For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.
Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.
Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.
She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.
The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.
As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.
To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.
The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.
Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”
And pain there had been.
Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.
When I got home from school Dad was hunched over a jar of peanut butter at the kitchen counter. I hadn’t seen him in a while so I grabbed an apple and leaned in the doorway.
“Hi, honey,” he said, wiping his mouth. “How was school?”
I shrugged and bit into my apple.
His face was stubbled, his hair was a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t showered since the last time I saw him. When he’s onto something big he can be gone for days at a time, coming home just long enough to shower and stuff his face with whatever he could find in the cabinets. Mom didn’t like him going out and she wasn’t shy about telling him. He was too old, she said. He had a family to think about. I never said anything, but I kind of agreed. Sometimes I had nightmares about him leaving and not coming back. Still, I wasn’t as worried as Mom. A lot of girls like to think their dads are superheroes. Mine actually is.
So I should tell you that my dad’s the Sentinel. Like the Sentinel. It’s not like anybody knows his identity or anything, but try having a date over when your dad’s standing there—and I’m not even kidding, his head almost touches the ceiling—with his meaty fists crossed over his chest, cracking his knuckles every two seconds and grunting like a silverback gorilla.
So when I invited Scott Peters over I was kind of hoping that Dad wouldn’t even be in the same zip code. The thing is, I’d had a crush on Scott all year. He had this blue car that was so shiny you could see your reflection in it, and his hair. Sometimes in class he put his feet on his desk and leaned back, and his hair fell across his shoulders like a movie star’s.
“I invited a friend over tonight,” I said. “Hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it is,” Dad said. “Which friend? Laura?”
I cleared my throat. “Scott,” I said.
Dad paused with a spoonful of peanut butter halfway to his mouth. I could see his wheels turning, but I was his daughter and he loved me, and that meant leverage.
We held eyes. We’d played this game before and I was better at it. I cocked an eyebrow and took another bite of my apple. “And it would be so cool if you’d give us a little time to watch a movie and maybe study,” I said. “I know you’re really busy, anyway.”
“You mean leave you alone?” Dad said. “With a boy?”
“Don’t you trust me?” I said, batting my eyes. This was a trick he’d taught me when I was little. It was my most effective weapon against him.
He grunted something unintelligible and I knew I’d won. He brought the peanut butter the rest of the way to his mouth. It fell off his spoon and plopped on the counter.
Scott pulled up at six. Dad stayed just long enough to grill Scott with questions and glare at him a little. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said. “If you need anything, just call.” He lingered at the door a moment. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t do anything crazy. And if you get hungry I left potato wedges in the—“
“Dad,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Okay, okay,” he said, shouldering a duffel bag. For a second I wondered where he was going, but the thought disappeared quickly. I had more important things to worry about.
I was there in the room when the policeman told my wife I was dead.
“A terrible accident,” he said. “An explosion. There couldn’t have been much warning, the particle collider…” he trailed away. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
I wanted to shout, to scream. Instead I held my hands before me and saw nothing but the crimson carpet. I wept and wondered that even my tears were invisible.
I was there when Hannah told Lisa that her daddy wouldn’t be coming home. They held each other until they both fell asleep, their eyes red and their faces pale.
“I’m here, Hannah,” I could have said. “I’m here with you.” But instead I held my silence, ashamed and afraid of my condition.
I attended my own funeral and wept as the empty coffin was carried away.
“Such a terrible thing,” Uncle Joseph had consoled Hannah. “So terrible.”
But, as is the wont of terrible things, time passed and they became less terrible. Hannah began to smile more and Lisa didn’t cry herself to sleep so often. The trees in the garden turned a burnished orange and then powdered white and then a flushing green and occasional laughter could be heard through the house and it made my heart cold to hear it.
I should have felt joy in their happiness, but a man can turn melancholy, drifting quiet and alone in his own house, unnoticed and unseen.
Was I a ghost? Was I truly dead? Was this some kind of hell I had brought upon myself?
But I couldn’t be dead, could I? Did the dead eat? Did they drink? I had to do both, and then hide in the basement, shivering against the cold until I had digested the food.
“Lisa, you’re sleeping at your Nan’s tonight.” Hannah stood in front of the mirror putting on her earrings. She was wearing makeup and a red dress. The trees in the garden were heavy with snow.
I roused myself in the corner. What day was it? Every day merged into one when there was nothing to do but wander disconsolately around the house.
“Lisa?” Hannah shouted. “You going to get ready?” Hannah sighed and checked herself in the mirror, turning sideways to look at her figure.
His name was Steven and he smiled a lot.
Lisa would look at him with serious eyes and Steven would smile and tell jokes and help around the house.
Nobody smiled that much. Had I ever smiled that much? When they were out, I would go through the photographs and see myself smiling. I stood in front of mirrors and saw nothing.
“When’s Steven coming?” Lisa called out. “He should be here by now.”
I started in my corner. Had I fallen asleep? My head hurt. Lisa sounded excited.
“He’ll be here in a minute.” Hannah smiled as she washed the pots.
I clasped a hand to my head. Lisa liked this guy. She was only six. Or was she seven now? The birds chattered on budding trees and sunlight streamed through the kitchen window. The brightness hurt my eyes and my head.
My family. I had to protect my family.
Lisa was asleep when they returned and Steven carried her from the car and into the house. The sight made me weep and clench my fists.
I sneaked into the car and it seemed a long time before he came from the house.
He was evil, this man. An intruder. I wanted to kill him as he drove. No, first I wanted proof of his evil intentions. I wanted to know what it was I was saving my family from.
I lay on the back seat and watched the ghastly glow of the streetlights smear the darkness of the night.
Steven’s lair was a fashionable apartment overlooking a fashionable canal. I imagined pornography parading on walls and handcuffs hanging from bedposts. Instead I got an apartment that was neat and fashionably sparse.
He checked his messages when he got in. Five calls to his mother. He would ignore them and chat to women on dating sites. But instead he called his mum on his mobile.
He sat in a reclining chair, loosening his tie. “I do have a mobile, Mum.” He took off his shoes and placed them next to his chair. “Well, if you used the one I bought you.”
I looked at a bookshelf. He liked history and sports biographies.
“I’ve been out. Yeah, with a woman.”
The kitchen was tidy. The fridge had lots of meals for one.
“I’ve had women before, just never wanted to tell you about them. This one’s different.”
I could tell he was smiling as he spoke.
“No, just different. A widow. Poor guy died in an accident.”
I looked in the bedroom. Flowers on the table.
“One. She’s sweet. Misses her dad, course she does.” He laughed. “She’s great. Hannah. No, I don’t want to rush it, but I think we could make a go of it. Listen, are you going to be in on Sunday? I’d like you to meet her.”
My head hurt and my heart hurt. I slipped out through the door, closing it quietly behind me.
It was a long way home under dark skies and glaring streetlights.
I slipped into the bed as quietly as I could. Hannah rested her head on my shoulder, snuggling in and breathing deep. “Dan,” she whispered, half smiling. “Dan.” She draped an arm across my chest.
I smelled her hair and held her close.
When the first breath of sunlight touched the window, I went to see Lisa. She was fast asleep clutching a toy bear. I stroked her hair. “I love you,” I whispered. She clutched the bear tighter and smiled.
My hand shook as I opened the door. The morning sun was shining, and as I took one last look back at the house, I saw my footprints were already fading in the dew-wet grass.
It started with a hint dropped in the depths of my stomach, like a key, while I was asleep. When I awoke, my senses were sharper, as if my body had been nearsighted for years and I finally found the right prescription.
Later that day, my new wife–we’d been married just shy of six months—was getting ready to go out. She was talking to me out of the closet over the music of metal hangers sliding.
“Lisa’s man dumped her. She needs a shoulder,” she said, and immediately followed with an exclamation point of a hanger roll. I came and stood by the closet door. She was wearing a black bra and blue panties, mismatched, just the way I liked it, and her thin arms moved through the clothes fast, searching like trained dogs. She turned.
“Oh Henry, you scared me.”
I stood quietly, thinking. Her hands rested on a navy blue silk blouse, fingers feeling the fabric.
“What?” She asked.
A hint of color bloomed on her pale face. “My friend,” she said, tasting the words.
I wanted to say, you don’t have any friends, but that seemed rude, so I said, “Where’d you meet?”
“At the coffee shop,” she answered too fast.
I nodded. It was possible. But as I began thinking, I realized, she’d been going out every night for the past month, or longer. How could I have missed it?
“What about last night?” I asked.
“What about it?” She said, chewing a nail.
“Did Lisa’s man dump her yesterday too?”
“No, just today.”
“What did you do last night then?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what was your excuse last night,” but I was afraid to, in case my suspicions were true. What would I do? Would I leave her? I didn’t think I could. But could I live knowing she’s sleeping around?
“Last night, I went shopping for clothes. Honestly, Henry, you’re being weird. You never cared before,” she turned back to her task.
Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.
Her voice hammered down.
“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”
Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.
Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.
“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.
Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.
“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”
“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”
Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.
“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”
Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.
“Now, where were we?” she asked.
A score of students focused upon their slates.
For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.
During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.
When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.
Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.
At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.
“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.
“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”
Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”
The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.
Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”
“Nothin’,” Royce said.
“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”
“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”
Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”
“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.
“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”
“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”
“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”
The group agreed.
“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”
Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.
“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.
“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.
“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”
“Maximus?” Oliver offered.
Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”
The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.
“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”
“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.
“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”
“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”
“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”
“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”
Royce chuckled dryly.
Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.
“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”
Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.
“I was a-wonderin’—”
“Wondering,” she corrected.
“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”
Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.
“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.
“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”
“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”
“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”
“And who told you that?”
“Genny, she did.”
Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.
“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”
“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”
“Wolves. That may be—”
“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”
Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”
“Sinister,” Royce said.
“I said, no more.”
Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.
Mike Ironbark drove the shovel into the hard dry ground. He glanced at the year-old oak seedling in the pot nearby, and wondered how many years it would take for the tree to shade the farmhouse. “This is for you, Dad,” he said.
Dad had believed that everything is connected, and he died twelve months to the day. They had potted the acorn that night in his memory. Today they’d plant the seedling in the ground and celebrate his life again. Mike’s arms and shoulders ached from the compacted soil. He blamed the early onset of summer. He stood, straightened his tight back muscles and removed his worn wide-brimmed hat. He wiped the sweat off his brow and stared at the small rise of hills in the distance. They marked the edge of the farm and had already turned a deep shade of rusty-brown. In front of them, the heat shimmered above the expanse of wheat. How could it be so hot in the morning? “Curse this heat,” he said and looked around for his crowbar. He stared up at the cloudless, indigo-blue sky, proud of his successes on the land. This was Dad’s farm, his legacy.
He turned at the sound of the back screen door spring stretching. Anna, his wife, stood by the door of their farmhouse, a towel wrapped around her slender body and her long wet hair stuck to her. Mike couldn’t help but smile. She looked beautiful, and he was the luckiest man alive.
“Mike, there’s no water for Maisie Jane’s shower,” she said.
“Have you checked the tank?”
“Yes, it’s dry.”
Mike’s heart skipped a beat and he frowned. Out here, water was their livelihood. Without it everything would die, the crops, the animals… people. Showers were the least of his concern. But it was odd. The bore pump should have automatically filled the house tank overnight. The breaker had probably tripped; it had done that a few times of late. Salt or contaminants became lodged in the pipes that stretched deep underground, into Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.
“Have we got power in the house?”
“Okay, I’ll go check.”
“Daddy, Daddy.” The outside screen door opened wider. Their daughter, Maisie Jane, ran around Anna and made a beeline toward him. He smiled and squatted down. She threw herself into his arms, the spitting image of Anna, except she was tall and her eyes a deeper blue—something she’d inherited from him.
Maisie Jane still looked too pale and thin, but the doctors had said that her leukemia was in remission. He hoped so. “Sleep well, Mouse?” He ruffled her uncombed hair.
The six-year-old nodded. Maisie Jane looked around him, to the small hole in the ground, at his shovel, and the oak tree. “Grandpa’s tree,” she said.
His throat tightened, and he swallowed several times to work it away before speaking. They’d made many promises on Dad’s deathbed, but it had been at Maisie Jane’s insistence that they planted an acorn in his memory.
It didn’t seem a year ago that his father had leaned forward and put his paper-thin hand on Maisie Jane’s cheek. “Mouse,” he said. “You can tell your grandchildren it was Grandpa’s tree because he loved you so much.” She’d nodded. “And by the time the tree is well established, then you’ll have the Poseidon Stones I gave to your dad. Magic stones, like Poseidon, the god of water.”
Dad had chuckled and made one last joke before he passed shortly after, his hand on Maisie Jane’s arm.
Mike’s throat tightened again. Dad had always been bigger than life, and he hoped he’d be the same for Maisie Jane. His hands went to the chain around his neck, to where the three small emeralds were cocooned in silk and their separate hessian bags. Poseidon Stones. Even now they glowed hot as if they had lives of their own. They seemed to call him. Unfamiliar images formed at the edge of his vision, and—
“Don’t cry, Daddy.”
Mike pulled himself from his memories, forced the stone’s images aside; they could wait for another time. He wiped away the tears he’d been unaware of until Maisie Jane spoke and ruffled her hair again. He didn’t trust his voice not to be twisted with emotion and nodded.
“Maisie, come inside and let Daddy check the pump.”
Maisie Jane leaned closer. “Remember?”
He nodded again, and swallowed. “If I see any, I’ll let you know.”
“But don’t hurt them,” she said quickly and held up a tiny index finger in a determined way that reinforced the impression she was such an old soul. At times she seemed years older.
“I won’t.” He stood and watched the young girl run back inside. He smiled and shook his head. There was so much of his mum in her, it was uncanny. He regretted that Mum and Anna had never met, but Mum had passed years before from the cancer. Maisie’s obsession with dragonflies always amused him and especially Dad who had given Maisie Jane his wife’s anniversary gift of an intricate, gilded dragonfly. But Maisie Jane was right; they did tend to dart around near the small, bore pump shed in search of water. They might even be at the header tank, hovering over a broken pipe that fed the farmhouse.
Before I quit my job at Quality Vending earlier that morning, I was the master. I could sell snack machines to anyone. My waistline and my love for refined sugar were my arsenal. My passion for snack cakes translated into excitement during my pitch. My sincerity sold.
Until my sincerity turned to bitterness.
I still ate loads of snack cakes, but they didn’t do anything for me anymore. They’re just a habit. Like breathing. Like masturbation for the ever-shrinking satisfaction of release.
Repetition had worn me down. Eleven years doing the same thing every day will do that to you. When months started to feel like weeks, and weeks like days, I lost my connection to everything. Life was passing me by, but nothing was happening. Time moved faster than I did.
Now that it was over, I needed to retreat to a safe place to figure out what to do next. And that meant Grandma’s house. She used to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and she’d throw you a killer birthday party if you called a few days in advance. The whole family used to come before we all grew up and moved away.
I drove around a curve in the driveway and a gap in the trees revealed my Grandma’s house.
My mother, the real estate agent, called it a lovely Queen Anne Victorian. Three levels with a wraparound porch, a gable roof, and two spire-topped turrets. All of it was still perfect. Grandma had her house painted the same blue-gray every five years, and she quickly repaired anything that broke.
There were two other cars in the parking lot. One was a van for her in-home medical staff. The other was a broken down Kia: dented and rusty. I didn’t recognize it
I got out of my car and several cellophane wrappers came with me. A gust of chilly fall wind blew them into the grove that surrounded the house, where they mixed with the fallen leaves.
I crossed the lot and went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the spindles of the whitewashed railing. I stopped at the wide oak door and rang the doorbell.
I waited a long time before I heard clomping footsteps coming closer to the door. Someone fiddled with the lock, swearing all the while, and finally pulled the door open.
Shit. It was my cousin Cassie. The owner of the crappy Kia.
Cassie frowned. It was one of her two facial expressions. The other was…let me think…oh yeah, bitch. Frown and bitch. They were all she had to work with. She was dressed in a mismatched sweat suit, the top was turquoise and the bottom was pink. Her blonde hair was brown at the roots, short, spiky and angry.
“You selling something?” Cassie asked. “Because we probably don’t want it.”
“No, Cassie. It’s me. Paul.”
Her frown tightened and her lips pulled back to reveal her artificially whitened teeth.
“Your cousin,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“To come in and see Grandma.”
“She’s in the bath.”
“I’m willing to wait.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Are you looking to stay for a while?”
“Just this afternoon, overnight at the max.”
Her frown relaxed to her face’s resting bitch setting. “Come on in then.”
Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.
When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.
The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.
The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.
As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?
Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.
Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.
“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.
Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.
Alyss had almost given herself up for lost when she heard the footsteps.
She sat up among her blankets, listening. Yes, there–the rapid click-clack of heels on cobblestones. Someone doubtless in a hurry to get home and shut out the bitter winter evening. Someone fortunate enough to have a home at all.
Alyss fumbled for the battered top hat that lay, bottom-up, before her. Little good it had done. The streets had been unusually quiet all day, and those pedestrians who had ventured out, stingy. Alyss wished she could say that were unusual.
But perhaps this one would be different. She needed this one to be different.
Alyss peered along the alleyway. The glow of a nearby street lamp revealed that the person approaching was a woman, all bundled up in a coat and bonnet. Her nose was wrinkled against the stink of the gutter, and she held her skirts clear of the ground with gloved hands. Not a regular visitor to the Warren then, but not too fine either. Alyss felt a twinge of hope. This was the type who might take pity.
She held out her hat as the woman came closer. “Spare a prayer, miss? Spare a prayer.” Her voice emerged as a cracked whisper, hoarse with disuse and the cold.
The woman started at the words, emerging as they did from the shadows beside a brimming dustbin. Her eyes flickered towards their source, but when she spied Alyss she hastily averted her gaze. Alyss’s hope–meagre in the first place–receded. But she couldn’t afford to give up so easily.
“Spare a prayer for an unlucky god, miss?” she tried again. “Come on, miss. I’m down on me luck. Spare a little prayer.”
Yet the woman only click-clacked onwards, allowing Alyss to glimpse her shoes beneath the hem of her skirt. Patent leather, they were; well made, with smart little heels. Alyss looked sadly at her own boots–cast-offs from a laborer’s child, soles flapping at the toes, laces missing, threads frayed.
Hunger growled in her belly, warning her that it knew how weak she was, that the moment was coming when it would finally pounce.
She wouldn’t have many more chances.
Alyss made one final attempt. Bracing herself against the chill, she let her blankets fall away, exposing her skinny ankles, her tattered skirts–and her wings. Poking out of her jacket, the once-proud pinions dangled down her back, inert and useless.
“Please, miss. Please, one little prayer. I ain’t asking for a litany, just a tiny prayer will do. I’ve fallen on hard times, miss. I’ve no disciples left. Please. One prayer. Spare one little prayer.”
She waited, trembling with cold and anxiety. She didn’t know whether her piteous display would persuade her audience, for her cry was the cry of half the gods in the city. Abandoned deities lurked on every street, hunkered down in doorways and under bridges, thin and wretched, cradling hunger in their bellies just as Alyss did. With so many begging for succor, the populace had grown accustomed–and hardened–to their pleading.
Like as not this lady would be the same, hurrying off into the deepening night in her expensive shoes and never thinking again of the starving god she’d passed on her way. But just as Alyss began to draw her blankets back around herself, the woman’s stride faltered, and she walked back a few steps to look down at the shivering supplicant. Alyss returned her gaze, beseeching, hardly daring to believe her luck.
The lady’s lips were chapped, her eyes sombre, and Alyss realized that she didn’t look so very proud after all. She wondered what the woman thought of her, a child-sized godling with a pale, pinched face and drifting white hair, almost drowned in her oversized garb. Alyss was no beauty, she knew that much. She had been formed of garbage–knuckles made of bottle-corks, wings of sackcloth, features molded from rain-pulped newspaper–and it showed. Although Wakening had smoothed away her seams and transformed her motley parts to flesh, her ignoble origins were still apparent. Alyss’ body was awkward and crooked, her limbs more knobby than a grandfather oak. Newsprint peeked through the skin of her cheeks.
She tried to smile, but found she was so frozen and miserable that she couldn’t force it out. Yet the sight of her must have stirred the woman to sympathy, for she bowed her head and mumbled a few words–some generic wish for health or happiness. A wisp of prayer slid from between her lips, curling in the frigid air. She plucked it from her mouth and dropped it into Alyss’ waiting hat.
“Thank you, miss. Oh, thank you. Bless you, bless you.” Alyss wasn’t in a position to bless anyone, but she reckoned it was the thought that counted.
The woman ignored her thanks. She only leant down and said, quickly, “I’d get indoors if I were you.” Then she turned and click-clacked into the night.
Nina disgusts me. I don’t tell her this though; it would crush her. She was beautiful: creamy smooth skin, ocean blue eyes, raven black hair, and a body to die for–a real hourglass figure.
But now every imperfection of hers is somehow magnified. The tiny divot in the center of her nose, which I found so cute before, is like a crater on the moon. Her eyes aren’t symmetrical either; one is actually quite bigger than the other. Her breasts are sagging, not at all upturned like they used to be. And there’s a thick layer of fat overflowing her hips that I never noticed till now, making her body more pear shaped than anything.
I am nothing to look at. Far from it. I’m a white-haired, gangly, ugly thing, so I am the last person in the world to criticize anything, but for some reason this is what I see when I look at her. When I look at everything, in fact.
The redheaded nurse is a freckled nightmare; the hospital bed sheets have a dozen disgusting stains on them, though Nina swears they’re perfectly clean; the overhead lights buzz and flicker terribly, which nobody seems to notice but me; and the yellow paint on the walls isn’t finished properly, enormous spots are missed down by the baseboards leaving the white drywall to shine through. It’s all so hideous I can barely stand it.
The procedure hasn’t worked as far as I can tell: I can’t do calculations any faster, my memory seems the same, and I am no closer to solving the same theories I was baffled with before. All that’s changed is I’ve somehow become hypersensitive to my surroundings, every little fault pops out as though it were under a microscope.
The thought has painfully crossed my mind maybe a dozen times now that something may have gone wrong. Did the monkeys’ heads hurt this much when I performed the procedure on them? They were rather ornery after, but was it this bad? And what about this propensity for seeing nothing but faults? Is that normal or a sign the formula is incompatible with the human brain?
I desperately want to get back to the lab. Every minuscule change taking place in my brain is of the utmost importance to track and record for posterity. But here I lie in frustration on this lumpy hospital bed, bored to tears and playing a memory card game on my iPad because I promised Nina I would stay till the doctors cleared me.
Something catches my eye. I look over the iPad at my bare feet and see two thin, curved sticks poking out from the top of my right foot, like my big toe grew antennas. I lie the tablet down on my chest and stare closer. They’re moving I notice, twitching in fact. I shift my foot a little and a huge wasp’s head connected to the antennas peaks out from behind my big toe. He’s the size of my foot. I can see his striped black and yellow abdomen sticking out from my behind heel. The sharp ends of his legs scrape across the soft skin of my foot’s arch, sending a shiver rippling through me. Frozen in shock, I stare at the thing.
Then I let out a shriek and a mad buzzing fills the air. He springs up and hovers over my stomach. He’s a monster, just over a foot tall and six inches wide. A long black stinger descends from the bottom of his swelled abdomen and drips amber fluid onto the bedspread.
He flies closer to my face, and I react and swat at him with my iPad. Catching him dead on, the screen shatters and his body blasts into the wall with a sticky, wet splat. Then he slides to the floor, leaving a thin red trail as he goes.
He angrily buzzes and rattles about beneath my bed. Not yet dead, but dying.
I scream for the nurse. My pulse thunders in my chest and I break out in a cold sweat. My God, I think, his mandibles were big enough to lop off my toe with a single bite. How is that possible?
Red bursts in, her wide eyes flare about. Her freckled face is a measles outbreak.
“What’s the matter?” she demands.
“Goddammit, there!” I say while pointing to the floor, completely amazed she hasn’t seen what’s right at her feet.
“What?” she says, staring at the ground and raising her hands in confusion. “I don’t see it. What is it?”
“You dumb ginger,” I say and roll to the side of the bed, so I can point directly at the thing. “There!”
It’s dead now. Curled up into a ball by the poorly painted cream baseboards.
“A giant wasp!” I exclaim. “Don’t you see it!?”
“Oh, of course.” She says. “We’ll take care of it right away.” And with that, she bustles out of the room.
My head has swelled during this insanity and it feels like my skull will split open from the pressure. The room swims a little and I lie back on my bed, breathing heavily.
Nuclear medicine, I think. Somehow that wasp got into the hospital’s nuclear imaging system, was infused with gamma rays, and grew gargantuan in the process. It’s so damn ridiculous when I think about it–it’s like something out of a comic book–but that’s the only explanation I can think of.
My doctor sweeps in through the door. The hairs of his toupee are blond push-broom bristles that are combed flat to one side, a pimple on his cheek has grown into the category of a cyst, one eye is a darker color than the other, and on and on the minutiae of his faults go.
“Grant,” he says. “How are you feeling?” He takes his pen light from the pocket of his terribly wrinkled doctor’s coat and shines it in my eyes.
“Goddammit,” I say, brushing his hands from my face. “Don’t you see it?” Again, I point at the thing.
He doesn’t follow my finger.
“Grant,” he says. “What year is it?”
And then I go a little ape.
“There!” I shout. “There you ignoramus!”
Finally, he follows my finger to the floor, but not a bit of surprise crosses his face.
All of a sudden, I feel water running in my head and a rush of darkness swallows me.
Blood drips from the razor-thin line I cut across my forehead. I dab at the incision, turning the toilet paper a deep red Rorschach.
My bruised over eyes are blue baboon lips. I can barely see between the slits. Unable to stand my visage, I turn from the bathroom mirror.
Little vignettes of the procedure play in my mind. The cold metal slab touching my back. The robotic arm with a silver scalpel slicing open my brow. The circular saw buzzing through my forehead. A sudden gush of hot fluid filling my skull as my formula was pumped in.
I reasoned that if man can use drugs to increase muscle mass, bone marrow, white blood cells, and lung capacity; thereby, increasing his strength and endurance, then cannot a drug be invented to grow the neural pathways of the brain and increase intelligence? Would not a brain with more neural pathways think faster, better, and remember more than one with less?
The monkeys I experimented on certainly showed that to be true. They went from drooling morons that eat their own feces to quiet, contemplative creatures that signed for food.
It was a breakthrough, one I desperately sought as I’d been suffering for far too long in the shadows of obscurity. I figured that with one more courageous push I could show the world that the same could be done for the human mind. It would be a quantum leap forward for mankind and would smash my name into history with such force that all would remember me long after I was gone.
I grip the sides of the white porcelain sink and watch the water stream from the tap and spiral noisily into the drain.
Have I gone mad? I wonder. That wasp thing was real, saw it with my own eyes, killed it with my own hands.
But then why can no one else see it? Not even Nina.
“How is everything going in there Mr. Hopsinger?” The nurse shouts through the bathroom door, knocking my train of thoughts off its clattering tracks.
“Give me a second!” I say.
The door latch clicks open and her measly face pokes in.
“Everything OK, Mr. Hopsinger?” she asks. Her blue scrubs have faded with the million washes they’ve been through, yet a bright green stain is on her shoulder. Couldn’t she see that when she put that on? If that were me, I would have thrown it away and worn something else. It’s awful to look at, like a hunk of booger melted on her shoulder. Deplorable.
“I’m fine!” I hiss.
I see Nina looking in over her shoulder. Her face is pinched with worry.
“I’m fine,” I say to the both of them. “Really, I’m fine.”
The nurse pushes the door open and bright light washes into the room, searing my eyes, making me squint.
“I haven’t finished,” I protest, but the floor shifts beneath my feet and I have to grab the walls for support. The nurse and Nina spring to my side and help me into the bed.
“When can I leave?” I say after Nina pulls the covers up to my neck, like I’m a child being tucked in for the night. “I must get back to my lab. It’s been two days already and that’s two days worth of valuable data I’ve already lost.”
“We haven’t got the test results from the spinal tap,” the nurse replies.
“It’s not meningitis you fools!” I shout. “It’s encephalization, purposeful encephalization.”
That registers nothing but a blank expression on her ugly face.
I turn to Nina and squeeze her hand pleadingly. “Please Nina let me go. There is nothing they can do for me. They don’t have the knowledge or the equipment. Let me go back to the lab. Please?”
“Grant,” she says and squeezes my hand back warmly. “Please stay Grant.”
More than anything in this world I love this woman and my resolve to leave this place melts at her touch.
“OK,” I sigh. “I’ll stay and suffer these fools for you.”
An unprofessional flash of fury crosses the nurse’s face, every freckle briefly flickers red. She didn’t like being called a fool, not one bit.
“Look hun,” I say to her. “Isn’t there a bed pan that needs changing somewhere?”
“Yes of course,” she says and leaves, closing the door to my room with a gentle slam.
“Grant!” Nina says sharply. “Do you have to be so cruel? She’s just trying to help.”
The rims of Nina’s eyes swell and redden. Wet, salty globules begin to trundle down her face. I can barely look her.
“Dammit Nina! This is nothing to cry over. How do you think Jonas Salk invented a vaccination for polio? He had to use it on himself because no one would volunteer to be a test subject. If he hadn’t, we’d be all crawling around with atrophied legs dragging behind us. Testing monkey brains can only take you so far. Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand that?”
I’ve worked myself up into a hell of a fervor. My whole body tingles and my breath comes in ragged gasps.
“No,” Nina says. “I don’t understand how you can risk your life for this.”
“That’s because you have no ambition! You have no drive! You don’t know what it’s like to be consumed by something, to feel something like this burning in your veins. To move forward into greatness, there must be sacrifices. My goal is no less than eliminating the ignorance of mankind. Everything else takes a back seat to that, including my safety.”
I have to stop because the room is spinning again and my breath is falling short. I lie back and look at my chest, rapidly swelling and deflating. I’m tired now. My eyes begin to droop uncontrollably and I drift off to the sound of her sobbing.
I welcome the night. It washes the faults away. When I look at the ceiling, I don’t see uneven, asymmetrical tiles with brackish stains–I just see a dark ceiling. And the walls aren’t covered with filth and painted poorly; they’re just dark walls.
Nina is right. Something has changed inside me. When I think of how I was before this, I remember being nicer, more even-tempered, happier too. Perhaps, the new pathways growing in my frontal lobe have affected my personality. I recall my studies about how lobotomy patients became listless and apathetic after their pathways were severed. What I’ve done is the very reverse of a lobotomy, so perhaps it’s pushed my personality in the other direction. Instead of listless, I’ve become active, animated, irritable.
A shadow splashes through the pool of moonlight on the wall, startling me. A bat, I think. But no, a bat couldn’t disturb that much light–something larger.
The window creaks at the foot of the bed and my body goes rigid with fright. I see two grey hands beneath the sill, slowly lifting it up.
I must be asleep and dreaming because we’re ten stories up, but the pounding in my head and heart tell me I’m awake and that this is real.
The window slides upwards and frigid night air pours through, quickly filling the room. Goosebumps ripple on my skin and a cold, icy lump sticks in my throat.
A head appears in the opening. Two milk-white eyes regard me from across the room. I can feel them, running over every inch of my body. A long arm reaches through the window and grabs the radiator below the sill. Whatever it is, it’s climbing in.
My body roils in revolt, tries to get free, yet the restraints hold me still.
He climbs in, stands at the foot of my bed, and smiles. His two eyes are clear moons and his teeth are shrunken corn kernels. He’s wearing a trench coat so rotted and frayed it’s like a lace cape. Open at the middle, I can see his thin, mummylike form beneath the coat. His skin is grey and is stretched so tight across his body that every bone, rib, and joint is visible. Even from this distance I can smell him: stale, wet earth; the smell of compost.
He smiles impossibly wide and my whole being runs cold.
“Nurse!” I scream. “Nurse! Help me! Nina! Somebody!”
I shriek and shriek, but not a soul comes.
He slinks up to the side of the bed and leans in. His breath is like gasoline fumes and my eyes water. He reaches out and taps my forehead with one of his long, pointed fingers.
My skull is so tender the tapping sends fireworks sizzling across my vision. I thrash my head from side to side to get away from his vicious claw.
He pulls his hand back and points to his huge milky eye. He’s trying to convey something, I realize, but I haven’t a goddamn clue what it is.
A loud click of the lock makes him snap his head towards the door. Light spills into the room as the nurse pokes her head in; annoyance is plain on her ugly face.
He slinks along the walls in the shadows, stops near the window, and turns to give me one last look.
Hate is in those eyes, pure burning malevolence.
Then with a breath he’s gone.