TCL #28 – Summer 2018

Sedate and Transport

Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.

Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.

We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.

Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.

The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.

“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”

Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.

I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.

I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.

The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.

I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.

“There it goes.”

I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.

“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”

She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”

I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.

“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.

“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”

I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.

Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.

“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.

I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.

Drop Serene

Prologue

I didn’t read it for a long time. Really, I wasn’t aware of it for a long time. Those were busy times for the infernal horde, what with all the dime store necromancers queueing up to mortgage their souls. Western society’s emergence from the darkness spawned enough bad ideas to keep us all hopping for a couple centuries. That kind of overwork doesn’t really leave anybody in the mood to curl up with a long, challenging epic poem.

By the time I read it, the Blind Poet was long dead. By the time I read it, Frankenstein’s creature had already read it, and all the daffodil sniffers had embraced it to a degree that was embarrassing to witness. By then, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a little bit of a shock to recognize our story. That was nothing compared to the shock that followed.

At first, I was confused and a little miffed. It seemed like the poet mentioned everybody in Hell except me. I read through that whole tremendous list, and the only one missing was me. I’m not suggesting that I’m a particularly big deal in the grand scheme of Perdition, but one hates to be left off the cast list if one is in the show.

Then the real shock followed.

It was the perspective that gave it all away. It wasn’t just scenes where I was present – It was scenes shown from my point of view. It slowly dawned on me that the Blind Poet didn’t leave me out of the narrative because he didn’t like me, or because he thought I wasn’t important enough. He left me out because he was seeing the whole thing through my eyes. Somebody gave him access to the whole story by giving him access to everything I saw.

Now who would be able to do that?

As I read on, it became clear that while the Blind Poet had total access to what I saw, he only sometimes had the soundtrack to go with it. At these times, he just took his best guesses at what was being said and why. Really, he did a pretty good job of the guess work, all things considered. Sure, he got some things totally dead wrong, but he did it in ways that made for a good poem.

I’m not writing to refute what the Blind Poet wrote. For as few of the facts as he got right, he ultimately captured the truth. I’m also not writing this because I got left out of the Blind Poet’s work. I’ve long since read the Italian Pilgrim’s poem, and I’ve got a real juicy part in that. Juicy enough to more than make up for my absence in the Blind Poet’s epic. Really, I just want to set down my thoughts about my dearest friend. I want to let you know about my pal Lucifer.

Happily Never After

Some things about being a “late-bloomer” pop star kinda suck. Like being twenty-three and on a mall tour. I’m supposed to muster up false enthusiasm about shopping and fun, but the college interns who concocted this plan have clearly never listened to my music. My songs are about being the odd girl out, the one who isn’t like her peers.

And that’s me, in a nutshell. I’m not like other girls. Granted, being from Cobalt City and being “not like other girls” means something different. I’m not a super hero, I just have a voice that doesn’t require a mic. I use one to keep up appearances. And I can be weirdly persuasive. Which is probably why I’m five years into a pop career in an industry that takes pretty young things, chews them up, and spits them out. Too bad my voice couldn’t get me out of this mall tour.

We’re in Cerulean City, California, and the mall is right on the beach, so I can watch the ocean when we’re not doing sound check, or going over my set list, or the million other demands on my attention. The new intern, Ruby, doesn’t think I should open with “Happily Never After”–too much of a downer, she says–despite this being the Happily Never After Tour. I don’t care about the song order. I’m too busy watching the waves.

Being near the ocean always relaxes me. My dad always said it was like the water was my true home. The water near Cobalt City is way too cold for most people to swim in. I don’t mind it, at least in the summer. I can practically feel the water here, warm and gritty with salt and sand.

There’s a bar down by the water, hastily thrown up right at the edge of the surf, probably moved each day depending on the tides. The tables are set so your feet get washed over every once in a while. It looks divine.

“I’m going to go get a drink,” I say, extracting myself from my low-slung hammocky chair.

Clive, one of the interns, shakes his head, eyes wide. “You can’t, Miss Sweet. We’d need to send security with you, and the paparazzi are crawling this place today. What kind of drink would you like? We’ve got runners who can get you something.”

I sink back into my chair. Another reason being a late-bloomer pop star sucks? Most of your fans are underage and have this weird assumption that you must be their age too. The tabloids have a field day if you go out drinking, calling you a bad role model or hinting at rehab on the horizon.

My gaze stays fixed on the ocean, even when one of the interns presses a drink into my hands. Whiskey with lemon and honey. The drink science says is best for my vocal cords. Whatever.

Something incongruous in my field of vision gives me pause. There’s someone dressed all in black standing at the edge of the water, and I can feel their gaze on me, even at this distance.

It’s 90-something degrees out there, even with the breeze off the ocean. They’ve got to be roasting. I get back out of my chair, walk over to the window, and press one hand to the glass in a sort of static wave of acknowledgement.

They raise their hand in a similar salute.

Somehow it doesn’t make me feel any less alone.


Fifteen minutes to show time, and everything is a rush around me. I try to stay out of their way, but they need to check my makeup, my hair, my mic, my shoes. They want me in sandals, but it’s been hard for them to find any that don’t showcase my webbed toes. Yeah, literally webbed toes. It’s not as rare as you might think, or so the doctors tell me.

I stand like the eye of the storm and just let everyone poke and prod me until one minute to show time. Then I break away, plaster on my trademark Cassidy Sweet smile, and wait for the emcee to say my name.

Ruby won out on the song selection, and we’re starting with “Summer, Sand, and Surf.” Fitting, I guess. I glance over the set list in between verses, and “Happily Never After” is still there, so that’s fine.

The hairs on the back of my neck go up unexpectedly when we hit the chorus the third time, and I scan the crowd.

It’s the guy from the beach–I can tell it’s a guy now–motionless, staring at me. I raise my hand again, and he follows suit.

All around him, the crowd is dancing and singing along, but he doesn’t move. Now I’m weirded out. I’ve had my fair share of stalkers and other creepy “admirers.” This guy hasn’t done anything compared to most. Yet.

Between songs, I switch my mic over to our internal channel. “Possible creeper at the back of the crowd, one o’clock. All in black.”

“On it.” Tito, the head of my tour security, is like an over-protective uncle or big brother. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have either, as far as I know. Dad didn’t have any family that he spoke of, and he said even less about Mom’s family. But I like Tito. He’s always been good to me.

Still, I feel a twinge of guilt at siccing Tito on some random guy all in black. “Just … watch him, for now, Tito.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

And then we’re jumping into my cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” made extra creepy by the fact that this guy is still staring at me, not even blinking, as far as I can tell. It’s starting to break through my cool. This isn’t something I’m used to. My head is starting to pound.

No.

Something’s knocking in my head.

I drift back during the solo, let the dancers take center stage. In the wings, Ruby is dancing along with them. I’m surprised she didn’t muscle her way into getting to be out there with them, after she choreographed their routine. Maybe I’ll suggest that to her later, get her out of my hair for a while.

For now, I’ve got enough in my hair. I cautiously think an answer toward the knocking. “Yes?”

“You’re in danger.” The voice is barely a whisper, but it’s loud enough in my head to drown out the band.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“Call me J.J. You’ve got to stop the show and get everyone out of here. Please.” His voice is earnest.

I’m from Cobalt City. When someone gets a warning like this, they know better than to take the risk. “Then pull the fire alarm.” I glance out into the crowd and spot Tito en route to intercept the guy in black, who might be J.J. “Move now if you’re gonna do it.”

I run back to the front of the stage and resume singing. The guy in black is gone, and Tito looks confused. I’ll have to sort that out later. Whatever this is about, it better be good. I might hate this mall tour, but I also hate disappointing my fans.

The Pull of the Waves

The first letter came in a bottle, bobbing in with the tide. My older sister and I had gone out before sunrise to stand with our toes in the ocean. It was so big, so loud, so strong. I was already overwhelmed when the bottle tapped against my calf.

The glass was turquoise–my favorite color–and it was shaped like an old-fashioned coke bottle, long-necked and elegant. I picked it up without thinking and hugged it to my chest.

Denise laughed and danced across the wet sand. Her hair billowed in the wind and shone in the early morning light. I stood and hugged the bottle and shuddered at the feeling of the ocean pulling at my feet.


I didn’t notice the letter until after breakfast. Everyone else was excited to go swimming, but I stayed in the cottage, searching for pliers to pull out the cork.

The letter was folded in half, then curled tight. A pale purple flower was pressed flat inside it.

It took another moment to realize that the letter was actually addressed to me.

“Dearest Lindy,” it read, “You don’t know me yet, but I wanted to send you a token of my regard. I know that the upcoming months will be difficult for you, but know that I care deeply for you already. If you ever have need of me, simply stand in the water and call. I will come. Yours forever, Elzin.”

“Elzin,” I whispered. It wasn’t a name I’d ever heard before. I left the flower in the letter, put it back into the bottle, and tucked it into my suitcase. I was young enough to not question, to just believe in this tiny magical moment, but old enough to know that it wasn’t something to mention to anyone else.

I sat on the porch and read my book till Denise came and dragged me down to the ocean for our picnic lunch.


Denise’s cough started soon after we got home from vacation, and she faded quickly. The doctors did what they could, but it wasn’t enough.

When there was nothing more to do, they sent her home. I sat next to her in her dark room, holding her hand as it grew thinner, day by day. I read to her, using a single strip of sunlight that fell through the curtains to see the letters. Books about the ocean always made her smile. I tried not to remember the fear I’d felt looking out at its vastness, and smile at the bits of trivia that my sister loved.

After the funeral, I found a wooden box on my bed with a seashell nestled inside. When I held it to my ear, I could hear my sister’s laughter.

Stranger and Stranger

“The rig, it was right here,” I panicked, to Heinz. “Where the hell could it have gone?” We stared at the empty patch of snow, beside the long hose and the discarded boots and cylinders, and wondered about the spacewoman.

He looked at me with typical, big-brother derision. Twin jets of irritation streamed from his nostrils. “Sure it was, Ingo. Sure it was. I’ll bet she blasted into space, right here, from this very spot. And now she’s probably on her way to some nearby star.” He shivered audibly, then cinched his red-and-white, eagle-embroidered scarf up to the curly hairs growing from his ears. “It’s cold. I’m going back.”

Finally, I thought I’d had him. Just once, Heinz would appreciate just how exceptional his little brother’s life could be. But then, after dragging him all the way into the Alps, and then out into this frozen meadow on this frozen morning, all I had to show was a whole bunch of freshly packed snow.

I was mired in disbelief when he started back to the farmhouse. He was laboring to stay on top of the thin crisp of ice, rather than sink into knee-deep powder, when he heard the loud, rippling sound. He looked into the sky, pondered, looked some more, and then began to exclaim.


Heinz Baumgartner had been my older brother for as long as I can remember. And for that entire time I’d basked in his radiance, mostly unnoticed, a rocky exoplanet beside a main-sequence star. As the firstborn, his every milestone had been recorded and every success had earned him praise. And in the narrow, self-centered universe that emerged he always had a better story to tell–whether he did or whether he didn’t.

But the thing about rocky exoplanets, they’re often more interesting than their main-sequence stars.

For more than thirty years my brother and I had spent the first Friday of October at his vineyard in Carinthia, down where Austria kisses Slovenia just beyond Hungary’s view. These were mostly one-sided affairs, during which I’d hear the latest retread of last year’s stories. If I was lucky I’d slip in a wholly unappreciated reference to myself somewhere along the way.

But this year was going to be different, he would see, and midway through our second bottle of Weissburgunder I began my amazing tale. “Heinz, I have a spaceman living in my attic.”

His stare was blank and flummoxed. I’d been too abrupt, I never did transition well. I tried again.

“I said, a spaceman. Though she’s more of a spacewoman I suppose.”

“Ingo, what in the hell are you talking about?” He spoke that sing-song, rollicking German native to the outer reaches of Austria.

“She arrived a few weeks ago, out of the blue. She was covered from head to toe in this red and white robe, like a burqa, and all I could see were her eyes. They were strangely dark, almost hollow. She talks funny, can’t weigh more than 20 kilos, and smells, well, somewhere between ozone and engine oil.”

“Ingo,” he said gravely, “turn around.” He gestured with full glass at the young man sitting on a backless bench at the rear of his Weingarten. He wasn’t drinking, nor doing much of anything besides looking bored and conspicuous. “See him?”

I nodded.

“He’s been bunking with my farmhands. His name is … oh hell, I forget. Let’s call him Sepp.”

“Sepp?”

“Yea, Sepp. He arrived with a whole pack of ‘em, a few weeks back, on the 14:30 from Zagreb. The rest continued onward to Munich, thank God. But not him, he hung around. Speaks English to me, but I get most of it. Says there’s some war back home and he’s looking for a new start. Says he’s got a family and he’s making a way for them.” Heinz took a long sip then exhaled from the back of his throat. “I’m not so sure.”

I looked at Sepp, who was now looking at us, uncomfortable with the attention. “It could be true,” I said.

Heinz’ unshaven faced scrunched up like a raisin, as often happens when I have something to say.

“Really,” I continued. “There’s been quite a few like him recently. A lot of them are from Syria, and, yes, there’s a civil war.”

“Anyway,” he pivoted, “for a bed and something to eat he offered to help with the harvest. The frosts were coming early, so I played along. Talk about smelling funny. Kind of like old figs in need of a good rain. I have no idea what he’ll do in the winter. But for sure it’s gonna cost me.”

“Maria,” I said, reclaiming the floor.

“Come again?”

“She wouldn’t tell me her name, so I started calling her Maria.”

“Who?”

“The spacewoman.”

“Right.” Heinz took the Lodenhut from his head and scratched the tangled, snow-white nest beneath. “Well, what does she want?” he asked, his downward inflection revealing disinterest.

“Water, mostly.”

“Water.”

“Yes. Wherever she came from, it must be very dry. I offered her food, and clothing, but all she wanted was water. Clean water. That’s all she could talk about. I showed her the faucet in the bath and she was thrilled.”

“Must have been awful thirsty.”

“I’m not so sure. The thing is, she never actually drank any. At least, not that I saw. She seemed more into saving it for later. I gave her some Tupperware.” I glanced at Sepp, who glanced away. “Strangest woman I’ve ever seen. She just has to be from another world.”

“A spacewoman.”

“Yes, a spacewoman.” I drew out that last word for maximum impact.

A deep orange sunset appeared above the nearest hillock, where Heinz’ trellises stood out like the stubble on his chin. He gazed slowly at the brilliance, savored the features of his fatherland, then turned toward me earnestly.

“Ingo?” he asked.

I leaned forward.

“The buffet’s gonna close. You hungry?”