when it was too late. He breathed on my arm and it fell off and the coils sprouted from the stump. He said I should feel fortunate to have the coils. Not everyone received them. They had to make do."

"Gods," Stone says.

"Tell me about it."

"None of Them can be trusted. A God turned me into a golem because I fought on the wrong side of a war." Stone leans back and the sedan's seat gives a little shriek. "One thing for sure, you have to be careful around Gods."

In the middle of the night he feels tears on his chest

In the middle of the night he feels tears on his chest. Willa, crying in her sleep. Stone, he never sleeps since becoming a golem. There's the slowdown, but that's another matter. The moisture is painful against his impenetrable skin. How is it possible to hurt granite? Stone, you can take a broken axle to his hide and, at best, leave behind a few star-shaped marks. Yet the tears burn as fiercely as droplets of antimatter.

Willa whimpers through a bad dream.

Stone fingers the pouch hanging around his neck.


his golem senses warn.

"Look here," he says, unsure that Willa will wake, then she does, and she says, "What is that?"

"My gift to the new God, G-By-The-Sea. I've been traveling west for a year. Rumor has it G-By-The-Sea is building an immense holy city by the ocean where autopia ends. Magnificent faceted domes that catch the sunlight and break it into a billion rainbows. Arches so high they pierce the atmosphere. A church so large everyone in the world could fit inside."

If only one-fiftieth of the rumors are true, Stone's thinking, the holy city will still be a marvel.

He opens the pouch and takes out a lopsided mass, greenish-brown.

"Twenty-one pennies," he says. "Fused into a single mass by lightning or sheer age, I don't know which. I found them in the ashtray of a pickup truck in the northern regions. Truck sitting at the summit of a high mountain of engine parts and broken glass. It took weeks to reach. My guts told me there'd be treasure up there. Twice I almost fell. The pennies made it all worthwhile."

He's thinking, With these I can ask a favor of the new God.

Maybe the God will grant this request. Then again, maybe He'll play a trick on Stone. Like turning him inside-out and seeing how long it takes an inverted golem to die.

Gods. You puts in your nickel and you takes your chances.

"They're beautiful," Willa says.

And makes a soft, sighing sound.

"Not all that good." Wishing he'd left well enough alone, Stone returns the pennies to their pouch and pulls the drawstring tight.

Later on, Willa asks if he's fallen in love with her yet.

"I told you, that can't happen."

"I would make a good wife."

"Not to a golem."

"I'd try."

"Why does it have to be me who loves you?"

"I think it's your strength. You would keep me safe."

"I'm sorry."

"Is it the coils?"

"It's not about you at all."

"You're being stubborn."

"I'm being what I am."

Willa finally goes to sleep. No bad dreams now, no tears. Resting easily, she smiles in a way that troubles Stone to his core.

Great power.

Freedom from hunger.

A free pass to Heaven.

The ability to kill all enemies.

Travel in time.

A huge dick.

The things people pray for, you have to wonder.

Stone, he just wants to be human again.

They're playing a game.

"Who do you think was the funniest God?"

"Rhyming Jester," Stone says. "People laughed at His poems and He didn't care until the day when He did and the bodies lay in high heaps."


"Dragonfly Messiah. Who wove chitinous wings in Her hair and spoke insect talk."

"Most beautiful God?"

"Infinity Maiden. One could literally become lost in one of Her smiles."


"Wormbelly. One day He slithered into a hole, never to be seen again."

Huddling in the cargo compartment of an ancient oil tanker, Stone and Willa lounge by a fire fueled by bits of upholstery and dried dung. Autopia winters are hell, no trees to stop the wind from gathering speed and catching people by surprise, sucking oxygen from lungs, freezing bodies solid until spring. Once a day Stone takes Willa outside and they slip around in the snow, just to be able to stand upright and breathe air that doesn't smell like armpits and farts.

"I'm chilly," Willa says. "Can you build the fire up a bit?"

Stone puts another chunk of dung on the embers. Willa scoots closer and holds her good hand near the flames. The coils take on a damp gleam, the sweet smell grows a bit thicker. It's six months that she's been with him. He stopped trying to get rid of her a long time ago. It isn't fatalism. You stop wasting energy, is all. Fighting against the inevitable is like hoping to shout down a hurricane or wrestle a mountain or convince the universe that A = B.

Or maybe he is a fatalist. You lose your heart, your humanity, you lose a lot that goes with it.

Mostly Stone is tired.

There's a slowdown on the way, he's thinking.

"Kindest God?" Willa asks.

Stone says, "I don't know any like that."

He's having a little trouble with his thoughts.

"There was Bright Singing Lady." Willa closes her eyes, remembering. "She'd drive by in her silver school bus and throw sweets to the wild children. At night they'd gather around the bus and she'd sing lullabies."

"No. Never heard of her."

"She was a fairly good God."

The wind's fist rocks their tanker.

"Worst God?"

For me it would have to be CrazyHat

"For me it would have to be CrazyHat," Stone says. "That one had a mania for starting wars. Even more than most Gods, I mean. When I was a boy, the news came that He planned to attack the next valley, not that anyone knew why, just that He had a mad on and wanted blood. I ran away from home to be part of the action. What was I, thirteen? My father, he tried to stop me. The day before I left he said, Don't go, you idiot. He locked me in the family car, but I sneaked out through the trunk. I would have crawled to that valley with two broken legs, if need be, to join the army that had gathered there. The valley folk already had ten thousand warriors. I made it ten thousand and one. We were going to show CrazyHat what for, and we didn't have a chance. It was a slaughter. He pointed his finger and soldiers flew into pieces. Arms, legs, torsos, heads. Heads screaming long after being separated from their bodies. That was one of His favorite tricks. He could keep the dead going for hours. The few of us who survived, we received special treatment. For me it was being turned into a golem. Others got worse."

So much talk has tired him out. Stone sags in on himself, drained.

Very quietly, Willa says,

"'Protect me now
And for the rest of my days.'"

It's one of the little poems children recite before going to sleep. Stone hasn't heard it in years.

"'Watch over me.
See me safely through the night.'"

She leans into Stone. At first he thinks it's because his war story has upset her.

No, it's only to be a bit closer to the pouch hanging around his neck.

"Do you know why I do this to you?"

"Because I fought with the valley people against you."

"No. Because I can."

"Is that really a good reason?"

"For a God, it's the only reason."

"Gods come and go. One day You will be killed by the next One in line."

"That's how it's always been."

"Maybe it's time for a change," Stone says.

"We all play the parts assigned to us," CrazyHat says.

And adds, "Now. This may hurt just a bit."

"Are there any more mushrooms?" she asks.

"I think so."

"Not the gray ones."

"We still have a few of the black."

They've been buying mushrooms from local farmers who grow their crops in plots of dirt painstakingly mined from cracks in autopia. Deep corrosion, tunnels snaking down from the surface to soil untouched by daylight for millennia. The farmers tie ropes to the ankles of children and have them crawl into the darkness. Reaching bottom, the children gather soil with little pails and shovels. Sometimes the ropes break, sometimes the farmer pulls up a child with its face eaten away by creatures that live in the underworld. You pay a lot for mushrooms that might cost a son or daughter. Stone performs a great deal of manual labor.

Mushrooms come in two colors, gray and black. Grays leave an unpleasant aftertaste, like cobwebs at the back of the throat. Black, a person can eat all day long and feel wonderful afterwards.

"You're not hungry?" Willa asks.

Stone doesn't have much of an appetite these days.

It's the slowdown finally catching up with him.

Winter's come and gone. The oil tanker lies far to the east. Celebrating the spring warmth, Willa goes nude during the day. Thin at the best of times, she's skin and sticks after the long period of cold and snow. Her breasts have shrunk to nothing and her head seems too large for her body. She wolfs down the mushrooms while Stone sits quietly.

"Don't you have an appetite?"

"Appetite," Stone says dully.

"Are you all right?"


"You're acting strangely."

He's battled the slowdown for months. Once, twice a year his brain seizes for a week or so. Thoughts become syrup, time turns thick. He'll stare at his hands and need an hour to say the word hands. The first time this happened Stone thought he was dying. Then it dawned on him (glacially) that the slowdown was just another part of being a golem, the price he paid for not sleeping the rest of the time.

At the peak of a slowdown he might as well be a boulder.

"She'll take the pennies away from me."

"What was that?" Willa asks, and Stone realizes he spoke aloud.

"You mentioned the pennies," she says.

Slowdown. Washing over him.




The word weighs heavily in his mind.



"Are you sleeping?"

Nimble fingers in his pocket.

Stone breaks free of the drowsy, heavy place tugging at him.

"So you're ticklish after all," Willa says, pretending she's proven some point neither of them were aware of.

The truth lies in the hard lines of her lips. I could have had the pennies, those lips tell Stone. I could have taken them just now and been gone.

Nightmare Queen's legion of robot doppelgängers. Vanity through replication.

Gargoyle Sutra's paintings of pure light. A God's life story brighter than a solar flare and blinding to the mortal eye.

Doom Czar's mutant disease pathogens. Whole populations dying with His name on their lips.

G-By-The-Sea's holy city overlooking the world's only remaining ocean. Ten thousand slaves laboring to the death in His honor.

Gods and Their self-aggrandizing monuments.

One afternoon they're sitting atop a refrigerator truck that's bent in half, the cab squashed, the tires rotten threads hanging from the rims. Call it late summer. A group of nonsense-talker children chase butterflies through the nearby aluminum jungle. G-By-The-Sea remains at least another two months distant. This is as close as Stone will get. He understands this truck is the place where it has to happen. The slowdown can't be pushed aside any longer.

Willa lingers close by, watching, waiting.

Stone's thinking, The butterflies.

It's more like:

Theeeeeeee buuuutttterfliiiies.

Frantic color floating on the warm breeze. One of autopia's greatest miracles is the butterflies that appear each mid-summer. They come from nowhere and vanish after only a single day, leaving no trace behind. Their place of origin, where they go to . . . who knows?


Wild-haired boys and girls dart through a maze of tangled metal. The nonsense-talkers call themselves the ullamulla-nonono. Theirs is a gibbering language. Stone has been communicating with them through hand gestures. Willa, who finds the nonsense people disturbing, refuses to acknowledge their existence. Even now she comments only on the butterflies and not the gaggle of screeching children in close pursuit.

"Some God must have created them long ago. A whim. They serve no purpose. Nature couldn't be bothered with such useless creatures."


"Or maybe a joke." Willa stands and takes a step toward Stone.

"Staaaaaay awaaaaaaay," he says.

"I mean, butterflies in autopia? It's a grim joke, yes. But what can you expect of a God? They aren't like us."

Another few steps. She kneels beside Stone.

Immobile Stone.

Willa takes the pouch from around his neck.

"I heard a story once about this God who so adored the sun that He turned all of His subjects into living fire. They begged for death, but the God said, 'How can I possibly destroy such beauty?' Can you imagine?"

The process will take days. Stone's thinking, All is possible in autopia.

Willa kisses him on the cheek.

She climbs down from the truck.

Strides away across autopia.

Smaller in the distance.


"Try to understand," Willa calls out, "I need this gift if G-By-The-Sea is to answer my prayer."

She screams, "I'll be loved even if it means becoming a God myself."

Gold that's radioactive and burns the flesh from your hands.

Immortality, but first you're transformed into a slug.

Invisibility and the power to travel unseen, but the wind tears you apart.

A mighty palace to live in; unfortunately it has no exits.

All-encompassing wisdom, but suddenly your memory can be measured in nanoseconds.

Ah, the tricks the Gods play while answering prayers.

There are moments when he looks at clouds through the empty windshield of an ice cream truck. This is on the southern continent. He never did reach G-By-The-Sea. The people here have no name. They're rags wrapped around scar tissue, and gender is not an issue, it is not even a consideration. Both sexes are stamped from the same mold. Reproduction must consist largely of hit-and-miss maneuvers. The locals live only in cars that were once red. Stone's asked about that without getting any kind of answer that makes sense. The nameless people speak in circles and that's on a good day.

Overall, not the brightest specimens he's ever encountered.

Faded paintings labeled popsicle and drumstick and sundae. Sa-Vor-E Ice Cream Treats. Stone often reads the walls surrounding him. This small, boxy wagon where he lives. He doesn't understand Sa-Vor-E. Ice is frozen water. Cream? A mystery. Treat is a word with five letters. It means an item with especially positive qualities.

When the siroccos blow and sand pelts the walls of the wagon, a steady zzzz, he'll pull the frayed cord hanging by the driver's seat.


One morning.

What he hears outside the truck.

Two nameless people.

Excited chatter.

This after he's just wakened from a slowdown that lasted a month.

"Did you see the new God?"

"Yes yes."

"She was so lovely."

"A vision."

"I clawed at my eyes."

"I pulled out my hair."

"I approached closely enough to touch Her boot."

"You dared?"

"A mad impulse."

"She did not strike you dead on the spot?"

"Loved-By-All understood it to be an act of adoration."

"So many were there."

"A crowd.

"A throng."

"I didn't see you."

"I saw you and waved."

Stone gives the cord a yank.

Ding ding.

The two locals (male/female, male/male, female/female, take your pick) look up.

"What God are you talking about?" he asks.


"Bless Her."

"Bless the air She breathes."

"Who called together the peoples of autopia."

"They came and they came and they came."

"The mouse people, the mushroom farmers, the ullamulla-nonono, the domino folk, the hand talkers."

"The screamers, the one-eyes, the stilts, the shrimps, the round bellies."

"The no-tongues, the flipper-men, the dog-faces."


"They came."

"And came."

"I get it," Stone says. "A great crowd gathered."

Loved-By-All appeared in the morning sky

"Loved-By-All appeared in the morning sky," says the local who might be male. (Or is she female?) "She arrived with the dawn."

"A blinding sight," says the local who might be female. (Or is he male?)

"And we heard music."

"And Her sweet voice."

"Saying, 'You will adore Me.'"

"Which we did."

"Oh yes."

"Where is She now?" Stone asks, growing impatient.

Imbeciles, he's thinking.

"On the great plain," says the male, maybe female.

"But She is no longer there," says the female, maybe male.

"She is gone."


"But still with us."

Stone goes to see for himself. Walks to the immense flattened area a bit east of the ice cream truck. A million years ago some unknown force stamped autopia flat. Perhaps a giant's footprint. The plain is empty. Signs of recent activity, but whatever happened here, he missed it.

"Willa," he says, speaking to the wind.

Loved-By-All. Who else could it have possibly been?


What it is, you don't always receive an answer. Some questions, you live with them.

Did she give the twenty-one pennies to G-By-The-Sea?

How faithfully did He grant her prayer?

Did she dance with joy?

What was it like, Stone wonders, to be loved by a million people all at once?

He searches for any sign of her.

The two nameless people show up and help, for what that's worth.

And explain how you truly love your God.

The male, maybe female, has one of Willa's fingers.

The female, maybe male, a scrap of bloody hair.

The worshipers further back in the crowd would have gotten away with less, Stone's thinking.

"Love you, love you," murmur the two nameless people.

You just can't trust Gods to answer your prayer honestly, he's thinking.

They always cheat.

It's just their nature.

In another hundred years the golem arrives at this conclusion:

There may be such a thing as too much love.


Some fates are worse than being made of stone.

Twenty-One Pennies, illustration © 2003 Robert J. Beam, Jr.
Illustration copyright © 2003 Robert J. Beam, Jr.


Copyright © 2003 Joel Best

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Joel Best lives in upstate New York with his wife and son. His work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Writers of the Future, Chiaroscuro, Byline, and Electric Wine. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, send him email at

Robert Beam lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He has been ruined by comics and tv, and enjoys talking to geckos. Whenever he sits down to do a piece or art, or an illustration, he is fueled with but one question: "How weird can I make this thing?" With every new day, he is pressing that envelope and drinking a lot of orange juice.