Speculative Fiction Magazine
Autumn 2012 – Issue #5
Featuring works by Ana-Maria Moloni, Carol Holland March, M.E. Parker, T. Lucas Earle, Brenda Stokes Barron, Conor Powers-Smith, Zachary Tringali, Aimee Picchi, Dean Giles, and Darja Malcolm-Clarke
Artwork by Eleni Tsami.
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
- The Transfiguration of Vincent
- Desert Song
- Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues
- The 13th Prophet
- An Archivist of Leaves
- The Forest Gate
- The Right Game
- Scoring Seraphim
- Shadow of the Rain Catchers
- Eight of Swords
The Transfiguration of Vincent
By Ana-Maria Moloni
I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe in magic. Yet Beatrice insists that it was a combination of these asinine forces that saved Vincent’s life. What words does she use to describe Maggie’s death? She has none. Which is fitting, for neither do I.
Vincent to be released from hospital tomorrow. The accident has left him blind and the doctors fear the damage may be irreversible, though there are some possible corrective surgeries. As per Maggie’s wishes, Bea and I will take him in. It is strange. At once, we are planning our daughter’s funeral and preparing the house for her son’s arrival. Beatrice has assigned herself to the latter task and has left me to making the necessary arrangements for Maggie’s funeral. She said she doesn’t think she has the constitution to plan her daughter’s funeral and burst into tears at the thought. I suppose she mistakes my silence for stoicism.
Vincent is settling in well. He is quieter than his mother was at his age, but Beatrice thinks it is just his grief. I thought setting him up with the television would be suitable, since it seems to appease most children these days, but he said he preferred to be read to. I was half a chapter into The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Charles loaned it to me almost a month ago, but I have not had opportunity to pick it up until now) when Bea bustled in and said I would bore him back to sight if I carried on like I was. She took charge of the entertainment and read to him from one of Maggie’s old fantasy books. It is just as well. I can’t stand that fantasy rubbish, but the boy seemed to enjoy it a good deal better than “Dispositions of Providence: The Colonists.”
The funeral was quiet. A few of Maggie’s university and work friends attended, as well as Charles and his wife, and Beatrice’s sisters. I sat next to Vincent. There is something strangely haunting about his eyes. They are the same English Channel grey as his mother’s, but whereas Maggie’s were still and calm, Vincent’s are as rough and emotional as the waters themselves.
The burial was the hardest part. I can’t believe I will never again hear her laugh. I can’t believe I will never again see her smile or hold her close. I can’t believe she is gone.
Bea had a hair appointment this morning and took the car. As a result, I had to brave the Underground with Vincent to get him to his doctor’s appointment in London. The trip went fairly well. He was a little clumsy with his cane and accidentally rapped a young tart on the leg. She seemed a little put out and Vincent seemed embarrassed, but I couldn’t help but suppress a smile.
Now that some of the trauma from the accident has healed, the doctors want to operate on Vincent’s optic nerve. Being more in the field of history than of medical science, I’m afraid I can’t explain it better. This has ruffled Bea greatly—she has been badgering Vincent and I for details all afternoon. All I can tell her is that the doctors are not confident the surgery will work because it’s a new sort of procedure, but they have assured us there is no harm in trying. We asked Vincent how he feels and he said, rather melodramatically, ‘I am growing accustomed to the darkness.’ He certainly is an oddly morose ten-year old. I expressed my concerns to Bea, but she said it is ‘nothing a good dose of strong English tea won’t correct,’ and went off to the kitchen to start a pot.
Bea may have been right about the tea. Vincent has cheered considerably over the past few days. This afternoon, after Bea read to him, I took him to the park. Since the weather is still cool and the majority of Vincent’s wardrobe is still at his mother’s, Bea insisted upon dressing him up in one of my tweed coats. Bea says he looked professorial, but I told him he looked ridiculous. Vincent seemed to find it amusing—said it reminded him of a game he used to play when Maggie would take him shopping.
At the park, Vincent and I sat on a bench and I described to him everything that was going on around us: the young couple jogging in matching hot pink suits; the overweight man attempting to play fetch with his equally overweight bulldogs; the toddler learning to walk; the pigeons defecating on the statue of Oliver Cromwell.
‘Do you see anything magical?’ he asked after I spent a full twenty minutes educating him on the political victories Cromwell had in the early part of his career. For Bea’s sake, I kept the answer at ‘No.’ I know he was looking for another fantasy story, but I refuse to entertain those notions. It is a doorway to a disappointing, empty room and I will not be the one to unlock it for him!
Over breakfast, Vincent informed us that he has decided to have the surgery. Bea nearly choked on her banger she was so excited. I like to credit my tantalizing descriptions of the park, but Vincent says he can’t wait to read on his own again. And some tosh about missing his ‘independence.’
Vincent is out of surgery. Bea spent the wait working on a scarf she started for Maggie last October, but was so anxious she started stitching it to her own sweater. Thankfully, the boy is doing well. We will not know of the surgery’s success until the bandages are removed in a couple of days.
The doctors removed the bandages this morning and it appears Vincent can see. Once again, Bea is quick to thank miracles and magic, but I think modern medicine deserves most of the credit.
During Vincent’s stay in the hospital, I moved his things from Maggie’s home to ours. It was strange, being in her empty home. The hardest room to go into was the music room. If I felt such things, I would say I felt her there—sitting at the piano bench, her long hair tied back with a black ribbon, trying to coax us into singing along with her…But no. She is gone, and that is that.
Bea hovered over me, making suggestions as I worked to set up his room—she is very particular about how things should be arranged. In his short life, Vincent has amassed quite a collection of posters featuring wizards, giants, and unicorns. In a shoebox under his bed I found perhaps more mermaid figurines than is appropriate for a boy—though Bea pointed out he was probably attracted by their disproportionately large bosoms. I had hopes that Bea, whose particular taste for decorating is more preferential to floral patterns than the fantastically grotesque, would store the posters in the closet or the rubbish bin, but I spent much of the afternoon hanging them according to her specifications. I can only take pleasure that Vincent seems to approve of his new room, though hopefully his tastes will soon change.
We have decided not to send Vincent back to school until next term, in favor of educating him ourselves until then. Vincent doesn’t seem to mind; he mumbled something about not having any mates at school anyway. Bea wants to wait a few more weeks before we commence his lessons, but after an experience I had with him this afternoon, I think the sooner we start them, the better.
He had been in his room reading for most of the morning. Bea made a spread of prawn and cucumber sandwiches for lunch (I think a Tesco visit must be in order soon) and sent me upstairs to entice Vincent down to the kitchen. I overheard voices as I approached his door and knocked gently before I entered, not wanting to embarrass him. ‘Quite the conversation,’ I observed with what I hoped was a gentle smile. But he seemed rather unashamed, and gestured to a reflection of light dancing on the wall.
‘Granddad! Meet Twixel,’ he said. ‘We’ve just been arguing about whether or not this poster’ (He nodded to the one above his ahead. It features a scantily clad nymph with tattered iridescent wings and mystic eyes, holding a crystal ball.) ‘is an accurate representation of the Faye. What do you think?’
While I would normally try to keep a cool head, my disappointment over the lunch selections and my mounting frustration over this fairy nonsense have left me with a short temper. ‘Vincent,’ I said, ‘It is time for lunch. I want you to cease this fairy nonsense and join your grandmother and I downstairs.’
He showed up in the kitchen ten minutes later. He pouted during lunch, but didn’t mention fairies. Bea commented on his sulkiness, but I tried to account for his mood by telling her I had just woken him from a nap. I hope Vincent does not keep up this charade for long or I will have to tell Bea.
If her strong dose of tea doesn’t work, her solution will probably be to send us all to group therapy.
I have spent the last few days trying to coax Vincent out of his room with trips to the park or the cinema, but he remains stubbornly fixed to his bed. I can hear him talking to himself when I pass his room, but when I enter he pretends to be reading aloud. If he continues with this I will be forced to mention it to the doctor during the post-operation check up next week. And if the doctor has no answers, I will be forced to mention it to the woman of the house.
Unable to contain myself, I telephoned Charles this morning, figuring that with his background in psychology he might have some suggestion. He recommended talking to Vincent about his fairy-friend and hinted that it might be a coping mechanism for losing his mother. I am surprised I didn’t reach this rather obvious conclusion on my own.
After a long morning locked in the study with The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, I decided it was time to see Vincent. His door was ajar and, for several moments, he didn’t see me watching him. He was chatting away rather animatedly to the same light reflection on the wall, and it seemed to bob in response, though of course this was just a trick of the light and the wind.
I sat on his bed unnoticed and he stopped midsentence—even the light reflection seemed to still. I began as gently as I could, expressing my concern with his newfound imaginary friend. He insisted that there really was a fairy and that he was by no means making anything up. Ignoring these comments, I then explained to him what Charles had said to me about the expression of grief and how difficult it can be, especially on young children. He said that ‘Twixel’ is helping him overcome his grief. I told him all I saw was a blotch of light on the wall. He said ‘Of course that’s all you would see, Granddad!’ I said blotches of light couldn’t talk and he recommended I leave, as I had gravely offended ‘Twixel,’ and the Faye have unpredictable tempers. Feeling my own temper to be rather unpredictable, I left and have returned to my study.
I don’t know what is to be done about this boy. He is just like Maggie in the best and worst ways.
Beatrice and I have had a row. I finally confessed to her my concerns about Vincent. She accuses me of attempting to ‘stamp out the boy’s beautiful creative mind,’ and suggests I ‘stop trying to sniff out trouble with my fat French nose.’ If Maggie were here, she would be just as irate with me as her mother, and probably slightly more vulgar and insulting.
I don’t think I conveyed to Bea the gravity of the situation and I will leave it to the doctor to decide tomorrow. .
Bah! Humbug! Rubbish! Tosh! The doctor is as unconcerned as Beatrice and under the same ‘professional opinion’ as Charles. He said there is no need to worry unless ‘symptoms’ of grief persist past six months.
In other news, Vincent’s eyes are recovering well. The tissue is healing and the stitches can come out in a week’s time.
Vincent’s conversations continue. My worry worsens. And Bea has botched another bonnet.
Yesterday, Charles and I lost our first bridge game. Well, rather than being the first game we lost as partners, it was the first game where we were completely and utterly decimated. And Theodore and Niles were not gracious winners by any definition of the word.
Charles was quick to take the blame for our humiliating defeat, but I know it was my lack of concentration. As I was leaving the house before the game, I came across Vincent having a conversation with a light reflection in the hallway. I reprimanded him for it just as Beatrice was coming through with a basket of linen. She reprimanded me for reprimanding Vincent and by the time I left I was so flustered from arguing that I tried to unlock the neighbor’s car. I explained all this to Charles. I think he is more concerned for my mental health than Vincent’s, but he has made a suggestion. He believes that if we take Vincent on a ‘romp through the countryside’ (Charles’ words), his spirits will improve. The change of scenery might be enough to ‘reengage him with reality.’ I am willing to try anything to straighten the boy out.
But how to propose it to Bea?
It went over very well with Bea, after I spent the afternoon plying her with compliments and tea cakes. I never directly said the trip was to help Vincent, which probably helped my case. I am getting out the maps to plan our route and Bea has agreed to pack. We leave in three days!
Arguing with Bea about the practicality of packing The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. She insists it is too heavy and reminded me that the point of this venture is ‘family bonding.’ But what is a holiday around the countryside without some light historical debate?
Bea has triumphed as usual and the tome will remain in my study. But I do have my own success to report. When I asked Vincent if Twixel would be joining us, he said that unfortunately, she would be unable to attend because she is confined to his room. I tried not to gloat too much at this news, but I noticed Bea eyeing me suspiciously from the top of the stairs.
Although the drive from London to Brighton is under two hours, Beatrice’s insistence that we stop in every town, hamlet, and field along the way slowed our travel time considerably. We spent yesterday evening confined to the hotel—the Royal Albion, very pretty views—due to the downpour that greeted us when we finally arrived. Vincent was not in the best of moods and neither was I. He spent most of the evening pouting with his nose in a book and I spent most of the evening thinking of Maggie. She was seven the last time we came to Brighton and, despite the city’s drab ugliness, she loved every dirty sidewalk and boarded-up shop window.
She certainly could find something to love in everything.
This morning, I caught Vincent holding court with another light reflection.
‘I thought Twixel couldn’t join us?’ I asked him. He jumped. ‘This isn’t Twixel,’ he replied, scowling at me.
It is strange, though. When Vincent left the room to meet Beatrice in the lobby, I looked back for the light reflection, and it was gone. But I will not feign to understand the complexities of the science of light!
A day at the beach! Nothing stimulates the bum or enlivens the spirits more than a long sit on pebbly Brighton Beach. Bea spent the afternoon knitting from the comfort of a rented beach chair (five pounds for the whole afternoon! an outrage!), while I smoked cigars and kept an eye on Vincent. He doesn’t seem to improve. For about an hour he cast shy glances at a girl whose family had camped next to ours and it wasn’t until they left that he finally went to the water. Three or four feet out, some ragged poles jutted out of the Channel’s choppy waters, dressed in seaweed. The seaweed danced in the wind like a wild mane. I wouldn’t have noticed them if Vincent hadn’t spent a quarter of an hour staring at them. When he started splashing them and pointing off to the horizon, I decided to intervene.
‘Vincent!’ I called to him.
‘Mermaids, Granddad! Don’t you see!’ He dropped the sulking act he had put up since the trip began. I looked to Beatrice for support, but she had fallen asleep. ‘They’re very friendly, Granddad!’
My rage was blinding. I marched into the sea fully dressed, grabbed Vincent by his arm and dragged him back to the beach. ‘Stop! Stop! Don’t you see them!’ he cried. On instinct, I turned. Although the wind felt calm, the strands of seaweed on the three poles whipped wildly around. It looked like someone had carved a face into the top of one.
‘Vincent!’ I screamed when we were shore bound. ‘There are no such things as mermaids! There are no such things as fairies!’ I shook him with every word.
‘Mum believed in them!’ he shouted. ‘And she said I should see them some day! No matter what anyone said, she told me I would see them. And I have! When I went blind, I thought I would never see them, but after the surgery I see them everywhere. Mum believed. She believed!’
He sunk to the ground weeping and I released him. Suddenly, though we were above the tide line, the water came rushing up around our ankles, flooding the shore past Bea and her beach chair.
‘Look!’ Vincent pointed out to the spot where the three posts stood. ‘They’re gone!’
I refused to turn. I refused to see what wasn’t there. ‘You better get yourself together soon, boy,’ was all I could say. I marched up the beach, told Bea I would see her at the hotel, and have been here ever since. It has been three hours. Hopefully they will return soon.
Beatrice spent the rest of yesterday with Vincent, walking along the beach and around the main roads, and talking about mermaids and fairies. She has come to her senses and is as concerned as I am. She has promised we will seek some professional help for Vincent when we return to London. She does not, however, want to end the trip so soon. As planned, we are off to Stonehenge after breakfast.
She has shamed me though. After Vincent fell asleep, I relayed to her everything that had happened at the beach. All she said was: ‘I agree it is worrisome, but is it not enough for you that Maggie believe in him?’
For the whole drive, I thought about Maggie and Vincent. Maybe Bea could be right—if my beautiful Maggie believed him, shouldn’t I, too? Vincent’s method of coping seems to work better than mine. My grief comes in spasms of anger, while his comes in conversations with things that aren’t really there. But at least, I told myself, he is happy.
We arrived at Stonehenge in early afternoon. We strolled around the monument for a half an hour. Bea, like most of the tourists, showed more interest in the sheep than the impossibly constructed stone structure. Vincent was completely captivated. Trying to put the Brighton Beach fiasco behind us, I explained to him several of the theories regarding the construction of Stonehenge, leaving out the theory about the giants. Vincent looked closely at each stone, but he was struck most by one in particular.
‘Look, Granddad! There’s a face.’ His hands traced it in the air. And for the first time, I saw it, too. The grim brow was unmistakable; the nose and lips curved gently.
‘Mum told me that the stones of Stonehenge are really giants, frozen by the sun.’
I looked at him, biting my tongue and resisting the urge to be angry. I asked myself what Maggie would say, but could think of nothing. Thankfully, Bea had caught up to us. She shot me a warning look and took over the conversation.
It is past midnight, but now is not the time for septuagenarian sensibilities.
We found a small inn to sleep for the night, a quaint place several miles from Stonehenge. The owners own several acres of the surrounding hilly countryside—perfect for walking. They also provided dinner. After enduring Bea’s attempt at lamb pie for the last fifty years, it is nice to see the thing well done. Vincent was quiet through dinner. When I approached Bea about Vincent’s mood, she said he was disappointed he didn’t see a giant at Stonehenge. I felt both appalled at the thought and disappointed for Vincent. It was a strange combination.
Since the weather was fine and the moon bright, we offered to take Vincent for a stroll despite the darkness. Bea and I walked arm and arm like we did when we were young and Vincent walked slowly ahead, his head bowed.
‘Talk to him,’ Bea said, unhooking her arm from mine. The prospect worried me. I had grown accustomed to saying the wrong thing. Grown accustomed to being angry with him.
Vincent was climbing a high, gentle hill, his face fixed on the moon. When he reached the top he sat down, looking down for us to reassure it was alright. At Bea’s insistence, I followed him up the hill. The climb was long. My hips aren’t what they used to be.
After taking an uncomfortable seat beside him, I asked him how he was doing. He said he was fine, but that he was worried about the man on the moon. I looked up. When Maggie was young, I had held her on my shoulders and showed her the face of the man on the moon. I thought of her before I responded.
‘What seems to be the matter with him?’
‘He is very lonely, and very sad.’
I buried my cynicism the best I could. I pictured Maggie’s beautiful face.
‘What would cheer him up?’ I asked.
Vincent thought a moment. ‘A joke,’ he said seriously.
‘And will we know if the joke has worked?’ I asked him, just as seriously. Vincent assured me it would and that we would know. For a full five minutes, I racked my brain for a joke. I could hardly remember the last time I heard a joke, let alone told one. It is a pity the moon wouldn’t have been cheered by a historical anecdote—I am never short of those. Finally, I settled on a joke Maggie brought home once, when she was nine or ten. I looked up at the moon, feeling more ridiculous than I have felt in many years, and said:
‘A man walks into a doctor’s office. He has a cucumber up his nose, a carrot in his left ear, and a banana in his right ear. He asks the doctor what is the matter and the doctor replied that he wasn’t eating properly.’
Vincent laughed. It sounded like a chorus of bells and wind chimes, just like Maggie’s.
‘Look, Granddad!’ He pointed toward the moon. All around it, shooting stars were falling. I counted seven altogether, Vincent counted twelve. ‘You made him laugh!’
‘Vincent!’ Beatrice called to me from the bottom of the hill. She sounded worried. ‘What is it!’ I shook my head, exaggerating the motion, knowing she probably wouldn’t make it out. I looked down at Vincent and winked.
I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe in magic.
But I do believe in Vincent.
Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues
By M.E. Parker
Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.
Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.
“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.
“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.
“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”
Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.
Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.
“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”
Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.
Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.
“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.
Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.
Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.
Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.
Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”
Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.
Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.
Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.
“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.
“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.
Nester had always considered himself a rumbler. He’d done his time at the front, lost a leg the first week, not but a kid himself at the time. After that he tried his hand as a conscriptor, tracking down and turning in able-bodied citizens dodging their duty. He’d never been afraid of anyone, not until Lemuel was born.
Apt, conniving, paranoid, politicking, there were as many brands of people as there were cotter pins on the dead yard steam shovel. Stupid–that was workable, too. Liars, cheats, even marauders, all had clear motivations, even if they didn’t unfurl them on a flagpole. But a beast hiding behind a pair of polished glass marbles for eyes–born with a moral switch thrown in the off position, a fiend who made no distinction between murder and sport, that’s someone that would sing a childhood verse before a pool of his own mother’s fluids.
Old-timers thought that when a monster like that is born, a crack opens up in the earth wide enough for hell to wiggle out a finger—an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, that sort of thing. Nester couldn’t vouch for the superstitions of the codgers sipping corn liquor out by the coal yard, but the day Lemuel was born, a tornado as wide as a granite quarry dropped out of the sky and crumpled up most of Richterville into a wad of damp splinters and tin.
He couldn’t deal with his own eleven-year-old boy the same way he might’ve plugged a drafter who abandoned his duty, caught carousing and thieving while good men were away. His son was his progeny, came from him—and ultimately his responsibility. And now that he couldn’t attend school and he couldn’t help out with digging the graves, that left Lemuel to his own devices; unmanaged, unleashed. He’d likely strangle the family goat for his kicks, or worse still, turn his eye to the neighbor’s wife and take to scaring her, getting his jollies like he used to with his own mom.
“Come on, boy.” Nester led his son through the dead yard gate. They turned onto the main road, Nester wanting to travel out in the open, hoping a convoy of steam-cannon infantry would mistake Lemuel for fifteen and conscript him where he stood, halfway hoping and halfway dreading seeing his son’s face at the bottom of a grave ditch in years to come.
Neither spoke as they trudged down the main road, father several paces behind his son. Nester watched Lemuel kicking up puffs of dust behind him as he dragged his feet along the ground, as though he were trying to grind a hole in the earth. Nester loved his boy, the idea of him, the way a man might dream of his future wife before he succumbs to domestication. He still pictured it all, combing Lemuel’s hair, helping him lace up his slips, sending him off to school with a smile on his face–like watching a stage show with actors that looked like he and his son. Lemuel never did anything but stare at Nester when he tried to make him breakfast or tuck him in at night, stare and sometimes grin. It wasn’t a happy grin. It was more of a smirk that cut a jagged line from cheek to jaw, dividing that boy into two parts, neither side any more peculiar than the other.
Nester pulled back the burlap curtain on their front door and put on a pot of beans. Lemuel sat in a chair in the corner and watched, chuckling at phantoms he alone could see.
“Here you are, boy.” They ate their dinner in silence, except for the clanking of spoons against their wooden bowls.
“‘Bout time you headed off to bed, now. Tomorrow, we’re going to see about getting you some schooling in Jonesbridge.” They would go to Jonesbridge tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be for school as Nester said. They would go so he could finally turn his own boy in to the constable for setting fire to the schoolhouse in Petry and for what Nester figured Lemuel had done to his own mom a month back. He had never gotten caught, but he always managed to be standing over a fire, or worse, watching over some poor sod bleeding from neck to knee–just watching, all wide-eyed and grinning.
“I’m going off to the pit for spot of sweet corn,” Nester said, grabbing his hat off the peg by the front curtain. “Get to bed now.”
Nester followed the orange glow of the fire in the salvage pit. At a distance, the collage of voices were indistinguishable from the sound of an overloader sorting wreckage. The silhouettes took shape against the flames, the usual ten or twelve old gimps propped up on empty ration crates, the only men left in Richterville, the town of a thousand widows.
“Hey, Nester. Heard that boy of yours tried to give Millie a haircut with a steam shovel.” The man, perched atop a rusted oil drum, sipped from a broken bowl, flame flickering behind him. He raised his hand, calloused from walking on his palms after losing both legs to an enemy piss whistle.
“Yep. Close call.” Nester never knew what to say when it came to the horrible things his son did.
“I better not catch that punk sneaking around my silo again, Nester.” A man wearing an eye patch hollered across the fire. “Hear me? Away from my wife. My daughters. And my barley.”
“I’m planning on hauling him over to the Jonesbridge constable tomorrow. A year or two in that pokey might turn him around,” Nester said.
“And while he’s there, maybe old Dugout can teach him the art of lock picking and throat cutting,” the legless man on the barrel added.
Mack, the only man with all his limbs stood up suddenly as though he might strike Nester. “Look at a pack of them wild curs. One comes out wrong, they eat it right then and there.” He pounded his fist into his other hand.
“Them curs eat their young ‘cause they’re starving, Mack. Just like everybody else,” a man Nester recognized as Horace, said from the shadows. “What are you suggesting?”
“I ain’t suggesting nothing. I’m saying. That’s all.”
Nester lowered his head, feeling more unwelcome around the barrel fire at that moment than the first day he limped up to the collection of damaged old soldiers a few years back. He reached for the ladle, which was floating in a pot of corn liquor sitting on a munitions crate. He sipped at the ladle, before gulping the rest down with a snort.
“Have you tried giving that boy a good lashing?” The man with the eye-patch asked.
Nester had thought about beating Lemuel, thought about it every day. Never more than the day had he come home to find Lemuel standing over his mom as she spilled out onto the larder floor, insinuating through that vacant grin, that she’d tripped into a turnip hatchet. When he finally did speak, he just kept reciting a rhyme “bad John Jack, gave his mom a whack, when he saw what he had done, on his father he turned a gun,” over and over again. When the world knew nothing short of war, it came as no surprise that a boy would see that. But Nester had loved his wife, Audrey, in every way a man could love a woman.
He just couldn’t figure what lay behind that grin of Lemuel’s. Satisfaction? Amusement? Maybe he was confused, not right in his head, and Nester should have buried that boy the day he was born, like a pack of curs would have had the sense to do.
Sunlight stung his eyes when Nester rolled over after knocking back more than his usual two ladles of sweet corn liquor last night. Nester peeked into his boy’s bunk. Lemuel was already awake, just staring at the ceiling, and grinning about something only he and the fires of the Chasm were privy to.
“Come on. Time to go.”
Lemuel stood up, never looking at Nester. He still had his clothes on from the day before. Nester wrapped what remained of his turnip loaf and tucked it into his pouch. “Long day ahead. Maybe two.” He pointed to the West.
Nester hobbled behind his son for several hours, hours that turned into three days, hop-skipping on his good leg and crutch along the winding path through the hills. As they reached the top of a knoll, Nester observed an entire fleet of steam shovels tracking in and out of what had become an enormous gorge, all spanned by a half-constructed bridge that disappeared into a wall of haze.
He’d heard all sorts of tales about the activities going on in Jonesbridge, all the commotion and construction, tucking all sorts of industry behind a giant mote to keep out invaders. All that meant to Nester was that somebody important figured the E’sters were about bring the front all the way to his back door.
“What are you grinning at, Boy?” Nester looked down to see Lemuel occupied with a dustup off the path.
Lemuel pointed to a bird, what had become an increasingly rare sight. It writhed in the dirt, wing broken or stuck, Nester couldn’t tell. This was one time maybe he could show his son that killing was the right thing to do. But Lemuel only wanted to poke it with a stick and watch it chirp and twist in the dust beneath a withering pinion. Nester picked up a rock and pummeled the bird. “Come on, let’s keep going.”
Beyond the temporary gorge-crossing and checkpoints too numerous to count, the row-upon-row of red brick buildings bore no resemblance to the Jonesbridge Nester recalled from the last time he was here. The town, at least the Knuckle-Dragger, the tavern where he met Lemuel’s mom, was boarded up with the words Munitions Depot painted on the front. The apothecary, inn, road house, fuel station–all boarded up and enclosed in fences, and an endless array of smokestacks belched smoke and soot across the sky.
When they arrived at the location where the constable and jail should have been, Nester’s outlook improved. Several girls and a few boys, not much older than Lemuel, marched about in orange overalls to the cadence of an older kid. They weren’t military. That much Nester could tell. Over the door, a peculiar sign read Property of the Civility Administration.
He glanced down at Lemuel who had his eye on the marching kids in orange. He nudged Lemuel’s arm. “Stay here.” Nester approached a woman inside the hut with her back turned to them. “Hey there,” Nester said, lifting his crutch in salutation.
“Who in whore’s hairpin are you?” The woman, twenty or so, at least ten years younger than Nester, slammed a clipboard down on her desk and filled the doorway before Nester could get inside.
“We’re from over in Richterville. My boy there,” he pointed back to Lemuel who stared at the sky with a grin on his face, “well, his mama passed, and I can’t do much for him. I seen these other kids and thought…”
The woman laughed. “You mean, this kid’s so bad some gimp like yourself can’t even use him to help out. That ain’t no kid I wanna take on.”
“Where’d these kids come from? They ain’t orphans?”
“Chasm no. We came upon these kids working in the fields, doing chores, showing strength and we snatched up for Civility. We only want the best.” She pressed by, eying Nester as though his crutch were covered in manure. “Try Industry. Or, maybe Agriculture. Don’t look old enough for Defense.”
Nester surveyed the countryside. Jonesbridge had certainly grown, but it all looked so dreary, all brick and smoke for as far as he could see. Lemuel made a fiery mess of his school, but this place looked regimented, indestructible. He figured those other folks, Industry and Agriculture, might suspect something was wrong with Lemuel, too. It did seem strange. A hobbled man could always use an able-bodied kid to help him make a living. Short of giving his unholy seed a shove into the gorge, Nester had reached the end of fretting about it.
“Come over here, Boy.” He led Lemuel to a coal shed where two women shoveled heaps of coal onto overloader platforms. Nester pointed to the person he had just spoken to. “That woman over there said for you to wait right here by this shed until she can come and process you into her unit. This’ll be the best thing for you. You’ll be around other kids, maybe learn a skill. I can’t take much care of you.” Nester felt bad for lying to his son, for tricking him like that but he didn’t see another solution.
He thought about lecturing Lemuel before he left, for the sake of these other residents here in Jonesbridge, but he knew he couldn’t reach Lemuel, so he just pointed to the line of smokestacks in the shadows of the mountains and offered what he could for his own conscience. “Now, these people won’t have patience for any of your shickery around here.” He rested on his crutch and started to put his hand on Lemuel’s head, maybe tussle his hair, as he would have a different kind of boy, but when he saw Lemuel look up at him through those vacant glass eyes, Nester gave the boy a nod and turned around.
On the journey back to Richterville, it struck Nester that he was still a fairly young man, had just turned thirty—if his mom had been correct about when he had been born. He had no reason now to feel as though his life was over, not now, not like he had ever since that boy entered it. He didn’t have to go back to digging dead holes with a steam shovel. He had no family left, and he did hope that the new Jonesbridge back there would somehow turn Lemuel around, but he harbored a fear that, in a few years, after the monster inside him had festered a little more, Lemuel would come with a fire in his belly to find the father who abandoned him. It got him to thinking that he might not want to go back to Richterville at all.
Nester stopped to rest near an encampment just off the main road where a throng of people milled around in front of a table covered with bread and soup bowls. Behind the table, a gray tent the size of a dancehall had its flaps tied open revealing at least a dozen rows of stump-chairs. Their food smelled delightful compared with the turnip loaf and salt ribs in his pack, so he sat down and watched until the crowd settled into their chairs. Then he followed the scent of stewed goat and scallions to a collage of empty bowls and a ladle in a black pot. He put the ladle to his mouth and slurped, dropping it suddenly when he realized not everyone was inside the tent.
“Not much left. But you’re missing the sermon.” A dark woman in her middle age barked as she strolled around the corner of the tent.
“That’s right, eat the food. Listen to the sermon. Drop a few coins in the barrel. That’s how it works.”
“Coins?” Nester hadn’t yet been paid for his stint at the dead yard.
“That’s all right. You can help me clean up. That’ll pay for that ladle full of stew. Lordy knows I could use the help.” She gathered her wiry hair into bundle behind her head. “Name’s Lalana.” She held out her hand for a shake.
Muffled exclamations emanated from inside the tent, shouts, rebukes, intermittent vocalizations from the audience, and all the drama piqued his curiosity. Following Lalana’s lead, Nester gathered the dirty bowls as he leaned toward the tent flap for a listen.
“What? You never heard a crazy preacherman before?”
Nester thought about her question, thinking maybe he hadn’t. Though he did give deference to the Great Above, same as everyone else.
“Repent. The end is near,” She said, waving her hands above her head. “But I don’t believe none of that. I’m a scientist myself. A doctor of animals.”
“An animal doctor? What are you doing here?”
“I look after the mules and tend to sick people, when I can, though people and animals aren’t assembled quite the same. I also serve the food. For my trouble, I get a trailer to cot down in and food for myself.”
Food. A cot. Nester liked that sound of that. “Need an extra hand? I’m a gimp, but I can work.”
She eyed him up and down. “You’re relatively young. My guess is you’d do all right. Mind you, we travel from place to place. Never anywhere but a day or two.” She clicked her tongue a few times, shaking her head.
Being around penitent folks like a nomadic preacherman struck Nester as a way to somehow atone for siring such a dark soul and then abandoning him in the world, and now that he had done it, Nester didn’t ever want Lemuel to track him down.
“Preacherman rides in the steam truck. Everything else goes by mule train.” She pointed at Nester. “I could use some help with these mules. Know anything about animals?” She clicked her tongue again. “What do you go by?”
Nester mulled it over, wanted a clean start, didn’t want to leave a trail, and he certainly didn’t want to step up on another steam shovel anytime soon. “Call me Errol,” he said, thinking of a character in one of his favorite stories his mom told him as a kid. “Errol,” he said again, trying to engrave the change on his mind.
By Carol Holland March
The Chevy truck looked like it had been painted by a team of monkeys on acid. Its front was bright green, the rear a muddy brown and the camper stuck on its back sported daubs of pink and yellow in no apparent pattern.
“Bought it from a hippie,” Ray yelled as he passed the kitchen window. We still said things like that in 1982.
I left the dishes in the sink and bolted out the back door in time to see the truck struggle around the corner into what passes for our backyard but looks more like a car cemetery. The thing looked even worse standing still. The passenger door was hanging on one hinge with a single strand of rope preventing it from peeling off entirely. The windshield was cracked from what looked like a bullet hole. It had no front fender and one headlight. When Ray shut off the motor, it kept running for about a minute. I thought it whimpered a couple of times too, but that might have been me. Ray said that he’d gotten it for “almost nothing” which seemed about right.
Ray doesn’t get enough auto repairing to suit him at his job at the Ford dealer downtown, so it’s not unusual for him to show up with stray vehicles that he fixes up to sell. It brought in extra money that we needed to survive in San Francisco, even though we lived in a rundown flat in the fog belt a block from Ocean Beach, so close to the zoo you we heard the lions roaring at night. I didn’t mind him working on his vehicles on the weekends, but when I saw that truck, I thought he had gone too far. If you’d told me then I was going to set out across the western plains in that heap and be chased by a skeleton to boot, I would have called you crazy.
“The engine isn’t bad,” Ray said. “Transmission seems okay. All it needs is a muffler, brakes, maybe a new carburetor and a little body work.”
“More than a little. That’s the sorriest-looking vehicle I’ve ever seen.”
He gave me a hug, crushing me against his chest. “I know it looks bad, Franny, but the engine’s sound. And I can fix up the camper so it’ll be just like home. You’ll see.”
I didn’t say anything.
“So, are you mad?”
“No. But don’t get too busy on it today. We’re having dinner with Rita and Jake. Six sharp.”
“Aw, Franny. Why don’t you let me barbecue up something right here?”
“Because we promised we’d come.”
“Aw, Franny,” he said again, but a smile was threatening to break out on his solemn face as he went into the shed to look for the right tool to start working on the truck.
I left him to it and got going on my errands. As I pointed my Honda north on the coast road, the fog was so heavy you wouldn’t have known there was an ocean right there except for the roaring of the waves. It was late July, and we hadn’t seen the sun for weeks, which didn’t bother me like it did Ray who’s a desert guy from Texas. He had lived all over the southwest and just happened to be working a temporary job at the BART repairing subway cars when I met him three years before at a neighborhood bar in East Oakland. I had just hit town and was temping at a law office in Berkeley, looking for a way to move into the city. He was pretty smitten with me, and would have agreed to just about anything, so I guess I was taking advantage when I convinced him we could make more money and afford a better place if we crossed the bridge.
It took me a while to figure out he wasn’t just being ornery about the fog that hangs over the Outer Sunset much of the year. I thought he would get used to it, that in time the sea would work itself into his soul, and be would be happy living with me on the edge of the world. Instead, he got quieter. Worked longer hours. Gave me a hard time about things I couldn’t help, like mildew in the closets. He shriveled up like an old fig in the sea spray that rusts our cars and makes me feel invincible. It was one of the things we could not reconcile.
Ray worked on the truck the rest of the summer. By Labor Day it looked better. That weekend he asked me to marry him again, this time trying his luck after we had made love.
“We’ll take a trip for our honeymoon,” he said, curling himself around my back.
“In that truck? No way. I can’t sleep over the cab with the ceiling a couple of inches above my head.”
“We don’t have to use the cab. The dinette folds out into a bed.”
“Sleep in the kitchen?”
“Well, then we’ll fly to Paris. How would that be?”
“I’m afraid to fly.”
“So it’ll have to be the truck.” He kissed the top of my head. Neither of us mentioned that I hadn’t answered his question.
I hated thinking about what we would do with ourselves in the desert for three weeks, but since I wouldn’t marry him, or have kids, or move to a warmer climate, I felt like I was pretty much out of excuses for a road trip. So the day after he finished painting it, in late September, we took off, me feeling grouchy and tense as we cruised down the interstate toward Los Angeles in the camper now painted turquoise and metallic purple to please me.
It took most of the day to get through the Central Valley–green fields, an occasional barn, flat as Kansas. Ray got lost in the driving, looking as happy as I’d ever seen him, and handsome too in a new plaid shirt, bright green, his sandy brown hair slicked back. His strong hands gripped the steering wheel, and he hummed along with the radio no matter what tune was playing. Every once in a while, he turned to me and curled up the corners of his mouth, like he wanted to tell me something but wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. I smiled back, determined to say nothing to spoil his mood, and kept on reading the Tony Hillerman novel I’d picked up to get me in the mood for my return to the desert.
As we passed the Tehachapi Mountains and headed through the Los Padres forest, a full moon rose between two jagged mountain peaks. In Los Angeles we picked up I-10 going east and soon were doing seventy-five through the suburbs. That thick, yellow moon was shining its pale light right at me, and I asked Ray to pull over so I could look at it from a stationary perspective. He looked at me sideways. There were cars all around–four, maybe five lanes–and metal guard rails on the right side instead of a shoulder, so I took his point that stopping to look at the scenery wasn’t the best idea I ever had.
“Franny.” His fingers closed over my knee. “It’s going to be fine. We’ll sleep outside tonight if you want.”
The tears that had been blocking my throat since we pulled out of the driveway that morning rolled down my face. I was relieved to taste the salt.
“Maybe nothing has changed,” I said.
“Is that what has you spooked?”
His blue eyes searched for me in the dark cab.
“You’re a grown up woman now, Franny, not a seventeen year old kid. What happened back then is long gone. Besides, I’m here now.”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. He knows why I hate the LA desert, land of my birth, where my mother raised me to go along with whatever came along. In the blur of oncoming headlights, I saw Ada’s face on the night I ran away fourteen years ago. Pale and angular. Orange lips and blue eye shadow. Sitting at a metal table in the kitchen of an apartment stinking of fried food and spilled beer. I felt the narrow bed where I had cowered, trying not to hear the grunts coming from the next room.
Two days before, the guy I was living with had gotten so high he tried to run me down with his car outside our apartment. The leering yellow lights bore down fast, but I rolled away at the last minute. I ran down the street and straight into a man in a uniform. I collapsed into his arms, sobbing with relief. But the cop knew a crazy woman when he saw one and marched me off to the station. It wasn’t until the next evening that Ada got around to coming for me.
She took me to her apartment in west LA where I sat shivering on a cot in a tiny bedroom until she and her boyfriend went into the kitchen to eat. Later I went out too, thinking he had gone. But he was hunched over the table drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass. He looked up at me with dull black eyes and pulled his lips back over big yellow teeth. Knowing that look, I tried to leave, but it was too late. She made some protest, I remember that, but he was too strong. Did he hit her too? That I don’t remember. Only the blows across my head and back until I was quiet for fear his mindlessness would kill me. Afterward he left, slamming the door so hard the walls rattled. I heard her crying in the other room, drunken sobs that had little to do with me. I cleaned myself up, took the suitcase I hadn’t gotten around to unpacking and got in my car. Drove all the way to Tucson. That was the last time I saw her.
“She’s in Albuquerque,” I said to Ray, shivering in the warm night air at how clear memories can be. A few letters had reached me over the years, and once or twice I wrote back, with no return address on the envelope. She doesn’t know where I live, although my cousin Ruth, who is sworn to secrecy, does. It was Ruth who told me that Ada is still in Albuquerque where she moved years ago with a guy who was starting a used car business. He disappeared after a couple of months, but she stayed on, getting by on disability for her asthma.
“We aren’t going to Albuquerque,” Ray said. He stroked my hair. I leaned against his shoulder and watched the moon that was waiting to tell me its secrets.
“We’re going to camp tonight?” I said, suddenly feeling like a child on an outing.
“It won’t be so bad, being in the desert, Franny. It’s a big place, you know. We’ll camp under a palm tree.”
I thought he was joking, but just before we reached Palm Springs, Ray turned off the interstate, then onto a dirt road that took us past a row of tall date palms. Under one of them we parked the truck. We dragged our sleeping bags onto a patch of soft sand and zipped them together. Lying beside him with only our hands touching, I thought about my mother and all the places I had lived since LA. I thought of the men I’ve been with, good and bad, and how Ray had lasted longer than any of them. Through the swaying branches of the trees, starlight pierced the utter darkness. Ray’s hand was warm and solid in mine.
“I love you,” Ray said.
I was afraid I’d start crying if I said anything, so I pretended to be asleep. He rolled over and curled his arm around my waist.
In the morning everything was colored gold, lit by the rising sun. We were in a valley of sand dotted with cactus and scrub bushes with the ungainly palms soaring above us and nothing of civilization in sight. In the distance, desert mountains towered silent and proud; their nakedness held me still for more than a minute as I took them in. As I walked away from the protection of the palm trees, the sun seeped into my pores. Despite my terror of being reminded of how crazy my life used to be, I felt light and dry as if I could run all the way to those mountains and all the way back again.
Ray emerged from the camper carrying a coffeepot and two cups. It was a familiar ritual. I sat on a rock and took the cup he offered.
“How you doin’?” he asked.
The lines of worry around his mouth had already softened; sunlight works miracles with Ray. I shook my head, so many words crowded my throat, none came out.
“Did you sleep okay?”
“Fine. The desert is warming me up.”
Something of what I meant must have shown on my face. His eyes crinkled. I placed my untouched coffee on a flat rock. Ray stood, took my shoulders, and drew me up. I buried my face in his neck and bit the tip of his ear lobe. I wanted to lie down on that warming sand with the sun in my face and the naked mountains watching over us, and I wanted to feel him reaching for me, all the way inside, as far as anyone has ever got, so my body would beat in time to the vibrations of that place. I conveyed this to him with that one hard bite. He muttered into my hair that getting an early start was not always the best plan for the first day of your vacation, and so it was close to ten o’clock before we started east again.
A couple of days later, I was thinking this trip maybe hadn’t been such a bad idea. Then the skeleton started following us. We had lunch at a diner in Kingman, Arizona and were driving out of town into the heart of the west I had seen in a dozen childhood movies, when I glanced at the rearview mirror and saw the skeleton. It was running along the sand, just off the road, on my side, just far enough behind the truck that I could see it perfectly in the mirror. It was running like mad to keep up with us, its white leg bones pumping away, its arm bones moving rhythmically as if were a serious long distance runner, minus its flesh and organs.
I snapped my eyes back to the front. We were on old Route 66, a two-lane road that stretched into nowhere. Huge mountains in the distance. Flat prairie. Rows of hills I swear were in some movie where Indians surrounded a wagon train of settlers. I glanced sideways at Ray to see if he had noticed anything. He was humming under his breath. He felt my eyes and turned.
“How you doin?” he asked.
“Great,” I said.
He winked and turned back to the road.
I looked at the back mirror again. The skeleton lifted its spindly white right arm and waved.
I felt the tide inside me rising–from deep in my belly to my chest and all the way into my throat. Leave it to me to come to the desert to drown, I thought wildly. With a few deep breaths, I pushed it down, threw a couple of logs of driftwood at it to create a barrier. It surged against the logjam, groaned twice, receded. I stared straight ahead, and refused to look at the skeleton again.
By the time we got to Seligman, a little prairie town that looked as if the modern world had moved on without it, the familiar pain in my back had started throbbing. There was no medical reason for it. I had been checked. I had never been in a car accident or fallen off a roof or done anything else to account for it.
It had started when I was a teen-ager, with monthly lower back pain like a lot of women get. But as time when on, it wormed its way deeper, into nerves and vital organs, twisting its way up my spinal cord and attacking my lungs, shoulders, and finally penetrating my neck. When that happened, I couldn’t move my head to either side for a week. It was like being sucked dry by a creature with tentacles, like the horror movies about aliens from outer space. Those movies never scared me. I didn’t see much difference between slimy aliens with evil intent and what I was already hauling around. At least you’d get some sympathy if you took off your coat and showed somebody a fishy tail hanging out of your back. On bad days I could feel the thing slithering around my lungs, going for my heart, squeezing until I could hardly breathe. Then my back would start to spasm. In protest, I thought at first; but no, the thing had its roots in there, deep in the big muscles in my hip. The spasms were its victory dance.
Every time I turned around, for my whole life, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Didn’t matter what it was. Got a job. Quit the job. Moved to a different town. Got a lover. Went to school, you name it. Nothing was right, and the thing inside me was quick to point it out, with all that squeezing and thrashing around. The only way to beat it was to keep perfectly still which was the one thing I refused to do.
After I met Ray, the pain didn’t come as often. Even though it scared me to death when he talked about getting married and having kids, I couldn’t leave him like I did all the others. My body knew, even if the rest of me didn’t.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I didn’t think I had made noise, but his furrowed brow said different.
I was practicing not telling lies, not even the little ones.
“I don’t know,” I said, settling. “My back hurts and my stomach is cramping, but it’s the wrong time for that.”
“Could be the desert,” he said as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Do you want to lie down in the back?”
Lying down felt worse than sitting, so I folded my arms over my belly, wishing I had another pair of arms to hold the place behind my heart. Ray would have done it if I asked. He liked to rub between my shoulder blades in slow clockwise circles, but I felt too tender for touching, so I hunched over and willed the muscles in my back to relax on their own while Ray kept driving across the desert.
The skeleton stuck with us as we drove into the mountains at Flagstaff where it was cool and green. I thought a more populated area might scare it off, but it just kept running along the right side of the road, at a pace to keep it the same distance behind us. When we drove through town, it moved into onto the shoulder, and when we came down the other side of the San Francisco Peak, into the canyon lands, the skeleton moved off the asphalt and back onto the desert. I got the impression it enjoyed running on sand.
When we got to Flag, the pain in my back felt like somebody with a blowtorch was relieving me of everything in my body that was not essential. The heat snaked round behind my heart, through my chest and started scorching my arms. By the time we got to Winslow, I was in flames.
“Do you want to stop?” Ray asked. “You haven’t eaten all day.”
The last thing I wanted was to encounter strangers. “No,” I said. “Why don’t you go left here?” We were sitting at a crossroads with emptiness all around us.
He looked at me. “Why left?”
“When in doubt, always go left,” I said, trying to sound adventurous. “Maybe we’ll find a place to have a picnic.”
Ray shrugged and turned down a narrow road that wound around dry hills and narrow canyons. After a while, we came to a stand of cottonwoods by a little stream.
“Stop here,” I said. “This is perfect.” I didn’t know what was going to happen, but it felt right. I got out of the truck, and pretended this was the place we had been driving for days to get to. I asked Ray to get some food out of the camper and went to sit under a cottonwood that was turning all golden and whispering excitedly to its neighbors that they had company at last. I hadn’t seen the skeleton since we turned off the main road, but I wasn’t optimistic about that.
I ate some of the soup and bread that Ray brought me, then for some reason, I couldn’t sit there any longer. I told him I had to have some privacy, ignored how his face tightened up, and set off walking down the bank of the little stream. When I found a grassy place that looked inviting under another cottonwood, I lay down right by the water’s edge and let one hand fall into the water. The current brushed against my skin. I looked up through the old tree’s branches at the perfect blue sky and tried to figure out what to do. It came to me to roll, so I started doing that, moving from side to side. As I gathered momentum, I felt like moaning, so I did some of that too. The pain was so intense I wasn’t sure I’d ever get up again, but I didn’t care. I kept on rolling around in the grass, feeling the friction against my arms and legs, and moaning to beat the band. After a while, the flames inside me died down to embers. I focused on breathing and not thinking of anything but this thing inside me that was trying to get out. It would be something soft and slimy, maybe with scales. It might take all my organs with it, so this golden tree against an azure sky could be the last thing I ever saw. I moaned about that. My only regret was Ray. But what good was I to him with this thing inside me?
There was a sharp pain at my tailbone, like someone had slit me open with a knife. Then it slid out of me. It was a thick stream of black viscous liquid, like oil. It pooled on the grass and gradually soaked into the sandy soil. After it started coming out, the pain dissolved. Then, it was easy to let go of it. No trouble at all. It just kept on coming out, the black liquid, with no blood or guts that I could see, no body parts wiggling in the sand. I could feel it letting go of my heart and my lungs. It moved down my spine and out the back until there was nothing of it left inside me. I laid there for a while watching the sand absorb the black gunk.
I used the trunk of the tree to pull myself up and walked back to where we had parked. Ray was busy digging a substantial hole in the sand with the shovel he kept in the camper.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He looked up and nodded with his head to his right. Then I saw the skeleton, partially buried in the sand. It was on its back with its hands folded over its pelvis. Weeds had grown up around it and poked through its ribs.
“Found it there after you went for your walk,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of it laying there like that.”
He sounded so serious, like this was an ordinary problem, that I started to laugh. I laughed so hard I had to sit down. Nothing inside me hurt. I laughed harder. The afternoon was fading and the desert light coalescing into that deep focus that lets you see more than you can at noon. I looked hard at that skeleton, and, for just a moment, I swore I saw Ada’s face on it, gaunt and saggy and accusing.
When Ray finished with the grave, I helped him place the skeleton on a blanket. I was afraid it would disintegrate into a heap as we lifted it, but it kept its shape perfectly as we lowered it into the grave. Tears came to my eyes as I looked at it lying so helpless in that hole, but for the first time in my life, I was sure I was doing the right thing.
While I pushed the dirt Ray had excavated back into the grave, Ray wandered around picking up stones. I told him to never mind, that no one would ever want to find the place again, but he said it was only right and he heaped up a pretty good pile of rocks.
“It looks funny,” I said when he was done.
“Really out of place,” he said.
He reached out and pulled me against his chest. “There’s a little canyon just up this road that this creek goes through. Let’s drive up there and watch the night come on.”
“How did you know this was here,” I asked him when we pulled up to the canyon rim a few minutes later.
“Saw this road go up the hill,” he said. “Come on, the colors in the rocks are turning.”
And they were. I stood on the rim of that little canyon, with the creek a couple of hundred feet below us and the sun setting everything ablaze with pinks and golds and browns, and the green of junipers clinging to vertical cliffs; and, as if I were cut loose from my body, I felt what it would be like to fall over the edge, to spiral down as slow and easy as a hawk, past the desert rocks and colored sand to the creek below. I grabbed Ray’s arm.
“Look,” he said. He bent and picked up a tiny seashell from under a rock.
“How did that get here?”
“This was once a seabed.”
Then I saw it in my mind, the great flood of receding water, the plains appearing, the shelled creatures abandoned on mountaintops. The tide inside me broke through the last of my carefully erected barriers. Tears poured out of me, spilling down my face and onto my shirt.
The sun disappeared, setting us all ablaze in a final burst of light.
He looked down.
“I couldn’t answer your question because I was afraid I couldn’t stay still long enough. I’ve never stayed in one place as long as I have with you.”
“Franny,” he said.
I could have gotten away with that. So much had happened, I could have said almost anything next and he would have been satisfied. But in the midst of all that clear, hard beauty, I couldn’t play the coward. “I’m scared,” I said. “Scared to depend on anybody. Scared to let myself open up the way you deserve. Scared I’ll end up trapped and hateful without any way out.”
“That’s what you think will happen to us?” The pain in his voice tore at my chest. A cottony feeling in my mouth stopped me from answering so I just leaned against him, listening to his heartbeat.
“If you wanted to go, I wouldn’t stop you.” He sounded like he was being strangled. “I love you so much, sometimes I think it’s going to be the death of me, if the fog doesn’t get me first; but I’d never hold you back from what you wanted.”
“What if I’m not what you think?”
“I know what you are.”
He nodded. “You gotta stop running sometime. If you don’t want to move, we can stay in the city. If you don’t want kids, that’s all right. If you don’t love me, then you oughta be straight with me. But stop running so we can figure it out.”
I turned back to the canyon. Night was falling. The air brushed cool against my face. A crow screeched as it flew overhead. And something else. I heard music, low and deep, coming from way below my feet. It rippled through me and traveled up to the top of my head and out, echoing over the canyons and plains to the mountains.
“Do you hear that?” I said.
“Sure,” he answered. “Every place has a song.”
I looked at him and all of a sudden it hit me how lucky I was to have found him. Water or sand, it didn’t matter. We would figure it out. We stayed there on the canyon rim until the stars came out.
“This is where I stopped,” I said. “Maybe we should erect a monument.”
In the moonlight I could see the twitch at the corners of his mouth spread over his face until his eyes crinkled up the way they do when he’s tickled. I snuggled up close to him so we could both feel the warmth of that big yellow moon smiling down on us.
The 13th Prophet
By T. Lucas Earle
They say Defiance is dead. Yeah right. Some kid on the street threw a bottle at my head.
Men with long black beards sit on the sidewalk huddled around a TV, like a fireplace, warming their hands. A man shouts in a deep poet-preacher’s voice, “The Prophets have spoken! Cross-cut shawls for women, high beam neck ties for men! All straight from the Temple! The new Control ‘Blue’ hits the shelves today, and it is to die for! The Prophets scoff at the styles of last season!”
A young man punches the speaker in the gut. “The Prophets mourn! Defiance is dead!”
Defiance is dead. What a joke.
“Need a tune up?” says a young thing with more makeup than skin. “What’re you running? I got twenty bucks with your name on it if I can’t guess what you’re runnin’.”
“And if you can?” This will be fun.
“You come in and see what we’re selling?”
“Sure” I say, and she starts guessing.
“Tell me your name and what you do. I nail it every time.”
“Burke,” I say. “Mulligan Burke.”
“What do you do, Mulligan?” she asks, and I tell her it’s Burke to people who like me and Burke to people who don’t and she says, “You’re very funny. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were running a Solitude model . . . ” She eyes me, checking for a tell. It’s obvious she’s running a Control Model 10 with some Bliss highlights. I can almost see the source code for this one. “So, tell me what you do, Burke.”
“I’m a PI, lady,” I say.
“Like in those old movies?” she says.
“An old job for an old dog,” I say. I’m not too hot these days. A little rounder and softer than I used to be.
“Okay, I got it,” she says. “You’re running a Courage model. But you’ve augmented it by overlaying a ‘Blue’ rising touch.” I ask for my twenty bucks and she scowls. She offers me a discount, but I’ve had enough of her patter so I beat it.
An old Chinese woman sits at a little stall. She’s selling Bliss knockoffs. She winks at me as if that’s enough. Hey, these days it is.
“The Prophets have spoken!” coming from another street hawker – god I hate 77th street on days like this. “If you’re still wearing the Model 15 Desire Personality you need an update. The long-awaited Desire Model 16 hits the shelves tomorrow! Be first in line! Be first in line!”
By the time I reach the door to the Mercer Building, I’m sweating. It’s a cold sweat. And there’s this crowd packed in around the doors, shouting. The TVs out front are running the daily fashion lineup and Defiance is missing. There isn’t a body, but so what? The city is his chalk outline. The vibrations on the train, like Morse code, tick tick ticking out the words: Defiance is dead.
I show the guards my ID, and they wave me through.
Inside it’s like a palace. High ceilings. The floors are too clean. I look over my shoulder to see if there’s someone wiping up my footprints after me. The whole place makes me feel old, even more than waking up does.
I stroke the button by the elevator doors and wait.
The walls are mirrors in here. I usually try to avoid mirrors. Try to remember myself at twenty-eight. Or even forty-five. With a jaw line and cheek bones. Now I’d look like that man if he were melting.
The elevator soars up the skyscraper, spits me out, and I walk at a leisurely pace into the waiting room. The receptionist’s desk is a little nest. Glass of tea, tour pillows, folders and binders decorating her desk like ornaments. Her ID and key card dangling from a desk lamp. She’s running a Care Model 12, and she wears it well. Parachute shawl, Florence Nightingale blouse, floor-length skirt. It’s an awkward model for sure, but with those eyes. With those breasts.
She waves me into Hendrick’s office.
The room is long, tunnel-like, at least forty feet. Arched ceilings, furniture aligned with precision. Feng Shuei, with some Islamic revival. The walls are lined with framed magazine covers. The world’s twelve most influential men and women, staring out from behind phrases like “New Fall Looks,” or “Stay in Touch,” or “The Prophets Have Spoken, This Season’s Brash New Look.” Desire, Defiance, Grace, Satisfaction, Solitude, Strength, Clarity, Courage, Care, Passion, Control, and Bliss. The twelve Prophets – leading the world into a brave new future.
At the end of the room sits Hendrick behind a plain metal desk. He’s wearing a stiff black coat with a white stripe down one arm. Behind his desk there’s a door that’s trying to look inconspicuous. Probably leading to his private office.
“I’m assuming you watch the news.” he says.
“Then you know what kind of predicament we’re in,” he says.
“Defiance is dead.” No point beating around the bush.
“Our official story is that he is missing.”
“He’s the Second Prophet, Mr. Hendrick. No offense, but I know people who keep tabs on the Prophets better than your PR staff. He’s dead.”
Hendrick looks heartsick for a moment. Maybe he’s got something invested in all this. More than money.
“That is why I’m looking to hire you, Mr. Burke. May I call you Mulligan?”
“You’re absolutely right. Defiance is dead,” he says. “He was poisoned.” He has to take a breath to calm himself. Then he goes on. “I’m sorry. It’s so unreal. Like a bad dream. Do you feel that?”
“Death is death. It comes for everyone.”
He collects himself a little at this. He looks at the chair near his desk.
“Take a seat,” he suggests.
He squints at me.
“My God. You’re not running anything.”
“I might be running a fever, actually.” I stand behind the chair.
“I’ve heard of strange outliers. Pagan communes in the woods, the Amish, naturally – but here in New York?”
I don’t say anything at all.
“You’ve never had a single imprint?” he says.
“Never,” I say.
“Why? Why not get one? You must be awful on first dates.”
“And second dates,” I say. “Your secretary out there. She’s a Care Model 12. The doorman, Care 6 ‘Blue’. The taxi driver, standard Satisfaction Model 8 with a Passion 11 overlay and an outdated detaching program. Their models make them easy to read, easy to predict, no matter how complex.”
“What about me? What am I running?”
“Designer. Probably something from Bianca Falk’s newest line.”
He’s impressed. “Colonel Frier was right. He recommended you, by the way. He said if I needed this fixed, Mulligan Burke was the man for the job. He called you the most dangerous man in the world.”
False teeth, fake knees and a receding hairline. That’s me, the most dangerous man in the world.
“I’m not sure if Frier mentioned where I’ve been for the last five years.”
“I don’t care. You’re here now and I want this solved.” He’s all business now. Sure he’s Designer, but every custom design has got a signature. A style. And they’ve only got twelve ingredients to work with. This one’s typical Bianca – heartfelt, then cold as ice. “And I’m prepared to pay–”
He doesn’t flinch. Damn. I should have shot higher.
“Agreed,” he says smoothly
“But just so I know whose cake I’m eating, doesn’t Mercer have its own security force?” I ask. I know this one.
“We do. But the force itself is under investigation,” he says.
I raise my eyebrows. I want to hear the official story from him.
“Somehow Defiance was disconnected from the monitoring equipment we had set up in the Temple. We didn’t know he was dead for quite a while. And it seems whoever did this must have had help from the inside. So far, we can’t point the finger at anyone in particular, but we trust no one.”
“It’s a way to live. So, who says it’s not the other way around?” I ask.
“You said whoever it was had help from the inside. How do you know they didn’t have help from the outside?”
He’s still not getting it.
“What I’m saying is, how do you know he wasn’t killed by another Prophet?”
Hendrick recoils. “That’s preposterous. No chance.”
“Well, I guess I’ll find out when I talk to them.” I look around the room for a moment, giving him the chance to stare at me. I meet his gaze suddenly. He’s got a good five-hundred-dollar expression.
“I get to speak to the Prophets, right?”
He says nothing.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. “You want me to solve a case without access to eleven of the possible suspects?”
“Let me make this clear,” he says. “The Prophets are not suspects.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Mulligan Burke,” he says with more force than I thought him capable of, “I am paying you to discover who broke into the Temple on the 30th of October and killed my Prophet. That is all.”
And he’s paying me well. So I shut my mouth and show myself out.
“Can I borrow this?” I ask the receptionist, pointing at her glass of tea. Before she has time to speak I pick it up and dump it out on the floor. I walk over to Hendrick’s door and place the glass against it, putting my ear to the glass.
“I’m using the mad dog . . . ” I can barely hear his muffled voice through the door. “I know what you said . . . This is my call . . . How much time do we have? Tell me . . . sixteen weeks? That’s not nearly enough time . . . The process takes at least a year . . .”
“I don’t think Mr. Hendrick would be pleased to hear you were spying,” comes from behind me.
I turn to see the receptionist hard at work with a towel, mopping up the tea. Good girl. I put the glass down on the desk while she’s distracted. I walk past her and step into the elevator.
“Miss,” I say as I press Floor 1, “your boss is paying me more money than I’ve ever seen in my very long life to do exactly that.”
I tip my hat as the door shuts. The whole Model 12 line is so predictable. Care, especially. I doubt she’ll say a word of this to Hendrick. I twiddle her key card around my fingers. Taking candy from a baby is tough. I could do this kind of thing in my sleep.
In the streets again I call up Finnegan. I tell him it’s high time we got back into the snooping business. He asks, “Why the sudden change of heart?”
I tell him it’s the money. He buys it. I tell him, “I don’t need to remind you, the first well we piss in is the one we drink from.” Our first suspect is always the employer. He’s usually got his dick deepest in the shit, and there’s no sense wasting effort on dead ends.
“What are you, from the 80s?” Shouts a woman standing on the sidewalk. “You wanna get caught with a Model 7, a Model 8? The future is ahead of you . . . don’t get caught with last decade’s fashions!” she shouts. “The turn of the century is coming . . . are you ready for the new you!? Are you ready? Are you ready!?”
I push through another thick crowd of pedestrians swarming around a screen mounted on the side of a subway station. Someone is weeping.
“So, here’s the scoop,” Finnegan says as soon as I shut the door behind me.
No ‘Hiya Burke, how was Alaska?’ No ‘Long time no see.’ He doesn’t even wait for me to take off my jacket. He’s wearing a tight black turtleneck with the shoulders cut out. Big white goggles cover his eyes and his mustache has begun to eat the rest of his face. It’s the new Solitude model. I can’t remember the number.
“Hendrick is quite the character,” he says, “and certainly quite the employer. His father, Charles, was the original owner of the Prophets. He designed them. Gregory Hendrick’s been riding on his daddy’s coattails since he took over in 2089. He’s the third richest man in the world and let me tell you, he’s got friends in high places.”
“Higher than himself?” I ask. I pick up a bowl of peanuts next to Finnegan’s massive computer rig. It’s strange how Finnegan doesn’t actually need house lights as long as his computers are on. I eat a peanut.
“Well, the President, for one.”
I chuckle. “So you mean friends in low places.” I eat another peanut.
“Okay. I’ve got some words for you,” I say. “Ready?”
“Mad dog,” I say.
“It’s a beer.”
“Nope.” I eat a peanut.
“It’s a television show from the 50s.”
“Loved that show, but no.”
“It’s a . . .” He twitches his fingers and looks at his computer. He smiles. “It’s you.”
I eat a peanut. “What?”
“You don’t read up on yourself much, do you?”
“Why should I?”
“Yeah. The whisper going ’round the death circles is that Mad Dog’s back in town. From up north. Mad Dog, the Lud. That’s what they call you,” he says.
Every time I come back to the city they slap a new name on me. Sure, I’ll be a Mad Dog this time around. “What’s a ludd?”
“Luddite? No imprint? Man, you’ve been in Alaska too long.”
“Not long enough.” I eat a peanut. “Next up: sixteen weeks.”
He rubs his temples. “Um, it’s the time it takes Mercury to go into retrograde.”
“No,” I say. “I mean, what’s going to happen in sixteen weeks?”
“End of February? Let’s see . . . February 24th? Nothing. Nothing at all. I mean, Steve Jobs’ birthday, but besides that, you know, a whole lot of nothing. I think it’s a Monday.”
I grab my coat again and head to the door.
“Where you going?” he asks.
“They won’t let me talk to the Prophets, but I got the next best thing – Falk.”
Finnegan snorts and turns back to his computer.
“Hey, Fin,” I say. “Don’t forget to vote tomorrow.”
He blinks a few times. “What?”
“It’s November 5th.”
“Gunpowder, treason and plot?”
“Well, that too. It’s Election Day tomorrow. Go vote.”
I sigh. “I’m taking the peanuts,” I say.
I’m a sucker for dramatics, so I pick the back lock to Falk’s limo and hide behind the rearmost seat. The driver gets in. After Falk sits down and the car starts to go, I crawl over the back seat. When I was a young man, the gesture would have been rich with flourish and grace. Now, it’s just an old man climbing all over your upholstery.
“Christ, Burke! Do you have to do that?” She pretends she’s not choking on her drink. She’s older than I remember, but that’s how it goes. She’s wearing a purple power suit with white flourishes emerging from the collar. Her earrings are black. She’s radiating Control.
“Sure.” I say as I adjust myself to make sure I’m not bunching up my coat. “I need some help,”
“You could always call, or write, or . . .”
“Very funny,” she says. “Look, no calls in five years and suddenly you’re in my limo. I’m pleased to know you’re not dead, Burke. But I’m not that pleased.”
“I see you’re as warm as ever, Falk.”
“What do you want, Burke?”
“Still running Control Model 12? I thought you’d have upgraded by now.”
“Show off! You’re shameless, you know?”
“But you’ve added that ‘Blue’ overlay crap, right?”
“Of course. A good friend of mine designed it.”
“How loyal of you,” I say. “Tell me about Defiance.”
She puts her drink down and crosses her legs. I love that. She looks very serious. Very stylish.
“Very interesting,” she says. “I see you’re on the case.”
“I’m not expecting you to know who killed him,” I say, leaning close. “It’s just that you used to work at Mercer which means you know what happens behind closed doors.”
“What do you want to know? I’ll answer as best I can without breaking my confidentiality clause.”
I grab her drink and take a sip. It’s an Angry Martini without the apricot.
“Okay. Let’s start with Defiance. Who was he before he was Defiance? I mean this Defiance showed up when he was nineteen. So, who was he before he became a Prophet?”
“Can’t tell you. It’s in my contract,” she says.
“I can see this is going to be a thrilling conversation.”
“I can tell you that he wasn’t Defiance. The Defiance who died today is the third Defiance.”
“I know that–”
“Let me finish!” She hates it when I interrupt her. “He was the third Defiance. He was given the second Defiance’s personality. Not a copy. Not what we sell to the customers. He was imprinted with an original. And there is only one original.”
“So, what happened to the previous Defiance?” I ask.
“Sorry. Contract,” she says.
I take another sip of her martini. “You know, I’m detecting some imbalance in this relationship.”
“I can say that he’s alive and well and is no longer Defiance” she says. “He’s running a Bliss Model 15 right now, I think.”
“What a cop out.”
“Okay, so what happens to Defiance now?”
“Well, there’s a period of about seven minutes after a person dies, during which the brain is still active. That’s enough time to extract the Personality from a Prophet. Then they keep the data on ice until they get a new body.”
“Do you know how frightening you sound when you say stuff like that?”
“Look, this is a business. The show must go on.”
“You’re a vulture.”
She starts to stroke the leather seat. “Burke, insulting me will not make me more inclined to do you favors.”
“I’m sure. But I know what will.”
“What if you don’t extract the Personality in time?” I ask.
“That would present some serious difficulties,” she says. “First of all, you’d have to . . . Oh, my word, you’re not saying . . . ”
“Oh, I am. Hendrick said he’d been dead for quite some time. And he’s hired me, which means he’s panicked.”
“This is a disaster,” she says.
“First of all, Hendrick has to find a new Defiance.”
“What about the original?”
“He’s older than you, Burke. There’s no chance he’s still defiant.”
“Hey, look at me.”
“You’re different, Burke. You’re a mad dog.”
I bare my teeth.
“And vetting and grooming a new Prophet from scratch, with no imprint to work from, would take at least a year,” she says.
“And Hendrick doesn’t have the time,” I say. “Which makes me a little curious about what he’s going to do next. Listen, Falk. I think things might get ugly between me and my new employer, and I know you’ve got your contract to consider, but what can you tell me about Hendrick?”
“He neither forgives, nor forgets,” she says. But her thoughts are somewhere far away.
“What’s going on in there, sweetheart?”
“There’s supposed to be a new Defiance model coming out soon. Hendrick’s going to lose a lot of money.”
“There’s no way he could cook something up for the masses?”
“No. None at all. Without the original he can’t produce new models.”
“Just out of curiosity,” I ask. “How many weeks until the new Defiance model was supposed to hit the shelves?”
“It was scheduled for the winter lineup, so twelve weeks?”
“Well, Falk, it looks like things are going to get very interesting very soon.”
She lets me out at the Brooklyn Bridge. Herds of bodies smash into each other like waves, with me slow and awkward, caught in the undertow. I decide to take a short cut I know from the old days. The sun is setting. The fire escapes, painted blood red, frame the alleyway. I stop for a moment to find my phone. I can’t remember which pocket it’s in. Suddenly there are three men standing around me. They’ve got the newest Defiance model. Red and white scarves cover their mouths. Tight ripped jeans, thick black hair that spins and rockets out from their scalps. They’re holding black baseball bats. They’re far too well dressed to be muggers, but they’ve got that look in their eyes.
“Hey there, friends,” I say, trying to cut the tension. “Lose your ball?”
Best way I’ve found to deal with the new Defiance models is to aggravate them. They’ll get to shout and froth, and then they’ll feel big and walk away. But these guys don’t speak. They don’t spout bullshit. They just move. The first swing catches me off guard. But the second doesn’t. Fifty seconds, really, is all it takes. Fifty seconds of pummeling before I’ve broken two of their collar bones, six ribs, two wrists, three ankles and shattered a knee or two. They lie at my feet, writhing. One of them is weeping. Snot dripping from his nose as he bawls. I brush my knees off. My back is killing me. That took far too long. I should have wiped the floor with these guys in ten seconds flat. I’m panting. I’m wheezing. This is no good at all. I check my pockets again and finally find my phone.
“Finnegan,” I say as soon as he picks up. “I’m gonna be at your place in five. Be ready.”
Five minutes later I’m sitting on Finnegan’s couch nursing a fat lump on my skull.
“How long have you been in town?” he asks. “Two days? And you’re already picking fights with strangers?”
“They started it!” I say.
“What is this, kindergarten?”
“No, it’s New York,” I say. “Give me the damn peanuts.”
“So what happened?”
“I don’t know. They jumped me. Straight Defiance Model 17s from what I could tell, and they just attacked me. No reason. I don’t get it.”
“Maybe they didn’t like what you were wearing.”
I look down at my coat.
“So, what did you get from Falk?” he asks.
“Seems there’s plenty of that these days.”
He points at the screen and there it is. The best news I’ve heard all day. Defiance is officially dead. On the record. Front page. His vacant eyes staring me right in the face.
I don’t knock. This time I don’t even bother talking to the receptionist. I just barge in. He’s on the phone.
“Alright Hendrick! Now’s the part where we do it my way! It’s time to introduce me to your Prophets.
He looks at me passively.
“The word is out,” I say. “And the public’s gonna jump on this. They’re gonna want to know, and they aren’t like you, Hendrick. They will be more than willing to point their grubby fingers at one Prophet or another. And once they start doing that, they will start pointing their fingers at every sucker dressed like that Prophet. You want a little war on the streets?”
That gets a miniscule twitch out of him.
“I’m not saying one of your Prophets killed Defiance. I’m just saying they might know who did, and if you think they’re innocent, you’re going to have to let me prove it.”
He doesn’t move at first. Then, into the phone, “Sarah, I’ve got company, so I’m going to have to call you back.” He hangs up.
“Well?” I say.
“Fine. Let me get my coat.”
I always figured the Temple would be some ancient monastery hidden deep in the woods. I guess it’s the name. But when I ask where we’re going, Hendrick just taps an unmarked silver card on a little panel marked ‘LL2.’ You’ve got to be kidding me. This whole time, the Temple’s been right under our sidewalks, making our futures bright and shiny, from below.
The doors open and I’m facing a white hallway. It’s seriously bright down here. I pull my hat brim down low. The security guards pat me down. They’re armed to the teeth: Batons, tasers, magnums, assault rifles, a couple flash bangs.
“You guys look like you’re overcompensating,” I say.
“Don’t piss off the security, Burke,” Hendrick says. He grabs my arm, and he leads me like a child to a door marked ‘Temple 1’ in big red letters. He takes out a key card and holds it up to the scanner.
The doors slide open, and now it’s a whole new picture. Little reflecting pools. Lavish carpets on marble floors. Winding staircases. It’s white, but the white’s more neutral, less oppressive. And it smells like lupines. Like Alaska.
Passion sits on a royal blue couch, gazing into an empty fireplace. He’s dressed in black with a little red button that serves no purpose on his right shoulder. He stands up very slowly and turns to face me, and suddenly I, the Mad Dog, am speechless. He’s shorter than me, like most people, but he stares me down to a child’s height. His eyes are a deep purple.
“Welcome to the Temple, Mr. Burke. Your arrival was foretold.”
“That’s a fancy way of saying they told you I was on my way down, right?”
Passion makes no response.
“Passion,” says Hendrick. “Mr. Burke has questions about Defiance.”
“Where should we talk?” I ask.
He gestures towards the couch.
I turn to Hendrick. After a brief moment of hesitation, he shows himself out.
Passion sits on the couch.
“Tell me about Defiance,” I say, sitting next to him.
“Existence is an act of defiance. We all do our part.” He looks back at the cold fireplace.
“How did he play with the other children?” I ask.
Passion laughs warmly.
“He was a troublemaker,” he says. “He burned like fire. His smile was made of wickedness. And he loved us all, with the deepest clarity.”
“So who’s gonna replace him?”
“No one,” he says.
Suddenly a new voice fills the whole room. “I will speak for my family!” A tall woman, with impossibly long black hair and sharp features stands, arms spread, at the top of the staircase. She’s wearing a long white dress with golden bands around her arms and waist.
Behind her stand the other nine Prophets. They look exactly as they should. “You will?” I say.
“Yes, I am their voice,” says Control, descending the staircase like Athena approaching her supplicants.
“I think Passion does fine on his own. You should give him more credit.” I glance over my shoulder at Passion, but he is suddenly a statue of a man.
“You remind me a little of Defiance” she says, now standing at the base of the stairs.
“I get that a lot. But don’t get any ideas. I’m what they call–”
“A purist,” she says.
“Sure,” I say.
“You’re like him. He would never accept a copy.”
“Really, because from what I hear, that’s what he was. An imprint made from the Defiance before him.”
“No. He was a child of the future. A child of pure anarchy. There was no one he emulated but himself, and what he was destined to be.”
“Paradox aside, you’re full of shit. That man was given a Personality,” I say.
“No. Absolutely not. He was given a recipe. He created a cuisine.”
Behind her, little Bliss scratches at her wrist. I can see the small black node where her vitals are monitored. Care grabs her hand, and gives her a stern look. Bliss giggles. She looks much younger in person. More fragile.
“So, how did Defiance get disconnected from the monitoring equipment?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“How’d someone break into this place? Poison his food?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did no one notice until it was too late?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know, you don’t read like your copies.” Usually, someone running a Control model is doing it because they need it. Not her, though. She doesn’t need Control because she excretes it. Even in her admission of ignorance she manages to emit pure power.
“But all your power and majesty mean nothing, because this morning I saw a four-year-old running a Control for Kids Model 6, hitting a cat with a stick.”
“You’d be surprised, Control. Up top, the world you’re shaping. They dress like you, like gods. But they still act like animals.”
She smiles. Like she knows everything.
“So, just for the record,” I say. “Who found Defiance’s body?”
Grace begins to speak, but Control cuts her off. “I did,” she says.
“You know there are cameras, right?” I say. “I could just go through the footage.”
“Not that day, there weren’t,” says Control. “They were having some difficulties with the equipment.”
“I do not kid,” Control says. “And I’m sorry, Mr. Burke. I like you very much, but we are all quite upset and wish to be alone.”
I watch the procession as they somberly ascend the stairs. Passion follows.
I exit the room and there’s Hendrick, leaning against the white wall.
“They are amazing, aren’t they?” he says.
“How did you find them?” I ask.
“I didn’t,” he says. “I made them.”
“Let me speak to the head of security.”
At the long metal table, talking to the long-faced head of security, we make nice, and eventually we get down to business, but he’s quietly resistant. A perfect Solitude/Defiance mix. Bad for a soldier, great for a co-conspirator. He says one thing that I can’t seem to stop chewing on. He says, “I’ve loved these children since I met them. I never did anything less than my duty as a servant of the Prophets.” I wonder which Prophet he’s talking about. Control?
My phone rings.
“You’ll never guess what I found,” says Finnegan through the phone.
“I won’t argue there.”
“It’s about that sixteen weeks,” he says. I turn away from Hendrick. “It’s planned obsolescence.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Personality imprint is designed to deteriorate. After three years they start to malfunction, and bad. I mean these things pretty much crash once the end comes ’round. Sometimes sooner. It keeps the market buying. The last Defiance model was released in February, three years ago.”
“So sixteen weeks is how long we’ve got before millions of people with malfunctioning Personalities don’t have a new Model to upgrade to. What happens then?”
“If they don’t buy another Model, then the implant would deteriorate. Though, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like.”
I picture three men with black bats, staring at me like wild animals.
“After that,” Finnegan says, “the Personality would collapse completely.”
“Can you repair a Personality?” I ask.
“No,” says Hendrick, who’s been listening to my end of the conversation.
“No,” says Finnegan.
“Good work, Finn. Gotta go.” I hang up.
I turn to look at Hendrick. The head of security watches me stoically.
“What was Defiance scheduled for on the day he died?” I ask.
“It’s okay, Hendrick, you don’t have to answer. He was scheduled for an offload, right? You were going to extract the newest model of Defiance. But before you got the chance, he’s dead, and he’s dead in such a way that you can’t possibly recover the goods. And now you’ve got a crisis. No one wants to stagnate, buy a model they already have. And no one in their right mind would buy last season’s Personality, so what are you going to do? You can’t possibly vet a new Defiance and work up a new Personality for him in the time you’ve got. You could try selling a knockoff but you’d never get away with it. Your best bet is that people might be willing to switch to a new line. Buy a different Personality. But they won’t, will they?
Hendrick shakes his head.
“So, you think it was a thief,” I say. “You think someone killed Defiance then stole his Personality to pirate it. Christ, that would knock out a twelfth of your market for sure. Maybe more, now that he’s dead.”
Hendrick nods solemnly.
“When were you planning on sharing this with me?” I inquire.
“I figured that if you’re as good as everyone says you are, you’d figure it out on your own,” he says smugly.
“There’s a time to test to people, Hendrick, and this is not one of them.”
I’m sitting in front of Finnegan’s computer munching on a peanut while he writes some code, when he asks, “When’s the last time you ate a full meal?”
“She was lying to me,” I say.
“Control. She’s a good liar. I’m guessing the rest of them aren’t. That’s why she spoke for them. Passion said that no one would replace Defiance.”
“You think they’re just going to end the line? It could work.”
“Yes. Business-wise, that’d be the astute thing to do. But that’s not what rubbed me wrong. It was the way Passion spoke. He seemed resigned.”
“So what? He was grieving.”
“No, he wasn’t,” I say. “Think about it. The Second Prophet was pure distilled defiance. He was more defiant than either of his predecessors. The rawest form of his namesake. So what was he doing selling himself, piece by piece?”
“It’s obvious. He kept saying he wanted the world to rebel. You know, shake off the chains of oppression.”
“No one ever shook off the chains of oppression by posing shirtless on billboards. Defiance was a tool. A pawn.”
“Sure. And I think he knew it. I think he saw the end coming. Hendrick thinks someone killed Defiance to steal his soul. I think he’s wrong. Defiance isn’t out there ready to be sold. He’s rotting, so in sixteen weeks we can all rot with him.”
“So, what is it?” Finnegan asks. “Terrorism?”
“Sure. A new kind of terrorism. Our buildings will be left standing. Our trains will be running. It’ll be our wardrobes that will burn.”
“Sounds awful,” he says.
I stand up. “That’s it,” I say. “I’m done sifting through sand. I think it’s time I pick up the whole damn beach and shake it till something shiny falls out.
On one of Finnegan’s screens I watch an image of Hendrick speaking at a podium. He’s introducing a new line called Perseverance. It’s probably a blend of Courage and Passion.
“Is this live?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Finnegan says. “It’s live.”
This is my shot. I’m out of the door in a second flat.
A cab unloads me at the Mercer Building. I flash my badge. I charge the elevator. All the way to Hendrick’s office. The receptionist is gone, but two guards stand outside it. They watch me carefully as I approach. One holds out his hand to stop me. Twenty seconds later they’re both on the ground, breathing shallowly. I open the doors and storm across the room, stopping at the door behind Hendrick’s desk. I use the key card I swiped from the receptionist and pray. The door opens.
Behind the door is a lavish office. It’s too mahogany for my tastes. Against the far wall is a big wooden desk. I start rummaging, pulling out drawers, looking under displays. I reach under the main panel to see if there’s a hidden compartment. Instead I find a switch. I check to see if it says ‘Panic,’ but instead it says ‘Display’ so what the hell, I flick it, and the wall behind me lifts, revealing a massive array of monitors showing the rooms of the Temple. The Prophets are mulling about, getting ready for something. Care is in the kitchen cooking up a storm. But in the lower left corner one monitor catches me by surprise. It’s Control. She’s standing motionless in the middle of a plain white room, staring up at the camera. Her eyes burn the pixels. I feel as if she can see me. I tap the screen a few times. I don’t know why.
I return to Hendrick’s desk, and I find what I was looking for: a plain silver key card. I head back to the elevator and tap the card on Lower Level 2. When it opens I’ve got three more guards to deal with, and I do my best to not kill anyone.
I’m limping when I tap Hendrick’s card at the Temple door.
I’m not bleeding too badly. Just a cut lip and some bloody knuckles. I crouch down and use the reflecting pool to clean out my mouth. The water tastes like nectar. No Prophets in sight. I walk up the stairs, but before I touch the door it swings open.
“You are not allowed in here,” Control says.
“Sure I am,” I say. “I got a key.” I hold up the key card and show her my pearly fakes.
“I’ll call for security if you don’t leave right now!”
“Let’s not go there, huh, sugar?”
“Excuse me!?” Her feathers are seriously ruffled now.
“Look. How about this? I’m going to take a wild guess. And if I’m right, will you let me stay?”
She says nothing, which is enough for me.
I say, “Mercer told the world Defiance liked being cooped up in this Temple. That he enjoyed selling off a bastardization of his inherited soul to millions of little snots. Mercer told the world it was his way to rebel. But it wasn’t. Mercer bought rebellion, so they could own it. So it wouldn’t be a risk. They neutered Defiance, and he wasn’t about to let them get away with it, was he? So he did something that made them very, very angry.”
She says nothing. She just watches me.
“I know who killed Defiance,” I say. She’s nervous, so I lean close. Just next to her ear. She smells like perfection. “Defiance killed Defiance.”
She blinks rapidly. There it is. Even a god’s got to have a tell.
“Don’t say a word,” I whisper. “They’re watching closely. They’re calling Hendrick. But he’s at a press conference. They’re calling the head of security, but he’s in a cell. So we’ve got a little time. I just want to know – did you help?”
She relaxes a little, but she’s still out of her majestic sorts. She turns and leads me down the hallway beyond the double doors. She takes me to a large dining room where all the Prophets sit around an oak table laden with platters of food. It’s a feast. They stare at me with amazement. All of them with little trickles of blood oozing from their wrists, where their monitoring equipment used to be.
“Burke,” Control says. “The world is about to change.”
“I’ve gathered as much.” I lean over a bit to look at her wrist. The little trickle of blood.
Control addresses the group. “Everyone, Burke has asked me if I helped Defiance kill himself,” Control says.
I panic. I count three cameras in this room alone.
“Don’t worry,” says Control, noticing my discomfort. “The cameras in this room are . . . malfunctioning.”
“Well, shall we tell him? Do we trust the Mad Dog?”
The Prophets nod slowly. Passion is grinning.
“Yes,” Control says, to me now. “We knew what Defiance was going to do. We simply didn’t realize he was going to do it so soon. He couldn’t stand the thought of one more extraction, so he strayed from the plan.”
“Big surprise there,” I say. She’s not amused. “What plan?” I ask.
“This one,” she says pointing to the dinner table. There are two empty seats. One for her. One for their fallen family member.
“Now do you understand?”
“No more children in adult’s clothes,” I say without thinking.
“Yes, Burke. A world where the weak no longer imitate gods. Instead they will be forced to rise up and become gods themselves. A world full of Prophets. Think, Burke, when was the last political rally? How about the last time people tuned in to watch a debate?”
“Are there still debates?”
“The world is looking to us, and we, trapped in our Temple, are looking to no one. No one sees the kings. It’s not fair to you.”
“Yes. But this is quite a price to pay.”
She shakes her head. “It’s a small price. Twelve Prophets die so that in a few years, the glorious morning will come when there will be billions of us.”
She sits down with her family, and they begin to eat. I can’t stop them. I just stand there and watch.
“They will come soon,” says Courage, looking up from his meal, right at me. “We knew they would. We hoped they would be caught off guard because of the press conference. But with all the commotion you caused on your way in, I don’t think we have the time we need. We must be at peace before they find us. Or this will be for naught.”
Care looks at him with deep sadness, then back at me again. “We will proceed, regardless. The time is now. What can we do but hope?”
“We have a guard dog,” Bliss points out. She hasn’t touched her food.
“Bliss,” Control says. “Eat.”
Bliss nods and looks down at her plate. Her delicate arms are covered in rainbows of wrist bands. She takes a bite then laughs at something.
“Do you really want do this?” I say.
“Of course,” she says. Her voice, impossibly light, “I have a monster in me. We all do. We are nothing more than the guards of a prison that everyone up above is trapped in. And we have a gift, a wonderful light in us. We have the power to kill our monsters, each and every one of us. I love life, but I love you more. This is what I want to do. It’s just that … Well, I really don’t like spinach. Can someone pass me the mashed potatoes? Anyone?”
I turn back to a table full of corpses, slumped over their meals. Even with their faces buried in pasta, they still look dignified. But little Bliss, she sits and looks at her family, all alone at the end of the table.
“Could you pass the potatoes, Mulligan?”
It’s Mulligan to people who love me.
I walk over and grab the large bowl. I slowly scoop potatoes onto her plate. She smiles. “Thank you,” she says. Then she starts to eat. She looks up at me with mischievous blue eyes. I can’t help but smile.
“They’ll be here soon. Make sure we’re all at peace before they come in.”
I nod and walk outside of the dining room. I don’t want to hear the sound Bliss’s little head makes when it lands in her plate. But I do.
I shut the door and crack my knuckles. Only one point of entry, a narrow hall. This ought to be fun. I check my watch.
When the guards burst in with their guns drawn I slowly raise my hands. They approach cautiously, I’m guessing it’s about five minutes until the Prophets are completely empty, but maybe a couple more for Bliss.
I grab the gun nearest me, and it discharges into the wall. I snatch it from the guy’s hand, and I use it to pistol whip his companion. With my other hand I grab a guard and lift him off the ground, hurling him at the others. Guns fire, fists fly. I move into the chaos, fueling it, allowing it to swell inside me. I break a jaw here, a wrist there. I keep them real close, so they can’t use their guns effectively. A few of them shoot their companions by accident. Everyone starts drawing night sticks. Fun. I break a night stick over someone’s leg. Someone else tries to slip past me. I reach out. I’m a mile long, engulfing him, swallowing him whole. Spitting his body against the wall with a broken collarbone. I let them pile on top of me, like a football game, then, I rise up with all my strength. I rise up and up and up and like a volcano, I erupt. I am all the rage in the world. Today, here and now, blood streaming down my face, I am the Thirteenth Prophet: Fury. The Mad Dog.
I thrash and I pound. More men come. More gunshots. Two bullets tear into me. I am made of so much more than this flesh, this blood of mine. But I’m slowing. I’m old, and I’m so much less than I used to be. I can see Hendrick down at the end of the hallway, watching me from behind one of his guards. I let him see my fake teeth in action as I bite the ear off a guard trying to grapple me. I tear out an eye. I snap an arm. But I’m sloppy. I’m taking too many hits, and soon I’m on my knees and they’re beating me, over and over, until I can’t stand. I check my watch with blurring vision. Just another minute. One more minute for little Bliss. I howl. I roar. Then I’m gone.
At first it hurt, I guess. I remember screaming a lot. But then, when it was over, I didn’t mind so much. Hendrick was standing in front of me. There were men in white jackets standing around him.
“This is ridiculous, Hendrick,” they were saying. “We got to Bliss in time. Why not imprint someone we can actually use?”
Hendrick got real close to me and smiled.
“Without the others it doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.
“So what’s the point?”
“It’s what he deserves,” he said.
There was some muttering, some glances back and forth . . . layers of meaning.
Then they left; the Temple doors were closed and it was just me.
Now I’m just sitting here in this little reflecting pool, making tiny waves, watching the lights flicker above, and it’s all so …
An Archivist of Leaves
By Brenda Stokes Barron
Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.
They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.
One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.
But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.
She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.
She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.
“Del?” she said.
She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.
“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.
The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.
And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.
“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.
She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.
Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.
“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.
“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”
“That is the wrong answer.”
“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”
“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”
The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”
The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.
“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”
“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”
“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”
“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”
“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.
“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.
“My story begins centuries ago in this forest. I was its guardian and I served to protect it.”
“I didn’t have a name then. I was just a woman of the forest, another creature living amongst the trees, eating berries, and drinking from streams. There were others like me, but I was the only one to steal the heart of a tree.”
“Wait,” Abigail, raising her hand like she were in a classroom. “You were a woman once?”
The face comprised of leaves smiled, “Yes, I was. A woman, just as you would be one day if I wasn’t going to crush you into a fine powder,” the leaves that were also a woman grinned wider.
“All trees have hearts. But the one I loved was Ash. He was dashing and so charming. He always said the right things. One day, he cut a hole in his trunk and carved out a spot where I could live.
There were other women in the forest, and other men, too, but I was the only one with a tree husband. He brushed my hair away from my face with twig hands. He was perfect.
Some would say that I first became Askafroa on that day he carved a hole for me so I could be closer to his heart. And though he was my husband then and I his wife, I did not become Askafroa as the people of this land came to know me then. I became that woman, the Ash Wife, much later.”
Askafroa slouched as though getting more comfortable. Her branches drooped downward. If she had shoulders, they would have been rounded, folding over Abigail like she was telling her a secret.
“After a while, my husband did not pay attention to me. He consorted with the other trees and paid no mind to the woman within him. He let the bark grow up and around me until I was trapped inside. I could feel his heart beating below me, beneath the ground in the roots. That soft pulse lulled me to sleep each evening. But he no longer responded when I pressed my palms against the pulpy interior. He was cold.
So I dug with my fingers into the earth. I bore through the roots and into the soil until I reached his heart. I held it within my fingers and took a bite. It tasted sweet, like blueberries.
And with that one bite, the entire tree shivered. He acknowledged me for the first time in years. So, if I couldn’t get his attention with love and kindness, I would get it through anger.
I bit his heart to say good morning and I bit it to say goodnight. I jabbed a finger into it to tell him I loved him and I pinched it between my palms when I felt lonely.
I didn’t know it then, but parts of me were seeping into the soil. I had grown so entangled into the roots that my saliva was mingling with sap and changing the nature of Ash. And soon it changed the nature of the forest.”
Askafroa waved her branch arms around her, as if presenting the entire forest. “The trees grew dense and blocked out the sun. The sky darkened. Plants died or changed shape into hob knobs and grasping hands. The tree trunks grew gray and the leaves faded one by one. The oldest trees, like Mother Maple, withstood my influence for a while. But over time, even she succumbed.”
The leafy face looked downward, seemingly saddened at the thought. “Now you must know that wasn’t my intent. I didn’t mean to turn the leaves gray and the bark black. I didn’t mean to block out the sun. But it happened and the ancestors of the trees died. And soon, even my dear husband, Ash, died.
I held his heart in my hands as it beat one last time. I didn’t want to let go of it or him. Around the same time, people started to build homes in the surrounding forests. Only the bravest of champions would quest into these dark woods. They thought themselves noble. I thought they were funny little men. They, who thought getting a scratch from a twig on my dear husband’s carcass would render them ill and defenseless, brave? Hardly!
But who was I to argue? If they wanted to blame their illnesses on me, fine. Let them. That is when I truly became Askafroa. The Ash Wife, the thing of legends. They started pouring water on my husband’s roots. Can you imagine? As though that would do anything. And they muttered a phrase to beg my favor. I giggled so hard I was certain they could hear it even though I was buried down in the roots of the tree.
And it is true. If they brought water I didn’t go out of my way to hurt them. After all, they remembered me, which was important in a land that can’t seem to remember the day before yesterday. So for those that remembered me, I was lenient. But that’s not to say I went out of my way to help them. If a man tripped over the Ash’s roots and broke his neck, I did not intervene. If a woman wandered into the forest and got lost in the brush and was taken by…” she paused and looked up at the sky. “Oh, I don’t know, wild animals or something, I didn’t view it as my problem.
I thought I was doing them a favor by not snapping their filthy little necks for trespassing into my domain, but your kind, they are greedy. The people got tired of my lack of favors and stopped worshipping. People forgot me, just like my husband forgot me. And all of my rage seeped down into the soil and bubbled up in the trees. So now I am a little part–”
“–of everything–” her voice said from another tree.
“–in the forest–” her voice echoed from several yards away.
“So you see,” she said, her voice back in the tree that held Abigail, “I am the guardian of all the Dark Forest and if people disregard the memory of the trees and my name, they must pay for it.”
“I never meant to disrespect you,” Abigail said. Her voice was calm, but her mind screamed.
“What you meant doesn’t matter. You know my name now, Askafroa, which would be wonderful if you were to live so you could remember me. But you won’t live.”
The face in the leaves shook and the branches crept around Abigail’s waist. They cinched down tight, pressing the air out of her chest.
“Please, please, I can fix this,” Abigail said, and being a practical girl, she thought of a plan on the spot to save her life. It wouldn’t be easy, but as with most things in life, it was better than being dead. “What if I catalog every leaf? I’ll remember all the branches and document the twigs. Would that stop you from squishing me?”
Askafroa thought for a moment, glancing up at a sky that was not visible through the dense foliage. Finally, she sighed. “The trees used to sing songs of their ancestors. Of Mother Maple and Father Alder and Brother Pine. But they have no records. Records require paper, which are the carcasses of the young.”
“But I’ll remember them, too!” she said, the plan becoming clearer to her at every moment. “I’ll write them all down so no one could ever forget again. Everyone will know it’s unacceptable to step on a leaf and unforgivable to break a twig and they’ll come back to the forest to worship at Ash’s roots.”
Askafroa thought again then nodded, sending a few stray leaves down onto Abigail’s face.
“Tell me more of what you will do,” the Ash Wife said. The tree beast slowly, gently let go of Abigail’s waist. The girl settled onto the edge of the branch like a bird in a nest. The vines shook free from her ankles.
Abigail rubbed her ribs with her hands and took a deep breath. “I’ll write down your story, too, so everyone in all the towns nearby will know the name Askafroa, not from the old myths, but from real life.” She paused and met the creature’s eyes. “No one will forget you ever again.”
Askafroa smiled and shook the leaves. It made Abigail dizzy but she did her best to keep a smile on her face. It was best not to displease tree beasts, she found.
Abigail spent the afternoon telling Askafroa of her plans for remembering the Dark Forest and all of its ancestors. Whenever she would come to a pause in the details, the Ash Wife would contemplate her words then nod. It was good for Askafroa of the Dark Forest who would always be remembered and good for Abigail who wouldn’t be crushed into a fine powder at the hands of branches. The plan suited them both. For a time.
On her first night in the forest, Abigail curled up in a hole in a massive tree. She laid her head on her bent knees and slept.
When she awoke, it still looked like nighttime. Barely any light filtered through the trees. She thought it best not to dally. All the leaves that could be faces bore down on her. Even the air pressed in. They would not be patient with her. So she set about to work immediately.
As agreed upon the day before, she wandered through the forest until she found a fallen tree. Its bark was brittle and dried. She used her fingernails to pry back a piece of the bark. It pulled off like a bandage. Beetles scurried in every direction and she nearly threw the hunk of bark when a bug crawled up her arm.
But she collected herself, plucked a beetle that had stuck itself to her lapel, and set about to making a small fire. She chose the most open area she could find. She brushed away dead leaves and twigs until there was only dirt and started a fire on a pile of debris. Askafroa allowed her this. “In order to be remembered, there must be sacrifices,” she had said, “and so long as our dead are used with honor, no harm will come to you.”
So as the flame finally ignited the first leaf, and as Abigail blew on it tenderly to help it catch, she whispered a thank you to the forest and to the trees. She kissed her fingers and placed them on the earth as a sign of commemoration.
When a tree branch didn’t strike her down, she assumed her tribute had been acceptable.
She let the fire burn for a few minutes before blowing it out. She rubbed a stick in the half burnt remains of foliage. Then she set about making the first record on the slab of bark.
“Brown oak leaf, withered and crushed,” she wrote, dipping back into the pile of burnt leaves to use the ash as ink. And on the next line, “Willow twig, encrusted with moss.”
She catalogued every piece of the forest that had fallen to the ground, even the trunk from which she’d stripped off the chunk of bark and the chunk of bark itself, the pile of burnt leaves, and the twig segment with which she wrote. While she was at it, she noted the berries and dandelion leaves the forest gave her to eat, too.
Once the light grew even dimmer to the point where she couldn’t see the bark in her lap, she placed it in another hole in a tree for safekeeping. It was a place she’d come to know as the library.
Then she sat in front of the large tree she called her bed and sang a song until the world grew black. She created a melody for the trees and all they’d lost. She remembered each stem as if it were the most important person she’d ever known. She sang their mourning song.
After a while, all of the trees sang with her, their voices wailing, branches shaking and quivering. The more she sang, the more they sobbed, leaves crying down on top of her and building puddles at her feet. I will archive these tomorrow, she thought and made a hash mark on her arm as a reminder in the last bit of ash. If she didn’t bathe in the little stream every few days, she would’ve been covered in those marks. Every evening ended like that. With her singing and the trees crying.
Her job would never be done. She knew that now. Not until the trees exhaled their last breaths, would she know rest.
Abigail crawled into the hole in the tree and cried. She wanted to go home. She missed Del, even her mother and father. These were truths she came to understand: the first night alone in the forest is an adventure. The second is a sentence.
Years passed. Leaves and twigs ensnared her hair. Her skin turned as rough as bark. And yet she was still lovely, just worn with the seasons. Some days, she even smiled.
Abigail sang the songs of the forest each night and her lament carried on the wind and the people in all the neighboring towns and cities and villages heard it in their sleep. Suddenly, stories of the trees entered conversation again. They knew of Mother Maple and Father Alder. They knew of the Ash tree and his wife, Askafroa. And more than anything else, they knew to fear her.
She had documented so much of the forest, she found herself treading deeper and deeper into the overgrowth, where light barely penetrated. She had to squint to distinguish between branches and twigs; willow and elm.
One day, she walked much deeper into the forest than she ever had before. She’d wondered just how far the forest went and just how many trees Askafroa had turned dark but the more she walked, the less she knew.
“Askafroa,” she said, keeping her voice soft, “what do you call this part of the forest?”
The trees were quiet for a while then a face appeared in the bark of a tree beside her. “What does it matter what it’s called? Now quit pestering me. I am tired and I must be rested once the worshippers come back to pay tribute.”
“I wanted to know so I could document it properly.”
The face in the bark sighed. After some time, Askafroa spoke again. “Just call it the Forgotten Trees because even I have forgotten their name.” Her voice sounded sad. “Now please, do not disturb me again.”
Abigail continued to walk. The branches grew more and more disfigured. They bent and curved in unnatural shapes. So many looked like hands reaching out to grab her. She knew that if she angered Askafroa, they would become hands and they would snatch her up and crush her. Because even after all these years, she still wasn’t safe.
Her bare feet sunk into the muddy ground and she shivered. A musty smell washed over her. It was like the air hadn’t been breathed here for years, so it stank of wood rot and stagnant water and other dead things.
Down from the gnarled branches of the trees came hundreds of fleshy protrusions. They dangled above her. It only took a moment for her to realize they were each the arms of infants, reaching and grasping.
A voice that was many voices, that were not Askafroa, sounded from within the trees or the ground or that stagnant air and bellowed, “Won’t you hold us? We are so lonely.”
Abigail jumped and slinked backward a few steps. The chubby baby arms reached out for her, tiny fists clenching at the air.
“Please, mommy, won’t you hold us?” The voices layered one on top of the other like an out of tune chorus.
Abigail took a tentative step forward. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Didn’t you hear? We have no name,” the voices said, “but we love you.”
And though she had been a child herself when she’d entered the dark forest, she was now a woman and the sound of the children tore at her heart. And more than anything else, they reminded her of herself, cold and scared and alone and tucked into a tree because she didn’t dare leave.
And that’s when she understood. “Where are your parents?” she asked, her voice cracking.
“They’re gone,” the voices said. Those tiny hands never stopped reaching for her. “The Tree Mother killed them. She said she’d love us and take care of us but she didn’t. She forgot us, too. Just like the world forgot her.”
“What?” a voice shouted. “Who told you brats you could talk?” Askafroa’s voice encompassed every tree at once, reverberating in the earth.
“What did you do to them?” Abigail asked, tears brimmed at her eyes but she didn’t move. “Is what they say true? I thought you didn’t go out of your way to harm people?”
Laughter echoed in the forest. “Oh please, we all tell stories about ourselves. I told you the story I thought you’d want to hear. Besides, these children were unsatisfactory. They didn’t do what I told them and they whined and complained all day and all night and did nothing to tell people about me,” she paused then laughed again, “Useless little creatures.”
“They were only babies. You killed their parents. How can you expect them to raise up your name if you cut them down at birth?”
The sound of hundreds of babies crying filled the forest, their voices filling every space within the leaves.
“You are much too dramatic,” Askafroa said to Abigail then raised her voice to the children, “Enough! You will be punished for this outburst. Go to bed right now unless you want to make it worse for yourselves.”
The infant arms seized in panic and slowly retreated back up into the branches. Retracted, they weren’t even visible from the ground. The last infant arm hung down and grasped one more time, made a fussy noise then flung back up into the tree.
“See what you’ve done?” Askafroa said, her voice now coming from just one tree. A branch swung down at Abigail and slapped her across the face. “You’ve stirred them up. You cause any more trouble and you’ll see a worst fate than any of them.”
Abigail didn’t say another word. She held her hand to her face and walked back through the forest the way she had come. She didn’t pause at the library to pick up the piece of bark to continue her documentation. She didn’t start a fire to make the day’s ink. She just kept walking through the dense brush until finally she stood at the edge of the Dark Forest where the Light Forest began. There was no point in being afraid. She would leave and that would be the end of it.
The sun nearly blinded her.
In the new light, she looked down at herself for the first time in years. Her dress had ripped in all manner of places, the seam busting out of the waist. It fit her like a shirt now and she walked through the brush naked from the waist down, hair long past her hips. Her feet were caked in dirt and her arms and legs had taken on the cracked appearance of bark. She felt her face with her fingertips as if to confirm her suspicions: it too had the rough texture of tree roots.
She fell into a heap on the soft forest floor. All hopes of going home to see her parents or even Del fell away from her. They had forgotten about her. And as a thing of the forest, she’d no longer be welcome. She hated the tears that fell from her eyes, but they came anyway. She wondered if her family was still alive. Time melted away in the forest. She could be an old woman. It was hard to tell.
She fell asleep at the spot where the Dark Forest met the Light, the moss beneath collecting her tears.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder.
Abigail startled awake and sat up to see a young man bent at her side and gawking.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She drew in a shaky breath and tried to respond. Her voice felt like ash, unused and dusty. “Y-yes,” she said.
The man glanced down at her. Modesty fell over her and she tried to cover her bare lower half but he held her hands. He traced his fingers over the rough calluses and lines in her skin and looked her in the eye again. “Don’t you remember me?”
Abigail cocked her head to one side. The man smiled and something clicked within her brain, some part of her she’d kept locked up for so many years flew open. Out poured mud puddles and crunchy leaves.
He nodded, his smile widening.
“Del,” she threw her arms around him and he hugged her so fiercely she thought she might break.
“Where did you go?” he asked, his breath brushing her ear. “I looked all over for you. But you never came out of the woods.”
“You looked for me?” she asked. She pulled away from him.
“Of course. I waited for you to come out but you didn’t. I ran home and everyone searched for you. They went into the Dark Forest with torches and some never returned. The ones that did were never the same,” he paused and helped her to her feet. “What happened to you in there?”
Suddenly, she was aware of how close they were to the dividing line between the darkness and the light. She didn’t dare peer over her shoulder into the blackness. Instead, she took his coat when he offered it, tying it about her waist, and walked forward into the clearing.
“It’s a long story, one I’d rather not tell,” she said and picked twigs and leaves from her hair.
“Is it true?” he asked. He leaned in close to her.
“Is what true?”
“The stories? The woman who married the tree and became so jealous she infected the soil with her scorn?”
“Askafroa?” she said, without even thinking. A chill ran across her body. “No, those are just legends.”
“Oh,” he said, his face falling slightly. “I didn’t think so, but ever since you left, people have been talking about the Ash wife and how she’ll kill you if you don’t make an offering to her.” He let out a little laugh. “It’s funny because people wanted to make offerings to her just in case, but they were too afraid to go into the Dark Forest.”
Abigail nodded and picked a leaf from her hair. “I think I’d like to go home now,” she said. “Let’s get away from here.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he linked his arm in hers and they started to walk again, this time toward the edge of the Light Forest where it broke into grass down a hilly embankment to the town below.
A shriek sliced the air.
“God, what was–?” Del asked, but his voice cut off as a giant root shot out from the ground and coiled about his waist.
“So what have you brought me?” Askafroa asked. She rose out of the earth as a giant trunk, marred with black moss and wood rot. Her voice split and cracked the ground beneath them. Blackness spilled out of the cracks and crawled across the grass like a fungus. She was taking the Light Forest for herself.
“No one, let him go,” Abigail said, “Let him go now!”
Askafroa’s laughter shook the earth, causing more cracks and more blackness. “You were trying to leave me, weren’t you? That’s too bad. I won’t let you leave me. You’re making people remember me.” She wrapped the roots around Del’s waist tighter. He groaned. “And let this be a reminder to you of what I can do.”
Before Abigail could speak or react, Askafroa had cinched down on Del’s waist with the roots so tightly his ribs broke. Blood spilled from his mouth. He met Abigail’s eyes, confused and pleading, before the final draught of life escaped him.
Once he hung limp, Askafroa flung him into the air. He plummeted into one of the cracks she’d opened up in the ground.
“It will be best not to speak of this when singing the songs of mourning,” Askafroa said, wiping her bloody branches on what was left of the fresh grass.
Abigail trembled, but not from fear. Every ounce of fear drained from her body the moment Del exhaled for the last time. The tang of revenge bit at her throat and seeped into her palsied hands like a bitterroot remedy. “Very well,” she said and sighed long and slow.
Askafroa retreated, the trunk disappearing into the ground. But the cracks didn’t go away. They were permanent fixtures of the landscape now, just like the stench of stagnant air, the hot skin press of impenetrable leaves.
Abigail waited until night took what was left of the Light Forest. She waited until the moonlight cast the shadows of trees over the grass.
Finally, once the moon was high in the sky, she trudged back into the thickness of the Dark Forest. The cover of night made everything she was about to do inherently more dangerous, but Askafroa would expect her to be afraid—an assumption that could work in her favor.
A smile played about her lips. She would weep for Del soon enough. Until then, she would smile and feel the confidence of the expression soak into her skin.
She walked for hours through the Dark Forest. What had been dark only seemed to get darker with each step. She made it past the stream where she bathed and the library tree. She moved past the part of the forest overtaken by vines and into the black trees where the infant arms had swung and grasped at her. They slept now and appeared as nothing more than the white caps of mushrooms along dead branches.
She walked further and deeper into the forest than she’d ever gone before. She cut her foot on a sharp stone and blood flowed into the ground. But she kept walking until the forest opened up slightly into a clearing devoid of life.
Hazy fog hung thick in the air and in the middle of the clearing stood a single tree. It wasn’t particularly tall or grand, but an oily sheen clung to the bark. It slid down the trunk in a perpetual ooze. The surrounding ground was black with pitch. That explained the clearing. Nothing could stay rooted in this muck, let alone grow or thrive.
Abigail stepped into the clearing and approached the Ash tree. She fell onto her hands and knees in the black ooze and dug at the ground. The oily slime overtook her hands, covering her knuckles and wrists. She stopped digging. It wasn’t slime at all.
Millions of slithering black worms moved as one undulating mass across the ground, up the tree, across her hands.
She sucked in a breath and tried to ignore the feeling of fingers dancing up her spine as she dug into the ground again. Her fingers worked past the worms, squishing several, until she found dirt. It crumbled beneath her nails. She raked back handfuls of it, digging a hole next to the trunk of the tree. But the more she dug, the more worms crawled over her hands and into the space she’d just cleared.
She stood back and grabbed a pointed branch that lay on the ground. She shook off some of the bugs and took a swing at the trunk.
Just as she’d thought, it caved inward where the branch struck. More worms gushed out. She closed her eyes and plunged her arm into the trunk. The bark broke away easily. The tree was nothing more than a shell, completely hollow inside. Abigail swung one leg over into the hole and then the next, holding onto the coat tied around her waist and the branch.
She sat on the edge of the hole in the tree for a moment then let go.
Abigail fell for what felt like forever. Falling and falling with no end in sight. After a while, she couldn’t even see the trace bits of light from the hole she’d punctured in the trunk. Just falling.
And then her feet slammed into something. She fell forward and nearly dropped the branch as her hands sunk into something surprisingly soft. Furry, almost.
Two glowing white eyes flicked into existence in the dark. They blinked once. Twice. And rolled up and back to stare at her.
“This is most unusual,” Askafroa said.
Abigail shivered as Askafroa unfurled eight legs, twitching every joint in a languid stretch. The hairs on the spider’s back tickled the girl’s knees and she shuddered.
“I thought you said you were a woman,” Abigail said, holding the branch steady in her lap.
“I am a woman, can’t you tell?” Askafroa laughed and though it echoed within the deep roots of the Ash tree, it didn’t shake the ground. This was a private laugh, meant especially for Abigail.
“I was nothing more than a guardian of the forest. A female of my species. Ash loved me and betrayed me. All the rest is the same.”
“I see,” Abigail said, squinting into the harsh light of the beast’s eyes. “And you thought it best to take the entire forest than to pass into history as all things do?”
Askafroa kicked one of her legs up at Abigail. She ducked, the spiny hairs just missing her head. “I’ve had enough of you. There will be someone else who wanders into the forest soon enough. I don’t need you to remember me anymore.”
The spider reached back with two legs to try to grab at her, but Abigail was ready with the branch. Slightly sharp on one end, it easily slid into the creature’s back.
Black worms gushed out in every direction and Abigail had to stand to avoid them crawling all over her.
“What did you do?” Askafroa asked, her voice sounding more surprised than reflecting pain. “What did you do to me?”
“I forgot you,” Abigail said and stabbed the branch in between the beast’s eyes.
Askafroa twitched all over, her legs dancing about in a flurry. The cavern beneath the tree plunged into blackness each time she blinked.
Abigail raised the branch again and waited for Askafroa to open her eyes. The branch slid in between them with ease.
The spider groaned and fell limp, eyes still glowing blankly in the darkness. But even they began to fade after a few seconds.
Most would have been satisfied at that, killing the great monster in the Ash tree, the Ash wife, Askafroa, but Abigail was not like most and she knew she must be sure of one thing before attempting to climb out of the tree.
She slid down one of the bristly legs onto the roots. The cavern was huge, fit for the roots of a tree that stood the height of twenty houses. She crawled beneath the spider’s legs into a little alcove. And there, shriveled and no larger than her palm was the Ash tree’s heart. It was gray and filled with dust. She held it close to her chest. “One heart of an Ash tree, broken and forgotten,” she said. The mental notation would have to do.
“I’m sorry,” she said and sang the mourning song for Ash and the tree’s ancestors and even Askafroa. The tree heart blew away into dust with every somber note.
When Abigail emerged from the tree, the sun was up. Thin shafts of light broke through the trees. The darkness that had taken over the forest was receding.
She ran through the Dark Forest and only stopped when she reached the library tree. She grabbed up all of the slabs of bark and tossed them into a pile. The fire caught quickly. She watched as the impromptu charcoal ink smudged away with the flame.
Once it burned down to nothing more than smoke, she clutched the cuff of Del’s coat and cried. As each tear hit the soil, they planted her firmly into the ground. Her feet sunk below the surface into roots. Her arms pulled above her head. Her hair stuck up and out in a splay of leaves. Her body stretched and strained, sending shocks of pain through her limbs. For just a moment, she wanted to give in. Because the forest needed a guardian and her skin was bark already. It would have been easier to just stay, to set down roots.
It would have been easier than living amongst people with their questions and sorrow.
But Abigail shook the leaves free from her hair. She lowered her arms and plucked her legs from the soft earth. “One tree, uprooted, never grown,” she murmured and set out on the path toward home.
The Forest Gate
By Conor Powers-Smith
For Alex, the wagon ride was almost unbearable. He’d spent every day of his thirteen years in the city, where the horizon in every direction was formed by a physical object one could touch after no more than a few minutes’ walk. Now here were tiny villages, beyond them isolated farms, beyond them vast, empty plains. Above it all was the greater emptiness of the sky, with no crowding rooftops to divide it into pieces small enough for the mind to accept.
In the twilight of the first day, the horizon ahead was an unblemished line. By the next morning, it had cracked and broken, and ran like a jagged scar along the junction of earth and sky. There, Alex knew, were the mountains. Each day they grew closer. By the time darkness closed off the seventh day, the wagon was winding stubbornly up their foothills.
When Alex woke, in the gray light of the eighth day’s dawn, the wagon had stopped, the stillness sickening after seven days of almost constant motion. They’d arrived at the edge of a camp, whose tents and stalls covered the floor of a narrow valley, and lapped up along the lower reaches of the surrounding hills. The mountains towered just beyond. Far across the field, the dark green of the forest showed through the seams of the camp.
He was startled badly enough to chafe his wrist on the manacles that bound him to the wagon’s bed when a voice bellowed, “Up! Wake up, you pigs!”
The man opposite Alex spat back, “Get down to the pit yourself, devil.”
A moment later the man flinched forward, and Alex saw the glint of a spearhead receding through the bars of the cage at shoulder height. The guard behind it said, “Next time it goes in.”
A few feet from the back of the wagon stood a fat man in flowing red robes, his long gray hair stirring in the cold breeze, his attention divided between inspecting the prisoners and haggling with the leader of the city guards who’d brought them.
Were Alex free, and back in the city, now would be the time to sidle inoffensively near, to find with furtive glances the fat man’s purse, to probe the place with practiced fingers, to move casually away, triumphantly unnoticed, five or ten or twenty gold pieces richer.
Only after the fantasy had passed did he begin to listen, with a burst of heat in his cheeks.
“It’s less than promised because you’ve delivered less than promised,” said the fat man.
“Sixteen by my count.”
“Fifteen and a half is not sixteen. How much do you think that babe you’ve brought me can carry?”
“I heard carrying’s not the main point, but running.”
“You go in there and try running. I’ll give you ten percent on anything you bring out. That’s twice what I give my best eggers.”
“I wouldn’t run.”
“Fight then? Fighters don’t last. Fighters get eaten up in our world, shat out in the one beyond the gate.”
The fat man dismissed the guard with a single step toward the wagon. To the men inside, he growled, “My name is Dern, and you belong to me. Do your job, and you’ll gain your freedom, and more money than you’d make in a year of mugging. I always tell my men, eggs are heavy, but so is gold. When you—”
“One of them things give you that?” Alex looked to his right to see the thick, bald man three spots down the line grinning raggedly. “One of them gate-dogs?”
The scar began just below Dern’s left ear, and ran jaggedly down the side of his jawline before dropping off his chin and out of sight. Dern gave the man a tight-lipped smile. He must’ve known how it made the scar twist and crawl like a living thing, or a dead thing unnaturally revived. “No gate-dog, as you city people call them, did this. One gets close enough for that, it does more. Much more. So you needn’t fear for your lovely face, oh my fair one.”
Tired laughter filled the cage. The man who’d spoken twisted his head back and forth to scowl at his fellow prisoners, reserving none of his feeble wrath for Dern, whom he’d apparently identified, too late, as an unassailable foe.
“That inquisitive nature will serve you well as a scout, my fair,” Dern said. He turned to one of the guards. “Take this one to Farrier. And… Scout,” he said, pointing to another man. “Scout,” he repeated, pointing to another. When he came to Alex, he raised his arm in a dismissive wave. “And.”
Farrier was short and slight, with a narrow, richly wrinkled face and short-cropped gray hair. His impatient, distracted manner revealed an essential preoccupation.
In the city, Alex wouldn’t have approached the man in his current state. The thing to do with this type was to wait until those ever-seeking eyes had found what they sought, probably drink. Stumbling down an alley, or lying unconscious where they’d fallen, such men were gifts from the gods. The only trick was reaching them before the city’s countless other eager hands.
Two guards had marched Alex and the three men to his tent, tethered them to a hitching-post in front, yelled for Farrier’s attention, and finally gone inside the tent, apparently to wake him. The guards had gone, and now Farrier stood watching Alex and the men.
“Scouts,” Farrier muttered, apparently to himself. “Muggers and thugs and vagrants. And here’s the prize. Milk-breath pickpocket. I’ve been a lot of things, but never yet an infanticide. But there’s always another downward step left to take, the sages tell us. The steps go down and down and down.” He turned, and slipped back into the tent.
One of the men said, “He’s mad.”
Alex forced a laugh, looked to the man for approval. His fellow prisoners had spent the journey from the city either brooding on their fate or boasting about their prowess in brawling and whoring. Alex had been unable to establish a connection with any of them, and this would have to change.
From his earliest memories of the orphanage, to the three hellish months in the workhouse which had followed, to his time, lately interrupted, on the street, Alex had been part of a group, and strong, or alone, and weak. One of the sisters at the orphanage had liked to tell them that a stone was a child’s weapon, pitiful and small, but a wall of stones could repel armies and decide the fates of kingdoms. Alex thought of this often.
The man looked down at him, not smiling. He growled, “That’s funny, is it? Sent in there by a madman?”
“You’ll be in hell before the first dawn,” said another man; the first to be singled out as a scout.
“You’ll be there to greet him, Fair One,” said the first, and he and the other laughed.
The third man scowled down at Alex. There was a rustling at the tent, then Farrier’s voice. “Fair One, is it? Take this, Fair One.”
The man looked up in time to catch a sheet of what Alex took for black fabric. He’d thought black was black, as white was white. But this seemed to suck light and color into itself, to devour them, to actually glow black. It hurt Alex’s eyes to see it.
It did worse to Fair One. He’d held it for perhaps five seconds before he doubled over at the waist, and vomited.
“That,” Farrier said, over the man’s wet retching, “is a gate-beast hide. The only one in camp. Took it myself. Pass that along now.”
Fair One remained doubled over as he passed the hide to the man to his right, who held it out in front of him almost at arm’s length. Alex watched the man’s face squirm, at the same time aware of a rising sensation of sickness in his own stomach.
“That’s the feel,” Farrier said. “Pass it along now, Iron Gut.”
The man passed the hide to his right, and belied his new name by putting both hands to his stomach. The man to Alex’s left looked down at the hide purposefully for a second or two, then bent at the waist, and gave forth.
Farrier said, “The living beasts feel the same. The eggs, stronger still. That’s how you’ll avoid the one, and find the other. Now pass it along, Stomach Breath.”
Alex accepted the hide. Though it felt smooth when he brushed his fingers over it, when he held his hands in place it felt pebbly, even grooved in some places. He realized he was examining the hide without looking at it, eyes aimed absently ahead like a blind man’s. He glanced down, and averted his eyes again almost immediately, as the nausea that had been bubbling in his belly like a tainted stew rose sharply.
“Good, Pup,” Farrier said, taking back the hide. Alex realized Farrier, too, was keeping his eyes off it, had been since he’d fetched it from the tent.
“The boy seems to have more brains than the three of you combined,” Farrier said. “Care to try again, Fair One?” He handed the man the hide, leaning over to avoid the steaming puddle between them.
Alex was amazed to see Fair One hold the hide in front of his face and stare straight at it. Fresh sweat popped out on the man’s forehead, and the blood drained from his face. He gave a snort of despair, bent, and vomited.
Alex listened to the rest of Farrier’s talk with little interest, once the key fact was established: the work of the scout, it soon become clear, was conducted singly; Alex would be expected to venture into those woods alone.
When Farrier passed around one of the long pennants used for marking positions—the letter D emblazoned in black across its blood-red canvas—Alex’s fingers moved with dexterous precision over the small fastening hooks in the hem of the banner.
Hours later, he and the men were led to a small tent not far from Farrier’s, and fed, and chained in separate corners. Alex waited. When the men were asleep, and the camp quiet, and the night dark, Alex’s fingers slid the two hooks from their place within the cuff of the left sleeve of his tunic. Less than five minutes later, the manacles lay empty in the corner.
Farrier was not in his tent. Something else was missing, something Alex hadn’t realized he’d been expecting until he met with its absence: there was no nausea. In such a confined space, it should’ve been impossible not to feel the effects of the hide.
He stepped outside, and moved off through the camp. There was a sensation; not nausea, but the mental antecedent of that physical symptom. It was a recognition of wrongness, as if the night itself were offended by the deeper darkness in its midst.
The camp was tightly packed, until he came within twenty yards of the forest. There the tents ceased, as definitively as surf rolling up a beach and, reaching its appointed limit, rolling no farther; as he walked on, the camp slid away behind him like the surf’s retreat.
The edge of the forest was no more than a few hundred yards long, bordered on both sides by sheer, rocky slopes. Farrier stood facing it, within arm’s reach of the first trees.
Alex was aware of the nausea, aware also of its insignificance beside the deeper sense of wrongness. He saw the hide, hanging loosely over Farrier’s left arm, though he didn’t need to see it to know it was there.
Farrier turned. “The damn pup! What in the nine worlds are you doing here? Who let you out? No, a foolish question. Let yourself out, did you?”
“Clever fingers, eh? But not clever enough for that, not on their own. What’ve you got, Pup?”
Alex’s fingers slid briefly over both hooks, but emerged with only one, which he held out to Farrier in the palm of his hand.
A blow wouldn’t have startled him, but Farrier’s laugh did.
Farrier plucked up the hook, said, “From the banner. Clever fingers indeed.” The man was no picker of locks. He obviously had no idea one such tool would’ve been useless by itself, on a lock as heavy as the manacles’. “But who told you where to find me?”
“I went to your tent. You weren’t there—that wasn’t there—so I followed it.”
Farrier stared down at him, snorted in disbelief but continued staring. “Well, well. Perhaps the pup is a bloodhound.” He laughed, more heartily than the small joke warranted. The man was somehow uplifted, though there was no smell of drink.
Farrier became suddenly serious. “Don’t you know, Pup, runners’re killed on sight? What’ve you come to me for, when you should be—”
“Please,” Alex gasped. “Please, don’t send me alone. Let me go with you.”
Farrier shook his head. “Not with me, Pup. No.”
“Please. I’ll be useful. Carry the supplies.”
“You can barely carry yourself.”
“I can find them. I can feel them.”
“So can I. I was at this when your daddy was no more than an arrow in your granddad’s quiver. You’re no use to me.”
“Eight gates, boy, you should be halfway down the hills by now. You’re wasting darkness.”
Alex hadn’t considered outright running, and now his mind recoiled at the thought of those endless, empty plains. He lowered his head, not wanting Farrier to see the tears gathering in his eyes.
“Then you’d best get back to the tent,” Farrier said. “Go, Pup, or I’ll call the guards myself.”
Alex turned, glancing first at the forest, dark and still and waiting in the windless night. He walked off, across the bare verge, into the sleeping camp. He found Farrier’s tent, from it found his own. He crossed the dirt floor, sat in his corner, lifted the manacles, latched them in place around his wrists.
The next two days were a dream, drearily long, desperately brief. Alex missed a great deal of Farrier’s lectures, preoccupied with his own thoughts.
He’d be allowed to accompany Farrier, or he’d be sent into the forest alone, possibilities which weren’t symbolic of life and death, but were life and death themselves. Though he was sure it would be the latter, he couldn’t rid himself of the hope which lingered in his stomach like a parasite, intent on drawing life from him until the last moment. It was that idiot hope which kept the hook—worn and dull, but capable, he was sure, of the work for which he reserved it—tucked away in the cuff of his sleeve.
In the late evening of the second day, Farrier entered the tent. “Tomorrow dawn, we go,” he told them. “Iron, I want you to the north to begin with. Stomach, north and east. Fair One, dead east.”
For a moment, he hesitated. Finally, he said, “The pup will come with me.”
Alex stared. A word of gratitude was wanted, but he couldn’t speak.
They were up and fed before first light, and assembled on the bare ground at the edge of the forest before the sun had cleared the hills. The space was full to overflowing, the knots of men talking among themselves, and shooting appraising, sometimes hostile glances at other groups.
One party was comprised of two men and six or seven mock-men. The creatures’ heads showed high above the crowd, making Alex think of the surrounding mountains, several of which rose above the very clouds. The shortest was easily eight feet tall; the tallest would’ve been well over ten, had it stood anything approaching straight. But its head and neck—pale blue, broken by wide, irregular swathes of paler pink, like the rest of its body—drooped considerably, so that its massive shoulders were its highest point.
Farrier scoffed cheerfully, and said, “There’s always some clever fool who thinks of that. They’re big and strong, but see how they wilt, like cut flowers. They don’t last long in our world. Know where they come from, Pup?”
“The Snow Gate. In the far north.”
“But beyond that?”
Alex had seen several mock-men in the city, though seldom the same one twice. He’d never thought to connect their fragility with their place of origin; never considered that place at all. The Snow Gate, like the others throughout the world—like the Forest Gate, mere miles to the east of where he stood—was a boundary, not just physically but mentally.
Farrier went on, “It’s a strange world. Ugly. The land lies…strange. The air’s thin, so a man’s breathless all the while he’s there. And light. A man is lighter there, Pup. He fears he will go floating off into the sky with every step.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Once. And that was enough. I went with a trading band, but the picking was thin, and they turned slaver soon enough. We took three mock-men back with us, and left eleven of our own. We couldn’t even bury them. The earth there’s…not earth. Not soil or sand or rock.
“They’re perfect terrors there. But whatever god created them made them for their world, not ours. Perhaps we should worship the one who did, for showing us that mercy.”
He seemed to want to continue, but stopped himself, becoming aware of the changed note in the noise of the crowd: a low, expectant buzz Alex had noticed some minutes before.
“And now, unless I err… Look to the east, Pup.”
Alex did. It was less than a minute before the first blinding sliver of the sun appeared over the hills.
“That’s the signal,” Farrier said. “Let’s be off.” He moved toward the forest with the rest of the crowd, and Alex followed.
The sun was barely risen before Alex lost sight of the last remnants of the crowd. Their distant voices could still be heard occasionally, but he was amazed by how quickly they melted away into the forest, like butter into hot, dark bread.
As the sun rose higher, the forest grew no brighter. The trees weren’t overwhelmingly close on the ground, but their soaring canopies were covetous of every scrap of sunlight, leaving precious little for the creatures who moved through their great, overlapping shadows.
Farrier said, “Hear that?”
Alex heard nothing but their footsteps. He shook his head.
“What do you hear, Pup?”
“Nothing’s something. Where’re the birds chirping, the bugs buzzing, the countless wild creatures with their countless wild cries?”
Alex noted the cheerful lilt and jaunty words, which signaled Farrier’s spirits were in the last, highest stage of elevation. He reminded himself to beware the decline which could be expected to follow. He said, “Should there be? Birds and bugs?”
Farrier laughed. “In the forest? Far from man and dog? We should be fairly deafened, and bitten half to pieces. Gods and gates, Pup, have you never been outside the city?”
“Gods and gates. Well, I’ll tell you, Pup. Only three kinds of creatures are silent: those that sense death, those that seek to deliver it, and those that’re dead already. Do you understand?”
“Just so. That’s why they don’t use mules or horses for the carrying. You can’t get them in here, not for their very lives. They’ll kick a man dead, kick each other to bloody tatters, before they get within a hundred yards of the forest when it’s full.”
They walked on. Some time later, Alex stopped short, and said, “I feel something.”
Farrier kept walking as he replied, sourly, “Just now? What do you think we’ve been following for the last hour and more?”
Alex jogged a few steps to catch up, restraining himself from saying more.
“We’re almost in sight,” Farrier said. “Feeling it now’s no trick. Might as well wait till you tread on it.” The man sighed, and said, “Never mind my bitter spleen, Pup. Old men weary fast. Heed the feel. Is it like the hide?”
The nausea was the same; more a resigned protest of the stomach than a serious threat of revolt. The thing behind it, the wrongness, was different. It was subtler than that of the hide, but deeper; a rejection less urgent, but more profound.
“No,” he said. “It’s different. It’s…”
Now Farrier attempted jocularity, but it was humorless, hard. “Spit it out, Pup, before you’re as old as me.”
“The eggs,” Alex said quickly.
“Just so. Where?”
“I told you they were close. Where?”
Alex raised his arm, intending to indicate as large an area of the forest as possible, but realized vagueness was unnecessary. To his surprise, he knew precisely where they were going.
He pointed to a clump of trees perhaps fifty yards ahead. “There,” he said. “Not the biggest, the one beside it. On its right.”
“The one with the knot facing us?”
“No, the one with the forked branch, one fork behind the bigger one, one in front.”
The clutch was wrapped around one thick root; embedded there, sunken into the wood, so that it seemed a diseased outgrowth of the tree itself. It was perhaps a yard long, half that wide, covered with thousands of tiny pinkish-red spheres. At least, Alex’s mind told him they were spheres, because it had encountered that shape before. But it wasn’t right. It was as if the clutch’s true form wore the strictures and dimensions of the world in which it found itself like an ill-fitting shirt, forcing them to bend and strain in some places, hang slack in others. Its colors, too, were wrong, in ways Alex didn’t wish to—didn’t know how to—consider.
“Bring me stones,” Farrier said, squatting down beside the infected root, his hands already busy clearing leaves and twigs from the ground to either side. “And sticks. Not too dry. Supple, not brittle.”
“As many until I tell you stop.”
As Alex gathered, Farrier rummaged in his pack, occasionally glancing at Alex impatiently. Alex had the impression Farrier wanted him to wander farther in his task, out of sight. But Alex resolved to take no hints on that matter, to make the man order it explicitly. In the end, Farrier only said, “That’s enough.”
Alex squatted down to watch. Farrier arranged the stones to form rectangular troughs on either side of the root, then set the sticks inside. He reached into an earthenware jar, drew his hand out in a loosely closed fist, opened it to reveal a clump of orange-brown powder.
“Sage, sandalwood, chestnut, dried honey,” he said. “Mixed already, so you needn’t worry about the proportions. But the amount’s important. Too much or too little and you’ll foul it.” He sprinkled the stuff over the two beds of sticks, then took up flint and striker. When both beds were burning, he propped a small sheet of canvas, suspended on slender metal stakes, above the root, creating a sort of miniature tent. Thick smoke, sharp and sweet, filled the space beneath the tent, and spilled out around it.
They lunched, Farrier picking absently at a few pieces of bread, as if for form’s sake. Alex’s time as a prisoner had done nothing to break the habit—established at the orphanage, and reinforced in stark style at the workhouse—of eating as much as possible, on the rare occasions when the opportunity arose. He ate bread and hard cheese and salted beef until Farrier told him to stop.
“If you pile it right, it’ll time itself,” Farrier said, removing the tent. “When the fire dies, they’re done.” He waved away a few wisps of spicy smoke, and stamped at the embers in their stone beds. He peered at the clutch, blew away a thin layer of ash, and stood back.
The eggs were definitely spherical now; not perfectly so, each bulging somewhat out of true, like the balls of rag and wadding the boys at the orphanage had made for their play. But they were of one and only one shape, showing no signs of squirming into any other. Their color, too, was altered, now a pale, pinkish gray, a color for which Alex didn’t know if there were a name, but for which a name could, in theory, exist.
He looked up to see Farrier’s arms stretched high, securing a banner around the trunk of the tree. Farrier glanced down, said, “Pick it up, and let’s be on our way. The day’s moving without us.”
Alex poked tentatively at the clutch, found it tough, leathery. He slid his fingertips beneath the edge, and made to rise, but stopped with a jerk. “It’s stuck,” he said.
“It’s not,” Farrier said, sinking to his knees beside Alex. He took a firm hold on the clutch, braced himself, and levered up its edge perhaps a foot. Alex peered beneath, caught a glimpse of the raw, scarred wood on which the clutch sat, and flinched back when Farrier let it drop, with a carpenter-shop clap of wood meeting wood.
“The smoke kills the little beasts,” Farrier said, “but the thing’s still unnaturally heavy. That’s why you’d be no use as an egger. It’s mule’s work. Better a scout, eh, Pup?”
They found three more clutches that day. Each time, Farrier drew a small circle on the map he carried in his pack, using the short stone pillars spread throughout the forest—each numbered and marked with one of the thirty-two points of the compass—to approximate the location. When, in the deepening dusk, they returned to camp, Farrier left Alex with the guards stationed at the edge of the camp, who handed him a bowl of stew from the cauldron bubbling there, marched him back to the tent, and secured his manacles.
Fair One and Stomach were already in their corners, empty bowls before them. Alex set to work on his stew, hearty with potatoes and mushrooms and chunks of beef or venison. He’d managed only a few spoonfuls when Fair One said, “Hey, boy. Give us your bowl.”
Alex pretended not to hear, but increased the speed with which he was shoveling the stew into his mouth.
“Boy!” Alex looked up. Fair One’s crooked brown teeth showed in a mocking grin. “Your bowl, I say.”
Alex replaced the spoon, set the bowl down, and looked at the uneven dirt floor, wondering if he could slide the bowl across the tent without spilling its contents.
“Now,” Fair One spat.
“Now what, Fair One?” Alex jumped at Farrier’s voice, looked up to see the man in the entrance of the tent, a folded square of parchment in each hand. Though Farrier’s expression was hard, the change in his attitude was unmistakable. Behind his stern demeanor flashed a laughing confidence, as if any trouble that might present itself were merely an opportunity to exercise his own limitless capacity for besting it. “Are you asking the boy for lessons? That’d be wise. Did the tallyman lie when he told me you hung no banners today?”
Fair One began to splutter some excuse, but Stomach interrupted. “Iron’s still out.”
Farrier glanced at the empty corner. “Yes.”
“Could be he got lost,” Stomach suggested. “Or run off?”
“Could be,” Farrier said coldly. After a moment, he moved forward, and handed Stomach one of the folded sheets. “Here’s your map back. One find isn’t bad for a start. We’ll look for more from you tomorrow.”
Stomach nodded, accepting the map. Alex saw the small circle of ink, and the line the tallyman had drawn through it after adding the location to the master map, from which he’d direct the eggers.
“And yours,” Farrier said, handing the other sheet to Fair One. “Still unsullied as a maiden. Go on protecting its honor, and see what you get.”
“Yes, sir,” Fair One said meaninglessly.
Farrier turned to Alex. “I’ll be striking south tomorrow, Pup. I won’t be coming in for the night, nor for some nights to come. You’d be wise to do a day’s work, and return for your dinner and rest.”
“I’ll go on with you,” Alex said quickly.”If I may.”
Farrier hesitated for a moment, but said, “You may, Pup.” He stepped back, made to leave, then told the men, “Dern knows my wishes for you in the span I’ll be gone.” He took another step toward the door, and added—unnecessarily, Alex thought—”I’ll be striking south.” He went out.
They moved out again at dawn, and had smoked and marked two clutches before the morning was over. It was shortly after lunch when they found the man.
Farrier stopped short, and said, “Wait here, Pup. You’ll not want to see this.”
Alex said nothing, but when, a moment later, Farrier moved on, he followed. Farrier threw one annoyed glance over his shoulder, and said sharply, “Fine then. Walk on, and wish you hadn’t.”
A moment later, Alex noticed the first speck of red on a tree trunk. He began looking for them, and found more, always facing the direction in which he and Farrier walked. They grew larger and more frequent. One tree showed a streak nearly as long as Alex’s forearm.
Farrier stopped again, at the edge of what Alex took for a little clearing. The man waved him forward, and said, “You want to see, see then.”
Alex came to his side, and stared. The clearing was bathed in blood, and dotted with hunks of meat that made Alex think of last night’s stew. Except these were not the gray of cooked beef, but the sickly purplish red of raw, rotting flesh. The stench was devastating, though they were almost directly upwind.
The place wasn’t really a clearing, or hadn’t been until recently. But the bushes and saplings which had covered this small stretch of ground, apparently as thickly as any other in the forest, had been beaten flat, snapped at the base, in some cases uprooted.
Alex looked away, and saw, stuck to the tree directly to his right, a ragged, pale-gray strip of something which would have been mercifully unidentifiable but for its thick black stubble, which marked it unmistakably as part of a man’s face.
Alex turned, took two faltering steps, dropped to his knees, and vomited.
They didn’t speak of it until they made camp, hours later and miles away. As they sat on opposite sides of the fire, Alex attempting to keep down a few pieces of bread, Farrier making no such effort, the man said, “He was one of Stevens’ men. The blue banner with the gold S. I checked his pack while you were otherwise occupied.”
Alex thought Farrier had done more than that while Alex had been gasping for breath and trying to subdue his outraged stomach. Since then, Farrier’s silence had been melancholy, but not jagged, as it was when he was in need.
Farrier said, “Did you see the clutch?”
Alex shook his head.
“Most likely he interrupted one in the laying. It can be difficult to distinguish the feels, when the beasts are still.” He paused, then went on, “I don’t know why they destroy a man so utterly. Or a deer, a wildcat. Once I saw a bear that’d been taken thus.”
Farrier shook his head slowly, said, “I couldn’t describe it, I think.”
“Once. But I couldn’t tell what I saw. Darting and…striking, everywhere, all at once. There was only one, I’d swear to that, but it was like it was five, ten, a dozen. Striking, tearing, dragging. A streak of night in the middle of the day.”
“That was when you killed it? The one you skinned?”
Farrier shook his head. “That was when I hid. No, I took that hide many years later, from a beast I found already dead. I’ve heard men claim to’ve killed one, and I’ve spat on their lies.”
Alex meant to speak, but Farrier went on, staring into the fire. “I’ve lived long, Pup. Had my fill and more. The sweetest meal will sicken, if it goes on forever.” He pried his eyes from the fire, looked across at Alex. “It’s best you go back tomorrow, give word at camp. Take his map. You’ll get a quarter credit for his claims, by finders’ rights.”
“But you’d get that.”
“Listen to me, Pup. You’ll go back. I’m going to press on.”
“It’s best, Pup. You know enough now to—”
Farrier scowled. “Damn you, Pup. I’m trying to help you.”
Alex lowered his eyes to the fire. “Please,” he whispered. “I want to go with you.”
Farrier brooded. Finally he said, “Weak and stupid and soft old man. You’ve been told, Pup, damn you. Walk on, then, and wish you hadn’t.”
Alex awoke to a shaking of his shoulder, and Farrier’s low, urgent voice. He couldn’t make out the words immediately. By the fact that he could see, hazily, the interior of his blanket, he took it daylight had arrived. The thing to do, then, was rise. But Farrier was saying, “—quiet and still. Thought it’d change direction, but it hasn’t. For your life, Pup, stay down, do you hear?”
In an instant, Alex was fully awake, lying tense but motionless beneath his blanket.
“Do you hear, Pup,” Farrier hissed.
“Yes,” Alex whispered.
“Quiet and still, Pup.” Farrier’s hand withdrew, with a gentle rustling of leaves.
Alex felt it soon enough, a pulsing, quivering embodiment of the wrongness of the hide. His mind worked furiously, vainly, to reject its presence. Shortly the sensation split in two. Attempting to follow both halves brought true, rollicking nausea, so Alex focused on one, which was diminishing rapidly. In seconds it was gone, and Alex’s attention shifted to the other, which seemed stationary.
After a few minutes there was a rustling of leaves, and Farrier said, at a normal volume but with a residue of tension, “It’s gone, Pup. Rise now, if you haven’t gone back to sleep.”
Alex laughed, grateful for the joke. The suggestion that he could’ve gone to sleep amidst that grueling violation of nature was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard.
He drew the blanket from his head to see Farrier crouched beside a tree, examining what Alex realized must be a freshly laid clutch. Alex climbed out of the blanket, trying not to disturb too many of the dead leaves covering its exterior.
While the clutch smoked, they repaired their camouflage, sewing new leaves onto the blankets where the old had crumbled away. Since Farrier had given Alex the blanket on their first night in the forest, the thing had consumed most of his idle time; by now, he thought, he’d attached more of its leaves than had Farrier.
As they worked, Farrier glanced often at the little tent, from beneath which aromatic smoke rose in lazy billows. He seemed perpetually on the verge of speaking, and perpetually hesitant. Alex didn’t think Farrier would order him away; not after the recent intrusion. If he did, Alex would flatly refuse.
When Farrier spoke, it wasn’t an order he gave, but something like a confession. “Pup,” he said, “I don’t know what you think of me, but this will likely lessen your opinion. I can’t help that. I’m not man enough to send you away, nor to resist a thing that’s been with me since I was almost as young as you.”
Alex wished he could tell Farrier he knew of his need, at least generally. But that would only heighten the man’s shame; Farrier was clearly under the impression that this was all a revelation.
Farrier went on, “You know why we egg. Why the clutches are worth such trouble. Why men risk their lives for them, willingly or no. They’re rare, of course. The things only come through one year in every six or seven, and then only for a few weeks. But there’s more to it.\”
Alex nodded. He’d heard stories enough, though he’d never known an egg-eater himself; it was a rich man’s indulgence, and any contact he had with rich men was necessarily as brief and impersonal as he could make it. He hadn’t seriously considered the possibility that Farrier tasted, partly because he hadn’t thought Dern would trust such a man—drunks made poor barkeeps—but mainly because Farrier was nothing like the picture of the typical egg-eater Alex carried in his head: the effete, poncing son of money, whom common sense would seem to mark, of all men, as least in need of succor.
“I have the habit,” Farrier said. “Though on my oath it’s more than that. It’s a towering thing, a giant. You feel you ride it, looking down on the world from its shoulder. But should you resist, you find in truth you’re merely stuck between its teeth, a morsel yet to be, soon to be, consumed. Well, I feel my strength ebbing, boy. I’ll taste now, and you may think what you will of me.\”
Farrier stood, and moved to the tent, where the smoke had slackened. He disassembled the tent, stamped out the embers, blew away the ash, all with a self-conscious slowness which betrayed impatience more clearly than haste would’ve.
He produced a short, serrated blade, and carefully sawed away an egg. This he brought to his mouth, and ate.
Some time later, as they walked—more east than south, as they’d begun to do, Alex thought, the previous afternoon—Farrier asked, “Pup, what blighted fortune brought you here?”
Alex had no desire to talk about that, but thought Farrier would misinterpret reticence as reproach. “They took us from the jail.”
“I know. But how’d you come to be there? Picked a pocket with a bear trap inside?”
“I’ve never once been caught picking.”
“We tried a man’s house. Richard said—it’s a gang of us, me, Richard—”
“Richard said the man was away. I don’t know why he thought so. Well, we went in at night, and set to. We’re there no more than a few minutes when there’s a hand on my collar, choking me, shaking me, and all the time the man’s yelling for the guards. Well, they came. Took me to the jail, a few days later put us in the wagon and rode us out here.”
“But where’re your friends? Not egging?”
“Oh, it was only me that got caught.”
“How’d that come to pass?”
“Well. It was only the one man. As he had hold of me, the others ran out.”
“No servants? No sons?”
“No. Just the man, and him kind of…him not a young man.”
“But the guards came quick?”
“Well, no. They’re generally rather slow of a night. The barkeeps have what’s called the guards’ due, and many of them like their ale just fine, so—”
“And how many were you? You, Richard…”
“Four. Five, if you count me.”
“Five. And together you couldn’t overpower one old man?”
“I almost twisted loose. But he was strong enough, in the end.”
“I’m talking about the five of you together. Didn’t—”
“They ran out quick, though. Quick as anything.”
“Yes.” Farrier fell silent, and Alex hoped the conversation was at an end. Part of him, though, hoped not, as if there were something to be gained by it. But Farrier only sighed.
The next day they hung their last banner, Alex intensely relieved that the long excursion must soon end. But as the day wore on, the sun failed to appear in front of them; instead, in the evening, he looked back to see the forest directly behind them bathed in the deep red light of its setting.
“We’re still going east,” he said, hoping to be corrected.
“Yes,” Farrier said.
“But we’re… I’ve no more banners.”
“Then shouldn’t we—”
“You should, Pup. You should turn now, and make your way back.”
The silence that followed lasted the rest of the night, and continued into the next day. Though Farrier tasted whenever the desire struck him, the eggs no longer brought high spirits, instead seemed to turn his mind inward. He said little until the late afternoon of the next day, as they crouched beside a stream filling their water skins.
“This runs north and west for two days’ walk. It ends in a little bog. From there it’s arrow-straight west to camp.” Alex thought Farrier would urge him again to return to camp, but the man only stood, and continued on.
For some hours the ground had been trending upward, sometimes sharply, sometimes almost imperceptibly, and now they climbed one of the steeper rises. The stream disappeared, but its burbling rush remained.
As they climbed, Farrier’s pace slowed, though not, Alex thought, from fatigue. The man was holding himself back. For Alex, it was an effort to keep moving, though his legs felt loose and strong, his breathing effortless. His body had no need of his heart’s swift flutter.
The crest came abruptly, the trees marching up to the brink and over like ranks of frozen suicides. Beyond, the drop was steep, and farther than Alex had expected. Some hundred feet below lay a valley, shaped by hills to either side, by true mountains perhaps a mile ahead. The trees marched down the slope from the ridge, and stopped not far from the bottom; didn’t stop, but died, their broken corpses marching on, some fallen, some standing, all of them withered and bare.
On a little patch of naked earth in the midst of the dead trees stood two stone pillars, six or eight feet high, ten or twelve feet from one another. The space between was empty, and was not, was lit by the sun, and was not, was a part of the world Alex knew, and was not.
He must have said it aloud, because Farrier answered, “Just so.” The man hesitated, then continued, voice hard, “And here, we part ways.”
Alex’s eyes snapped to Farrier, who’d lain his pack on the ground beside him, and was staring down at the gate.
Farrier said, “You can find your way back. Remember the stream, the bog. I’ve taught you everything I could. You’ll make a fine scout, Pup. Remember—”
“You’re going through? Then…I’ll go with you.”
“You will not, Pup. I was weak enough to pity you, weak enough to take you with me. But I’m not so weak I’ll let you follow me into that hell. I’ll strangle you where you stand first. That’s their world. Can you imagine the gods, the world, that would shape such creatures? No man’s ever gone through and returned, and I’ll be no different.”
“Because I’ll control this, even if I can control nothing else. I’ve promised myself this death. A promise a man makes to himself is no less a promise. Do you understand?”
“I hope you never do. I hope you never know how far down the steps go, Pup. Down and down and down, and for me, it’s deep enough.”
Farrier turned and walked away along the ridge so abruptly he’d almost disappeared amidst the trees before Alex could force his frozen muscles into action. He followed at a run, so clumsy with shock the trees seemed to lurch out to meet him, jarring his shoulders, finally knocking him to the ground. He clamored to his knees, and watched Farrier draw steadily away.
“Wait,” Alex said. “Please.”
Farrier walked on. Soon he was only a suggestion of movement between the trees; then he was lost completely.
Alex stared, long after Farrier had disappeared. He found, to his surprise, that if he were to die, he would prefer to do so alone. The discovery was more disturbing than the gate; a portal to strangeness accessing not another world, but a previously unsuspected part of his own mind.
Alex finally rose, and retraced the few steps he’d managed. He sank down beside Farrier’s pack, pulled his blanket from his own, and lay on his belly, only his face uncovered.
He lay watching the gate, the ineradicable parasite of hope again squirming in his belly. Farrier would return. He wouldn’t leave Alex to die. Therefore the hook should remain in its place, in the cuff of Alex’s shirt.
Nonetheless the hook was out, held lightly in the fingers of Alex’s right hand, when Farrier appeared. The man had nearly reached the limit of the living trees before Alex saw him, his tiny form flitting quickly through the deep shadows. A moment later he emerged into the failing sunlight, threading his way between the dead trees.
Farrier didn’t stop until he was within a few feet of the gate. Now he’d turn, climb back up the hill. But he paused only long enough to execute an indistinct movement of his arm, which Alex interpreted as the raising of his hand to his mouth. Then Farrier stepped forward, and disappeared.
A wave of weariness unlike any Alex had ever known washed over him. He lay his face down on his folded arms. In seconds he was asleep.
When he woke the next morning, he was conscious only of his full bladder. As he emptied it against a tree, he remembered. Despair crept back into his mind, but not to its center; not while he had a task to perform. When he’d finished, he realized his mouth was dry, and he moved off toward the sound of the stream.
It was narrow and quick where he came to it, bending away to follow the ridge to the northeast, flowing downhill, swift and straight, to the west. The water was cold and delicious, not lukewarm and tasting slightly of leather like that in his water skin, which he realized now was still full from the day before. He drank until his stomach felt full, and when this feeling faded he realized he was hungry.
He returned to the packs, and rummaged through them. There was plenty of food: bread and cheese, the berries and mushrooms they’d gathered, even a few strips of salted beef, which Farrier had done a better job of hoarding than Alex had. He unfolded Farrier’s map and spread it on the ground to eat on, as they’d often done. As he ate, he gazed at the map idly, not quite absently.
The gate wasn’t marked, but it was easy enough to estimate its position, and so his own. The line of circles representing their finds curved out from camp, dipping south sharply before shallowing, finally straightening to march dead east, then ending abruptly. Not far from the final circle was a thin, sinuous line Alex took to be the stream. It wound its way into a curving row of wide arches which must be hills; on one of which he sat, eating his bread and cheese, berries and mushrooms.
The line followed the hills along for some time before ending in a small, irregular circle: a lake. Alex didn’t know why he should be glad of the lake’s existence. Possibly he’d grown fond of the stream, imagining it almost a friend, and was relieved to find its origins identifiable and near, rather than lost in ambiguity beyond the edge of the map.
When he’d finished, he put the map and the remaining food into his pack without thinking, rose, slung the pack over his shoulders, and walked back toward the stream.
This time he kept the stream at a distance, seeing how long he could follow it by sound alone, as a sort of game or test. It was afternoon before a random break in the trees provided a glimpse of the water, rushing more slowly here than it had higher up. He went to it and drank, and the water was no less delicious.
Some time later he found himself walking beside the stream, enjoying the illusion that its current was sweeping him along like the leaves and twigs floating on its surface.
By the time he lay down for the night—the sun quite gone from the sky, the last gray traces of daylight quickly following—he could no longer pretend he was doing anything but attempting to return to camp. He’d kept the thought from the center of his mind all day, but now there was nothing to distract from it.
The world—all the worlds there were—had contracted to the dimensions of the darkness beneath his blanket. He floated there, unseen; there was no one to see him. There was no one to know he thought, felt, existed; thought, feeling, existence seemed in immediate, perilous doubt. With no one to see him, he might disappear at any instant; in fact it was difficult to understand why he didn’t.
All that long night, panic held him in its ever-closing hand. But he must have slept eventually, because he woke from a dream of falling, not from anything or to anything, only falling through darkness. His world was no longer black, but gray; against all expectations, day had come.
He rose, stowed his blanket, and set off. It was some time before he remembered breakfast. He ate as he walked, slowing his pace only slightly.
In the late afternoon, the stream grew still, and spread out to cover a wide swathe of ground with shallow, murky water. The trees were stunted here, most barely taller than Alex, those that rose higher skeletal and twisted. This, Alex decided, was a bog.
He turned west. The sun, glimpsed through the trees, was low enough for him to be sure of his direction. He felt no sense of progress. Ahead lay days of walking, nights of fighting off fear; alone, every second of it.
But perhaps not. It occurred to him that despite all appearances, he wasn’t truly alone in the forest. He might run into one of the innumerable scouts and eggers. And since the men would be seeking clutches, he could increase his chances of a meeting—of rescue—by doing the same.
For some time he’d been ignoring the sickly ripple of a clutch somewhere off to the north and east, and now he briefly considered turning back, but decided to press on. Soon he was rewarded with a fresh sensation more nearly in line with his route. He began edging south.
He found the place without difficulty. By then the light had begun to fade. He was within twenty yards of the tree before his eyes could make sense of what they saw. When they did, he stopped short, and his right hand went automatically to his left sleeve.
Beside the tree crouched a patch of darkness deeper than blackest shadow, darker than moonless, starless midnight. He knew it had been crouching because, as he watched, it rose, slender, insectile legs unfolding to support a body which was longer than it was wide, but whose shape otherwise thwarted perception. He couldn’t count its legs; there were eight one moment, unnumbered multitudes the next. And they wouldn’t stay where they belonged; though he never saw them shift their positions, each was forever in a different place, often projecting from the creature’s sides or back, but bending as if still supporting its weight.
The thing had seen him; he knew that by its growl, which was not a growl, nor any sound at all, but a buzzing of his teeth, a vibration of his skull that threatened to slosh his brains to soup. The urge to flee was dull and small, as was the nausea; dull and small as the hook in his right hand, hovering there beside his left wrist. The only imperative was the hook, but his fingers fumbled with it clumsily, unable to bring the point to bear. They could not obey, or would not. His hand opened in a sudden spasm, and the hook dropped to the ground.
Alex moaned, sank to a crouch, swept his hands blindly through the dirt and dead leaves. He couldn’t take his eyes from the thing beside the tree. Its thrumming growl deepened. Though it remained in place, its legs twitched and writhed as if in propulsion; as if, in some inscrutable way, it were already approaching.
His fingers found something which was not the hook, and closed around it anyway; a stone, jagged on all sides, barely larger than his small hand. He rose, holding the stone at his side, his fingers strong and sure again, stronger, surer, than his mind. Like all boys, he’d fantasized his own death, many times. Unlike most, his noble sacrifices had never taken place on the battlefield; he’d never died fighting. He was more surprised than anything else. For a moment, he was more surprised than terrified.
He closed his eyes. Yes, the creature was moving: crawling along a dimension whose existence he’d never suspected, and could only perceive now because of the thing’s presence there, as one was only aware of the space between walls when a rat skittered through it. If he opened his eyes, he knew, he’d see it still standing there beside the tree. That perception, both illusion and truth, would hold until its arcane trajectory brought it to him. Then it would appear to flash across the space between them in an instant. And as it made the first strike, it would already be moving through that unnatural space between walls, positioning itself for the next.
It was close, closer, it was very close. It had no claws, but its claws gleamed. It had no mouth, but its mouth gaped. It had no teeth, but its teeth would rend his flesh from his bones, and scatter him across the forest like red dew.
His hand swung up, tight around the stone. There was nothing but empty air, then an impact that numbed his arm to the elbow, and shivered the nerves and shook the bones all the way up to the nape of his neck. His arm flopped limply to his side. He didn’t know he was falling until he landed, with a stinging shock to his tailbone. He opened his eyes, though he knew already the thing was dead.
It lay just at arm’s reach, as if it its rush had carried no momentum. It was a bulging puddle of shadow. He had no desire to look at it, much less touch it. He had a slight desire to vomit, but that, he knew, would pass.
Alex didn’t immediately notice when the wind shifted to blow from the west, the direction in which he walked; had walked, straight as an arrow, for the past two days. His legs were stiff and heavy, and his feet radiated ache so strongly he thought the ground must feel it with every step.
It was some minutes before he became aware of the scent. When he did, he stopped, and closed his eyes. He’d been holding one hand flat above his eyes to shield them from the sun, setting directly in his path, and the hand remained, though he was vaguely aware of how strange he must look, hand raised like an explorer gazing off into the distance, eyes firmly shut. But he could look as strange as he pleased; there was no one to see him.
The scent was thin with distance, but unmistakable: burning wood, cooking food. He smiled, opened his eyes, and moved on.
As he walked, he imagined the trees dropping away all at once, the camp appearing out of nowhere, its noise rising up just as suddenly, so much softer than the city’s perpetual bustle, but so much livelier than the forest’s skulking stillness.
Before he heard the camp, a lone voice rose up from the forest not far ahead.
Silhouetted against the sun’s ardent crimson departure, the form that stepped out from behind a tree ten or twenty yards ahead was only a shadow. But he recognized the shrilly commanding voice. He stopped.
“Give us—,” Fair One began, but cut himself off. “Where’s Farrier?”
“Ha! Knew everything there was to know, did he? Knew enough to make himself a dog’s breakfast, no better than Iron and Stomach.”
“It was dinnertime, not breakfast.”
Fair One was quiet for a moment, but roused himself to say, “How many did you mark, boy?”
“All my banners are hung. All his, too.”
“Is that right? Well, give us your map, boy.”
Alex started forward, right hand rummaging in his pack.
“Not a word to anyone, boy,” Fair One said. “These’re my finds now.”
Alex’s hand withdrew from his pack. His left arm swung back and forth as he walked, but his right hung still at his side.
“We’ll team,” Fair One said. “You sniff, smoke, hang. And I’ll protect you.”
When he was within a few feet of Fair One, Alex’s right hand swung slowly back. As his left leg came forward, his right arm did too, but very much faster. His whole upper body swung with it, and when his hand, half closed around the stone, met Fair One’s belly, his whole strength was in the blow.
The stone dropped to the ground, and Fair One dropped beside it, clutching his stomach with both hands, supported by his knees and the top of his head. The man gasped and gagged, and made some foolish, breathless sound which may have been intended as speech.
Alex bent, picked up the stone in his left hand; his right was numb, and bleeding again. It had bled for a day and a half the last time the stone had opened it, most deeply on the line where the fingers joined the palm. It would scar, and he was glad. To see it bleed again was somehow funny. To use the same stone as had killed the creature on this grunting, gagging thing was funnier still, and he smiled as he slid the stone into his pack and walked off toward the smell of burning wood and cooking food. He was still smiling when he reached it.
By Aimee Picchi
I left the health department at the end of another scoreless day. Worried, I didn’t at first notice the young demon on Church Street.
“Hey.” He was scruffy and slouched against a sculpture of two kids playing leapfrog. “Hold on. I know you.”
His horns barely poked out from his dreads. A low demon. The entire town was below my talents. I was only here at my overseer’s insistence that I transfer from Atlantic City. She said it would give me some breathing room to rethink my commitment to the divine host.
I continued walking. After a long day in heels, I wanted to get home to give my feet a break and let my wings stretch out.
“No wait!” the man called out, grabbing my edge of my blouse. “Remember me? I’m the son of your mom’s demon friend.” Not wanting to be rude, even to a dark one, I remained silent but picked up the pace in the hope he would drift away.
“Your mom invited mine to her book club, trying to branch out and be more inclusive and all,” he said, trotting alongside me. “Hey, so I know you’re all about helping people and stuff, and see, I’m kind of down on my luck. My boss is a real tightwad and I need the bus fare to get to Plattsburgh. Could you help me with, like, an Andrew Jackson?”
I turned and stared. He was dressed Burlington-style, with ratty cargo pants, a “Climb High” t-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt. Lots of hemp jewelry draped around his neck.
“My mother is the Angel of Truth. There’s no way she’d have anything to do with a demon,” I told him. “Or a book club, for that matter.”
He laughed. “Okay, got me,” he said. “But I do need to get to Plattsburgh.”
Unlike seraphim, demons easily mix falsehoods with verity. While he was obviously lying about my mother, I wasn’t sure whether he spoke truthfully about wanting to travel to Plattsburgh. It was the kind of town where people still washed their dishes with phosphate-filled detergent, burned leaves when the danger of forest fires was high and knocked out their neighbors’ teeth on the weekends. With the population already so rotten, it was scorched territory for dark ones looking to get their talons into humans.
But it was also where my predecessor in Burlington, Urizel, was transferred. The feathers along my shoulder blades rippled with irritation.
“I miss the big guy,” he said.
“Urizel?” I asked. “I never thought demons were fond of seraphim.”
“Honestly, it’s more of a competitive issue.” He sighed quietly but stopped his breath suddenly, noticing I was watching him intently. “There’s nothing better than a day up against the dude. What you see here — ” he swept his hand down Church Street, indicating Girl Scouts planting flowers around a tree and a group of college students handing out brochures supporting healthcare reform “— didn’t exist before him. So I’m going to Plattsburgh. Gotta go where the power is.”
“So the demons are already writing me off?” I asked. Not that I blamed them. My accomplishments so far included convincing a graduate student not to plagiarize and dissuading an old woman from stealing her neighbor’s doorstep-delivered newspaper. In Atlantic City, my clients were murderers and drug dealers.
“Oh, don’t take it the wrong way,” the demon said with a sheepish smile. “You know us demons. Always up for a challenge.”
“I’m not against challenges myself,” I said. The demon smiled at me ingratiatingly, believing he was scoring one for the dark team by convincing me to hand over a piddling $20, but he was giving me a glimmer of an idea.
Seraphim focus on humans. At the end of each day, we log into SCALE to report our successes in getting people to make divinely inspired decisions. For each positive outcome, we receive one point.
How many points would one earn for influencing a demon to our side? I wasn’t sure, but it must be enough to wrangle a transfer to a city with even more problems than Atlantic City. Like Cleveland or Detroit.
My feathers, cloaked from his eyes, smoothed against my back. I would stymie this demon from traveling to Plattsburgh and work him over to our side. He would be my ticket out of this town.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about Urizel. Of course, I’ve got $20 for you,” I said, the sound of helpfulness ringing in my voice.
But then my tongue suddenly felt cold and my saliva congealed like refrigerated oil. I was about to lie, something I had never tried before. Even though I realized my falsehood would achieve a greater good by bringing this demon to the light, the words fell thick and muffled from my mouth.
“But I- I don’t have it on me,” I stammered. My skin turned to gooseflesh and the urge to tell the truth nearly overwhelmed me, but the impulse skittered away when I remembered my failing score.
The demon didn’t appear to notice my stumble and cocked his head at me hopefully.
“Meet me tomorrow at 9 a.m,” I told him, and scribbled an address on a piece of paper.
The demon took the slip with a sly look. His black eyes carried flecks of silver in them, something I had never seen before in a dark one.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
I started to laugh. Joshua, as in God is Salvation. “You’re kidding me.”
“Helps me fit in,” he said, smiling. “I already know your name — every demon in Vermont knows who you are.” A thrill traveled down my arms and through my wings. He gave me a wave as he sauntered toward the steeple rising above the end of Church Street.
At my lakefront condo, I logged onto SCALE, the Seraphim Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation. Seraphim must check in daily to report our activities and receive new assignments.
Before SCALE, we reported our activities personally to our overseers, who themselves decided on scores for our earth-bound activities. Most seraphim felt SCALE erased the subjective nature of the old system, for even overseers had favorites. On SCALE, a point was a point, regardless of one’s standing in the hierarchy.
For “Human Interaction,” I wrote about meeting with a government bureaucrat in the health department who was considering slashing benefits to poor families. I dressed as a lobbyist and mindtalked him through keeping the benefits intact. Unfortunately, the man stank of sausages, dulling my enthusiasm. By the time I left, he hadn’t made up his mind.
I considered reporting my conversation with Joshua under “Unearthly Interactions,” but what if my overseer ordered me to drop contact with the demon? While some seraphim and demons have working relationships, they can be fraught. I felt uneasy, remembering my most recent conversation with Yaziel. She had harped on my last Atlantic City mission, claiming it illustrated how I was slipping from unity.
The problem with seraphim? An unhealthy addiction to protocol. The AC mission was successful: I convinced a petty gambling organizer to stop backing dogfights. Yaziel objected to my methods, despite my argument that the lives of twenty-odd dogs were nothing compared to the soul of a human. Yaziel only grumbled and talked about the seraphim’s new animal-rights mandates until I was ready to bite the heads off some chickens to relieve my boredom. The overseers used to be all “Go you!” when you pulled out pestilence as a way to guide humans toward goodness, but now they required three online forms just to approve a boil upon a murderer.
I logged off from SCALE, which informed me I was 10 points behind my quota for the month, and stood on my balcony to watch the sun dipping behind the Adirondack Mountains, darkening like bruises before the blood-red sun.
I unfurled my wings, feeling the lake breeze ruffle through the feathers. As I sighed with relief, an old saying popped into my head: “Darkness falls, brightness calls.” It was something my mother often repeated, although I was never sure I understood it entirely.
The Angel of Truth, my mother was honest to a fault. Seraphim, she would explain, are no more bound to goodness than humans. Some pretend we’re incapable of making bad decisions. That’s not the case. Seraphim don’t like to talk about the ones who fall.
Yet if seraphim fall from grace, surely demons rise to the light — and I realized I finally understood the saying after all these years. Joshua will be my test and my salvation, my hugely wicked score on SCALE.
As the sun descended, the light deepened, staining the white feathers of my wings as red as a demon’s heart.
The next morning I waited for the demon at the address I had given him the day before. My plan was to rely on the force of my superior skills to convince Joshua to heed the call of brightness.
I stood under a spreading oak tree, with several cows staring at my wings fluttering in the light summer breeze. Since I arrived early, it wasn’t worth the energy to cloak them from outside eyes.
The tree sat at the base of a small hill, with the columns of a Vermont version of Monticello rising above it. In the distance, the silver gleam of Lake Champlain flashed against the horizon. I studied the gravestone beneath my heels. Only a few words were readable: “Mary,” and “helpmeet.” The dates were indecipherable, washed away by centuries of Vermont’s harsh weather. I supposed I really shouldn’t have been standing on old Mary’s marker, but the ground was damp and my heels were getting slimed. I saw why the property owner wanted to dig up the cemetery; it really was a lovely site, except for the graves.
“Wow,” a voice breathed behind me.
I whipped around, hitting Joshua in the face with the tip of my right wing. His eyes danced with silver sparks.
“Never seen an angel before?” I immediately shielded my wings from his eyes. His look, as if he wanted to own my wings, brought a queasy feeling to my stomach.
Joshua shook his head. “I have. It’s just been a long time … and I forgot how beautiful seraphim feathers look in the sunlight.”
This demon was already feeling the pull of brightness. This mission was going to be a snap, I decided.
He looked slightly more reputable, with his dreads tied neatly behind his back.
“So, what are we doing here?”
“You want to get to Plattsburgh, right? I just have this appointment, then we can stop by the ATM and I’ll give you the $20,” I said. This time the lie slipped off my tongue with greater ease, with the words sounding only slightly muffled.
“Sure,” Joshua said, smiling in a knowing way. I pressed my purse tightly against my side, as if that could shield the $300 dollars inside my wallet from his dark senses. I didn’t know whether demons could pick out untruths.
The door of Vermont’s Monticello opened, and my human assignment emerged: Archie Price, hedge fund billionaire and would-be gentleman farmer. He bought the 450-acre estate two years ago, and had told a few people he planned to tear up the cemetery in order to build a swimming pool near his house.
Archie Price was in his mid-30s, with a strong jaw and a hard handshake. He looked me up and down as if he had never seen a woman wearing heels in the middle of a country cemetery.
I introduced myself as an advocate for several local families, which in a way was true. My assignment from Yaziel was to convince Price to give up the plan and leave the sacred ground in peace.
“Are you an attorney, Miss?” Archie asked.
“Of course she is,” Joshua interjected. “I’m her paralegal. Joshua.” His lie was spoken effortlessly, and I had to focus on Archie to hide my admiration.
“Here’s what I’m proposing,” I started to tell the human, while I prepared to mindtalk. Mindtalking combines words and images, spoken directly into a human’s brain. It relies heavily on visual images, while the old seraphim have the skill to add emotions into the mix. I reached out to a corner of Joshua’s mind, pulling him into the effort. Seraphim can work together to make mindtalking even more powerful, bringing more of the divine host to humankind. I was betting that Joshua, being an unearthly being, would be compelled by my superior power into helping me mindtalk Archie Price to the right decision.
Once he did that, Joshua would be one step closer to the light.
A cemetery at dawn; “Hallowed ground”; the scent of incense and peace; an acorn falling to the ground; “The cycle of life.” I sensed Joshua’s mind joining mine; it felt hot and alive, different from the placid, calm minds of seraphim.
I continued, feeling his mind latching onto my mindtalking images. Wind whispers through the oak leaves; “Reward;” an image of Archie Price receiving heavenly honors; “Blessings falling into your hands;” the drip of water on the ground. The water seeping into the earth.
My palms felt sweaty. The sun was now higher and hotter, and the synthetic fabric of my dress stuck to my torso. I wanted to remain with pictures of sacred ground, but my mind wandered. I imagined myself buoyed in cool water. A feeling of peace lapped across me, as if I were floating, alone, my ears swallowed by liquid, blocking out the cows and muddy ground. The stress of failing quota washed away, sailing off in a slowly twirling eddy. Even though I knew I was going in the wrong direction, I couldn’t help myself. The feeling of water pulled on my thoughts, and I transmitted them into Archie’s mind.
Water forming a perfectly, silver-surfaced pool. A calm viewing pond. Looking into the depths. Clear blue waters. “Swimming through life.” Archie Price sweeping his arms through cool waters.
I shook my head and snapped out of a trance. How did I get from feeding him images of a peaceful slice of hallowed ground to … Archie Price doing laps in a gigantic swimming pool?
I glared at him, and he gave me a smile crossed with a frown, as if he were saying “oops.”
Archie Price shook his head. He looked bewildered, but the corners of his mouth crept up. “I came expecting a lawsuit,” he said. “But I like what you’re proposing: an even bigger pool than I had planned. An Olympic-sized pool will look great here. I’ll have the graves moved to another site on my property.” He looked at his watch. “Got a teleconference in a few minutes. Catch you later.”
“Wait —” I called out. I imagined entering this failure in SCALE and fear stabbed my stomach. I would lose what points I had earned since arriving here.
I turned to Joshua. “You jerk.” The words felt hard, a diamond formed from fear and embarrassment.
“Honestly, it wasn’t me. You were thinking about the swimming pool before I even joined in,” he said. The sparks in his eyes grew bigger, his eyes almost glowing with delight.
His smug face and dancing eyes provoked a feeling of violence within my heart. I wanted to wipe that smile with Mary’s headstone. I took a step toward him, my fists curled, when he asked me in a conversational voice, as if unaware I wanted to bash his head against a grave marker, “Why do you do it?”
“What?” My wings unfurled, beating the air. I didn’t bother to shield them.
“All that,” he said, gesturing to my wings. “Why do the seraphim thing at all? I mean, what’s the reason for it all? Why do we bust our chops against each other every day? It doesn’t seem to do much good, when the balances are added up at the end of the day. Why not work for what you believe in – like helping Archie build his swimming pool?”
This low-caste knew nothing about seraphim.
“It’s His will,” I snapped.
“Right. So when was the last time you talked with Him?” Joshua’s eyes darkened.
I had never talked with Him, and I didn’t know a single seraphim who had. Even my mother would get cagey when the issue came up. It was the sort of question — where is He? — seraphim avoided asking. I wasn’t about to tell Joshua that.
“Asshole.” The curse was a revelation: it skimmed off a layer of my anger. As I flew toward Burlington, I made a note to try cursing again.
That night I drank an entire bottle of red wine. My wings drooped over the edge of my balcony. Fuck it, I thought, before passing out.
A gentle touch awoke me. I looked into the grey eyes of Yaziel, who found me asleep on the balcony with my wings displayed for all to see. My head pounded.
“I’m worried,” she said.
“You couldn’t send me an email?” I mumbled. It was a stupid question. The host monitored all email, instant messaging, phone calls. Nothing over an electronic line was unwatched by seraphim. She came in person because she didn’t want the host to find out. My watch glowed 3 a.m.
“I’m hearing odd chatter, and you didn’t log into SCALE tonight. I wanted to make an off-the-record visit.” Yaziel studied my wings intently, as if searching for some flaw. Feeling self-conscious, I folded them tight across my back.
“What kind of chatter?” I wondered if she heard about my cursing and lies.
“There’s talk of a high-ranking demon who’s been called into Burlington to take down a seraphim.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied, thinking of the tiny horns butting from Joshua’s Dreads.
Yaziel’s grim expression relaxed. “So you haven’t had contact with demons?”
“No, not at all,” I lied. This time, the words left my mouth without effort.
My overseer nodded. “Maybe this is related to Urizel.” Yaziel straightened up, and cast a disapproving look at the empty wine bottle. “Log into SCALE tomorrow morning, add a note you were sick tonight. I don’t care why you didn’t check in,” she said, unfolding her wings and preparing to leave.
I nodded. Perhaps I could avoid disclosing my failure with Archie Price by playing the sick note.
Yaziel perched on my balcony railing, like the figurehead on a ship, and it reminded me of Joshua’s question.
“When was the last time you talked to Him?” I asked.
She wobbled for a moment, then recovered so fast I wondered if I imagined it. Yaziel turned to look at me sharply. “I don’t need to talk to Him. He’s with us every day. That’s what SCALE does — it helps us interface with Him.”
The idea seemed ridiculous, and I looked at her in disbelief.
Yaziel frowned. “We are judged by the divine, regardless of His methods.”
It seemed like Yaziel hadn’t talked with Him either.
The morning light was strong by the time I woke up. My head ached and my throat felt caked in crumbs, but I started making coffee and considered whipping up a smoothie. Anything to delay logging into SCALE. What would happen if I just stop entering my Human Interactions, or receiving my assignments? Joshua’s question looped around in my head: What was the point of all this? Seraphim striving to meet quota. The overseers constantly divvying out assignments. But why? Did He even care or monitor the system Himself?
I took my coffee to the balcony and looked across the lake, toward Plattsburgh. Urizel was probably having a ball in that hellhole, racking up the points and even pushing his score above the quota.
A feeling of rage surged through me as I considered the unfairness of my situation. If anyone should have been transferred to Plattsburgh, it was me.
“Fuck you!” I screamed, and a charge shimmied down my wings. My second spoken curse felt even better than the first.
When the air chopped in short breezes, I worried Yaziel had heard my swearing and had come back to check up on me.
Dark pinions fluttered slowly by my balcony. It was Joshua. I always imagined demon wings would resemble bat wings, fleshy and dry, but his feathers sucked in the light, as if a tiny black hole was stationed before me. It was hard to remove my eyes from their darkness, a deep color that wanted to be touched, like velvet or fur.
Joshua languidly settled himself on the chair next to me.
“Well?” I said, resisting the desire to rub his wings.
“You were upset yesterday and I wanted to check on you,” he said.
I wondered why he cared. If no one has seen Him, wouldn’t that be a victory for his kind? But then it occurred to me that maybe the dark side had the same problem.
“So I guess Satan must think it’s funny the seraphim aren’t in touch with Him,” I ventured.
Joshua shook his head. His wings were now shielded from my eyes. Except for the tiny stubs of horns, he could have been a graduate student at the University of Vermont.
“I wouldn’t know. We’re not in touch with His enemy, either. That’s what got me thinking about all of this.”
So Satan was also MIA.
“Seraphim and demons, we’re all just wandering around the earth, with no big plan or Someone looking out for us?”
Joshua shrugged. “There’s SCALE.”
“What do you know about SCALE?”
“We have the same program.”
“The Seraphim Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation?”
Joshua grimaced. “Well, we call it the Satanic Calculator of Achievement, Logistics and Elevation, but yes, it’s the same program.”
Sitting at my computer, he logged into a Website with a front page that looked exactly like SCALE. He clicked past the first screen to the database, which also appeared identical to the seraphim’s. There was even a place for him to enter Human Interactions and Unearthly Interactions. I checked the fine print at the bottom to make sure it wasn’t a trick. As Joshua had said, the site read “Satanic” instead of “Seraphim.” As I wondered about the meaning of the light and dark using the same program, my eyes drifted to Joshua’s score.
It was freaking huge. So huge I started to tremble. I remembered what Yaziel told me about a high-ranking demon. Could the evil ones change their appearance? A demon with that many points would be centuries old — and if Joshua truly was one of the old ones, his horns should have been as wide as his wingspan.
“Don’t worry about my score,” he said. “With demons, it’s all about getting ahead of the crowd. Anyway you can. Watch,” he told me.
With a few commands, he called up a data entry page listing hundreds of demon names accompanied by blinking score boxes. He moved his curser to the box next to his name. In a keystroke, the frightening number disappeared. A second later, he typed in a number that was twice as large. “See?”
If Joshua could alter his score so easily on his software program, could that be the answer to my dilemma? I didn’t want to be punished for a few bad weeks. Everyone deserved another chance to make things go their way, regardless of what the rules said.
“Log out of your program,” I commanded. I bumped him out of the chair, and sat down in front of the computer. After logging into SCALE, I looked up at Joshua. His eyes were dancing. I told him, “Get me into that data entry page. If it’s the same program, you’ve got to be able to do it on the seraphim program.”
Joshua studied me. “Are you sure? Really sure?”
“Of course,” I said. This trick was going to be my salvation.
The data entry page appeared with a list of seraphim. I scrolled down, catching sight of my mother near the top; Yaziel was in the middle. My name hovered near the bottom, along with some seraphim assigned to other do-gooder cities like Portland, Oregon and Santa Fe.
What I was about to do wasn’t cheating. I had worked harder than most seraphim to talk goodness into humans, and I deserved better than Burlington. Just one little click would assist SCALE in realizing that as well.
I couldn’t expect to double my score and get away with it, but if my score shot up by one-quarter, would anyone notice? Probably not, I decided. Yet my fingers felt cold and trembled slightly as I typed in my new score.
As I pressed enter, the screen wavered and my name disappeared.
“What? No!” I yelled, my hands frozen on the keyboard. “What just happened?”
Joshua shivered, then rubbed the top of his head.
“Stop that!” I commanded. “Help me – something went wrong with the program. My name isn’t on here anymore.”
“I can’t help,” he said, shaking his head. I glanced at him in astonishment and then noticed why he was rubbing his crown: His horns were gone.
Then he unfurled his wings and I gasped. They weren’t black any longer.
“It’s not so bad being a demon,” he said. “They don’t care about your score, or really anything, actually. When the seraphim started asking me to take on .. Special jobs, I thought, why not? The horns were a drag. You should have seen them a few years ago.” He made a wide gesture with his arms.
“You’re working with the seraphim?” I said.
Joshua cleared his throat. “You were already halfway to falling. You know what demons say, `Darkness calls, brightness falls’.”
My head started aching. It felt like two holes were being drilled in my skull. It was so painful, I couldn’t muster the energy to correct him.
“Interesting,” Joshua watched me carefully. “Horns on the temple. Premium placement. SCALE — the dark version — thinks you’re going places. Look at your wings.”
The pain was so intense, I didn’t have enough energy to shield them. Black like tar, my wings looked ready to cause some damage. It pleased me, somehow, even though the throbbing was getting worse.
“You’re an asshole,” I informed him. “And you’re getting rewarded for it?”
He smiled, flapped his snowy wings, rubbing in his ascendency. “Look, you’re going to have time to think about this. Who has heard from Him? Or His enemy?”
It wasn’t a question I was meant to answer. I groaned, trying to follow him as red-hot pokers seared my temples. He continued, “Did they ever exist? Who knows? Who cares? All either side has is —”
“SCALE,” I interrupted.
“Yup. It’s all seeing, all-watching. I was bored being a demon. Time for a change. I started talking with the seraphim, and they loved the idea of helping a dark one see the light.” He was studying the computer screen, and smiled when the screen flickered again. His name replaced mine and even had a few points next to it.
“And the demons?”
He raised his eyebrows. “You have to ask?”
Of course they would be pleased, getting a seraphim to cross to the dark side. “Not about me, about you,” I managed to say. Two sharp horns had broken through my skin, and as my hands ran over their points, they cut the truth into me: I had fallen victim to my own naiveté about the divine host.
“Most of them were once seraphim. They starting asking too many questions about Him, or getting sloppy …” he lingered, his voice reminiscing about what must have been his own story and was now mine. “SCALE makes it easier to move between light and dark. If you want, you’ll get back to the light.”
His glib answer enraged me, and I launched myself toward him. As my fist smashed his nose, the solid feeling sent a burst of pleasurable energy through my arm. My wings thrummed with the pleasure of finally allowing my aggression an exit.
With the pain receding, I walked to my living room mirror. The new hardware was not only black, they appeared carved from onyx, shiny and harder than sin. I tested my shielding powers, attempting to cover both my horns and wings, and to my surprise, both vanish without much effort. Joshua must have let me see his small horns so I would think he wasn’t a threat.
My horns were already a good six-inches long. Good, I thought. I want to be a threat. A feeling of serenity floated through me, riding on relief – no more quotas — and untrammeled anger. It was like going shopping and finding The Outfit. The one that was made for you, waiting for you to arrive. The horns and black wings felt fucking great.
I didn’t need to hang around this town any longer. I was done with Burlington.
I perched on the balcony. Screw bus fare. I pointed my dark wings toward Plattsburgh, and flew.
The Right Game
By Zachary Tringali
A motorized carriage trundled down the street, splashing dingy water and filth onto the crowd. Avery waited until it had passed before crossing the street, leaping over puddles and maneuvering around people. A man stuck his hand out and Avery denied the entry to his inner jacket pocket with a twitch of his wrist before slipping down the alleyway created by two leaning buildings. Water dribbled down the eaves and wet his face while two youths exchanging goods and money looked up quickly and scurried out the other mouth of the alley.
“Don’t ignore me!” Davis hissed as he caught up, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trim, red waistcoat. “You can’t just tell me they’re going to hang Caelie and then walk away! Are you really just going to just let them do it? You two practically grew up together.”
“I’m not going to let them do anything.” Avery plucked a hat from the head of a sleeping street dweller, settling it onto his head as he moved down the alley. “I imagine they won’t consult my opinion at all. Of course, if they did, I would be happy to speak on her behalf.”
“I’m sure the thought keeps her warm at night.”
“Why do you care so much? You know how it was between us.” Avery paused at the mouth of the alley, fishing in his coat pocket for his pair of binoculars. Spying across the way, he could see the broken glass of a window at the top of an apartment building; the wind and rain let in to shake the damp curtains; their destination. No shadows inside, no light, no occupants. The police had already given it up. He folded up his binoculars. “We rarely lasted more than two days without property damage and we hated each other at least half of the time that we were around one another. Tell me, would you risk your neck for that?”
“Damn it, yes! Half the time is about as good as a person as volatile as you is likely to get,” Davis said, forced to shout as they crossed the busy intersection and grunting as he pushed past the people and dodged the rare motorcar. “Show me the woman who can put up with you for more than half of the time and I will gift you a unicorn for your next birthday.”
“Oh, don’t tease me, Davis. You know how badly I want a unicorn.” Avery fished the parchment from his pocket, unfurling it as he looked up from the stairwell of the building. “Room two-two-one, should be a straight flight up. Best be quiet now, better that no one know why we’re here.” Avery pushed open the door, leaning in.
“Do you have to be so cavalier?” Davis dragged him back a pace onto the stoop, staring. “Sometimes I think she was the only thing in the world keeping you human. At least when she was around you were always busy.”
“Busy hunting her down, you mean. Busy being berated for losing track of her again.”
“Oh, spare me. The only thing you care about is your ego and the fact that she just might be smarter than you.”
“Well, she wasn’t smart enough this time, was she? Honestly, caught stealing from the king.”
“I shudder to think what you would do if it were me in that prison cell.”
“At this juncture, I’m not disagreeable to the notion of an entirely paper-based correspondence.” Avery pulled his hat lower and entered the building, not looking back. “Stay outside if you’re going to be difficult. We’re here to solve a murder. Try to keep your mind on the king’s business. Honestly.”
“That’s rich, coming from you,” Davis grumbled and shut the door behind him.
Despite their relative quiet, faces still appeared in doorways and watched with increasing interest as they climbed the rickety stairs to the second floor. A man with a thick mustache pulled a scarf up around his neck while a woman across the hall rubbed her bleary eyes to better see. Avery pushed open the doors to rooms 220 and 222, peering in to ensure that they were, indeed, empty; there was no sign of anything out of place in either of the rooms. A cat, however, made an appearance from room 222 and, looking as though it hadn’t been fed since its owner vacated, began to follow after them. Avery toed the cat out of his way as he opened the door to room 221.
“Poor thing,” Davis said, clicking his tongue in his cheek and passing down a bit of cracker to the orange tabby.
“Don’t feed it,” Avery said, belatedly, and sighed. “Now I have two of you to look after.”
“Pardon me, but I thought you brought me for your protection.” Davis rolled his eyes.
The lady Antoinette lay sprawled across her living room floor, her lips turned blue and her skin more pallid than the makeup powder on her dresser could account for. Avery knelt by her body, fallen just beneath the broken window, and raised her arm.
“Hm,” Avery said, turning her hand left and right before dropping her arm. He leaned in and touched her cheek, smelled her hair. “Do you see the burns here on her wrist, and here on her neck?”
“Well enough,” Davis said. “Consistent with the constable’s report of the fire, but several other things could be the cause of a reaction like this. Asphes root, when ingested, leaves traces of hives that look similar to burns, or—”
“I don’t think the lady was drinking tea laced with an astringent, Davis. Think sensibly.”
“Burns, then, as the constable concluded. The kitchen is burned nearly to the beams and the official report says she died just as she’d broken the window to get out. Why would the king send us out here if that’s all that it was? More importantly, why would you bother coming if that’s all that it was? The king said you specifically requested this case. Something must have caught your eye. The constable has already given it up, and I needn’t mention what a fuss you caused by demanding they leave the body here. No doubt the tenants are none too happy, either.”
“A fire is a likely enough story, and so one might assume, but where are the burns on her dress? The smell of smoke?” Avery leapt to his feet, startling the cat who jumped into Davis’ arms. Walking into the kitchen, Avery dragged his finger across the wall and wiped a clean spot through the oily soot. “The rafters are untouched,” he said, waving his hands up at them and returning to Antoinette. He toed a shard of glass beside her body. “And the fire does not follow her. The window is broken, but the glass shards are inside. Someone broke it from the outside. Furthermore,” Avery paused, grunting once as he moved Antoinette, rolling her onto her side and exposing the vent beneath her body.
“Vents here and there,” Avery said and thumbed back towards the doorway where Davis stood. “Meant to carry air up through the building, but not all air rises. When cooking with certain volatile substances, the smoke sinks. Did you notice the man and woman directly below these apartments? The man wore a scarf at this time of year, indoors. Most likely hiding rashes, weeping rashes caused by the smoke, and the woman—”
“Then there’s only one explanation, with the fire this controlled. No scent, no scorch marks, descending smoke presenting with rashes,” Davis said quickly, wetting his lips. “Dragon blood magic.”
“Why else would I bring a dragon’s blood mage with me?”
“But there’s no way you could have known before we got here.”
“I assumed as much and there have been rumors. The king documents his magi quite scrupulously, as I’m sure you can attest to, but I’m given to understand that not everyone is so pleased with the situation. We can assume that if this was murder, the magi in question will not be in the king’s records. There’s a cluster in town.”
“Attacking a cluster of angry, unlicensed magi isn’t something we’re equipped to deal with. Which means this case is officially beyond us.”
“Which means we head to the tavern, my dear Davis,” Avery said, sparing a last glance for the lady Antoinette, whose eyes held a yellowish tint and whose fingers, when touching them again, were thick around the knuckle. “You’ll find the lady Antoinette had a regular table there, perhaps even a drink named after her. I have an errand to run, first. I’ll meet you there. I believe there was a shady tavern just down the road called the Fickle Pig, perfect for our purposes. You can’t miss it.” Avery swept past him, calling back over his shoulder, “Bring the cat.”
“What do you expect me to do?” Davis called out into the hall, cradling the cat in his arms.
“Go on, go and drink!” Avery popped back in, startling Davis back. “Have a chat, socialize, and commiserate with the barkeep that was undoubtedly unhappy to lose such a well-paying customer. We’ll find her killer there, but first we need an assurance.” Avery turned about on his heels to leave. “If you miss the first shot, the pigeons all scatter to the wind.”
Avery grabbed Davis by the collar of his coat and dragged him out of his seat; the beer sloshed out of Davis’ tankard and onto the table, the cat meowed and went with them through the bar and out into the alley behind the Fickle Pig. Davis turned around, fire in his eyes and a fist cocked back, only looking slightly less intimidating for the orange tabby that sat on his shoulder, licking his paw.
“Damn it, Avery. What was all that about? I was ready to punch your head off!”
“Not yet, we might still need it.” Avery wagged a finger at him and reached into his coat, producing a slender copper syringe with an amber liquid sloshing in its vial. “I had to make a stop to pick up a gift for you.”
“Dragon’s blood. How did you get it? You aren’t a licensed magi.” Davis plucked the syringe from his hand, turning it in front of his eyes. He squirted a little of the blood into his palm and sniffed it, making a sour face. “Cheap shit, Avery. Isn’t the king paying you well? No thank you, either way.”
“’Fraid it’s not a request, old friend. As for the license, I told them that I knew a magi who knew a magi, and well, things got moving. The cluster must be growing powerful in town, the black market is growing and the seller didn’t even bat an eye to take my money. The police here seem to have developed a tendency to be absent.”
“Well, on closer inspection, I doubt they care if this is what they’re selling as dragon’s blood. This is hardly anything the king needs to be worried about. It smells like dog piss.” Davis wiped his hand clean with a linen handkerchief. “Must’ve been a rather pitiful little dragon.”
“I can’t speak to that, but the man did tell me the dragon had the animal speech, which is what we need and why you’ll take it.” Avery gestured to him with a flick of the wrist. “Do you need me to hold you down? We need to hurry, Davis, before the cluster catches on to us. We can still take care of this whole matter quickly, quietly.”
“What’s gotten into you? You don’t even like me using the stuff and I can’t see how talking to a cat is going to help—”
“Necessity dictates the means. And you’d be a fool to think it won’t help. Cats see everything.” Avery stared at the tabby—it hissed back at him. “I hate the things.”
“Well, if you’re certain it’s going to help the case…” Davis said, leaning back against the wall. “I can handle myself well enough. Hold the cat.” The tabby recoiled from Avery’s touch, making Davis laugh. The ease with which he moved was enough to turn stomachs, slipping the needlepoint into the crevice at the corner of his eye. He pushed down on the plunger and his pupils dilated, the whites of his eyes going red.
A moment later he yanked the syringe out and threw it into a rubbish pile, doubling over and gripping his knees as he heaved in the alley.
“Not the most dignified way to go about things,” Avery murmured.
“Utter shit,” Davis said and spat. “I’m accustomed to a higher class, you know.”
“I’ll let the barkeep know to only fetch you blood of the highest caliber from now on. For now,” Avery said, holding the cat out between them; the tabby’s tail wavered and he meowed once, staring at Davis, “what does this cat say to you?”
“He hates you.”
“Well, I didn’t need you for that,” Avery said, jostling the cat. “Come on, cat, talk! What did you see that day?”
“Hold on, hold on, here we go,” Davis shushed Avery, flapping his hand to get him to stop as he leaned in closer to the cat. The tabby put a paw out on Davis’ nose and he stood unflinching, staring into the eyes of the cat.
“You look ridiculous.”
“Shh,” Davis said, his eyes flicking up to Avery for but a moment. “He says he saw a woman with black hair who smelled of strawberries and… sunshine? Really?” He stared blankly at the cat, shaking his head. “She had a blue flame painted on her shoulder.” Davis shot up, clapping his hands together. “I know her!”
“Good,” Avery said, dropping the cat in his excitement; the tabby yowled and landed on its feet, scurrying behind Davis. “Where to?”
“She was just inside the bar. She was drinking something with strawberry liqueur, sitting at a table with a bunch of other people. I—” Davis paused, doubling over again and seizing his head, eyes squeezed shut tightly. “Damn it, Avery, who did you buy that blood off of, some piss-poor wyrm farmer?”
“Maybe you should sleep it off.” Avery clasped him on the shoulder just as Davis’ knees went weak and he fell down, back against the wall. He looked up at Avery, his eyes glassy, lips moving, the words dying in his throat. “I’ll take care of everything. Best not worry. The cat will look after you.”
When Davis’ eyes fluttered shut, Avery fished inside his waistcoat and retrieved the leather bifold that carried his badge marking him as an official magi of the king. He left Davis and the cat curled up together on the alley floor and entered the Fickle Pig from the backdoor. A bartender filled a shot glass and set it in front of a customer; Avery grabbed it and downed it before the man could even raise a cry. He flashed Davis’ badge and the man settled back down.
The woman waited at a table in the back of the bar, her black hair pinned up behind her head, her eyes as blue as the tattoo of a flame that graced her bare left shoulder. The strapless dress in any other place would have been scandalous, a call for trouble, but it was clear she had a power over the room; no one else in the Fickle Pig went near her, aside from her entourage that milled about the table, drinking and laughing.
“What can I do for you?” The woman asked, smiling at him from around the lip of her shot glass. She tipped back her head, the red liqueur staining her lips and filling the space with the soft smell of strawberries.
“I have a special request.” Avery flipped back the leather bifold on the badge, revealing the five pointed iron crown. He threw it down in the middle of the table, knocking over glasses and bottles. The woman hissed even as she jumped from her seat, knocking back her chair; the others were slower, though equally incensed. Avery held his hands up. “Best not to make a fuss. I know who you are, now you know who I am. I suspect I’ve known my part a little longer, though. Long enough to make sure any dragon’s blood coming into this city has had an extra additive of my own working.”
“What do you mean?” One of the men at the table asked, his grip on the chair white-knuckled. He was a scrawny man, the kind most usually drawn to dragon’s blood—pale and sickly, nothing like Davis.
“I mean you’d be better off getting out of here. I’ve notified the constable already, but if you leave now I won’t drop the signal. I only want to talk to one of you. If you choose to stay, I assure you, you won’t like finding out exactly what I added to the dragon’s blood cocktails you’ve stuck yourself with.” He made a point to wince and leveled his eye on the black haired woman, who remained standing and ready to pounce. She hesitated, and as the faces turned towards her, nodded slowly.
“What do you want?” she asked when the others had left, none of them too brave to resist scurrying out nearly hands over knees.
“You should have a seat,” Avery said, gesturing as he pulled out a chair for himself and filled a glass with the strawberry liqueur, mixing and matching with other bottles from the table and stirring it together with his pinky. “The king sent me here to investigate a murder. I’m sure I don’t need to illuminate further. Sloppy trail, leaving the cat.”
“Never mind. I was sent to get one person for murder, not to take down an entire cluster. I don’t give a damn about the magic or your people. All I want is answers.”
“You’re not really one of the king’s magi, are you?” She snatched away the glass he’d filled and drained it in a gulp before taking her seat. “What’s to stop me from killing you and leaving?”
“My name is Avery Croft,” he said, letting the words sink in as he leaned across the table and flashed a smile. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me. Do you really think I would waltz in here without a plan? So much as leave that door without my consent and you’ll be strung up so fast you’ll piss yourself.” Her face had turned suitably pale, enough that he could feel pleased with himself. He took the glass back from her hand, filled it, and drank. “Now, tell me about the girl. You burned her entire kitchen down, you left a sizable trail and I don’t imagine you would have bothered if you could have just made the body disappear.”
“It would have been too suspicious,” she said, folding her hands across the table. “You swear all I need to do is answer you?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
“Be that way,” she grunted and leaned back in her chair, drinking straight from the bottle. “The girl was a runner for us, bringing dragon’s blood back and forth across the border. She doctored it up for us, too, in that kitchen of hers. Made it better, more powerful, let us control everything.”
“Sounds like a valuable pawn to go and kill the way you did.”
“Wouldn’t have done it if I’d had a choice. She got nervous and started leaking information. We don’t know who she talked to, don’t care, it’ll get to the king eventually. She had been storing dragon’s blood at her place as evidence. Torching it was the only way to be sure we got it all.”
“You didn’t burn it all, though, did you?” Avery leaned across the table, clapping his hands. “I think you’re too clever for that. You took as much as you could before you burned the rest. I think you’re sitting on enough dragon’s blood to power half of the king’s army and then some.”
“I don’t see how this is relevant to the murder case. If you’re going to take me for murder, let’s just be done with this. I’m bored of answering your questions.” She slurped from the bottle, setting it between her legs and smacking her lips. “If you’re right, we’ll see how my men react when you take me prisoner.”
“I have something else in mind. There’s something I need.”
The Fickle Pig was burning in the distance, filling the sky with clouds of black smoke. The birds flew awkward paths around the city; the streets smelled of smoke, rum, and rain. Avery tossed the badge back to Davis as they walked down the road out of town, listing sideways to avoid the motorcars coming through.
“Shame the girl got away,” Davis said, flapping the badge in his hand. “But no one could blame you. You shouldn’t have gone in, Avery. Without me! What the hell were you thinking? A cluster of magi that powerful, you’re lucky the tavern is all they destroyed.”
“Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, Davis.” Avery stuffed his hands into his pockets. “At least you got a new friend.”
The cat meowed from Davis’ shoulder.
The castle bustled with activity. The king’s cooks were stuffed into tiny rooms preparing feasts for the masses; the guards were helping to keep the peace as the people assembled in the court. It was the end of the week and the day of sentencing. Everyone came out for the hanging; no one noticed Avery as he walked through the halls, down the stairs, and further into the belly of the castle than most people knew existed.
Caelie waited in a cell at the back of the prison, clipping her golden hair back from her face and humming quietly to herself. Avery had watched as they brought in her black dress, her hair clips, her finest pair of shoes; all of her things to die in. When the guards finally left, he slipped between the bars, let out the breath he’d been holding, and appeared in the corner of the cell.
“Ready to go, Caelie?” He smiled. “The world is boring with you below ground and I’m in no hurry to make the situation permanent.”
“That’s a nice trick. I was starting to think you weren’t going to show.” She tried to hide the surprise on her face, but failed; the little tears beaded in the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them away quickly. When he tossed a syringe towards her, she caught it with only a small amount of fumbling, and turned it towards the torch light to better see the amber liquid sloshing inside. “There’s no way you could have gotten this! Impossible! This is from the King’s own brood of dragons. You could go anywhere with this—do anything.”
“Nothing is impossible.” Avery spread his hands out in front of him. “You just have to play the right game.”
Shadow of the Rain Catchers
By Dean Giles
The hang glider looked like a parrot with a broken wing, a patchwork of coloured cloth stitched together in a swooping arc across its five meter wingspan. The wings told the story of the last year of Ewan’s life. He had scrounged every scrap of material from old clothes, furniture, and even dried out rabbit hide. He needed less than half a square metre to finish building his Little Dragon, and with it, find a way to save his father’s life.
Ewan had secured the hang glider to a makeshift bench in the middle of his wood-shack workshop. He had hand-built every inch of the shed and furniture, the wood and nails salvaged from nearby dumps or broken carts and the resultant outhouse had the look of a mangled old oak patched with shiny sheet metal.
He made his way across the dusty room, avoiding the scattered tools and piles of cardboard boxes.
In the corner he heaved a rickety shelving unit to the side revealing a handle on the floor. He grunted as he pulled the handgrip and lifted away a large section of flooring. The secret compartment housed a folded heap of fabric. The pattern was similar to the hang glider sail. A mismatch of different materials stitched together and attached to ropes of different sizes and lengths.
Ewan had seen the design in an ancient book. It was called a parachute, used long ago so people could jump from great heights.
Technically they were legal as there was no law against jumping off a cliff. But the hang glider was a different matter entirely. He would be fined a week’s water rations just for building the thing and prison time for actually flying it… if he got caught.
Since he was a boy he dreamed every night of flying through the sky with nothing between him and the stars but the rushing air. He soared and dived on the whim of the wind like a bird.
His mother used to call him her little dragon. When he was a child, Ewan would tie wooden planks to his arms and flap them wildly pretending to soar as high as the Rain Catchers.
Later, when he was eight, Ewan took his kite with him to the ruined city. There, he climbed a slanted tower overlooking his own village.
His best friend, Ava, waited nervously for him as he climbed the decaying tower. Time had worn the bricks enough to reveal foot holds in the structure. Ewan could climb better than anyone he knew. As surefooted as any grownup. Ava could never understand why he didn’t freeze with fear.
The truth is he felt free when he was climbing. The only thing better than looking down from the great heights of the old buildings would be to launch himself off and fly through the clouds like the dragon from his bedtime stories.
The wind was strong that day. His kite was strapped securely to his back, but each gust of wind threatened to catch the overhanging fabric and hoist him uncontrollably into the air. Ewan felt fear, but somehow it drove him on, filled his body with electricity.
At the top he clung to a rail with shaky hands, his breathing heavy, and a smile that lifted his cheeks and stung his wide open eyes.
He took in the familiar view of the old ruins. He could see the lay of the town, how it must have been when it was built centuries before. Wide roads snaked through the rubble, impossible to see from the ground but their outlines were visible from this height. Their boarders faint lines under years of dust and decay.
Ewan closed his eyes and imagined the brilliance of this place at its pinnacle. Tall trees, lush parks surrounded by thousands of brick built homes, schools, and offices. A place where water ran freely into each home.
Ava’s voice carried to him on the wind. He couldn’t make out her words but her tone was anxious. Ewan smiled, she had tried to talk him out of it because she was scared for him. But Ewan wanted Ava to share his love and enthusiasm for the sky. His father said he was a show-off, but he wasn’t, not really. In ancient times, before machine rule, people had flown through the sky in aeroplanes and helicopters – like extensions of their bodies.
He’d never known any different. Nor had his father, or his father before him, but Ewan hated that the world had flipped around.
He wanted to escape, to feel the wind under his arms. He wanted to see the world laid out with the eyes of an eagle.
He unstrapped the kite, holding tightly to the rusted metal railing. The wind pulled urgently and roared noisily against the sail of the kite, nearly dragging him away. All he need do was let go and let the wind take him.
He looked down and saw Ava sweeping her golden hair from her eyes. She had a washed-out look of worry that Ewan seemed to frequently rouse in her.
He cleared his mind, breathed deeply, and let the kite take him. His memory of that moment forever crystallised in his mind. The way his stomach lurched as he gave himself over to the whim of the wind. The momentary feeling of weightlessness. He took off suddenly and so fast that he screamed with the thrill of it.
The seconds seemed to stretch and soon he realised his weight was too much for the kite. The ground below hurtled towards him in a flash of brown and grey, smashing him unsympathetically into darkness.
When he woke, his mother’s and father’s happiness lasted as long as the time it took them to determine he would be okay. That his broken ankles would heal, in time.
In the two years that followed, and even in the event of her passing away in the drought of ’56, his mother never again called him her little dragon.
In his wooden shack Ewan picked up the light fabric of his parachute, and contemplated using some of the material to finish his sail; he only needed a little… No, I mustn’t cut corners. He had to find the fabric from somewhere else.
He removed the hang glider from his workbench and carefully hid it under the floor with the parachute.
Footsteps crunched on the dry dirt outside. Ewan quickly replaced the section of flooring just as the door rattled against the lock. “Ewan, hurry up or you’ll be late for work. Come and have something to eat before you go.”
“I’ll be right in, Dad.”
Ewan made sure his secrets were safe then ran to the house, a wooden home only twice the size of his workshop.
Ewan’s father, Daniel, sat at the breakfast table, a warm smile on his tired face. “Eggs?” he asked.
He asked the same question each morning, and each morning Ewan gave the same reply, “go on then, Dad, you cooking?”
“Someone’s got to,” Daniel said with a soft grin. “Get the water from the safe will you?”
Ewan reached over and turned the dial on the heavy floor safe. Its dented body betrayed its age. Inside were two small canisters. Ewan took one and carefully passed it to his father.
Daniel licked his parched lips. The sound made Ewan swallow hard against his dry throat.
Ewan watched his Father pour two measures of water, his rough, withered hands shaking as he did. He stopped mid pour, overcome with a coughing fit.
Ewan placed a hand on his father’s wrist, took the canister, and finished pouring the drinks. He filled each cup with exactly fifty millilitres of the precious liquid.
“Have you taken your medicine this morning?”
“Don’t worry, I’m okay,” Daniel said through a stifled cough.
“No, Dad, it’s not okay. I’ll get you some after work today. It’s payday.”
Ewan cursed his old man’s stubbornness. Too ill to work, too proud to admit he was sick.
Daniel smiled, showing two missing teeth. “You’re a good boy, cleverest damn factory worker that company has. They don’t know what they’ve got yet, but they will, you’ll see, they’ll give you a promotion soon.”
“I know, Dad. Thanks.” Ewan knew it was wishful thinking, but he didn’t want his dad to know how bad things had gotten. People like them didn’t get promotions anymore, no matter how good they were.
They slowly sipped their morning rations of water, savouring every mouthful.
Daniel inclined his head, and his eyes sunk with a hint of sorrow. “Hear that, Son. There’s a storm coming.”
Ewan held his breath and listened to the distant hum of the approaching Rain Catchers. “Sounds like a big one.”
A shadow leaned across the arid land. The wicked hum of countless motors drowned out nature’s thunderous roars. Below, the dry earth shrivelled from lack of rain. A mass of grey clouds swallowed the glow of the shimmering sun, heavy with water riches most could only dream of.
Half the sky was already dark. Ewan mounted his bicycle, flicked on the flashlight, and pushed off along the dirt track. Above him, Rain Catchers flew under the clouds like thousands of bulbous sacks, each square of sagging material was a hectare of absorbent yarn, stretched and attached to a vast array of water tanks spaced along the seams at one-kilometre intervals. The tanks hung from airships that kept the whole structure airborne. The fabric sections connected in all directions, an unnatural shadow that blocked out the sun, following stormy weather and capturing every drop of precious water that fell.
The engine noise grew louder, and daylight dwindled as Ewan peddled along the parched dust track.
He turned onto the main road towards town, and joined the heaving traffic of bicycles and Camel-drawn carts.
Through the haze, in the centre of the sprawling hub, Ewan could see the Factory towering over a sea of low brick buildings. It gleamed in the last rays of the disappearing sun. The glass covered skyscraper was a lone stallion standing tall among the bustling squalor beneath.
Inside the Factory, Ewan heaved and pulled fistfuls of material through greasy rollers. The production machinery roared angrily as it spat diesel fumes into the hot air. Everywhere was thick with the stench of it. It clung to Ewan’s forehead with sweat and grit from the factory floor. The work was monotonous and unforgiving. The process was highly manual, unskilled work. But he couldn’t lose focus for a second or he might end up dragged through a high torque cog.
Thousands of miles of Aramid Yarn was threaded through semi-automated weavers. The base sheets were stitched together and rolled into huge drums waiting further processing. It was the Rain Catcher’s strength layer, the element that kept the foam from tearing under the stress of three million tons of water.
Several layers of absorption foams would be assembled to the base fabric before the completed product was shipped to the testing facility. Once there it would be fitted with complex pumping systems and attached to the colossal water tank engines, and sent for commissioning.
It was hard work that made him feel guilty, like he’d been forced to work for the enemy, the machines who stole our rain, thieves who’d blistered the land and enslaved the people with a water-rationing whip. But he had taken the job on his father’s advice: It’s a job, Son. You can’t afford to be moral, not when they’re paying you two canisters of water a week.
Ewan heaved the knitted fabric from the weaver and wound it tightly into a drum. His arms and shoulders complained with every pull.
When a drum was filled, a section was cut – the edges had to be completely square. The accumulated cut-offs were thrown in plastic bins and removed at the end of the day to be thrown away. The yield was high, but there were always leftovers. The rejected yarn would be perfect for his hang glider.
He glanced down the long line of workers adjacent to him, all performing identical tasks in their navy blue overalls streaked with oil and grit. Like him, each worker’s face was covered from the nose down in a face mask.
He bent down and took three small cut-offs of fabric, ducked under the weaver, and hurried to the tool bench. He removed a pair of Kevlar cutters so he could shape the material and ran to his locker. He folded the material into his rucksack and smiled at the thought of finally finishing his Little Dragon.
Clocking out time, Ewan reached the front of the queue and passed over his work-sheet, a detailed printout of his workload for the week.
The bored-looking clerk glanced at it and stamped the front sheet. “You get eight litres. Give me your canisters.”
Ewan opened his rucksack to retrieve the empty water canisters, completely forgetting about the scraps of material. His bag opened, and the fabric fell out in plain sight.
The clerk sprang to his feet, gesturing to a security guard. “Thief! We’ve got a thief here.”
Panic seared Ewan’s chest. “I’m not a thief–”
Vicelike hands gripped him around the torso and lifted him high in the air. The guard-droid carried him across the lobby and despatched him into the lift. Ewan hit the floor hard and looked up into the chrome skeleton face of the guard. Its eyes burned white hot like twin suns flickering with murderous intent. Its thick plated body revved and clattered spilling black smoke from exhausts that wound around its chest like ribs.
The guard smashed its fist on the UP button.
Ewan let out a ragged breath. His whole body was shaking and his chest heaved awkwardly with each spasm.
He had never known a human that had been sent upstairs, but he had heard the rumours. There was a saying on the factory floor: You screw up, you go up.
Ewan tore his eyes away from the guard and its murderous glare. He looked at the elevator’s LED display as it travelled quickly through the floors, all the way to two-hundred.
All the way up.
The manager’s office was lush to a degree Ewan had thought impossible. The far wall was entirely glass covered, and the view overlooking the city took his breath away. He fleetingly longed for his hang glider, to escape this office, to jump from this height and fly above the land.
The floor was black marble, and the side walls sported huge water tanks teeming with freshwater fish. There must have been a thousand litres in each tank, more than Ewan was paid in two years. His eyes bulged at the sight of such opulence.
“Sit down.” The android who spoke was dressed in company clothes, a dark grey business skirt and single-breasted jacket. She gestured to the desk and the single chair in front.
Under her cold scrutiny Ewan felt his fear receding, in its place anger advanced like the inbound tide. His planned excuse stuck fast in his throat. His father’s cure could be bought for a fraction of the water in the fish tank.
The android-woman was an old model, from a long ago time when the machines made an effort to look like their creators.
She smiled from across the desk, but her plastic skin barely moved and her eyes remained cold, dead. She opened a file and fished through some papers.
Leaning forward, she passed him a standardised letter confirming his dismissal. “We will not press charges, but you will never work for Yu Yún Services or any of our subsidiaries again. Goodbye.”
Ewan laughed – a sharp angry sound.
The android stiffened, taking all the slack out of her tight grey uniform. Underneath her pencil thin dress and fragile layer of synthetic skin, Ewan knew she was constructed with an intricate array of moving parts. Dozens of independent systems working together in a fine balance to keep her functioning. Her micro-mechanical parts made her as fragile as an antique watch; Ewan had never seen one in the flesh before today.
Her gloss complexion seemed to darken, but still she smiled with her cold eyes.
“You’re joking, right?” Ewan said. “I took some rubbish.”
She raised an eyebrow. It struck Ewan as an unnatural emotive; the rest of her face remained perfectly still, her aspect was a tight plastic sheen too yellow to be real skin.
“You can leave now, Mr…, um, Jackson.” She waved her hand, ushering him towards the door. “And rest assured I will write a full report of this incident on your employment file, and post it on the public system for future employer’s information.”
Hot blood heated his cheeks. He couldn’t keep his tongue in check. “You know, there’s a special place reserved in hell for you… things.” He kept his words calm, despite his racing heart.
She looked past him to the security guard. “Please escort Mr. Jackson off the premises.”
“Seriously, lady, I need this job. It was scraps I took… rubbish–”
The security guard yanked him back and dragged him from the chair.
To hell with it, what have I got to lose? Ewan kicked the security guard in its knee joint and freed himself from its grip. Running around the table, he enjoyed a moment of triumph as the android-woman yelped in fear. Her face cramped and tightened as she scrambled to get away from him. His intention was to scare her, not to cause her harm. But the guard couldn’t read his real intentions. It roared and clattered as internal engines revved. The floor shook as it stomped heavily around the table with its brilliant white eyes screaming virtual fury.
The guard-droid struck Ewan across the back knocking him over the desk. Papers went flying in every direction. Ewan squirmed in the mess as he was pulled by his feet towards the exit. He grabbed at the table for something to hold, but his hands came away with nothing but papers.
One final glimpse of the awful android and Ewan shouted, “You’re going to hell, lady…remember that.”
Ewan pushed his bike home, hoping the long walk would clear his head – hoping to find the right words to explain this to his father.
The late-afternoon sky had disappeared under the Rain Catcher’s shadow, and Ewan wondered if it had always been this way. Had the powerful always taken from the needy? Was it tough-fate? Should he simply accept his place?
He stopped a moment and opened his rucksack. They had allowed him his eight litres of owed salary, but they hadn’t noticed the fistfuls of papers he had grabbed in the office during the struggle.
He sat down on the side of the road and felt something poke him sharply in his thigh. He pulled out the borrowed cutters and muttered, “At least I got something from them.”
It was quiet where the road ended at his village, which bordered the empty desert expanse beyond. Not much opportunity for trade in the poor backwater village he called home.
He wound-up the dimming flashlight until the beam was wide and bright and began to flick through the papers. Most were useless quotes or invoices. One or two more interesting documents showed detailed specifications for some of the Rain Catcher’s engine parts. The last scrap of paper was torn, but most of the detail was still intact. His eyes widened with wonder at what he saw: blueprints for a complete Rain Catcher segment.
Heart racing with excitement, he carefully rolled the blueprints and placed them back in his rucksack. He discarded the rest in a nearby skip and raced on his bike all the way to Doctor Don’s, to get the medicine for his dad.
The waiting room was empty apart from the Doctor. He was sitting cross-legged in the centre of the waiting room floor dressed in a black suit with a matching waistcoat. He wore a stethoscope with the chest piece resting against his own body. Dr. Don Elkin’s eyes were closed, and a low hum emanated from his throat. His wholesome cheeks vibrated with the rhythm of his breathing.
“That’s odd,” Ewan said.
One of Don’s eyes opened and regarded him. “What’s odd?” he asked between exaggerated breaths.
“You’re odd… I mean, you’re acting in an odd way right now. What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s called medi…tation. Some kind of ancient hocus-pocus, meant to make folks relax some. Helps me get through the dark days, you know, numbs out the hum of Rain Catcher motors. Helps the old claustrophobia those damned water thieving machines give me.”
He pulled himself up and regarded Ewan. “I Read about meditation in one of those old books you found last year.”
“Does it work?”
“Nope, not a bit.” Don laughed. He stood up and slapped Ewan on the back. “Take a seat, boy, I’ll get your father’s prescription.”
When Don returned, he held a bag of painkillers and passed it over the counter, one month’s supply. “Here you go, boy. How is the old man, haven’t seen him about the village recently?”
Ewan pulled a canister from his rucksack and poured a little less than three litres into a water bag hanging from the counter.
Don carefully tied it and placed it in the safe.
“He’s getting worse, Doc. He’s coughing a lot in the mornings. But you know what he’s like, no fuss, stubborn as a diesel spitting dump-bot.”
Don let his chin drop to his chest, “Damn it, kid. That old man of yours and me grew up in this village, and there ain’t no way I’m gonna watch him die for no good reason. I could cure him in no time with the right medication.”
“Penicillin?” Ewan asked. “It’s rare and expensive.”
Don looked at him for a long moment. “Look, if you can raise fifty percent of the price, I’ll put up the other half, and you can pay me back in monthly instalments. I’ll charge you no more than the water I pay for the medication, and I’ll carry out all appointments and check-ups free of charge. It’s the best I can do.”
Surprised at his generosity, Ewan felt a surge of gratitude, but it was quickly replaced with a sense of desperation. No job, no income. No hope.
“Thank you, Doc. I… I appreciate it.”
“Do what you can, Ewan, and I’ll get your old man fit again.”
Ewan skulked over to the village gardens. Bessie was on security. She sat on an old rusted chair that was chained to a twelve foot security fence surrounding the allotment. A drop of precious green on the scarred land, twenty square metres of plants and vegetables made possible by a highly-efficient irrigation system and village water taxes.
“Hey, Bessie, is my father inside?”
“Go right in, Ewan. He’s in the power-shed.”
Chickens roamed freely inside the security fence. Ewan closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He imagined what it was like when the whole country had been green and wet. Before the machines took the rain.
Inside the four-man shed stood two old bicycles that had been converted into generators. They powered the ultraviolet lighting that was required to feed the plants while under the shadow of a Rain Catcher.
Daniel sat atop one of the bikes, laboriously peddling. Overhead lights flickered above neat rows of plants and vegetables.
“Dad, you shouldn’t be doing that, seriously, doctor’s orders.” Ewan passed his father the bag of painkillers. “Come on, let me take over. You can keep me company.”
Daniel’s face was red, and sweat gleaned on his forehead. As he dismounted, a spluttering cough escaped his throat, despite his best efforts to hide it.
Daniel growled out, “Don’t write me off just yet, boy, I’ve still got some life left in me.” He paused a moment, catching his breath. “These are difficult times, here especially. We all have to do our bit. Just because I can’t work anymore doesn’t mean I can’t be useful. Don’t you, of all people, deny me that.”
Ewan let his father’s words hang in the air. Ewan wished his mother was still around. She always had the right words, and right now Ewan felt powerless. At least she would make him listen to reason. “You need to take it easy, Dad, is all I’m saying.”
Daniel sat on a tree stump in the corner of the shed. “We’ll make it someday, if you keep working hard for that promotion, we can get some antibiotics, then I can work again. With two salaries we can get on top. Maybe even build our own allotment one day.”
Ewan looked at his father’s hopeful smile. But His face was gaunt and his shirt hung from his narrow shoulders. Ewan wanted nothing less than to tell his father a lie, he wanted to tell him what happened at the factory, but he just couldn’t form the words.
He decided right there and then that he would make this right, he had to find the water to exchange for the cure, and he had to do it before it was too late.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel path outside – Ewan recognised the indelicate stomps – clumpy for such an elegant frame. She tapped on the shed door four times. “Can I come in?” and burst in before waiting for an answer. “Whoops, too late.”
Ewan smiled at the sight of his lifelong friend, a ray of sunshine the Rain Catchers could never deny him.
She carelessly flounced over, narrowly missing his fully stacked shelves. He shuddered at the memory of the last time she had knocked over his bookcase.
“How’s our secret project coming along?” she asked in a loud voice.
Ewan pointed to the unfinished section of sail. “Nearly done. I just need a little more fabric to finish her.”
“Why the glum face then?”
Ewan took a deep breath, “I messed up, Ava. Big time.”
Her hair was a dark shade of blond, and she wore a long white summer dress that floated along the floor when she moved. She had a beauty about her that was hard to pin down, a kind of carefree innocence and unwavering individuality. He told her the details of his dismissal and watched her face grow darker with each sentence.
“I’m glad you’re here, Ava. I’ve been working on a plan to sort this mess out, and if I can pull it off, my father could be treated – and we could be swimming in the rewards.”
She lifted an eyebrow and looked unconvinced. “You’ll never get enough water to swim in.”
“But I haven’t even told you the plan yet.”
“If it’s anything like your usual bright ideas, I guess I should brace myself.”
“No it’s not,” Ewan stated. “Well, actually maybe this time it is a bit, shall we say, ambitious – but the payoff will be worth it. It will pay for my Dad’s medication.”
“Go on then, let’s hear it.”
He waved her over to the desk. The Rain Catcher blueprint he’d taken from the factory was spread out and held down with rocks.
Ava showed her disappointment with a grumpy pout. “This isn’t as exciting as you built it up to be, Ewan. How are these scribbles going to save Daniel’s life?”
“You’re looking at genuine blueprints of a Rain Catcher.” He let the words settle in her brain.
Ava’s face turned pale and then flushed red. She’d never been good at hiding her emotions.
Ewan pointed to a drawing of the main water tank. Its bulk was kept afloat by a supporting airship attached two-hundred metres above. The drawing showed multiple venting shafts penetrating the tank’s casing.
“Here.” He pointed near the apex of the tank. “There’s a small maintenance ladder and shelf. If I can get above the fabric sacks with my hang glider and land on top of the tank, then, I simply drop a canister attached on a rope into the collected water. I’ll fill as many canisters as I can carry, and drop them down on parachutes through a joint at the edge of fabric section. All you need to do is follow me on the ground and collect the canisters as they fall to earth. Job done.”
Ava stared at Ewan in blatant disbelief. “Please tell me you’re joking?”
“Why, Ava? Why would I be joking? This water could save my father’s life.”
Ava sat down next to him on the long wooden bench and took both his hands in hers. “If you decided to go ahead with this madness, you could die. Then who will look after your father? And, if you get caught by any of the Catcher’s security drones, you’ll be killed.” Her words were becoming heated. “I want nothing more than for Daniel to get better, but you’re being reckless, Ewan, you need to think about this, seriously. Even if we did manage to pull it off, you could still be arrested and God knows what the machines would do to you for interfering with one of their own… is it really worth the risk?”
Hers was the voice of reason, and the logic was hard to ignore. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Yu Yún has been taking our rain for centuries, and right now, more than ever before, I need to get back what’s mine. What’s ours. What belongs to the people.”
“You know that I feel the same, but it’s just not worth the risk. You should be in prison just for having those damn blueprints.”
Ewan threw his hands up in defence. “All I want is to take back some water. The rain should be free for everyone.”
“There has to be another way, Ewan. Just promise me you’ll think about it, please?”
Ewan felt the wind drop from his sails. Perhaps she was right, and he had to find another way to raise the funds.
Five full days of searching for a new job yielded no results. The few employers that had available work wouldn’t touch him because of the Yu Yún incident. It seemed wherever he went his bad reputation had already paved the way ahead of him.
Full of frustration from another long, unsuccessful day, Ewan took the road back to his village. It was dark and the humming of the Rain Catchers continued unrelenting above him, a constant reminder of his lowly place in the world.
He cycled as hard as he could despite inevitable dehydration. His insides were taut like a thousand tourniquets around his spine. He needed to forget, to somehow vent the anguish.
As if in answer to his growing despair, the horizon exploded with light. Like the hand of some ancient god had reached down and lifted the carpet of darkness, the sun smiled down on the earth once again.
The storm was passing. For nearly a week the land had been plunged in the shadow of the Rain Catchers. With the distant sunset came a renewed feeling of optimism. It reasserted itself instantly in Ewan’s heart, and with it came a rekindled loathing for the machines who stole the sky.
Ewan opened the front door, and through heavy huffs he called, “Father? Dad? Come and see the sunset, quickly.”
There was no answer. He stepped into his home. The dining table was still covered with this morning’s plates, and the sight sent adrenaline flowing through him. He charged across the room and pulled aside the curtain that divided the living area from his father’s sleeping space.
The sharp smell of faeces hung in the air. Ewan pressed his forefinger against his father’s wrist and prayed silent thanks when he felt a weak pulse.
Doctor Don looked grave. “He’ll live, for now, but he’s got to rest and have plenty of fluids.” He leaned over close to Ewan and whispered in earnest, “What he really needs is penicillin, otherwise he will die.”
Ewan was running out of time and right then, the prospect of prison, or worse, was acceptable to the alternative.
Don packed away his tools and closed his briefcase. He was dressed in the same suit he’d been wearing as far back as Ewan remembered, and it was as neat and clean as the day it was made. Doctor Don took pride in his appearance. It was important to him. Ewan found solace in his dignity. Doc was as poor as most people, but he was determined to fight, in his own way.
Ewan had the tools to save his father, and maybe, just maybe, he could pull it off.
“Don’t worry, Doc, I’ll get the water so you can buy the penicillin.”
“You come and see me as soon as you do.”
Ewan followed Don outside and breathed in the night air. The endless sky opened before them, and countless stars shone brilliantly. Ewan felt like he could fall into the open abyss. It always took time to readjust to the vastness of the night sky after the rain clouds passed.
Don raised a bushy eyebrow and pointed up. “Drink it up, Ewan, they say another big storm’s heading our way.”
Footsteps crunched loudly outside, and Ava barged through the shed door carrying a bulging black sack. She was dressed in close-fitting denim, t-shirt, and high boots.
Without a word, she upturned the sack onto the floor. “There should be enough material here to finish your dragon machine, and more left over for parachutes.”
Ewan held onto his questions and regarded his friend as she unclipped two hand-sized devices from her thin belt. “Walkie Talkies,” she said. “So we can keep in contact while you’re up there.”
“Why the u-turn?”
“I heard what happened to your dad, and I know you too well, Ewan. I still think your plan stinks, but I’ll do what I can to help you. Someone has to.”
Ewan jumped from his seat and grabbed Ava in both arms. He lifted her and spun. Clutter knocked off nearby shelves as he swung her around. Her expression went from surprise to mock annoyance.
Ewan gathered his equipment. He’d spent hours folding his parachute into the pack he now carried across his back. He had attached water canisters securely across all surfaces, each one with its own smaller parachute. Hidden in his trousers were the Kevlar cutters he’d snatched from work. They were sharp enough to open a small hole in the fabric seam. He went to find Ava.
She was sitting on the ground cross-legged at the edge of town, waiting. The sun was low in the sky, and the early morning air felt fresh on his cheeks.
They walked west, away from civilisation and into the dry hills.
About two miles out of town, Ewan located his hang glider, which he’d hidden the night before under rocks and rubbish.
Ava stood looking across the land. She hugged herself against the rising wind. Ewan joined her and took in the view. At this height he could see the village below, just a few buildings at the end of a deserted road. In the distance the town was waking up, and smoke billowed from factories and kitchens.
From their vantage point, the scale of the approaching Rain Catcher was startling. Hanging on the horizon, it was a distinctive black line edging ever closer.
“How does it stay in the air?” Ava asked, not taking her eyes off the approaching clouds.
“It’s a simple matter of numbers. The airships need to provide enough lift to keep the tanks airborne. Each hectare of fabric can capture up to three-million tons of water before it saturates, so several layers of airships can be employed, depending on the severity of the storm.”
“Do you ever wonder how they know which way to go? Why they never miss a drop of rain?”
Ewan laughed. “All the time! Each ship is an independent mind. Linked together they act as a networked mind. They pick-up tiny changes in wind and temperature and use it to model the most probable direction of the storm.”
“But what happens if it becomes too heavy?”
“They either add more segments to the edges to take up the slack, or they send in the Pumpers to take off some of the load. It’s actually quite ingenious. It rarely rains uniformly throughout a storm anyway, so some sections capture more water than others. To avoid those sections sagging and pulling the whole thing free, they use a pumping system, which balances the weight across the assembly of tanks, thus sharing the load equally. Pretty amazing really.”
Ava was smiling as he spoke, seemingly happy to hear him prattle on.
“If this is going to work, I need to fly the Little Dragon over the top of the fabric and land on a tank.” He looked to the distance at the growing horizon – the far-away humming now carried on the wind.
Ava put a Walkie Talkie in Ewan’s hand and wound the power handle. She looked at him with deep longing. “When you land safely, tell me what the rain feels like, what it smells like…”
Ewan kissed Ava on the cheek and hugged her tight. “I will…’ he said. ‘And I’ll do one better – I’ll bring you back some sky.”
Head low, Ewan watched the ground speed under his feet as he sprinted down the steep hill. His strides got longer, inconsistently at first, and then he bounded in great leaps until the wind wrenched him into the sky at great speed.
Every inch of his body felt electric, utterly alive. He held on tight as the rising thermals lifted the glider skyward. Tears ran down his cheeks, but not from the emotion – he cursed himself for not thinking about goggles.
He shifted his weight to the side and swooped towards the groaning Rain Catchers in the sky. Below him, Ava was peddling fast trying to keep up, so he flew round in a great arc to give her time to follow.
At roughly six-thousand feet, Ewan was level with the monstrous machines. The bulging mass rushed towards him like a billowing tidal wave. Black smoke rose from engine parts leaving shimmering smog in the sky above.
From this vantage point, three layers of airships were visible. The water tanks were tethered to a single blimp, and each one of these was tethered again to a ship at higher altitude. The biggest were perhaps two kilometres long.
These middle tier ships were in turn attached to even higher blimps at an altitude of ten-thousand feet, where sensing equipment was routed through the Rain Catchers’ networked consciousness.
He grimaced at the Yu Yún company logos proudly displayed on most available surfaces.
Attached around his neck in a transparent folder hung the blueprints. They showed where the security drones were mounted. By his calculation it would be possible to land the glider near a maintenance shaft on any of the thousands of tanks. However, he needed to bypass the drones first, and it wasn’t going to be easy. He would have to stay close to the harnesses that tethered the tanks, and hopefully hide from the drone’s sensors.
If he was detected, the drone wouldn’t fire its industrial laser if there was any risk it could damage the Rain Catcher. It would most likely grab him and throw him overboard. Ewan tried not to think about that harrowing a death.
He had to calculate his approach perfectly to avoid security, and he needed to remain calm.
Ewan’s Walkie Talkie was positioned underneath his balaclava, against his ear. The speaker crackled. “You better be careful, Ewan,” she shouted.
“Ava, have you got line of sight with me?”
“What do you mean? I can’t see your eyes from here, you’re too high up.”
Ewan laughed at her response. “I mean, can you see me in the glider?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. I can see you.”
“Watch the point that I fly over the edge. I’m aiming for the fabric seam to my left on the second tank in. Follow me and stay under that tank. I’ll contact you when I’m safely down.”
Sailing between the cloud and the Rain Catcher, Ewan felt the cold pass through him like a sheet of ice. His eyes blurred and the world’s aspect altered, like looking through misty glass. Long seconds passed before the realisation settled home. He was feeling the touch of rain on his face for the very first time. Great gushes of water soaked through his clothes to every surface of his body. The cold made him gasp. His eyes were closed tightly against the pouring onslaught, and he felt the glider shift out of control. He was being tossed through the air; vivid images of the kite accident from his childhood flooded his mind. The wind had him in its grasp, wildly pulling and pushing him, and the rain drove on unrelentingly.
Ewan forced his eyes open against the bombardment in time to see a fast-approaching harness cable. Invisible from a distance, the three inch cable was the last thing he saw before being ripped free from the glider and thrown into the waters of the Rain Catcher.
Pain radiated through his entire body, and panic smacked him hard as he opened his eyes in the rushing waters. The whitewash rapids pulled him along the fabric at a horrendous speed.
He managed a single gulp of air before his head submerged. He kicked his legs and flapped his arms against the roaring currents. Panic drove his muscles onwards until he finally broke the surface. He opened his mouth and gasped in precious air.
Ahead, Ewan could see the water rushing into the pump inlet. He would die if he were sucked inside.
He had seconds to react. The pipe’s circumference looked big enough to swallow him feet first. In desperation, he twisted himself sideways to block the flow with his body.
He hit fast with nothing to protect his ribs from the full impact. The thump resonated throughout his body, jarring him so hard he could see only white. The air in his lungs vented at once, and still tried to exhale.
He held on to the pipe inlet with all his worth as water rushed past and tried to suck him into the pump. At that moment, he thought he would die.
Long seconds passed, Ewan pulled in a breath and filled his starving lungs. And only then did he feel the pain – an agonising scream escaped as his side exploded in agony.
After several slow, shallow breaths, he searched for a grip hold above the pipe, on the body of the pump. He slowly edged sideways and pulled himself free from the rushing water. He collapsed on the cylindrical surface of the water pump and looked back over the Rain Catcher’s rain-swept surface. Far out in the distance in the centre of the fabric square, the surface was dry. Water flowed freely only along the edges, where it was sucked from the absorption foam and pulled into the distribution pump.
He lay on his side pulling in long ragged breaths.
The glider! It was caught in the harness cables, wriggling violently in the strong winds.
Twenty-feet below the stricken glider and fast approaching, was a security drone.
A mass of metal and rust, it traversed the wet, vertical cables as easily as a coyote on the flat and dry. It climbed using all of its four legs and a long thin tail. Ewan glimpsed cogs and chains working hard in the innards of the dog like robot. Black smoke billowed from wide exhaust pipes along its sides, and its single red eye glowed in the storm-dark sky.
The drone reached the glider and worked its efficient destruction. It tugged and cut with razor-like extremities, and Ewan nearly shouted out as it activated its industrial laser to slice through the glider’s lovingly crafted frame.
The metallic beast coughed up smoke and dragged away the remains of The Little Dragon.
It wasn’t until it had completely disappeared from view that he dared check that his parachute was attached, and the canisters were still secured to his backpack.
He removed the Walkie Talkie from its holding place in his sodden balaclava and wiped it clean. He wound the battery crank. Ava’s voice screamed from the earpiece. “… If you can hear me, please say something… hello, Ewan… Are… You… Okay?”
Joy overwhelmed him. “Ava, yes, I’m here… can you hear me?”
“Ewan, thank god you’re all right.”
“The glider’s gone. But I’m okay.”
Ewan touched his rib, trying to keep the pain from his voice and concentrated on the feel of the rain falling on his skin. He opened his mouth and let the cool, clear rain drip on his teeth and tongue. “The rain… it’s… everywhere.” He smiled as a feeling of euphoria swelled in him, nearly eclipsing the pain in his side.
“What is it like?”
“Wet,” Ewan replied. “Wonderfully wet.”
“I can’t keep up this speed for much longer.” She gasped. “I’m already falling behind the tank.”
Ewan forced himself to his feet and considered his options. “I’m standing on the pump inlet, and should be able to climb to the tank from here. I can remove a couple of stitches from the fabric seam by the tank, and send down the canisters. It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”
“Okay, but please hurry.”
Ewan shuffled over the bulky machinery, using one arm to clutch his side and the other for balance. It was harder than it looked. The metal dome that covered the pump was almost frictionless when wet. He had to spread all his weight against the sloping dome and shuffle over like a caterpillar.
He landed on the other side with a crunch, which brought tears to his eyes. But he’d made it to the maintenance shelf, just yards from the fabric seam.
He carefully unstrapped and removed the canisters, and then checked to ensure the parachute wasn’t tangled and was folded correctly. Lining the canisters up in order, he unhooked a final one from the pack. This one didn’t have a parachute; instead it was attached to five metres of rope. He threw it into the rapids below and let the rope run taught with the current. After a few seconds, he pulled it back using his foot to clamp the rope between each excruciating pull.
He repeated this task until each of the eight large canisters were full.
“Ava, are you still with me?”
“Yeah just about.” Ava was panting heavily. “But you have to hurry, Ewan, I can’t keep up any longer.”
Ewan shuffled to the end of the maintenance ledge within easy access of the fabric seam. This was the point where the material was stitched together. At metre intervals along the seam was a titanium peg that provided the strength. Between these pegs the fabric was stitched with Aramid Yarn thread, which he sliced with his recently acquired cutters.
A small tear appeared in the material, he gradually opened it further until it was large enough for the canisters to fit through, and one by one he untied the parachutes and dropped them down the hole.
Ewan shouted. “Here they come.”
After a long moment, Ava’s voice crackled through the receiver. “I can see them.” She was laughing, unable to hide her glee. Ewan felt himself relax, and as the grip of Ava’s infectious joy took over, he laughed despite his complaining ribs.
There was a brief silence before she spoke. “Ewan, can you fit yourself through the tear? Do it quickly before you drift much farther away.”
Ewan propped himself against the towering water tank and let his legs hang over the edge of the shelf. The rapids raced below. He took out his parachute and checked it over. He was ready to go. But as he looked across the fabric expanse and the tons of water that flowed beneath his feet, he couldn’t ignore the opportunity it presented. The water in just one of the tanks would be enough to support his whole village for years.
Why should he just save his father’s life when he had a chance to save hundreds more?
He studied the blueprints more closely. There was a collector inlet on the nearside of the pump closest to the tank. The current was much weaker there because the pump had distributed the water through the long haul pipes to neighbouring tanks. He could gain access inside the pumping mechanism and disable the water splitter. The entire flow would be forced into this tank, and gradually increase its weight.
Ewan figured if the rain held this strong it would quickly overfill and start to bring the whole section down.
In the event of such a malfunction, the Rain Catcher was designed to eject the overfilled tank. It would float to the ground on three colossal chutes. The fact that there wasn’t one recorded incident of this happening didn’t dampen Ewan’s hopes.
The tank would fall to the ground and the surrounding fabric would hang down for kilometres around. For a small area below, rain would actually hit the ground.
“Ewan,’ Ava said. ‘Do you copy? Can you fit through the tear?”
“Ava, listen to me carefully. I need you to tell me exactly where we are and what direction we’re heading.”
“You’re travelling north parallel to the village, about three miles out.”
Ewan spoke clearly, “Ava, I need you to get the canisters and return to the village. Give Doctor Don enough to pay for my father’s medication and keep the rest for you and your family.”
There was silence for a long moment before she replied, “You’re lucky to be alive, Ewan. Please come down, don’t throw away your life.”
“What life? Yu Yún took away the only existence I had the day they fired me and condemned my father to death.”
“You got caught stealing from them.”
Ewan’s face flushed hot. “Bullshit, Ava, you know why I took the fabric. I did it to save my dad.”
“Maybe, but maybe you did it for yourself. Maybe you did it for your own ego, and Daniel gave you the excuse to play your stupid games.”
“Not true, I did this for my dad!” Ewan spat back.
“You’re being reckless and selfish. Don’t make this about revenge. It’s pathetic, and you’re risking your life for nothing. Come down now, please, do it for me.”
Frustration tore through him like a blistering high. He knew she wouldn’t understand, and he knew she would react like this. He wasn’t going to let her stop him doing what was right. He had an opportunity to do something good for the village, to save lives, make people happy.
He spoke for the last time. “Please do as I ask, Ava. We can continue this discussion when I return. If not, then Goodbye.” He took the Walkie Talkie and dropped it though the hole in the fabric to the trailing sound of Ava’s desperate pleas.
The water splitter should be easy to corrupt – a simple matter of blocking the alternative flow and directing the entire current forward into one tank.
Ewan pulled himself up and walked to the edge of the shelf. The main body of the pump where he had first climbed up was a couple of feet from the ledge. Between the pump and the ledge lay a gap leading to the tank’s main inlet. The water pressure looked to be manageable on this side of the pump. Although that would change the moment he disabled the splitter.
He untied the rope from the filling canister and tied it around his waist. The other end he secured to the maintenance ladder. He sat over the ledge, mentally prepared himself for pain, and dropped five-feet into the current.
Ewan manually closed the valves on all outputs apart from one, and held on as the water started to rush past him. With both hands, he pulled himself back towards the ledge, his aching ribs dulled with adrenalin. The roar of the water was ragged with venom… but it sounded different somehow.
Realisation dawned, and he snapped his head up to see the single red glow of the security drone’s inhuman gaze. Ewan had seconds, perhaps less, before the laser cut him in half.
Fear found a stronghold in Ewan’s mind. Run or die.
He pulled the cutters from his belt, and with mounting trepidation, he cut through his safety harness. The current snapped him up like a hungry lizard and swallowed him whole.
As the torrent pulled him into the tank inlet, darkness surrounded him. The water slammed him hard into a wall then released his battered body from its lethal grip. He rose in the water, still fuzzy-headed with no idea which way he was going.
Turbulence brought his hand in contact with a ladder running along the inside of the tank. It gave him perspective, and he pulled himself up and gasped in air.
The tank was three quarters full and rising quickly. He had to get out before it reached the apex. With the handiwork Ewan had just performed in the pump, the auto stop system would not prevent the water from overfilling. If he stayed in the tank he would drown, and if he climbed out, he would be killed by the drone. That was assuming the drone didn’t find a way into the tank first…
With rising dread, Ewan tried to calculate how much overfill was needed to take down the tank. It depended on the lift from the above airships, but Ewan guessed it only needed a slight disproportional weight distribution. It would be wasteful for Yu Yún to overspend on lift resources. They would only build minor flexibility into a system this complicated.
He figured it would start to lose altitude at around five percent overfill. Ewan looked at the maximum fill level, it was less than a metre above him, just below the hatch.
It would be a death sentence if he waited for the water to rise that high.
Metal on metal clanged above as the hatch rattled against its hinges. The door swung open, and the black fumes from the drone’s exhaust filled the air. The mechanism heaved as its combustion engine revved, and like a rasping hell hound, its murderous eye was fixed on Ewan. He quickly ducked and dove to the bottom of the tank.
On the tank floor, he turned and looked up. Above the waterline, the drone’s red eye appeared to extend across the entire dome of the tank. Then he realised… it was no illusion. The drone was firing its laser into the water, trying to cook him alive.
Desperate, Ewan untied the remaining rope around his waist, took the cutters, opened them and threaded the rope through the handles.
Lack of oxygen compressed his chest, forcing the oxygen from his lungs. He was going to drown.
The water surrounding the laser beam was hot. His eyeballs stung, and his skin burned. He had to act now.
Crouching with his feet against the bottom, he thrust his legs straight and propelled upwards. Hot water scorched his skin as he rose.
He targeted the red light and closed his eyes against the blistering heat. Breaking the surface, he launched his makeshift harpoon at the drone. The diamond edged scissors sailed into the inner gears of the rattling rusted beast.
Ewan fell backwards and pulled the rope with all his might. A loud splash and a strong smell of oil confirmed the drone had fallen into the tank. He glanced down. The metal heap sunk, kicking and struggling all the way to the bottom.
He didn’t have much time before the tank fell from the sky.
Ewan powered up the ladder towards the hatch, his progress slowed by his agonising rib. Below him, the drowned drone was converting its body surfaces into a watertight shell. In aqua mode, it looked like a torpedo, and it was rising fast, closing the distance.
Ewan launched at the hatch only to be yanked ruthlessly from behind. He grabbed the frame to keep from being dragged back under. The full weight of the metal beast was pulling him down, latched to his backpack.
His rib exploded with pain, and he released his left hand. The backpack slipped from his left shoulder, and the drone dropped slightly – hanging by a single black razor claw.
Ewan closed his eyes and prayed for strength. He gripped the frame with his left hand and let go with his right, taking the full weight on his bad side. He screamed high and long with the effort.
The backpack slid from his right shoulder, sending the drone back to the tank floor.
Ewan struggled from the hatch, closed the door, and slammed the manual sealing locks across the frame.
With each intake of breath, Ewan shook uncontrollably. He was back on the maintenance shelf where he had started and could do nothing but wait for the tank to overfill and eject him from the Rain Catcher. Now, with no parachute, his only chance of survival was to hold on to the descending tank for dear life.
The door rattled once from the inside, silence for a moment, followed by the unmistakable hiss of a cutting torch. Perhaps the drone’s batteries were running low. Otherwise it would have employed the laser. Or perhaps the water damaged it. Either way, he had maybe ten minutes before the torch punched through. His only tools were one canister and the remaining rope tied to the access ladder… Perhaps if he could slow down the torch’s progress, the tank might overfill and eject before the drone made it through.
The rain was still pelting down in heavy gusts, so the outside of the hatch was continuously cooled by the weather. He untied the rope from the ladder, just two metres remained, and tied it back to the canister and threw it into the rapids below.
Back at the hatch, the drone’s torch had penetrated the tough metal case. Ewan gently fed water into the hole, targeting the flame of the torch. Immediately, the screaming sound of burning metal muted, and Ewan heard an angry roar as the drone revved its engine, presumably trying to replenish power through its alternator.
He filled the canister as fast as he could and poured it through the hole, and for ten minutes the gap didn’t widen a bit. Finally, water started seeping out the hole. He jumped back, startled. The tank was full. Time had run out.
Heart pounding like crazy, he used the rope to secure himself to the ladder and waited for the tank to eject.
It began to sink, stretching the fabric at the seams. It was only then that he realised he had forgotten the obvious – the current that had prevented him, and the drone, working their way upstream through the underside of the tank, had significantly reduced with the tank at full capacity. The current must have been driving the water elsewhere.
It happened all at once, and Ewan was defenceless.
The drone appeared on the ledge angrily coughing smoke from its exhausts. He thought there was a glint of pleasure in its red eye as it prepared to pounce.
At that moment, the fabric gave way, and the tank ejected. Ewan kicked out and connected his heel against the drone’s mono eye, and watched as it desperately scrambled, teetering on the edge. The tank went into freefall, hurtling down. The drone finally lost its grip and fell from the ledge.
Ewan felt the floor drive through his pelvis as the tank’s parachutes were deployed. The rush of wind gradually eased and he enjoyed a moment of peace as he slowly floated to the earth.
The ground grew closer and Ewan held tight as the tank hit. Once again his bones jarred and his chest pushed hard into his makeshift rope-harness.
Above, the fabric flapped violently in the storm. Ewan put his head back and watched the gaping hole in the Rain Catcher release a torrent of water over the parched ground. The smell in the air was earthy and rich.
He untied himself from the tank and stood unsteadily. His village was spread out half a kilometre away in the valley below. Creeks and streams and rivers began to flow, and in the distance the villagers ran out of their homes and threw their arms open to the falling rain. Their cries of joy echoed on the wind.
Ava was running to meet him, her blond hair sopping wet and clinging to her slender shoulders. Ewan jumped to the ground and relished the sound of the water splashing under his feet. Ava was breathless, her clothes were drenched and she looked beautiful.
“You did it.” She threw her arms around his neck. “Don got the medicine for your father. He’s going to be alright.”
She looked up at the tank and back to Ewan. A hurt expression followed by a smile. “You fool, you could have been killed.” Her tears were masked by the heavy rain but Ewan could see the red around her eyes. She moved closer, gripped him tightly.
A warm feeling of success filled Ewan’s heart. The village had plenty of water for now.
He lifted Ava and spun her around. “I’m sorry,” he said, and kissed her. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“I know,” she whispered, and kissed him back.
Eight of Swords
By Darja Malcolm-Clarke
The sound of the approaching helicopter smacked into the side of the building like shot puts. Emily lowered her spray can from where she was anxiously tagging the face of the alley wall and gazed up to the narrow band of ragged sky between buildings. The military helicopter flashed into view—a CH-64 Chinook, gray with two rotors on top, enormous and unnerving.
“More and more of these things have been going over,” she said to Chris.
“There are a few wars on,” said Chris, settling with ease into a swanky red velvet couch that had appeared in the alley two days ago. His fedora already rested on the coat tree situated next to the couch. “You think you’d be used to them by now,” he said, “as long as the country’s been at it over there.” The helicopter had passed but, rather than quieter, the thrum grew louder. They both watched a second one pass high overhead, speeding into the west.
“See, but there’re more than there used to be,” Emily said and leaned against the wall, uneasy. Next to her, a stenciled unicorn smiled into nothingness. A rainbow had emerged from its backside and a bubble from its mouth contained the words Eat my sunshiny shit. “They’ve been going west and come back from that direction later. Before, it was more random.”
“You’re just paranoid,” Chris said, slinging his arm over the back of the couch. A breeze whisked down the alleyway, making the fedora nod on its coat-tree peg. “You make it sound like there’s something weird going on.”
Her arms tightened across her chest. “There’s always something weird going on. You just have to know how to look for it.” The graffiti around her zigzagged across the brick walls in brilliant colors, surrounded by tags: Jonezee 305, Richo Red, and TBC. Her eyes rested on these without seeing them. “Those helicopters are heading west. Wright-Patterson is in Ohio. Dugway Proving Ground is in Utah, Papoose is in Nevada. Area 51, of course…. They’re all west. Those helicopters look like the military just going about its business, but I think something’s happening.”
“Let me guess.” Chris shook his can of black Krylon. “You have a theory in the works.”
“Chinooks are used for transport,” she continued. “The wars are east, right?— Iran, Syria, Afghanistan. What are those choppers carrying in the opposite direction, would be my question. Maybe advanced technology or weapons. Maybe extraterrestrial life. Maybe both.”
“You’ve been watching the History Channel again, haven’t you?” Deadpan glare from Emily. He softened a little. “Em, you’re finding patterns where there aren’t any.” Discounting her theories, regardless of their content, was part of the ritual. As always, she couldn’t tell if he really didn’t believe or whether he was saying it to annoy her. It was a talent of his to hide his real thoughts from her. She was not so adept at hiding hers from him, or at least that’s what he liked to tell her.
“What I mean is, the war would be a convenient cover-up for either,” she said. She set down her can of Ocean Blue. “You may think you understand the world, but there are so many things going on you don’t know about.” She wanted the full picture—a full understanding of all the invisible and hidden things happening around her.
“Right, okay,” said Chris, getting up from the plush couch to return to his piece. The hat nodded.
She stared at his back. She had been working on something else lately, but she couldn’t tell him about it now. She’d been having a strange feeling about the city of late. Nothing concrete, just the sense something odd had been going on.
Trying to grasp what, though, was like trying to hold graffiti in your hand.
As dusk crept into the alley, Emily went to leave with Chris. As she neared the entrance into the street, a sound down the alley made her look back.
On the brick walls, the graffiti seemed to thrum—it was almost a purr—and flex against the brick, as though, if it could, it would follow them out and embark on aims of its own.
Emily retreated back into the alley and stopped a few feet from the painted wall. The tag seemed utterly normal. She raised a hand, touched red and blue lettering. She felt nothing but the cool rough brick under her fingers—no movement, no vibration.
She shook her head a little and headed towards home, unsettled.
“You’re going to put people to sleep at their desks!” Chris said. “Please tell me you don’t plan to present it like that.”
They were in her room despite the ‘no boys in her room’ policy—Chris’ suggestion. Her mom was still on campus and her dad’s shift at the hospital wouldn’t end for another two hours. Emily clutched her note cards on historical theories of the subconscious in white-knuckled fingers. This presentation, like all those before, threatened to be her undoing.
“Your biggest problem, though,” he continued, “is that you seem totally terrified and miserable.”
This hurt. “I am totally terrified and miserable,” she said.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
She picked up a tarot deck on the floor and shuffled through the cards. For one thing, the walls would seem to bend in as Dr. Schultz stepped aside and she attempted to take over control of the class, and the sound of her own voice would hang over the room as thin as the air above the Andes, and there’d be the terrible absence of her script which she was now memorizing word for word—her only hope for staying afloat in the classroom’s turbulent silence.
“Well?” said Chris. She had no words. He sighed dramatically. “The worst possible thing is that you forget what you meant to say, then you’ll look at your notes, and everything’ll be fine.”
She sagged under the devastating weight of his nonchalance. “I forget the wording and then it’s all over.”
“Wording?” He peered at her. “Of what exactly?”
She sighed. “Of what I’m going to say.”
“You memorize these things verbatim?” He reached for her script. “You’re hiding behind this thing. That’s why you’re so terrified. Talk to the class, don’t recite at them.” He tossed the script over his shoulder, the stapled pages flailed like the wings of a wounded bird. Her hands felt painfully empty without it.
“I can’t,” said Emily.
“You have to. What you’re doing is absurd.”
She was falling over a precipice. She turned her attention to the tarot deck, handing it to him without meeting his eyes. He shuffled and handed it back to her, and she spread it in front of her like a parrot’s dismembered wing.
“Same question from earlier?” she said, and he nodded. What to do after graduation. What to do next year. She drew a card.
“First one—this is what is behind you. Two of Swords. This points to indecision, not knowing what direction to go.”
“Well, we know all about that already. Next card.”
“Okay then…and this one is the present.” She flipped it. “You’ve got the Eight of Swords staring you down.”
“Meaning stagnation. Being trapped. Fear.”
Chris eyed it as though he expected it to leap off the floor at him.
“Maybe it would be better for me not to go to school next year. I don’t even know what I would major in. I could just take the year off and live in the city and figure out what I want to do. Get a job.” He perked up. “Hey, we could even be roommates.”
She met his eyes for a second and looked down again at the card, suddenly uncomfortable—which was happening more and more often with him. She didn’t want to be his roommate. She didn’t want him to go to Boston with her, where she had already been accepted to BU’s Journalism program. She wanted him to go to the local community college instead and figure his life out. And she wanted to figure out hers. They had been together so long—he had made her into so much of what she had become—that she wanted in some ways to be apart from him just to see who she was without him.
That Eight of Swords might as well be for her. What if the parts of herself she liked best, the parts he had coaxed out of her—what if they disappeared, or changed into something else, like gold nuggets in the fairy tales she read as a kid? One moment there’s heavy, bright metal in your pocket. The next you reach in and find a handful of crumbling, papery autumn leaves.
Maybe that was her.
After school the next day, they were in their alley. The graffiti there varied in competence and intent—some highly skilled, spiking across the wall in ornate and complex overlapping points. There were many stencils, like the grumpy unicorn. Other examples weren’t much more than doodles. Some were jokes. Some seemed to be random thoughts, detritus of taggers’ minds recorded and forgotten. A new stenciled warning read,
Garden gnomes eat
3 yr olds
She got out her can of Ocean Blue and considered what to put up. She resisted the impulse to correct “breckfast.”
In the end, instead of contact lenses per usual, she’d worn her glasses to school. When Dr. Schultz called her name, she put her glasses on her desk and dragged herself to the front of the room. Her classmates had become a multicolored, bobbing, shifting blur. She clutched the note cards but couldn’t see the blur’s myriad eyes nor its expression, so, she found, she was able to speak. Her voice shook, and it didn’t sound like her voice at all, but she remembered the details that went with the main points on the cards, and the other students didn’t even snicker much. Boredom had mostly replaced derision, and for that she was grateful. She got through it alive. No memorization required.
Now, at the wall, she shook her can. There used to be a time when writing, as it was called, seemed as impossible as giving a presentation in class without panicking. But Chris had made her try it one night.
“It’s harmless,” he’d said. “We’re beautifying the city free of charge. Creativity and beautification. If we don’t, someone else will, and we can leave more interesting stuff than most of these people”—his usual hubris that was also liberating. He had started working on real pieces, but she mostly did just tags and throwups still, though she’d started to develop a jagged style with lots of overlaps when she had time. Her first tag had been simple, just two large eyes, intricately drawn, peering out of the alley wall. After that, she started using the name enigmaaa with an eye after. She just liked the sound and look of it, but the three As also referred to the grades she liked to get.
God, her nerdiness couldn’t help but bleed even into her illicit activities.
Well. She had trouble speaking in the classroom and places like that, but she needed to speak in other ways—to make a mark on the world, even if a semi-permanent one. If you had enough paint, she thought, you could really make yourself heard. All over town.
A week ago, there had been a segment on the local news about the sudden proliferation of vandalism in town that highlighted graffiti. In a wide shot of another alley she and Chris frequented, one of her tags had been almost dead center: enigmaaa flies at night, in her jagged style. Her moment in the spotlight, though only one other person in world knew.
Now, inspired by the gnomes and the helicopters, Emily took a different tack and wrote, in a long banner of wavy letters, FYI: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters. She put one of her eyes at the end of the statement for good measure, then stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“And why, pray tell, would they do that?” asked Chris, lounging on the alley couch again.
“Who knows why the government does what it does?” she said. She revised: “If we understood it, we would probably go mad. Layers and layers of conspiracy we can’t begin to fathom.”
“Para-noid,” Chris said in a sing-songy voice, grinning. This was part of the ritual; his words suggested ridicule, but they belied his real feelings.
She reflected his smile back. Did she really want to go away and be apart from him? He had saved her with that presentation. She never would have realized on her own what she was doing was crazy. He had helped her out of a cage she hadn’t known she was in. It wouldn’t be easy, but next time, she thought, or maybe the time after, when she got to college, she might even be able to pull it off without the no-glasses business. He had saved her too from her own impulse towards obeying authority. She was no bad kid, no druggie or juvvie kid, but it was good—healthy, even, right?—to be able to break rules occasionally.
He caught her looking at him; he deliberately looked away at something else sprayed on the wall. What was he thinking? But of course she knew. She had already told him, though, there wouldn’t be anything between them. Not like that.
She had told him as much as to tell herself, in a moment of fortitude and clear-headedness several months ago—said it so it couldn’t be unsaid. I’m not interested in you in that way—not now, not ever, no. Said it because as much as she found herself through him, she lost herself through him too. He was a black hole drawing her further and further in until she sensed if she went any closer to the center, she would not be able to find her way out again.
It was one thing to be set free from one’s own cages. But always depending on another person to point out your cage and open the door was to step into another cage.
Some days she liked her cages. But what frightened her most was how inviting his were.
He had to get home to meet his little brother Hayden, and she’d lingered a moment. She was closing up her bag to take off when she felt Chris’s presence again, so she stood up—
But he wasn’t there. The alley was empty.
She glanced around. She still had the distinct feeling someone was watching her, reminding her of the other day. The back of her shoulders tingled.
Her gaze was drawn to the eye she’d painted at the end of her aliens tag, and it was as though she was making eye contact with something aware, something watching her.
She shuddered and looked away, shouldered her bag. As she left, she glanced up the alley. It was empty.
But, somehow, not.
She was getting ready for bed when they passed overhead again: she heard the rhythmic chopping sound of helicopters coming in, this time from the west. She shoved off the uneasy feeling, settled into bed.
She dreamed. She saw the beings corralled into the dark recesses of the helicopter, their smooth naked bodies pressed together like green-gray stones on a beach, their heads capped with the shiny-smooth whorl of shells, their large eyes bearing the bottomless iridescence of mother-of-pearl. They did not speak to each other through their mouths but in their minds, during which they had a too-human way to cocking their heads to the side that made her feel strange.
The peculiar, inhuman figures vacated the helicopters and were concealed by darkness and the shelter of warehouses. When deepest night had fallen, the warehouse doors were opened and the throng of beings was released into the town. What were they doing? Going into the city. Going into people’s houses.
She woke into awareness there was something moving in the entrance of the now-open doorway, moving through the darkness into her room. It was agile and quiet like a cat, but its feet nonetheless made a whisper on the carpet. It moved from the doorway to the dresser and came to stand over her, bedside. She could sense it looking at her in the dark. Panic gripped her. It was creeping close.
She woke again in the pitch dark, too terrified to move. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe—it was gripping her at the throat. She clawed at inhuman hands, but the feeling of its flesh took her by surprise, and the thing moved away to somewhere in the dark.
The hands she clawed at around her neck, she realized, were in fact the sheet, twisted up and tangled around her. She knew she had to turn on the light, but she was too terrified to reach into the dark, but she couldn’t bear the dark any longer. She reached for the lamp, expecting at any moment to feel the being’s hand closing around her wrist, her arm, and now her hand brushed something and a body rushed across the floor past the bed. Her hand found the lamp and flipped the switch, and the room burst into blinding light.
The thing was already gone.
Her teeth chattered and her breath came quick as adrenalin swept through her again like a gale. She had knocked the pile of tarot cards to the floor in her bid for the light. She rose; the bedroom door was open. What if it was still in the house?
She moved down the hall and turned on the light, relieved to find the hall, at least, empty.
She went through the house turning on all the lights. She stopped at her parents’ bedroom, then opened the door so the light poured in. They lay motionless in the bed.
Back in her bedroom, numb, only half aware of what she was doing, she picked up the spilled tarot cards and put them back on the nightstand. She got back into bed and didn’t move, as though the helicopter’s chopping pinned her there. She left the light on and didn’t sleep until the sun began to brighten the room.
“Why on Earth are all the lights on!” Her father’s voice rang through her bedroom door, startling her awake. The clock read 7:04. She groaned inwardly. He rapped on the door. “Emily, do you know why the lights are on!” She went to the door and cracked it open.
“I thought we had an intruder last night.”
“Because I don’t know how we’re going to stay undetectable from the air,” he said, “if we’ve got this house lit up like a beacon.” He flipped the hall light switch off and headed down the hall.
At breakfast, her mom was at the kitchen table, dressed to teach her 8:30am American History 103 class. She looked up as Emily came in.
“I’ve decided to call off my class today to work in the garden. Would you like to join me?”
“I’ve got school,” said Emily.
“Oh, well,” said her mother, pooh-poohing this with a wave of her hand.
Emily paused. “You never let me skip a day even when I have a bad cold.”
“What’s school when there’s the garden to dig up.” Her mother took another spoonful of cereal. “You never know what you’re going to find buried in the ground. Like the mass graves in My Lai during Vietnam. Five hundred civilians, all massacred in the name of maintaining American power,” she said amiably. “Or, we might find some fossils.” She smiled.
Emily stared at her mother. Something told her discussing what happened the night before would not be productive. “Um. Okay? But you’re already ready for class.” Her mother shrugged.
Emily poured herself a bowl of Cinnamon Crunch Os and, distracted, picked up yesterday’s paper still folded up on the table. Her father came in and interrupted before she got very far into it.
“Did your presentation yesterday go all right? You didn’t say anything about it,” he said.
“Yeah, it went pretty okay. Chris gave me some pointers that really helped.”
“Great!” said her mother. “Now please tell me you’ve decided to go to prom with him.”
“Mom, I told you—”
“He’s had such a centering effect on you, and he obviously cares about you. I really think you should go with him.”
“Chris and I are just friends, Mom.”
“He’s a good looking guy, don’t you think?
“That’s not the point. We’re better off just friends.”
“You’ve got to grow up sometime, Emily. I don’t understand why you don’t like him—he’s smitten with you.”
“Yeah, Mom, I know—”
“Sounds like you should go to the prom with him, Brenda,” said her dad.
“Oh, Rich. Don’t start up that old routine,” said her mom. Emily was something between annoyed and unnerved. Her father scowled and started to retort.
“Just because someone likes you,” interrupted Emily, “doesn’t make you automatically like them back. That’s what the movies always miss. Just because a guy likes a girl doesn’t mean she magically falls for him in real life.”
“Just give it some thought,” said her mother.
“Fine,” Emily said in hopes of ending the conversation. Something in the paper caught her eye. Thirty Years Ago RAF Officers Encounter Fallen UFO: Craft takes off when officers approach.
“Did Emily tell you we had an intruder last night?” said her father.
“Oh really?” said her mother, standing.
“Mom,” said Emily, “on second thought, I think I’m going to go to school today after all.” Her parents were acting stranger than usual, but this article she’d found after her encounter last night was too much. She needed to think, and they were just making things stranger. She folded up the newspaper and put it in her bag.
“Honey, are you feeling okay?” Her mother went to the phone on the counter. “I’m calling into the department main office right now—I could easily call your school too.”
“No—it’s okay. There’s something I need to do at school.”
“Okay, whatever you want. Hey, speaking of intruders, remember we’re going to see Grandma and Grandpa, Friday night, okay?”
“Got it,” Emily said and picked up her bag.
“Chris, do things seem… off to you today?”
“It didn’t seem odd to you Mr. Samuels had us share last night’s dreams in small groups?” She had made up something about monsters made out of refuse taking the city by storm.
“It was a lot more interesting than the stuff he usually has us do, if that’s what you mean.”
“Or that Mrs. Bernard had our lab groups reenact music videos?” said Emily.
“What I think is weird is that Nick’s group won with that pathetic Beastie Boys rendition. I do better rapping half asleep in the shower.”
They entered their alleyway. She felt uneasy, but the eye in her earlier handiwork seemed just a spray-painted eye now, nothing more.
Below Beware: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters and the eye, someone had added:
8 of Swords.
She frowned and took a step back. Then she smiled. It was a special message to her from Chris, after their tarot discussion and her presentation. It had been her fear that was getting in her way all along—that’s what he was telling her.
“I see what you’re getting at,” she said, sitting on the arm of the red couch.
“What’re you talking about?” he said.
“Eight of Swords. I see what you mean here.”
He stood next to her and studied the wall. “I didn’t write that,” he said.
“Come on,” she said.
“I didn’t.” He shrugged. Emily was annoyed. Who else would have known to reference the reading she did for him, and her recent triumph over her fear of presenting—the recent cage he had led her out of? He was sending the message home, but he wasn’t admitting it, for some reason she couldn’t comprehend.
“You’re messing with me,” she said, a note of irritation creeping in. She slid sideways down the arm of the couch into the seat.
“Em, I didn’t, I promise.” He looked down the alleyway. “It’s later than I realized, I’ve got to get going. I need to stop by the pet store for dinner. Tonight it’s crickets and pinkies.”
Emily looked at him askance. “Pinkies?”
“You know—baby mice.”
For dinner? She didn’t know where to begin, but that did it. “You go on. I’m going to hang out few minutes.”
He hugged her goodbye. She eased away from the embrace with discomfort and watched him disappear around the corner.
He was probably so deranged, like everyone else today, that he didn’t recall making the tag. Or he was lying for some reason.
But no—in his expression she had seen genuine surprise.
That didn’t make sense. What was going on—with everyone?
Well, she was going to respond to the tag. She would be able to tell from the response if it was Chris, deranged or not.
She took out Ocean Blue from the small outer pocket of her backpack.
How should she reply? In the same vein she had started, she decided. She thought of the newspaper from that morning.
She heard the helicopters overhead, coming in from the west, as she crawled into bed around midnight.
She lay awake for a long time. She listened for her parents to go to bed so she could turn the light on, but fell asleep—she must have because she woke to the creature’s hands around her neck in the dark, crushing her throat again, strangling the life from her. She struggled, fought against its grip—
She woke to the sound of her own voice crying out but the thing’s hand still around her neck. She struck out into the dark at it, but it dodged her.
She fumbled and found the lamp and switched the light on, and whatever she knew had been there a moment before was gone with the darkness. The door was open.
She closed it, went back to her bed. She lay gasping a long time with the light on, trying to catch her breath, drenched in sweat, watching the dark space beyond the door, waiting for the creature to step into the doorway again.
“I’m going to Emily’s prom,” said her mother the next morning.
“You can’t,” said her father. “You’re too old for prom. They won’t let you in.”
“I’ll bribe them at the door. I’ll bring them cookies. I’ll bring them E.”
“You just want to go with Chris.”
“And what if I do?” said her mother.
Emily frowned. She lay on her bed in her room listening to her parents’ “discussion.” No more. She retreated through her bedroom window and headed into town.
She wasn’t entirely surprised, but she was shocked: The city was in chaos. She walked around in a daze. People were drifting into the streets, into their yards, into each other’s houses. Some were celebrating; others protesting; some defending themselves while others attacked; some paraded, and others joined in. Property was being destroyed, works of art constructed, monuments to wars and forgotten gods and useful consumer products erected. Several groups of children ran wild, in packs.
Beckford was coming undone. Emily walked back home wondering how her mind alone had braved the storm of madness.
She sat with her grandmother at the kitchen table. Her grandfather was on the couch. Her parents had dropped her off at the retirement village and left to attend an emergency town meeting about the protest against the wars that had broken out downtown the day prior.
“But if you go to college,” Grandma was saying, “how will you get your housework done? A girl has to be dedicated to her duties. I just spent this morning tidying up the apartment. I must have left it quite a bit messier last night than I remembered.”
“I won’t have a house at first, Grandma,” Emily said. “I’ll be in a dorm, with other students, or I’ll be in an apartment with a roommate.”
“But who will dust the furniture and vacuum the carpets and fix the meals if you’re in college?” Grandma said, but a helicopter going overhead drowned out her voice. It was low and loud enough to interrupt the conversation, which was no loss since Emily and her grandmother were having it for the fourth time.
Emily cringed towards the window and stood. Her mother’s family lived in Beckford because her grandfather had been in the military and stationed at the nearby base. “Grandpa,” she said, seizing her chance, “do you have any idea why all these helicopters are in the area?” She sat down next to him on the couch.
“Well,” said Grandpa, “it must be because of the wars. And it’s a damn shame people in this town don’t see how important these wars are. I am in disbelief about that protest yesterday. Do they want the enemy to win?”
“I don’t know, Grandpa.” She did know that what had happened in town wasn’t a war protest. “But why would helicopters suddenly start congregating at a base they hadn’t been at before? They don’t seem to be going east towards the battles. They’re coming and going from the west.”
“Troop transport, equipment transport. Could be a lot of things, really.”
She would try a more direct tack. “Did you ever hear anything about the military involved in…extraterrestrial life?”
He chuckled, then stood. He went to the little kitchenette and opened a cupboard.
“Get Emily a cookie, Bill,” said her grandmother.
Grandpa came back with a handful of peanuts for himself and a bag of Chips Ahoy; she hated how hard and chemical-tasting they were, and the food in her grandparents’ apartment was always slightly stale, but she took a cookie anyway.
She posed the question again. “Did you ever hear anything about extra terrestrial life at the base while you were in the service?” She bit into her cookie and regretted it at once.
“Extraterrestrial.” He grinned. “You mean aliens.”
“Now that’s nothing to joke about.”
“I’m not joking, Grandpa.”
He looked in her direction like he was trying to gauge her sincerity, but there was vagueness around his eyes that went beyond his loss of sight. Then he got a faraway look, and Emily wondered if he was remembering something, calling up details from decades past, memories rising as sluggishly as an arthritic old dog does when called. She put her cookie down on the coffee table.
The old man sat back suddenly, stiff-backed. He looked into the space in front of him, seeing nothing. “There was something I used to hear about, if you really want to know.”
“I do, yes.”
“Well, I was never privy to it myself—wasn’t high enough on the ladder. But there was rumors. There was a part of the base that was classified—only officers with the right clearance were allowed in. The fellas used to talk about a secret project going on there. Said there was creatures that was kept there. Creatures that came out of an aircraft that, uh, that wasn’t from this planet. We was always joking about it. Might not have been a lick of truth to it. Don’t know. But that’s always what we said.”
“Bill, you’re not talking about that old base, are you?” said her grandmother, getting up from the table.
“I’m talking about the project in the underground, Shirley. Emily asked about it.”
“Have another cookie, dear,” said Grandma, picking up the plastic container from the couch. “Bill, you shouldn’t be scaring her with old stories.”
“She asked, I said.”
“Do you remember where they thought the craft landed? Where the creatures came from?” said Emily.
Grandpa thought, looking into the air again, unseeing. “Now well, I don’t rightly recall. Somewhere from the southwest.”
“Does Area 51 ring a bell?” Dugway wouldn’t have existed yet.
“No, no,” said Grandfather. “I don’t recall. It escapes me now.”
“Don’t bother her with those things, Bill. A girl doesn’t want to know about that,” said Grandma. “What I’d like to know is whether they supply ironing boards in these college rooms you mentioned, or whether you have to bring your own.”
“Well, I can tell you one thing,” interrupted Grandpa, not hearing his wife. “I sure wish the country could see how important these wars are. And I sure wish I still had all of my beans.” He nodded with impatience and stared blankly ahead into the empty space in front of him.
Emily frowned and took another cookie.
She was lying on the bed. Her parents were at their respective workplaces. Chris was sitting down on the floor, his arms propped on the bed, one arm touching hers, just barely. Sometimes they did this: moved close to each other. It was a remnant of that other time, before she made her decision. It happened now in spite of her: his presence was comforting. But now she was uncomfortable. He was looking at her so intently she could see green flecks in his brown eyes.
She rose from the bed looking urgently for something to distract them. She picked up the tarot cards and shuffled through them. She was going to find the Eight of Swords, to hold it up, to change gears and turn to the thing he was afraid of that showed up in their earlier reading. But she discovered she couldn’t find the card.
“The Eight of Swords is missing,” she said.
“Why don’t you come back here,” he said, not hearing her. “Come be next to me and tell me what you were going to tell me about.”
She looked away from the tarot cards and out the window. She said nothing. Something in her was dreadfully uncomfortable. She wished they had never started this habit of breaking the no-boys-in-her-bedroom rule. She wanted to be in the living room. She wanted her private space to be private again. But she didn’t know how to say or explain any of it without hurting him.
So she told him about the visitors.
“You feel them in the room with you, but then you turn on the light and they’re gone,” he said.
Emily nodded. “I can sense it right there with me just like when someone’s in a dark room with you.”
“And this happens after the helicopters go overhead.”
“It’s when they’re going to the base, coming back in from the west.”
He looked at her dubiously. “You’re nothing if not entertaining.”
“Chris, I’m serious about this. There is something going on at the base, and it’s happening here in my house too. In this room.”
“Sounds like bad dreams to me.”
Emily sighed, exasperated. “I can tell the difference between real life and dreams. The thing is, that’s not all. This has happened twice now…the door was open after each time, when I sleep with it closed, and the day after, people…act strangely.”
“People like who?”
“People like everyone…everyone in town. You know that protest against the wars? It happened the next day after one of the creatures came into my room.”
“That was just people standing up for what they believe in. It’s happening all over the country.”
“Right, but there wasn’t really a protest. It was just people going nuts. Do you remember what you did that day?”
“Sure, I went to school, just like you did. The usual.”
“I didn’t go to school. Do you remember any specifics? Some particular incident, something you did, something that happened?”
“Well, not off hand, but that doesn’t mean anything. It was like any other school day—boring as hell.”
Emily sighed. “The time before that it happened—do you remember getting crickets and pinkies for dinner?”
“There were some containers from the pet shop, but that was because Hayden blew his allowance on some garter snakes.”
“Did you wake up with bones in your teeth?” she said.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me. Something is going on, Chris.”
“You haven’t told me a single thing that’s out of the ordinary.” His eyes had gone hard.
Emily was silent.
“Well, what are you going to do about your ‘alien visitors’?” he said.
“That’s why I’m telling you this. What do you think I should do?”
He snorted. “You’re the keen investigator—you figure it out.” It was these sorts of moments she disliked him.
She glanced out the window towards where the helicopters passed so often. She wondered when they would go over next, and when she could expect the next visitor.
“I’ve got to wait for it, I guess,” she said. “See what it does, try to figure out why it’s attacking me…”
“You’re going to do that all alone?”
“Yeah, I’m going to do that all alone,” she said, defiant. It was the only way she knew how to handle him when he got this way.
“The girl who couldn’t even brave a classroom presentation without getting, what was it?, ‘terrified and miserable’ is going to lie in wait for a monster and then, what? Spring on it? Beat it to the ground?”
She went to the window again. “That’s right. Fear doesn’t always make sense,” she said, caustic, but feeling small and humiliated. Talking in front of her classmates was one thing; investigating something bizarre happening in her own town—her own home!—was different. But he made her plan sound ridiculous—made the idea she could do it sound ridiculous. She clenched her teeth. She wished he would go.
“Oh, hey, Em,” he said. He seemed to realize he had stepped over a line. “Hey, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Come over here, please?” She stayed turned to the window. This was why she wouldn’t be with him. She didn’t want to need him to undo how foolish he’d just made her feel.
“Hey,” he said again, standing at her side now. He put his arm across her shoulders. She went stiff but couldn’t bring herself to shrug his arm off. She felt as paralyzed as when that creature had been in her room.
“I have stuff I need to do this afternoon,” she said. “You should get going.”
“You’re not mad, are you?” he said.
“No,” she said, not looking at him. She felt herself crouching in a cage; she was motioning to him to close its door.
As he left, smiling, she felt herself pushing against the cage bars.
She let herself be closed in. Anger stabbed through her. Why had she let him get away with that?
She was in a cage now. She was determined to get herself out.
After class, she gave Chris an excuse about studying for the next day’s chemistry test so she wouldn’t meet him in town. He peered at her as if trying to detect animosity in her. But she had sealed herself off from him, as she always did when they got this way; she wouldn’t let him know anything, despite his claim that he was able to read her.
She needed time to figure out what she was going to do about him.
It felt good to be distant, but she ended up going to their alleyway anyway, in part because she longed for his presence despite herself, and in part out of curiosity, to see if the tagger had replied to her Bentwater tag.
Chris wasn’t there, she was, after all, relieved to see. But the tagger had been.
Beware: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters
8 of Swords
At first the lines of numbers and letters made no sense. Then she realized it was two sets of consecutive dates, the first being two days from then. But what about the numbers and letters that followed?
She had that feeling of being observed again. She looked around, half expecting to see Chris coming down the alley or a stranger watching her from the shadows, but she was alone. She opened her backpack and scribbled down the new message, then got out her Emerald Krylon and considered her reply.
She surprised herself.
A time to meet her fellow tagger.
Chris would have been proud at such bravado.
“I’ll have more mashed potatoes,” said Chris, and Emily’s grandmother fumbled with the dish for a moment before Emily’s mother, across from her, managed to rescue it from landing square on his plate.
“Glad you made it tonight,” said her mother, smiling at Chris. Emily stared down at her own plate; her mother’s invitation had come out of the blue and without Emily’s foreknowledge. Moreover, it was May 9 and she still didn’t understand the number and letter half of the tagger’s message.
“So when is prom, next weekend?” said her mom.
Emily glared at her. “Yes,” she said coolly. “A group of us are going—Lindsey, Ashley and me with Nick, Tyler, and Chris.”
Her mother was surprised. “You didn’t tell me that,” she said. She looked like she was trying to decide if that was good news or not. “You’re going as a group?”
“Yes,” said Emily, willing her mother to be quiet. Chris said nothing.
“Did you hear about the war protests in Virginia and Massachusetts?” said her dad, rescuing the conversation.
“I saw that in the paper this morning,” said Grandma.
“Damn shame people don’t understand what’s important anymore,” said Grandpa. “Back in my day, people believed in right and wrong.”
“With all due respect, sir,” said Chris, “some might argue that the human cost of these wars is the important thing—that it’s a great wrong.” Emily’s mother beamed at him.
For Emily, the conversation melted into a blur as something clicked. “‘Scuse me a minute,” she said, rising from the table. What her grandmother said made her realize—the newspaper—of course! In the living room, she wrestled the front page from the stack of Dailys beside the sofa: A1 on 5/9. She scanned the page once, then again—but there didn’t seem to be anything there along the same lines as before. The lead article was about the growing number of protests against the wars across the country. There was another about Senate and House races. There was one about an experimental weedicide being used in the area against an invasive nonindigenous ivy. And the final article was about new veterans coming back home to the state.
Confused, she found yesterday’s newspaper in a pile next to the side table. She dug out the first section and turned to A16 as the tag in the alley instructed.
And there it was: “After Two Years Strange Lights in Local Forest Still a Mystery.”
She laid it on the sofa next to today’s front page.
“These are a different kind of war,” she heard Chris asserting truculently. Her grandfather growled something in return. Her mother made sounds supporting Chris.
“Whatever,” cut in her dad. “We’re at war. That’s what happens between countries sometimes. ”
Her mother sputtered. “‘Whatever’?” she said. “‘Whatever’? Rich, do you have any idea….” Emily’s attention drifted; Dad’s response was odd, another odd thing along with the myriad others, but these articles…what did it mean? Here was one that fit the theme she and her informant had been working with. There was something here on today’s front page that she was missing; something her informant wanted her to know.
She put one hand on each of the two newspapers as if to keep them from blowing away. One thing she was sure of—the article about the RAF had preceded the helicopters going overhead and a visit from the intruder.
Today’s article had to herald the same. She would be ready.
She made her way back to the dinner table and slowed as she heard Chris’s voice.
“And then she told me the protest in Beckford didn’t really happen! She said it was a mass hallucination!” Everyone chuckled and looked at her as she slid into her seat, stricken.
“We have our very own conspiracy-theorist,” said her mother, beaming at her but bemused.
“Well, I wish she was right,” said her grandfather. “It would certainly bode better for the country.”
Emily glared at Chris in disbelief. She tightened like a drum in dry desert. She couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Haven’t you noticed there’s something weird around here? Haven’t you felt odd? Haven’t you felt like something was wrong?”
They stared at her, all their eyes hanging over the table, zeroed in on her like she was a target.
“Like what, honey?” said her dad.
“Like,” she started. She knew she couldn’t say, aliens have visited my room. “Like, the city is trashed. Like people going nuts at school and in town. There’s a monument to Twitter made of mannequins on Fifth Street. There is a lamppost with raw meat and road kill duct-taped to it near the courthouse.” She told them more; told them what she saw.
This time they didn’t laugh. They looked at her like you’d look at a sick baby animal. “Emmy, you’re confusing the war protest and…I don’t know what,” said her dad, shaking his head. “Sometimes the world can feel like a confusing place. I think this presentation did a bigger number on you than you or we realized, sweetie.”
They took her to her room and made her go to bed. “I’ll call you in sick tomorrow,” her mother said, stroking her forehead as if she were putting a five year old down for the night.
But Emily didn’t stay in bed for long.
She waited in the dark, crouching in the corner near her open window, hidden by the bed. The shades were up. She was holding the can of pepper spray her mother had given her for when she was allowed out after dark. In case that didn’t work, next to her was also an old baseball bat from the garage. She had gotten a bunch of smashed milk jugs from the recycling bin and placed them in front of her bedroom door to alert her when the being arrived. But mostly she intended to leap out of the ground floor window, close it, run to her parents’ window, and coax them away from the house. She had already unlocked her parents’ bedroom the window that afternoon while they were at work.
Time crawled. She heard her parents argue in their room, then go to bed. She listened outside for the helicopters and inside for the door to open and something to enter.
Finally, the helicopters approached: she could hear them far off. Her stomach fluttered.
They drew closer. She fixed her attention on the door, listening far into the hall for something coming toward her room. In the back of her mind she wondered how the beings managed to get in the house, but the question disintegrated into the white buzz of her fear.
She waited. She could hear the helicopters overhead now, moving from the west back and forth over the area. Her legs were aching from being in the same position. Something nagged the back of her throat; she stifled a cough.
After a while she heard a voice—somewhere outside her window, someone was speaking. She couldn’t make out the words, but someone else was yelling in reply. She recognized her father’s voice. She looked outside, saw two figures facing each other, her father and a neighbor.
Far off, she could see something moving strangely in the dark on the ground. The hair on her arms stood up as she tried to understand the way its body was moving. Was it the being, the alien, on its way to her bedroom?
Her father yelled and gesticulated wildly in the dark at the neighbor, oblivious to the thing on the ground.
Emily crawled out the window, the moist ground seeping through the knees of her jeans. The thing on the ground slunk or writhed closer. Afraid, she stepped towards her father, who, she realized, was about to exchange blows with the neighbor.
“Dad,” she said, and suddenly aware of a strange sensation—like mist that hangs in the air on damp mountaintops. “Dad?” she said again and looked to the thing behind him on the ground. Her eyes were adjusting to the pale light of the gibbous moon.
She realized it was a person, an actual person, digging in the ground. Somehow it was one of the civilians of the countries across the ocean that they had bombed; she knew it was digging in rubble looking for its child, its child caught under collapsed walls and fallen ceilings. A slow horror fell around her like snow.
“This is my property,” snarled the neighbor. “She has no right digging up my lawn.”
“Emily,” called the civilian whose child had been buried. It was a woman’s voice. “Come over and see what I’ve found.”
“I’ll protect it to the death,” said the neighbor in a menacing voice.
“This is our yard, Phil,” said her dad. “I bought it from the Pilgrims nearly four centuries ago.”
Emily went towards the woman in a daze with the nagging sense she should help her father. The mist drifting down from the sky was cool on her face, though, and drew her mind from him.
At the edge of the pit from which the woman had been digging out her child, Emily realized it was her own mother—not a foreigner in a distant land. She’s digging me up she thought, but the notion faded as Emily noticed the ground where her mother had lined up her findings: a clothes iron from a past era; a soggy cereal box with “Cinnamon Crunch Os!” emblazoned across the top; some over-processed store-bought cookies caked with dirt; a tarot card—she recognized two blades pointing to the top corners of the Two of Swords; a garden gnome statue; and a stack of printed pages stapled together—her presentation notes, the ones Chris had tossed away, soggy and limp now with earth. The helicopters were just overhead as her mother smiled up at her in the queer light, which transformed her features in an unsettling way. It made Emily think of the being—the one that was coming to her room. Maybe it was already there.
Her room. The newspapers. The mist.
The article on A1 about the experimental weedicide, which would be applied at night.
Understanding swam up through her addled thoughts.
The mist wasn’t a weedicide. It was something else entirely.
Emily woke. She began to collect her awareness like marbles into a bag. She found herself in the woods behind her school where the druggies hid to smoke during class.
Fragmented memories of spray-painting lockers, of being in the chemistry lab with Lindsey and Tyler, mixing things together until noxious fumes make most scatter. Conversations: Ducks are dispensed into the world from vending machines. Clocks are the handiwork of a rare species of mechanical moth from Siberia. Sundials don’t work if the light comes from Venus. Your hands will turn into shovels if you hold them under this running faucet long enough. Towards the woods, then; behind her a classroom window shattering, some chairs hitting the ground, followed by laughter. She had laughed too and kept walking, into the trees.
Now, as she began to come down from the weedicide, she avoided other students amidst the trees. The shrieks and strange laughter and screaming she heard far off and sometimes nearby suggested other people were still enduring its effects. Unlike most people, she had only gotten a few hours of the mist before she covered her mouth with a wet towel.
By the time dusk was a few hours off, the haze had cleared somewhat. She even recalled she needed to get downtown, and began to walk. It took a long time: The suitcases of lives had been unpacked and repacked in the streets of Beckford. Debris—lamps and keyboards and umbrellas, everything—flung all over; stationary cars crowded the streets; a few dazed people wandering or darting through the chaos. A woman shouted up at the sky in several voices, apparently acting out a dramatic play with herself; a man sat on the curb cradling a bunch of bananas, laughing. A terrified dog darted past Emily, followed by a group of kids in pursuit. Picking her way through the mess on Fifth Street, she tripped over a bookcase and fell, concrete grinding open her knee.
At dusk, Emily stepped into the alleyway. The orange-amber light from the main road cast angles of light partway down the alley and lit up one side of the red couch. The coat tree threw a sinister shadow down the alley. The passage was otherwise empty, the walls teeming with manic inscriptions. Her graffitied exchange with her informant was just out of reach of the orange light, in shadow. She was going to check it out when someone in the deeper darkness down the alley stepped into the light; her flesh crawled as the person approached—a white man about fifty years of age, earth-tone clothes, bland face, hands hidden in his coat pockets. He was unremarkable, but it struck Emily as a practiced plainness, as though he had picked out his brown sweater and mushroom-colored coat specifically so they wouldn’t be remembered later.
He stepped around the couch and approached slowly, glancing at her and away again. When he was ten feet off, he slowed, took one hand out of his pocket. “This yours?” he said. In the dim light she could see he was holding out the Eight of Swords card, the one from her deck. She closed the distance between them and snatched it from him, stared at it.
“I see you really wanted to be sure to cover all your bases,” he said.
“I don’t…” she began, then stopped.
“The tag would have been enough,” he said. “Well, no harm done.”
She was dumbfounded, then comprehended—he, her informant, hadn’t put up the Eight of Swords tag. But if he hadn’t, nor had Chris, and of course she hadn’t—then who had? But something told her to move on. “I, I got your messages,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “You understood the information?”
“I understand you’re trying to tell me something about the weedicide. What about the aliens?”
A smile flashed across his face. “There haven’t been extraterrestrials making general contact in this country for a while. Not in the last decade, anyway—they all go direct to the proving grounds out west.” A pause. “You were sent to find out about the experiment, weren’t you?”
Sent? Her mind raced. There had been a mistake. She had figured out something that had been intended for someone else. What would Chris tell her to do?—no, what would an investigator do—one who wasn’t afraid? “Yes,” she said, “of course. But maybe you could explain just what they were trying to accomplish in the—experiment.”
“Yes, well, unfortunately there was no way to get that information to you. My informant at the Daily had to pull the third tip article at the last minute. But you figured out they are using the weedicide as a cover. It’s mind control gas that generally wears off within twenty hours or so. Makes people accepting of whatever they see going on around them.”
“But it seems to induce hysteria—or hallucinations…?”
“Well, up until this point, they have been dialing in how to use it. It does have that effect when it’s dispersed. Like I said, it’s supposed to make people accept what they see over time, but what it’s actually done is make people slow to notice the things that they don’t have a deep investment in. But things people really feel passionate about—it doesn’t work as well on that. It makes people grow passive and uncritical, but so far they’ve not achieved the level of acquiescence they’ve been looking for.”
That’s what been happening—why the city was in shambles. Emily gathered herself. “What is it they are trying to make people accept?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Resistance to the wars is spreading. It’s becoming hard to ignore, hard to brush under the rug. The media are so dispersed and varied these days, the government is having trouble controlling the message. They’ve not been able to maintain the image there’s widespread support for the wars. The government can’t have that kind of resistance. So they are going to eliminate it. Beckford is the initial test area.” Emily’s stomach dropped. “Their next step is to up the number of applications and the amount, to try to pacify the local population. Clearly it’s working on some levels,” he said, eying the couch, “but it’s not enough. They’re going to take it further.”
“When?” breathed Emily.
“Now. Tonight or tomorrow. I assume you have your mask handy? And when they have it dialed in—when people start accepting the wars again—they will introduce the gas in wider and wider circles.”
“But how could they get away with that? We have civil liberties. And people will figure out something terrible is going on.”
“Just think: if they applied it simultaneously all over the country, it would be a watershed. All that would be needed is a national emergency to lock down the country and keep anyone from leaving or entering. What would do that, do you think?—allow them to lock down the country?”
Emily was stricken. It was obvious. “A massive terrorist attack.”
He nodded. “That’s one way. Something on par with 9/11. Immediate declaration of national emergency. Martial law.”
“You mean the government would do it—the attack?”
He nodded again. Her head swam. She felt sick. “So the whole country would be passive and, and, accept whatever the government wanted to do. Zombies.” What was his informant supposed to do with this information? What should she do with it? “Shouldn’t we tell the public immediately?” she said. “Like…now?”
“No, no. This has to be handled with kid gloves. My people will deal with it, and yours…” He didn’t finish the thought. “Say, you’re awfully young for this gig. How did you get wrapped up in this business? Did Robert…?” He trailed off.
“Who,” Emily said, her voice shaking, “who exactly…are…your people?”
The man studied her for a long moment, then turned to where their exchange was still inscribed on the wall. He produced a container and splashed a liquid onto the rest of their correspondence. A rainbow of paint ran down the wall.
“You watch yourself,” he said, his eyes lanced through with fear, the only notable thing about him. “We can figure out who you are.” He retreated down the alley the way he had come.
She watched him go. What should she do? Who could she tell?
As she left the alley, the graffiti seemed to flex and exhale behind her.
She repeated the conversation over to herself as she raced through the ramshackled town, and, remembering, realized something: if there never had been actual aliens in her room—if what the man said about them was true—then what were they? Her bedroom door had always been open after each being left.
She thought of the things in the hole her mother had dug out back—the gnome. The presentation notes. She thought of her strangler, its smooth skin, its noseless, eye-dominated face, looking exactly as she had expected it to look. If it wasn’t really an alien visitor bent on abducting her…what if it was, somehow, herself, in the same way she must have put those things in the ground her mother dug up?
“That’s a pretty nasty cut,” came a voice, and Emily jumped. It was Chris, of course. He looked sweaty and tired, his hair disheveled and a smear of oil across his shirt.
“I tripped on a bookcase,” she said, noncommittal, not looking at him long but turning to the trail of blood below the hole in her jeans.
“Didn’t see you at school today,” he said.
A beat. “Do you even remember today?” she said. “Like, anything specific at all? Look around—does this seem normal to you?” Down the street, an immense, partially constructed wooden animal—a horse? a rhinoceros?—dominated the road. Far off, a horse neighed as if on cue. A record player on a building doorstep had reached the end of its record and was playing a staticky sound. In glancing around, Emily noticed some people seemed to be cleaning up the mess, putting bedlam back to rights. A man down the street was collecting debris in a soggy cardboard box—a birdhouse, an ancient lamp, a stack of wet magazines. A woman was gathering into a pile on the sidewalk the two-by-fours leftover from the Trojan Rhino.
Chris gazed around him and blinked, but then looked back her, face blank. “So what’s happening with your visitors?” he said, something derisive hanging unspoken in the words. “Stopped in lately?”
Gah. How could she break through the hold the mist had on him? “I’m beginning to get an idea of what they really are,” she said in spite of herself.
“Oh yeah?” A gulf yawned between them. “Well what are they?”
She turned and continued down the street. “An investigator doesn’t just toss away her information to anyone who asks,” she said.
“Is that what I am?” he said, “just someone who’s asked?” He caught up to her, walked next to her—but she wasn’t walking with him.
“You’re someone who didn’t think I’d have the chops to find out for myself what they are.”
“Em, come on. I was just being a jerk. I’d had a bad day.”
She slowed. “I wish you could believe me that something’s going on. Can’t you feel it? See it?” He didn’t offer a reply, and she reconsidered her decision for the tenth time. But no. She couldn’t let his doubt bleed into her anymore. “And what was with mocking me to my parents yesterday? All these ‘bad days’ and doubt and…” She took a breath. “Chris, actually, I think it’s best if I’m done seeing you for a while.”
“What?” he said. “I don’t understand.”
She walked faster, but he kept up with her.
“I’ll talk to you some other time,” she said, “I’ve got important things to take care of.”
He ignored her. “Did you see all the film crews around town today?”
She stopped. “Film crews?” If it was true, if it wasn’t a hallucination, that was good. Very good. She had another thought, reached in her pocket. “Do you know anything about this?” she said and held out the Eight of Swords.
“Where’d you find that?” he said.
“Do you know why it’s not with the rest of them at my house?”
“I took it—I was going to bring it back. I wanted to look up some of the imagery in it online, but I lost it—I looked everywhere for it. Where’d you find it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Here.” She held the card out to him. “You can have it.” He hesitated, then accepted the card. “Keep it,” she said.
“It must have dropped out of my backpack…”
“Please don’t follow me, Chris. I’ll see you at prom, I guess,” she said, knowing she’d spend more time with Ashley and Lindsey than him. “But after that…” She shrugged and turned to go.
“Wait,” he said, putting out a hand to stop her. His eyes were shining, wet. “What do you mean? What about finding an apartment together?”
“I’m going to stay in the dorms. Maybe you should think about going to CC here in town.” She glanced down the street towards home. “Maybe I’ll see you before I leave for Boston. But I’ve got a lot to take care of the next few months.” She wanted to learn how to get out of her cages on her own. She wanted to learn how to not let herself be put in them. “See you in the fall, maybe,” she said, not with malice. She was beyond malice. She turned towards home.
In the distance, she could hear helicopters approaching from the west.
She was lying in the dark, a surgical mask from her dad’s hospital over her face to protect her from the mist. Waiting. She reached under her pillow, touched her dirt-stained presentation notes hidden there, a talisman. She didn’t know if it was possible, but she was going to try: She was going to open the door of another cage.
She heard her bedroom door open, a whisper like a wave slipping onto shore.
A deep breath. She tried to focus on a place beyond the roar of her panic—she was still afraid of the being, though she’d made it herself to protect herself from the mist. Eight of Swords, she reminded herself. This is just a matter of Eight of Swords. She moved her hand to the lamp switch.
She held another image in her mind, the image of the thing with which she was going to replace the being. She filled her mind with it, filled her ears with the sound of her own cry. Her eyes were squeezed shut.
In the moment she accidentally thought of the being again—she thought she could sense its hand coming towards her throat—she flipped the light switch.
The room illumed. Upon the floor, at the open closet door that had been shut when she had gone to bed, was a garden gnome statue lying on its side.
It was markedly similar to the one her mother had found in the backyard, with the cheerful hat and the noble beard. Emily picked it up. He was stone, heavy and cool in her hands and grinning with universal benevolence.
She set him outside the window, climbed through, and carried him into the backyard, past the observation tower her father was building at this moment to keep an eye on the neighbor, past the excavation site her mother was working in, looking for evidence of atrocities, or interesting bobbles. She placed the gnome next to his twin, the one her mother had found in the ground, and rested her hand on the new one’s head as if to make him feel welcome.
The mist drifted down and the helicopters thrummed overhead, blotting out shifting sections of stars. Emily turned her face up to sky. What would Chris tell her to do now?
No—she was out of that cage. What did she think she needed to do?
She climbed back inside and went to her closet. She dug out a can of Banner Red Krylon. Through the metal of the can, it felt as though the paint were vibrating, maybe even purring, like a living thing. She shook off the feeling—the mist must be getting to her—and found two more cans. She put them in her backpack. Speaking up in class wasn’t the only way to be able to speak. It wasn’t even the most important. These three cans wouldn’t be enough for what she had planned for tomorrow’s film crews.
If she was going to let the world know what was happening, she was going to need a lot of paint.
The paint in the spray cans thrummed eagerly.
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