The Train Set

He came back on the one-year anniversary of his death. Robert opened the door to his son’s untouched bedroom, preserved down to the glass of water on the corner of the nightstand, now only a film of liquid at the bottom, and there was Samuel, hunched over at the desk, his hands fiddling with the tracks of the unfinished train set, the train set that Robert had begun assembling just yesterday under the lamp’s dim beam that cut through specks of dust flaking down.

At first, Robert didn’t even start; that subconscious part of him that still reached for two dinner plates instead of one welcomed Samuel back into his life against logic. And how many times had Robert opened the door hoping that his son would be there, that the past year had been a stretched-out nightmare? Robert didn’t follow a specific creed, but believed that death was the separation of the soul from the body, which he’d read somewhere in his college days and had wrapped his fingers around the day Samuel came into life and Maribelle passed away just moments after. Still, for a reason Robert couldn’t explain, seeing the back of his dead son’s head didn’t shock him as much as it should have, sending only a current of apprehension through him. He was probably just dreaming, but if this were a dream, he didn’t want to wake up.

“Samuel…?”

Robert almost didn’t want his son to turn around. Samuel’s death had not been pretty. Not at all, and Robert had felt Samuel’s cracked limbs and bones shifting beneath his flesh like a bag of rocks when he’d picked Samuel up from the street after the accident. They’d been on their way back from the toy store, that large train set box on Samuel’s lap, when the truck in the next lane began skidding in the rain.

Samuel turned around, a blank, calm look on his face like it was just another night. The moonlight through the window bounced off his round cheeks. His skin was white and without the vein-like scars that the mortician had done well to hide.

“Hey, Dad. Why did you start without me?”

“What… what do you mean?” Robert held the doorframe; his knees wobbled like Jenga towers barely balanced, a single beam pulled out and he’d collapse into pieces.

“We were supposed to make the train station together,” said his son in his sweet, six-year-old voice.

Cold tingles crawled up Robert’s arms. He blinked his eyes hard several times, then took a hesitant step inside, feeling as if the shift of his weight might make his son dissolve into the lamplight as quickly as he’d gone a year ago.

“I…”

Robert had no more words. He took another step in. He was less than a few feet away from his son now. Did he dare approach him, this … what was it—this ghost? Squinting his eyes, Robert tried to see if it was an apparition. But Samuel was fully there.

“Look,” Samuel said. He turned back around, his arms and hands moving. “I’m adding a track.”

Robert’s teeth were clicking nervously. If this were the ghost of his son, then at least he had a chance to talk to him again. If this were a dream, then he’d let himself indulge in it—see what his subconscious had to say about his son’s memory. Or what if—Robert himself had died in the accident as well, and hadn’t moved on yet? He took a deep breath and took a few more steps forward until he was standing over his son’s shoulder. He gulped, running his fingers over his pants and fidgeting with the pockets.

On the desk, train tracks were spread out like puzzle pieces. The trains were lined up along the edge where Robert had left them, patiently waiting for the tracks to finish looping in concentric circles and across platforms so they could get started on their journey—journeys that would represent what Robert had promised Samuel years ago when they’d seen The Polar Express in theaters: that they’d one day trek across the country on a train in the winter, sipping hot cocoa as they pierced through the ballets of snowstorms.

Directly in front of Samuel lay all that Robert had managed—a row of four straight tracks pieced together—before breaking down, his tears falling onto the tracks like rain drops. Samuel was pushing another track into the end, but he was doing it wrong. You couldn’t just push them together; you had to set their links on top of one another, then pull to lock them. It was simple enough, yet Robert’s hands had shook the day before as he’d snapped them together.

“Samuel…” Robert said. “You—you can’t do it like that.” He reached over and guided the fifth track over the fourth, then pressed it in and pulled, locking them. His finger brushed against Samuel’s hand as he did this. Samuel really was there.

“See, like that,” Robert said.

Samuel glanced up at his dad, then back down. His eyes were the same, too. Dark forest green. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Right…” Robert said. “It’s… no problem.” He cleared his throat. “I’m… going to go make dinner now. I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Crows and Galahs

Jake rested in the passenger seat to the purr of the car’s engine, his head gently vibrating against the window. His father held the steering wheel in one hand and hung his other arm out the window, letting a warm breeze dishevel his greying hair. An endless row of barbed wire and wooden posts separated the highway from the fields of canola, blurring past like a yellow brushstroke on blue canvass.

A kangaroo leapt in front of them. The car skidded, launching them into their seat belts. The kangaroo crossed long before they stopped. The smell of burnt rubber drifted through the car.

Images flashed through Jake’s mind.

The premonition returned.

His mother followed the chain of taillights through the city in her pink hatchback. Piano music played on the radio while rain roared outside. With a half-smile and vacant stare, she was heading home after a long day at work.

Swerving across lanes, the four-wheel drive screeched with each turn. It sped through a red light and slammed into his mother’s car in an explosion of glass and twisting steel.

Slumped through her smashed window, across the blood-smeared white hood of the four-wheel drive, his mother’s sky-blue eyes looked forever to the dark clouds.

“Jake.”

His eyes snapped open. “Huh?”

“We missed it.” His father drove off. “It’s okay.”

Jake’s trembling fingers pulled at wisps of blonde hair on his chin. Nothing was okay anymore.

“You looked like you were lost in your own world again.”

“J—just th—thinking about Mum.” The sun flashed in his side mirror, reminding him how far their all-day drive had taken them from home – from the place they had all shared. Every day since, and every mile now driven, pulled him further from the family they once had.

“She’s always on my mind too.” His father wiped a tear from Jake’s eye. “Look at you. Ya know, your mother always said grey eyes were some special family secret.”

“Yeah, s—she always said nice things.”

“I’ve been real worried about you. Your schooling…at home…you’ve been distant.” His father reached over and rubbed his knee. “You’re meant to be upset. But…it’s like there’s more going on.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what’s eating at ya.”

I wish I could stop these thoughts in my head coming true.

“Jake.” His father shook his leg. “I don’t know what more I can do.”

Jake clawed his seat to control his shaking. “There’s nothing.”

“You and me, we need to work through this together…ya know.”

Jake looked at his father and saw three months of worry written into his bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes. Eyes that once shined with happiness – when they were all together. He wished things had not changed. Guilt stung him inside. If only he had done something. “I just wish I could have been there.”

“I’m glad you weren’t.”

“To help her.”

“No one could have done anything.” His father sniffed. “It was over in a heartbeat for her.”

Jake shifted away. “To warn her.”

“Oh, Jake, they said she didn’t even see the other car coming.”

I saw it coming.

His father grimaced. “We’ve been over this. I love you, but this is killing me.” He sighed. “What could you have possibly done?”

He fixed his father a stare. “I kn—knew it was going to happen…b—beforehand.”

His father strangled the steering wheel. “Are you crazy?” He punched the roof. “I’m sorry…I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to help…and with our money situation on top of things…it’s all been too much.” He sighed. “I’m just hoping this trip to the country helps.”

A hot flush coursed through Jake’s cheeks. He folded his lanky arms and turned away. Darkness cast by trees in the setting sun blanketed their journey ahead. He wondered if his father would ever understand him. No one else did.

Carapace

The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch. I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls are little defense against the artificial dawn.

I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those already ebbing in my bloodstream.

I’ve no choice but to face the day.

My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.

My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.

My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing, because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my instructions.

The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing, clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.

I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.

I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.

My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.

My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.

The Monk’s Grimoire

The look on the Abbot’s face was telling. “Come in,” he said. “Hurry up Flint, I haven’t got all day.”

Flint lingered in the doorway for a moment. He was not ready for another tongue-lashing from the old man. “Is something the matter?”

“Close the door behind you.” The Abbot sat behind an ancient desk that gave the man a distinct aura of wisdom and authority.

Something unpleasant was coming, that much was certain. The Abbot rarely called the adjuncts into his office, and this was the third time Flint had been summoned inside a month. Flint pulled the door shut with trembling hands.

“I think you already know why you’re here,” the Abbot said. His impassive eyes studied Flint. “It’s the same problem we’ve had since you started.”

“The research,” Flint said, looking down.

“You need to produce something. I understand that you are busy teaching. But so are all of the monks. You need to find some balance between class and your research. We can’t keep you on as an adjunct if you don’t produce something original.”

The words did not register immediately. Flint shook his head. “Can’t keep me on? You mean you’re going to dismiss me?”

“I have no choice!” the Abbot said. “You’re a fine teacher, but this is a research monastery. How will it look if my monks are not broadening our knowledge of the occult?”

“But I’m buried in work! You have me teaching more classes than any other monk by half. It’s not that I don’t want to study. I just don’t have the time.”

“Are you telling me you can’t do the job?” The old man placed a heavy hand on his desk.

Flint’s mouth hung open, and he waited for words to come out.

“Look,” the Abbot said. “I’m not unreasonable.” He shifted in his seat, and his eyes filled with an uncharacteristic guile. “I’d be willing to give you some extra time, if you are willing to do me a favor. Brother Godfrey has been working on a side project for almost a year now.” The Abbot sighed. “A full year. And no one has any idea what he’s actually doing.”

“I’ve heard,” Flint said, shrugging.

“You and everyone else. But it’s my responsibility to know, and that’s the trouble. Brother Godfrey is brilliant, but he’s stubborn as an ass. And he’s tenured. He won’t say a word. He wouldn’t even tell me where he’s working.”

“That’s the favor? You want me to find out where he’s researching?”

“And what, if you can. Do that, and I’ll give you a pass on your work for the next few months.” The Abbot pointed a finger at Flint. “But listen. I don’t want to hear about you breaking any rules, or using the occult to manipulate him. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” The Abbot put his hand back on the desk. “Why don’t you see if he’ll take you on as his research assistant? That would put you right where you need to be.”

“I don’t know,” Flint said. “He’s so secretive. Do you really think he would consider it?”

“Go find out,” the Abbot said in a tone that told Flint the conversation was over.

Flint tried to hide his worry. He pulled open the door and stepped out into the empty corridor.

“And Flint,” the Abbot said. “This is the third time I’ve had you in my office. This is your last chance.”

One Great Truth

We went north because the stars told us to.

They stayed behind because they were too weak to follow.

This is the one great truth of the Glass Sea.


Fire! the heavens cried and opened up. The Star broke through the crust of the dark sky, red and yellow and burning up the night. I was the first to my horse—the youngest, the fastest, and I was the first to lean into the wind and soar across the desert. First among firsts, and in that moment, I was singular. I was the Princess of the Dunes.

Together we ran, the horse and I, as the wind howled and the waves of sand whipped overhead, trying to swallow us. I charted our course by the Glass Sea in the east, where the sand has hardened under the sun’s cruel gaze, its black surface burnished copper in a crude reflection of the Star’s path. Later, when I found a small shelf of stone jutting out from the dunes and I stopped in the shade to suck the water from my horseskin, I finally looked back. Four, five, six other figures trailed across the slopes, hooves plugging at the sand where I had already been.

“Where is everyone?” I cried before they could answer, greedily sucking down another two gulps of water so I wouldn’t have to share, gagging, belly pinching. Life is hard and hot and the soft are turned to glass. Eat as much as you can, drink more than you think you can, take what you want beyond what you need. Live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again when they were closer.

“They stayed back to pack their things. They’ll come and meet us soon.”

I squinted off into the north and burned my eyes on the Star’s bright arc. Then back to the south, where the sandstorm swept across the desert and hid the world, our little cloth-and-stick village with its clay cups and wrinkle framed smiles, from me. I knew better. I wasn’t a child anymore, and they wouldn’t be coming: Marta, Braten, Gorta, Shira, Orla, I’m already forgetting all their names. The sun burns everything away. I turned the glass ring on my index finger, Mother Marta’s gift—her last gift. There was a pain in my belly, a fear, pushed down and covered over.

“Is that how it happens?” I asked.

“Hm?” Bravig took the horseskin from my hand, sucked the last drops from it, then reached for his own.

“You get old, you get slow, you die?” Round and round Mother Marta’s ring went as the numbness grew, as I piled cold truth upon hot pain.

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“Not really,” Embra answered. “You’ll be the same one day. Bit by bit, day by day. When the next Star comes, you might run off slower. You’ll be cautious, you’ll want Bravig there, maybe, he’s a tough bastard. Or maybe you’ll have some stone carvings you want to keep, or a patch of sewing you were working on—”

“No,” I said, and wiped the sweat from my face. I climbed back into the saddle, the horse sweating and half dead half a ride ago. I wanted to ask Bravig to trade with me, to take his horse. She was lean and fast. I deserved her, really. I was first among firsts, the strongest. I would outlive Bravig. But I was young still, small, and Bravig was a tough bastard, it was true. If I asked him, he would cuff me on the head and I would have to kill him or be made small, and I didn’t care enough to kill him. I bit my chapped lip and tasted blood.

“It’s not so bad.” Embra stroked her horse’s mane. She was a woman grown since two years past, the braids of her blonde hair thick with grit and spilling out of the white folds of cloth wrapped around her head. “A year ago, you would have already run. Now you linger with us here. Maybe next Starfall you’ll have a child. Maybe you’ll get lost in the storm helping your child get away, but they survive. You die but your children live. Life goes on.”

“How does that help me? I’ll still be dead.”

“You’ll understand one day.”

But that sounded like another pretty lie. I knew the truth—the real truth.

I prized the glass ring from my finger and gave it to those nameless dunes, and then I left ahead of them. I chased the Star into the north, until the earth swallowed the sun and the land turned flat and hard. My horse died somewhere in that foreign land, under the crescent moon. Her legs started moving slower at first, twitching. She fought the bit, pulling. But I pushed and pushed and then she died. Collapsed and nearly crushed me. And then I went by foot.

Should’ve taken Bravig’s horse.

But I found the Star first, all the same.

She was asleep and beautiful, silver with stripes of red, the shell hardly damaged, the narrow flanks just sticking out of the crater it had made in the dunes. At first I thought she survived the crash and I spent the better part of the night in the dark, fingering every rivet, every seam of her flank still warm with life, until I felt the cool spot where the air pushed out from the little hole half buried in the sand, and I could just glimpse the pale blue light inside, washing over glistening silver.

I was tired, so I sat down and covered the hole up with my back. I slept.

Embra and Bravig arrived with the sun the next morning, trailed by three others, blistered and slick with sweat.

“Storm almost got you,” I said, picking grit out of my eyes.

“Didn’t, though,” Bravig said. “We need the cutter?”

“I got it,” I said and leaned away enough to show the little gap. Everyone gathered around, fighting for a look, hunger in their eyes. But I was the one small enough to squeeze through the hole and I didn’t give anyone else a chance to try. I made Bravig give me the last of his water and then I made myself small, small, small as I could and squeezed through the hole, her cut hide scraping at my arms and shoulders, fighting me.

I won. I pushed inside, stumbled, the sound of my footfalls ringing sharp in the cramped space. Inside I basked in the pale blue light, the cold air, the soft pressure that always seemed to exist inside the heart of a Star. As if the world were more real there, somehow. Sharper. Better. I brushed my fingers across silver tables, sucking in a breath as I felt the gooseflesh rise up my arms.

The Star rattled gently and breathed out in a low, hush whisper, and cool wind washed over my hands, my arms, bits of exposed flesh where dried skin flaked and drifted off as I followed the soft pulse of a cold blue light down the hall. Gleaming silver shelves lined the narrow path, stacked with crinkling clear packets filled to bursting with liquid food, crushed and dried and pressed, making my stomach squeeze with need even as I took down four of them, five of them, six of them, scrunching them up in the waist of my pants, cold against my skin.

“Is there anything in there?”

“Be quick, don’t breathe too deep!”

“Is it still good?” they called from outside, peeping eyes at the hole in the flank.

Once, a star had come to us full of rot and disease. That had been a bad year.

The voices called after me, ghosts. “Are we going to live?” they might have said.

My lungs pumped faster, gobbling up every breath of thin air. The world twisted around me, sloping away from my feet, but I kept walking towards the light as starbursts of light appeared around me: pink and purple and glowing gold. I followed the one true light, shimmering, rotating. It hovered above me at the end of the path, a perfect circle enclosed in its silver cage. No matter what the others said, that was the true treasure.

I touched its cage and it shivered, rotating, spinning, reacting. I saw the world that might have been flash before my eyes, projected for me: a bauble glimmering in a sea of black, brilliant green and full of life. We flew above the world, my Star and me, and the world seemed like a shining dream in the dark with swaths of blue water so big I could drown in them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, dry, dry, dry.

Once, when I saw my first Star, I made a drawing in the sand of the symbols that floated over the world and it said “SET CUOURS: HOME, ENGNE DMAGED” – shapes that have no meaning to me, that may be keys or a name or nothing at all, but to me they were a beacon. A reason.

That was where the Stars came from. One day, maybe they would take us back…

Back to water washing cool over everything. Back to forests of trees still living, to light and softness. I was a bird flying in the clouds, basking in the water spray, soaring over a sea of rolling green, and I knew I should leave that place. My heart was pumping faster, faster, faster, and my skin was tingling, but I screwed my eyes shut, I felt like maybe that was the Star taking me home, working some magic in me. I swear, I felt it shiver around me, felt the Star shake. The Star showed me all of this, and I was a ghost in a far-away world, flying over it all, drinking from the heart of it, full and fed and happy for the first time in my—

Hands gripped me. Pulled me. I hit the floor. No, I’d already hit the floor. I shook and shook and shook but they held me down—good, strong hands. I bit my tongue and swallowed blood. My last memory.


I woke in the sand, in the dark of night, spitting up gobs of blood.

Embra hovered over me, held me down, kept me whole.

“I’m fine,” I said, my voice dryer than I wanted it, cracked at all the edges. I pushed, she held. I fought, she held. And when I cried for all I lost, all she could never know, she held me too, even if she didn’t understand.

“You almost died,” she said. “You can’t stay in the Star that long. The air is bad. You’re just supposed to grab what you need and—”

“I know.” Images flashed through my mind: linen tents, cloth flapping in the wind. Old faces lined with sand clogged wrinkles. The men and women left behind in the storm. Family. Marta. Was I any smarter than them? Any better? I could have died, I could have… “I know.”

Later, later, in the silence, huddled there together…

“What did you see?” Embra whispered.

That night we made a place together and I told her everything as one by one the family worked to widen the hole in the Star, to kill her, to pull the food out. Careful, ever careful, they were, and I watched as her light went out. I fed Embra my stories and she ate them up. I don’t think she believed me, not really, my stories of that world were like a pretty bauble, glinting in the sky, beautiful and impossible. Only I knew the truth. One day, I would get there, even if I had to pile up all of the dunes, handful by handful, and climb there myself.

Embra said she would climb there with me—hold my hand, kiss my face, catch me if I fell. The days turned into weeks as we built our camp of cloth and sticks around the body of the Star, and at night I told her stories, and we fell in love—or she fell in love with me and I let her, because it was easier that way.
But I knew one day the wind would change.

One day the next storm would come, and then the Star, the way it always did. One day we would run again. And so one night when the sun went to sleep, I took the knife, the little one I kept close, and I put it in Embra’s chest while she slept, and I watched the light go out.

I’m not a monster. I cried. I wept and buried my face in the sand. But I would not let her pull me down, bury me in burning sand and nothingness. I moved on and the dunes took her, just like they took everything. Maybe a star would come again and turn the dunes to glass. Maybe Embra would live forever, encased in perfect prism. I don’t know. I no longer felt the pain in my belly, no great hollow, nothing.

But the point is, I lived.

One day the stars would tell us to move again, they always did.

I meant to run, free. To never stop, to never die.

Princess of the Dunes.

Zachary Tringali lives in sometimes sunny, always swampy Gainesville, Florida, where he’s a freelance writer of entertainment, lifestyle, and medical articles. In his free time he’s an avid runner, studies and loves mythology, and all things geek from comics to games. He’s represented by Carolyn Jenks of The Jenks agency.

Carson’s Crackers

It was a shit gig and Carson knew it, but it couldn’t be helped. It seemed that no one was interested in hiring someone in their eighties nowadays. Never mind that he still had all of his faculties and was fit as a fiddle. Granted, maybe it was a fiddle with just three strings, but that was two more than most. It also didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t talking to himself, drooling the hours away in some home or that he could hold a conversation for more than ten seconds without having to check a smart phone.

Carson heard Derrick, his boss, coming in downstairs. A few moments later, he heard the footfalls on the steps and knew the weasel would be making an appearance any moment, and the peace and quiet would be shattered.

“Knock, knock,” Derrick said, “Daddy’s home.”

He said the same joke every night and it was as tired and worn out as the man’s god awful hair piece. He looked ridiculous and couldn’t help but be an asshole. After all, the kid was young enough to be his great grandson and born during the first Clinton administration for Chrissakes. What the hell could he possibly know?

“How are things going for you this fine evening Carson?”

Honestly, he was tired, dead tired, but he wasn’t about to tell the idiot that. He didn’t sleep much at all anymore, no matter what he tried. The clock would tick the hours by one by one and he’d still be awake staring at the ceiling. If he happened to nod off, it didn’t last long, things whispering and reaching.

“They’re going, just like they always are. I’m still here farting dust and you’re still showing up every night smelling it. You know, I think sometimes you just show up to work to see if I’m dead in this chair.”

That seemed to fluster Derrick.

“That’s not true at all. I fully expect you to outlive all of us here Carson. Do you ever take a day off?”

“I did for about a decade when I retired, but it didn’t take. I had to find something to do or I’d lose my crackers. Besides, I’m not one for sleeping much these days.”

His grandmother once told him when he was a little boy that she didn’t sleep much either. When he spent nights at her house, she’d pace all night, her slippers shuffling along the hardwood floors. She told him it was because all the people on the other side were constantly scratching at the door and it was wearing thin. Sometimes, she’d said, you could hear them whisper too, which is why she played music most of the time. When it was too quiet those voices were clearer.

Carson wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but he knew his grandmother was bat-shit crazy toward the end. He sure hoped he didn’t go out like that. It wasn’t like he was hearing voices or anything, but those things his grandmother told him still lingered at the back of his mind.

“Bad dreams?”

He didn’t answer, not wanting to tempt the things from his dreams. It was bad enough they didn’t stay put and surprised him from time to time, lurking in the cellar or whispering to him on the phone.

“No, no, nothing like that. Don’t have much need for dreaming at my age. Nobody does. I’ve already seen it all and done it all.”

“That so?”

“That it is.”

“Seems like there’s probably a thing or two you haven’t done yet. I mean in this great wide world where anything is possible, there are always things coming you didn’t even think of.”

“You don’t say?” Carson asked, making sure his keys were secure at his belt, not really paying all that much attention to Derrick.

“Well, yeah, I mean what about sky diving?”

“Done it.”

“Shut up. Really?”

“Yeah, except when I jumped out of planes people were shooting at me, you know, in the war. After that, how much fun can just jumping out of an airplane be?”

Derrick was quiet, just staring at him, an odd expression on his face. Carson took that as his cue.

“Going to make the rounds.”

“Sounds good Carson. When you get back I’m going to go out for some coffee. We’re out.”

He didn’t answer, just saluted to indicate he understood. Standing up, having to wait a moment for the dizziness to pass, just like he always did, Carson picked up his flashlight and stepped out of the control booth on the second floor. Shutting the door, the sound echoing throughout the art museum, Carson walked down the hallway to the main display room.

It didn’t matter how old he was, Carson didn’t like wandering through the place when it was completely dark. Maybe it was from watching too many Twilight Zones or reading too many Weird Tales comics as a kid, but something about it made him a little uneasy. The shadows sometimes seemed a little thicker than they should be in certain places. It made him wonder if something was crouched there salivating at the thought of sucking on his bones.

Why did he do that to himself? Now, he’d probably not be able to sleep at all with that thought bouncing around in his head. Wonderful.

Turning on his flashlight, he directed the beam into the corner behind a marble bust of an artist whose name he couldn’t pronounce. His dusty heart lurched awkwardly for a beat or two as a section of darkness leapt away and seemed to vaporize into other shadows around him.

The beam cut through the darkness as he looked for the movement, but he never found it again. He had to wait a few moments to get his breathing under control, hating that he was old. It was just a damned shadow for crying out loud.

“Carson, this is Derrick, over.”

The static of his radio broke through the darkness in a squawk of sound, his heart skipping a beat.

Wouldn’t that be perfect? Death by static.

Echoes of the Rebel Yell

The guardsman pinched my passport and driver’s license between his thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but imagine him saying “Papers, please” before letting me continue into the wilds of Nebraska. The guardsman’s eyes flitted back and forth between the pictures purporting to represent Rod Lemon and the actual Rod Lemon seated behind the wheel of a three year old Ford Explorer. My pictures were several years old and out of date in a few cosmetic ways: I’d given up glasses for contacts, and my once close trimmed black hair was now shaggy and laced with silver. The guardsman studied the disparities as though he were discerning the provenance of two identical works of art.

“You should get new pictures,” he said while returning my identification.

I grumbled a reply, took the driver’s license and passport, and turned toward the passenger seat where my editor was fidgeting beneath the gaze of another guardsman who seemed intent on boring into her with his eyes. Finally Meredith was able to reclaim her ID as well.

“On your way.” The guardsman added a subtle forward wave as flourish.

I awakened my vehicle, pulling forward and away from the National Guard checkpoint and easing the SUV toward the westbound onramp for Interstate 80. The heavily armed presence off the 42nd Street interchange, marking the rough border between federally controlled Omaha and the military district that encompassed the rest of Nebraska, sprouted like a weed in what was otherwise an overgrowth of neighborhoods and strip malls. I accelerated down the ramp and brought the vehicle up to speed, finding that sweet spot right around 73 miles per hour where I could indulge my desire to speed without entirely destroying my gas mileage. It would be several more miles before we passed the 80-680 interchange and a few miles beyond that before we escaped Omaha’s city limits. For all practical purposes, though, the stretch of the interstate we were on was already a border land—nominally in the government’s jurisdiction but not heavily patrolled.

“And to think—a few years ago I complained about the TSA.”

I’d switched on my digital recorder as we pulled up to the checkpoint. The mystery story that I was chasing was still hundreds of miles away, but as a rule I recorded everything I heard and said in the military districts—a precaution against missing some revelatory nugget.

“Don’t tell me that was really your first time through a checkpoint,” I said.

“New York’s a long way away.” Meredith turned toward her open window; the wind ruffled her short red hair. “What reason would I ever have to come out here?”

The interchange loomed ahead; I stayed in the left lane as it curved toward the southwest in the shadow of tangled ramps above.

“Curiosity,” I answered. “You were a reporter once. You’ve never wanted to see what’s going on out here?”

Meredith held her gaze out the window and said nothing for several moments. She’d been lost in thought most of the way from Des Moines. Was she from Nebraska? Or maybe somewhere else in the Midwest? I couldn’t remember, and my thoughts drifted down a rabbit hole in consideration as we sat momentarily in silence.

“That’s what I have reporters like you for. So I don’t have to visit the wrong side of military checkpoints and get in Dutch with a bunch of rebels.”

I heard the animosity in her voice—personal, venomous.

Wide billboards proclaimed the end of federal jurisdiction and cautioned that anyone proceeding beyond the next exit did so at their own risk.

“There you go,” I said as I pointed. “Rebel territory.”

“What is this—your sixth trip into a military district?”

“Sixth since you came aboard. But it’s been eight times—nine if you count my trip into Wyoming before Hostetter was assassinated.”

“Wyoming,” Meredith said amidst a hollow gallows chuckle. “Feels like a long time ago. I always forget that you covered the occupation in the state capitol.”

“Wrong place wrong time. It was just a vote recount when I got there.”

I expected Meredith to continue the conversation but whatever had been dominating her attention since before we reached Omaha still held sway. We drove in silence, and the hours passed. The afternoon sun fell toward the flat horizon. For the first chunk of the drive—the stretch from Omaha to Lincoln—normalcy reigned. We pulled off the freeway in Lincoln, filling up on gas and snacks. Nothing in the small city suggested citizens in rebellion. We received a few curious looks at the gas station—most likely owing to our out of state plates—but only a few. Were there even rebels in the city? I couldn’t remember reading anything about rebel activity in Lincoln—or, for that matter, eastern Nebraska. But obviously there was enough unsecured territory in the state to make the government draw their red line back at the border and around Omaha.

“I’ve been trying to remember since the checkpoint,” I said later when we were about twenty minutes west of Lincoln. “Are you from Nebraska?”

“Omaha. North 60th Avenue.”

Meredith turned her eyes from the featureless green landscape to me. She was almost smiling; I think the expression caught her by surprise—the idea of simpler, happier times.

“I loved visiting after I left for college. Just a few blocks to Maple Street and bars and restaurants running the gamut from speakeasies to local breweries.”

“Do you still have family there?”

Meredith turned back to the window, her smile fading.

“No,” she answered after a long time. “You remember what it was like in Omaha after Hostetter was killed? The protests and National Guard? They were…in the wrong place at the wrong time. A protest that turned violent. One of the sides shot them—I don’t know which.”

I heard Meredith’s voice start to break near the end of her story, but she shored it up and crushed the emotion before it could escape. Again I waited for her to continue talking. Again she chose silence.

The Last Hope of a Hopeless Nation

In the halcyon days of that final fall, when you worried in the abstract about the havoc Alistair Gilby might wreak on the off chance he were elected, you never thought about the silence. Nuclear winter, of course. The cold and the dying of a withering world, but in those nightmares you imagined a death rattle alongside every war cry. Sonic booms and siren shrieks. Even the patter of acid rain on rooftops. You never imagined it would be like this–only the whisper of snowfall, the crackle of fire, and the wheezing rattle in your own failing lungs.

You’re not cut out for the silence any more than you are the solitude. Before, before, you always had your headphones on. At your desk, on the metro, in your bed. As you worked and as you slept. You grew up in a world of earbuds and smartphones; you were addicted to the cadence of other people’s battle songs. Music was your constant lullaby in a dangerous world.

To say nothing of the human element, the riot of noise and love that made you feel so alive. Henry’s off-key humming and Hannah’s offbeat laughter. Hell, even talentless buskers and aggressive drivers. You were a city boy, through and through–raised in San Francisco, came of age in New Haven, lived in DC ever since–all you knew was noise.

Now the whole world’s a silent graveyard, and you’ll never be out of mourning.

So when they come for you with helicopters that beat the snow bank like egg whites, you’re sure the apocalypse they promised all those years ago has finally arrived–the one that you told yourself, in the darkest hours of the night, would have been a blessing. Maybe you’ve lived this long as penance, to see the price of your cowardice, and now this clamor that could fracture the firmament itself is here to call you to your reckoning. Not the trumpets they promised, but the endless roar of rotors calling you to meet your fate.

You leave your tea kettle whistling on your wood-burning stove, stalling only to jam your feet into shredded scuffed galoshes and drape an old hunting coat over your shoulders. You’re dressed in threadbare flannel pajamas, but there’s nothing you can do about that now.

Outside, the helicopter has landed, and half a dozen men and women dressed in fatigues disembark. They’re armed to the teeth, bandoliers and automatics over their shoulders, as if they’re stepping into an active warzone.

The woman who steps forward to meet you, where you’re guarding your hearth as if it’s still worth something, is taller than you are. She’s thin but not emaciated, not like most of the earth’s ailing population. Her faded auburn hair is done up in a tight bun, her skin like crepe paper. Age is difficult to guess–everyone tolerated the radiation differently–but you’d guess sixty, if you had to. The truth is you wouldn’t know her from a common foot soldier if it weren’t for the four stars embroidered in metallic gold thread at her collar. That, and the unequivocal note of command in her voice when she calls your name. “Arden Chang-Haas?”

“What’s left of him,” you wheeze, then cough into your fist. It’s been months since you last used your voice, and now you fear your larynx is just another instrument in disrepair.

“Your country needs you, Mr. Haas.”

“It’s Chang-Haas, and I didn’t think I had a country anymore.”

“What’s left of it, then,” she smiles. “See, I believe you’re operating under the false assumption that you have a choice.” She snaps her gloved fingers, and her goons level rusted assault rifles at your chest.

Warily, you consider your options. An open grave here is no different than what you had come to expect in a handful of months. Whatever she’s offering, it’s something other than dying alone at your in-laws’ lake house. You don’t dare assume it’s a chance to atone, but Henry would have wanted you to try. “All right.” You raise your hands in mock surrender. “What do you want?”

“Get your things. We leave in ten.” She waits for you to turn away before she calls out, “Oh, and Mr. Chang-Haas? You won’t be coming back.”

Ten minutes to pack up a life you’ve already lost. What relics do you have left?

So you throw your tattered clothes into a duffel bag, and you rifle through the piles of ephemera on your desk. So many memories like sand through an hourglass, sifting through your fingers until they’re lost. In the end, you save only a stack of photos with curling edges and your set of crumpled journals. All you have left of your family and the stories you wrote to them, after they were gone. The words you used, in vain, to fill the silence, as futile as raindrops sieging a dam.

By the time you join the general aboard the battered helicopter, only five minutes have passed.

Ladder of Ashes

I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”

The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.

Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.

Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.

The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.

Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.

And I slept.

I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.

“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”

The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.

Big Blue

When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.

He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.

He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”

She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.

She does not say anything.

“When did you arrive?” he asks.

“Not long ago,” she says.

“You look hot.”

“It is hot.”

He looks around.

“Here, then?”

“Yes. To begin with.”

“Where is he?”

She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.

“Over there. Down by the river.”

“How’s he looking?”

“Older.”

“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”

She shrugs.

“Yup.”

She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.

“Online,” it says.

“Establish campsite,” he says.

He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.

He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.

“So, how are things?” he asks.

“Things?”

“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”

“Same as always.”

“How’s the new place?”

“The lab?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s good.”

“Just good?”

“It’s a lab.”

Silence.

And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”

“I’ll be back soon enough.”

“You will?”

Finally she turns to look at him.

“Soon enough,” she says.

“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”

“Happy enough.”

“I’m doing well too.”

For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”

“Right.”

“Don’t get too close either.”

“I know.”

And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.