Supreme Ruler of the Universe

"You know," Eva von Todeschatten said one morning, "I really do think we should move out to the country. West Loudon, perhaps, or Fauquier? We could renovate some quaint old slaughterhouse and devote ourselves to simple, unclean living."

Her husband, Hans, looked up from the paper and glanced across the spotless kitchen table to her. "I don’t know, dear. It would be lovely, but my commute into the city is so long already. And where would we send Janie for school? This district has one of the best high schools in the nation—that’s why we came here in the first place, remember?"

"Oh, I remember." Eva sighed, looking out the window at their tiny backyard sandwiched between the tall wooden fences their neighbors had put up not long after they’d moved in. "But I do wish we had more space."

"What for?"

"Well, for one, I don’t like how Janie comes straight home from school and shuts herself up in her room. It’s not healthy. A girl her age should be active, playing outside with her friends."

"We could sign her up for one of those sports leagues down at the Y. Basketball? Field hockey?"

"Dear, you know I don’t like that place. They’re so. . . intolerant of our lifestyle. And besides, that still wouldn’t get all of your projects out of the garage."

Hans looked up again, annoyed. "Oh, is that what this is really about?"

"I know you’ve been working long hours, but could you spare some time this weekend to clean up in there? It’s getting so bad I can smell it whenever I walk past the garage door."

"I’ll see what I can do." He glanced at his watch, then set the paper down and rose. "Henri?" he called.

"Yes, master?" answered a creaky, rattling voice from the basement.

"I’m off to work. Help the missus clean up the breakfast things when she’s done, and then water the plants in the living room. They look a bit dry."

"Your wish is my command, master."

A series of rhythmic thumps made their way up the stairs, and then the basement door creaked open. Out shuffled a misshapen pastiche of a man, stitched together from body parts of widely varying colors and sizes with no regard for aesthetics. An extra pair of arms (a last-minute utility feature) sprang from the middle of its torso, filling an extra pair of sleeves stitched onto its custom-made butler jacket. The only sign of life upon its slack, grim face was a pale green light glowing in its eyes.

Hans’s annoyance cooled as he watched Henri slouch its way across the kitchen to his wife’s side. The sight of his very first creation always took him back to the good old days, when it had been just him, his scalpel, and his dreams. Oh, the adventures he’d had smuggling those parts home from the mortician’s office where he’d worked nights all through medical school! He’d assembled many a stronger and better-looking specimen in the intervening years, but old lopsided Henri would always have a place in his heart—and he wasn’t half bad as a home aide.

But then came more thumps, this time descending from the second floor.

"Janie, don’t stamp your feet," Eva chided as their daughter arrived at the foyer, dressed and ready for school. "You’re not a golem. Don’t act like one."

"Whatever, Mom." Janie rolled her eyes, then shoved on her shoes and headed out the door.

"Aren’t you going to say goodbye to your parents?" Eva called after her.

"Can’t be late for school," she shouted back, then slammed the door behind her.

Janie’s parents were freaks. The whole neighborhood thought so, and she agreed. For one, they were so horribly old-fashioned, so incurably uncool. They made their flesh golems call them "Master" and "Mistress." Nobody did that anymore. And then there were those fake foreign accents, the ridiculous costumes they wore around town, their withering disdain for anyone who’d never stitched a corpse. . . on a scale of one to ten, where one was normal and ten was enough to kill a girl from embarrassment, they were somewhere around a 12.5.

Sure, they had impressed the neighbors on their first Halloween in town, back when Janie was in kindergarten. But then some sharp-eyed kid had noticed that the dancing skeleton troupe was made of real human bones and the arms clawing their way up from the lawn were authentically rotting, and it all fell apart. There were complaints to the homeowners’ association, angry town hall meetings, a flurry of lawsuits—"the torches and pitchforks of the modern age," as her father called them—anything those folks could think of to force the von T’s out. But after two years in court, with the help of an expensive First Amendment lawyer, her parents had won the right not just to stay in their home but also to keep practicing their rituals, provided the neighbors could neither see nor hear nor smell them.

Not that this did anything to salvage the few friendships Janie had had the chance to form among her classmates. Once word of the affair had filtered down, she became a pariah on the playground, teased by every kid in the school. Even now, four years from the settlement date, she still sat alone at lunch and recess. Her teachers put a stop to the worst of the name-calling in the classroom, but given how much they let slide, Janie suspected they agreed with it on some level. She’d often caught them giving her desk a wide berth or wincing as she handed in a worksheet.

Only once in her six endless years of elementary education had she dared to hope that things might change for the better. Last November, a new kid had moved into the neighborhood. He was tall and tan and friendly-looking. . . and showed up late to school on his first day. The only desk available, of course, was the one next to Zombie-Guts Janie.

"This seat taken?" he’d asked as he arrived at it.

Janie nearly dropped her book in shock. Was this kid actually speaking to her? "No. . ." she said hesitantly.

The kid sat down, then scooted the desk closer to hers. "My name’s Dave. What’s yours?"

"Janie." She narrowed her eyes. Was this some kind of joke?

"Pleased to meet you, Janie." He flashed her a flawless white smile.

They spent that whole first lesson passing notes behind the teacher’s back. In his loose, page-filling scrawl, he told her how he’d moved all the way across the country from California, leaving all his old friends behind, after his parents split up. "That sucks!!!" Janie wrote back with three different-colored exclamation points and a thick red underline. So she wasn’t the only one whose parents were determined to wreck their kid’s social life.

She was putting the finishing touches on a note to explain her own situation when the snack break rolled around. The moment the teacher let them loose, the other kids surged up and surrounded Dave. They drew away in a little knot, whispering back and forth and casting the occasional sharp glance back at Janie.

When class resumed, Dave gave her a funny look, then scooted his desk back away from hers.

She left her note in his desk as the class left for lunch, but he never replied. The same pack of kids sucked him away into their kickball game at recess, and that was that. They hadn’t spoken since.

When Janie got home from school, her Nana greeted her at the door. Papa had built it to be motherly, with soft hands and a kindly face so intact it must have been taken in its entirety from a single source. Janie had always thought its features were familiar, but she could never quite put her finger on where she’d seen them before.

"How was your day, my dear?" Nana cackled in its scratchy voice.

"Wonderful," Janie lied. "I’ll be up in my room."

"Go right up," said Nana, "but don’t be noisy. Your mother’s lying down in the parlor."

Janie dumped her backpack and coat in a pile by the door and dashed up the stairs. She paused on the landing, out of sight, and watched as Nana tottered over to fetch her coat and hang it in the closet. Once the golem’s back was turned, Janie tiptoed back down the stairs and slipped into the kitchen. Quietly, she snuck to the garage door, opened it, and slid inside.

The fluorescent lights flickered on at the flip of a switch, slowly brightening as they warmed up. Janie walked down the steps to the cement floor. She passed by the twin refrigerators buzzing against the wall, the drawers labeled in her father’s illegible hand, and the plastic tubs stacked to the ceiling, and headed to the foot of the stainless-steel table in the center of the garage.

Atop the table lay the lifeless body of a flesh golem. The pieces were so evenly matched, the stitches so faint, that it could almost have been human, except for its unnatural size. Its arms were nearly as long as Janie was tall, and its massive torso was wide enough to fit two of her. Her father had been working on this one for months, stitching it together piece by piece over the weekends—and he’d almost finished it. But ever since he was promoted to chief of cardiothoracic surgery at the hospital, he’d had no time for hobbies. The golem had spent weeks in stasis on the table, ignored.

That is, until Janie had wandered in there a few weeks ago looking for her lost pair of snow boots. She hadn’t found the boots, but she had found an idea.

Zombie guts, hm? she thought as she turned dials and flipped switches, preparing for the final test of her plan. I’ll show them zombie guts. I’ll show them all.

For the next day was February 14th, the day the school forced Janie to accept a class worth of heart-laden hate mail in a little decorated shoebox.

Years ago, in the interest of inclusion, her school had passed a rule requiring each student to give valentines either to every other student in their class or to no one at all. But no one had ever thought to amend the rule to enforce equality among the valentines themselves. So every year, while the other kids swapped candy hearts and stickers, Janie received twenty-some-odd pieces of crumpled notebook paper reading "Get lost, zombie-loving freak," or some variation thereof.

They’re not even zombies, she’d fume as she read them. They’re flesh golems, and I don’t love them any more than you love your washing machine. But would those numbskulls listen if she tried to explain? Of course not, so why even bother. One year she’d tried to get even by handing out envelopes filled with some nasty-looking scraps she’d found in the garage wastebasket, but after that earned her detention and a lecture on sanitation from the school nurse, she’d stuck to the "no valentines" approach.

But this year was different. It was her last year of elementary school, her last chance to give those chumps what was coming to them, and she had something big planned. Something very big indeed.

She clicked loose the last of the golem’s restraints, then returned to her place at the foot of the table, with a remote-control in one hand and her family’s ancient grimoire in the other. Time to animate.

It was no big deal, really. Her father had performed this rite dozens of times without any complications. But he had also warned her of the horrific accidents inexperienced necromancers had inflicted upon themselves. A functional but disobedient golem was the best case; some unlucky souls had sealed themselves inside the flesh they’d stitched, or summoned a host of angry skeletons from the ground, or. . .

Stop it, she told herself. It’s too late to wimp out now. You’ve modified the body—the minute he sees your stitches, he’ll know you’ve been messing around in his workshop. Might as well get your revenge first.

And so Janie took a deep breath, pressed the button to slowly tilt the table upright, and began reading off the incantation that would bring the body to life. At first her voice felt faint and childish, but as she read she felt a rush of power well up inside her. Her voice grew loud and bold, echoing off the concrete floor and corrugated-metal walls. It was working!

She shouted the final command just as the golem’s feet touched the ground: "Resurge, et pare imperio meo!"

Silence. Then, like a fire kindling, a pale green glow appeared in the golem’s eyes. It stood motionless, awaiting her command.

Well then, Janie thought, wiping the sweat from her hands. Now to check that it obeys. She looked the golem in the eye and said, "Clap your hands twice, and put them on your hips."

"YES, MISTRESS," it groaned in a rumbling voice, and did so. Looked kind of silly, but hey.

"Good," she said, "but don’t call me that, it’s dorky. Call me Janie."

"YES, JANIE." It knelt before her, bowing its head.

A smile crept across her face. She was the one from whom this golem would take its ultimate orders. Not her father, not her mother, but her.

"On second thought, call me Supreme Ruler of the Universe."


She pressed the button to return the table to its original state. "Sleep, for now," she said. "Tomorrow I shall awaken you to fulfill your purpose."

"AS YOU WISH, O SUPREME ONE." The golem lay back down on the table. Its eyes dimmed into darkness.

That night, Janie set her alarm for five in the morning. Although she was too excited to fall asleep until well after midnight, she jolted straight up when it went off and stopped the clock before it could give a second ring. Can’t wake the parents, too.

She dressed in silence, then crept down through the house and into the garage, where the golem lay waiting.

"Arise, my servant—but be quiet about it," she whispered. "My parents’ bedroom is right above us."

The golem sat up stiffly without a sound. Its eyes—glowing green once more—tracked Janie as she crept around it, then strained to push the heavy garage door open.

Wait, she thought after a moment, why am I the one doing this? "Open this door, will you?" she said to the golem.

It hopped right off the table and pushed the door up with a single arm.

"Nice work," said Janie. She stepped outside, then tugged the golem’s hand to lead it down the driveway.

It, too, stepped out, but then it shook her hand loose, returned to the door, and lowered it back to the ground without a sound.

Huh, Janie thought. This one must be pretty smart, to cover its own tracks. She beckoned it on, then set off down the driveway. The golem sidled past her parents’ cars and fell in behind her.

As they walked down the empty streets of the subdivision, Janie shared her plan with the golem. "I’ll hide you near the playground until recess, and then when I come out—"

Just then, she spotted a jogger coming along a cross street. Oh crud. She ducked behind an SUV parked along the street and pulled the golem in behind her. They listened, breathless, as the jogger neared. . . and huffed on by, oblivious.

"As I was saying," Janie said, pulling the golem back onto the sidewalk, "when I get out there, you’re going to jump out and roar and scare the bejeezus out of all those jerks who’ve been picking on me."

The golem nodded. "SCARE THEM ALL," he growled.

"Just like that."

But then a not-particularly-welcome thought came to Janie. All of them? What about Dave? He had tried to be nice to her. . . for a little while. Before everyone else got to him. But even after that, he’d never been actively mean to her. And she might have just imagined it, but didn’t he smile at her in the halls the other day? Maybe he didn’t deserve to get caught up in her revenge.

Then again, two hours later, he’d laughed along with all the rest of them when she sat down in the trash can they’d swapped with her chair while she wasn’t looking. No, when it came down to it, Dave wasn’t any better than the rest of them.

Janie pursed her lips and walked on.

Soon, they arrived at the schoolyard. Janie led the golem through the gate, then scanned the playground. Not too many places you could hide an eight-foot flesh golem. "How about. . . there, in those pine trees behind the swing set. Go hide in there."

"YOUR WISH IS MY COMMAND, O SUPREME RULER OF THE UNIVERSE." The golem lumbered off, crashing through the thick foliage until it was out of sight.

Janie watched it go, then hurried back to bed before her parents found her missing.

Every day, as he left for work, Hans worried. He knew how much the neighbors hated his family. And even in this superficial suburb, he knew their hatred ran deeper than the mere lowering of property values the von Ts’ presence had inflicted.

While most of the neighbors seemed content to demonstrate their hatred through legal means, the devil only knew what the outliers were capable of. The evening news was full of murders and break-ins and arson, and the morning paper was no better. At times he could barely stand to leave Eva alone in the house all day, even with the golems to protect her. Not that Henri or Nana would be of much help against a violent intruder, aside from the initial fright factor. Despite appearances, the two were as docile as lapdogs and as weak as kittens.

And so Hans worried, and worried, until at last he could worry no more. He needed to act. He needed. . . to build a golem that could keep his loved ones safe.

"Starting a new one?" Eva had asked one evening as he sat in silence, staring at the blueprints and schematics he’d spread over the kitchen table.

"Yes, dear."

"To sell, I hope? I’ve been managing the house just fine with Henri and Nana, and it’s crowded enough with five of us living here."

"Of course, dear," he’d lied. He couldn’t tell Eva his plans for this one. She’d only think him paranoid—or worse, suffering from a midlife crisis. Imagine, a von Todeschatten such as himself suffering from such a plebeian American affliction! What would dear Mutti have said? He glanced over to Nana, busy washing the dishes from dinner.

So then, he’d thought, turning back to his papers. It would be difficult to splice the muscle fibers just right, but if he could get that to work. . . hmm. He’d have to enlarge the arteries to allow for greater ichor flow. Perhaps Igor could find him a former athlete’s heart. . .

The valentine swap in Class 5-B went off without a hitch. Janie fetched her shoebox from her cubby just like all the other kids, then sat in silence as they wandered around, dropping the usual saccharine sentiments into each others’ boxes—and the usual hate mail into hers.

Gotta keep it cool, she thought as her box filled up. Can’t give anything away.

But as the swap was winding down, who but Traitor Dave came walking up to her desk.

"Hey, Janie," he said as he approached.

She glared at him, then looked away. Go on, drop the insults in my box and get lost.

Undaunted, Dave smiled back at her—and then, as she looked on in shock, he dropped a real card through her slot.

"Happy Valentine’s Day," he said, and walked back to his desk.

Janie sat there for a moment, staring through the slot at the pink envelope atop the pile of insults. It looked so pristine, so perfect. A real valentine. What in the world did it say?

Janie tore the lid off the box and reached inside—

"All right, class, it’s time to put your shoeboxes away," the teacher called over the hubbub in the room. "We don’t have time to open valentines in class, not with the state exams just four weeks off. Put them away, and take out your math textbooks."

The whole class groaned—and for once, Janie groaned with them.

But as she stuffed the shoebox back into her cubby, she glanced out the window and saw the pine-tips swaying in the breeze. Her victory was not far off. Not far at all. . .

Janie spent the rest of the morning itching, twitching, ready to run at the slightest signal. The clock on the wall, never all that fast to move, seemed frozen. Tick. Tock.

At last the bell for recess rang. The class rushed out the door, flowing like a river to the mouth of the school building, with Janie at the lead. Finally, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe would have her revenge on all those piteous fools who had tormented her. She vaulted the seesaw, ducked beneath the swings, and ran straight on to the pine woods. "Come on out, golem!" she shouted as she ran. "Time to scare ‘em!"

"Janie," called a voice from behind her. "Hey, Janie!"

She paused, mid-step, and turned around. Running up behind her was Dave.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

"I just. . . I. . . um. . ." He caught up to her, then stood there, swaying awkwardly from one foot to the other. "That stuff I wrote in your valentine. . . well, I meant it."

He reached out and took her hand.

"Um. . ." Janie said. "I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but thank y—"

Dave’s face turned pale.

"—you okay?"

"YOU SUMMONED ME, O SUPREME ONE?" boomed the golem’s voice from behind her.

Dave jumped back, screaming like a girl.

"Wait, Dave, it’s okay," Janie explained in a rush. "It’s mine—"

"What the hell is that thing?"

"A flesh golem, but it’s perfectly safe, it wouldn’t hurt a—"

"HURT!" It jabbed its finger toward Dave; the boy flinched away. "YOU HURT THE SUPREME RULER."

"No, golem, he’s my friend."

"HE HAS HURT YOU. AND HE WILL." The golem’s eyes flared up, glowing a brilliant green. "OH, HE WILL."

Dave stared in horror at the golem. "Janie. . . what the hell? I thought those rumors were full of—"

"SCARE THEM ALL!" cried the golem. It ran headlong at Dave, who turned tail and ran for the playground.

Upon hearing the shouts from the pine woods, the rest of the children paused in their play and turned to see what was happening. For a moment, all was still. Then out from the foliage burst Dave, hollering his head off, and at his heels an eight-foot-tall monstrosity, its eyes alive with unholy fire.

"Run for your lives," Dave screamed. "Zombie Guts brought her psycho pet!"

The kids scattered, fleeing for the shelter of the school. The golem gave pursuit, shockingly fast for a creature of its bulk. And Janie sprinted after, struggling to catch up to her creation.

"Stop!" she called. "I order you to stop!"

The golem ran on, unhearing.

It caught Dave just as he reached the steps of the school building. The boy surged forward, grabbing the door handle, but the golem pried his fingers off and swung him high into the air.

"Help! Someone!" Dave screamed. "The zombie’s got me!"

"YOU WOULD HURT THE SUPREME ONE," the golem boomed, its voice resounding through the schoolyard.

"Hey, let him down!" Janie cried, stamping her foot. "I command you!"


"But I’m the Supreme Ruler!" Janie shouted. "I’m in charge!" She pounded her fists against the golem’s massive flank.

Just then, a black Audi crashed through the school’s gates and swung to a stop on the blacktop. Out burst Hans, a long, narrow gun in his hand.

"Janie, get back!" he shouted as he ran toward them.

"Papa!" she cried.

"Now!" And with that, Hans squared his legs, took aim, and fired. A blue-tipped dart flew from the gun and struck the golem in the buttocks. The golem swayed, its eye-lights flickering unevenly, then fell to the ground with a thud.

Dave was fortunate enough to land on top of it.

"Ohmygosh, I’m so sorry!" Janie cried, running to him.

She reached for his hand, but he yanked it away, turning quickly to hide the wet spot spreading along the front of his pants.

"Don’t touch me, freak." He leapt up, stumbled off the golem, and fled into the school.

And then the von Todeschattens were alone upon the blacktop.

"Janie," her father called, his face grim.

"Yes, Papa?" she replied as sweetly as she could.

"Into the car. Now." The headlights flashed as he unlocked it from afar.


"Don’t make this any worse." He turned away and walked off toward the principal’s office.

Dinner was a somber affair at Janie’s home that night. The Supreme Ruler of the Universe stared down at her plate, pushing the peas halfheartedly back and forth.

"Suspended for a week," said Eva. "Janie, what made you think it would possibly do any good to bring that thing to school? You couldn’t even control it!"

"It listened just fine until Dave showed up," Janie protested weakly.

"Now, dear, perhaps there was something bad about the brain I put in there," said Hans. "It was a secondhand model, after all. They sometimes retain influence from their previous owners." I don’t care how cheap Igor offers them, he fumed to himself, that’s the last time I’ll buy one from his old KGB experiment stash.

"Even so," Eva continued, "how many times have we told you to stay out of your father’s workshop? If I hadn’t called him home from work the minute I found it missing, someone could have been hurt."

"That boy almost was," Hans added.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself, young lady?"

Janie glowered down at her plate.

"Well then, your father and I have decided to ground you for a month."

"Whatever," she muttered. "It’s not like I ever go anywhere."

"What did you say?" her mother said.


"That is it, young lady. We have had enough of your attitude for the evening. Go to your room at once!"

Janie slouched out of her chair and shambled up the stairs, stomping like a golem all the way.

Once she was gone, Eva slumped against her husband. "What are we going to do, Hans?"

"I don’t know, dear," he replied, staring across the room at the newly-padlocked garage door.

"She can’t go back to that school, not after this. I’d simply die of embarrassment. We have to leave this town."

Hans was silent for a moment. "You know, I could have sworn I left that golem half-finished. She must have stitched it the rest of the way all by herself."

My little girl’s growing up, he thought.

Alone in her room, Janie flicked on her bedside lamp, then pulled out the crumpled shoebox from her hastily-packed bag and sifted through the contents. Hate mail, hate mail, hate mail. . . and oh yeah, there was Dave’s card. She plucked out the pink envelope and tossed the rest into her trash can. Might as well see what he had to say.

She lay back on her bed, pulled out a scalpel she’d swiped from her dad’s stash in the garage, and sliced the envelope open.

"Janie," read the card. "How I’ve longed to make you mine. Will you be my Valentine?"

Sweet words, but she’d seen how sincerely he’d meant them.

"Nah," she said, and dropped it, too, into the trash. "I don’t think so, chicken."