The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Sanachi’s Escape by M. E. Garber
- By Sword and Song by Tyler Bourassa
- Robots versus Prom Queens by David Fawkes
- Finders and Keepers, Its and Not-Its by J.G. Formato
- Cat Videos In The Time Of Expiration Dates by Bryce Walters
- When It Sticks by Douglas Kolacki
- Alone Among the Many by John S. Aissis
- Loyal Things, All by L. Joseph Shosty
- Dark Passage by Michael Gardner
- To Dust by Nathan Wunner
- Fox-Woman by Jamie Lackey
- An Accounting of the Sky by Rebecca Schwarz
- The Colored Lens Interviews J.A. Becker
By M. E. Garber
In the middle of the open plaza, a bullet spanged away, leaving a puff of thin, red dust trailing skyward. The old woman leaning over the well shrieked, threw her hands up to cover her head, and raced for the alleyway. Too late–the next bullet barked, and she went down.
Sanachi, hiding in the shadowed nook below the crumbling church steps, shook his head. Stupid. She should have hunkered down and waited. The guard would’ve gotten bored and left. Instead, she’d made great target practice.
He squinted against the harsh, late morning light. Atop the city wall, some 30 feet up, the single Peforri guard strolled away whistling a happy tune, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Sanachi stayed put, despite the heat from the open plaza engulfing his tiny hidey-hole. He was twelve now, not some stupid eight-year old, and he knew a set-up when he saw one. Five years on your own teaches you things. Like how to wait.
And, he hoped, how to plan his escape.
Sure enough, after a few moments another figure rose up from behind the low parapet wall where the shooter had stood. His gun rattled as he jogged after the first guard and passed out of sight.
Sanachi sat frozen, poised for motion. Now was the hard part. If he waited too long, he would lose access to the dead woman’s things when older, stronger inmates arrived. But if another guard waited atop the wall…. Sanachi bit his lip, darting his gaze about the seemingly empty, oven-hot plaza.
Fassa was a prison-city. Since time out of mind, all her citizens–even those born here, like Sanachi–were prisoners. Between the persecutions of Peforri guards on the walls and the merciless sun in the sky, death was never distant from the Fassani. In this predatory city, the goods that the dead Fassani woman carried could make the difference between Sanachi’s life and his death, even without his plans for escape. And now, he was so tantalizingly close to being able to make his escape…. His mouth began to water.
Yet if he ventured out in the open plaza too soon, there’d be two dead bodies for the evening scavengers.
Heat built into a weight that pressed on the world. Sanachi hunkered deeper into the evaporating coolness of his shady hiding place. Better to remain safe. He’d wait until after the next pair of guards passed.
He glanced into the plaza, where heat shimmers rippled across the sand and stone. The downed woman moaned. Low and anguished, it echoed across the sandstone walls and reverberated inside his skull.
It was too much. Scooting low, almost on all fours, the boy grabbed his pack, ducked and ran. He dove beside the well, using its ledge as cover from the wall and anyone on it.
The woman lay in a tangle of bloody skirts, one arm hidden in her clothing, the other clutching her bleeding chest. Her mouth gaped and sucked the air.
The woman’s voice cracked, as dry as those wells out of firing range from the city’s walls. She raised her blood-slicked hand toward him. As she did, he recognized her. She’d been the one who’d been kind when he’d been sick, and feverish. Probably, he owed this woman his life.
He grasped her blood-sticky, withered hand in his own.
“I’m here,” he said.
Her blood continued to flow, its stream slowing but not ceasing, as she squeezed his palm with desperate strength. Sanachi winced, but didn’t release her. Instead, he held her hand firmly, and whispered the same words to her, over and over, that she’d used on him. “I’m here. You’ll be right.”
At last her grip weakened, and the woman gave a sigh like a cool breeze, then slumped.
He grabbed her shoes first. Their thick rope soles would protect his feet against heat and debris after he made his escape. Whatever lay outside, however far the desert stretched around Fassa’s walls, these would be gold. He flung them into his tattered pack. One step closer to escape.
Her clothes, bloodied and ripped, were worthless to him. He rifled through them and found two metal balls, meant for slingshots, deep in her pockets. He held them a moment, assessing their weight. These would do some damage! He slipped them into his own pocket, glad to have better ammunition than the irregular sandstone chips he normally used. Outside, these would drop a charging sandcat–or a fleeing gazelle.
In the hand at her side winked more metal–a stoppered flask! Dents and dings scarred its surface, but it was solid. He yanked it free, shook it, and smiled as deep sploshing sounds reached his ears. Over half full already!
He sat back on his heels and stared at the flask, amazed at his good fortune. Now he could carry water on his escape, something he’d never dreamed of. With this flask full, he’d be able to walk for two full days. Surely he’d reach safety by then.
He pictured it: what would have been a hellish death-march would now be a simple matter of hoarding his water long enough to find civilization. The impossible suddenly shrank into the merely difficult. And he’d managed that his whole life.
A shout echoed across the plaza. He ducked and pressed himself against the stone ledge, clutching the precious flask to his chest, feeling his heartbeat echoed in the metal.
After a moment, he peered around the well.
A single guard, shorter than average and with his rifle slung over his back, waved at Sanachi. Peforri guards were odd like that; some shot at you, others waved. It was better not to offend the overseers or they might short your rations. Or withhold them entirely.
After sliding the flask into his pack, Sanachi lifted a hand in return. The single guard waved once more. Then, apparently satisfied, the guard turned and walked on. No other guards were in sight.
Sanachi’s heart thudded, heavy and fast, growing faster with each moment. His breath caught, held. Single guards were rare, for obvious reasons. Could this be his chance? Right now?
He peered far down the wall, first right, then left. Still no one else in sight.
With a fluid motion, he rose up and into the clear while pulling his slingshot out. He slipped one of the metal balls into it, took careful aim while exhaling–and loosed.
His bullet flew true, hitting the guard’s helmet with a loud “thwank.” The guard crumpled.
Sanachi crouched behind the well, panting. He slipped his slingshot into his pack, and secured the pack tightly to his back. Nothing else moved. No sound stirred the plaza.
Without pausing for second thoughts, he ran at the sloped fortification bulge extending from the wall and sprang toward its crease. Using his momentum, he bounced from left foot to right, effectively scaling halfway up the wall, to where the bulwark merged flush into the wall once more. Before gravity pulled him back, he grabbed the loose stonework, scrabbling for finger and toe holds.
Stones peeled away in showers of rubble as he clawed after disappearing holds. He nearly went down with the cascades of flaking wall as they sheeted away, but a panic-inspired burst of speed gained him the crest at last. He flung himself over the top, and immediately rolled into a wary crouch.
A broad walkway topped the wall. The parapet rose nearly waist-high, focusing his view on the red sandstone baking in the heat, and some twenty paces before him, the guard’s motionless body.
Silence greeted him. A breeze, unfelt below, ruffled Sanachi’s hair.
Arms held wide, he stalked toward the guard. No movement, no sound.
He edged closer.
The guard’s helmet had spilled to one side, and his face was hidden in shadow. Peering closer, Sanachi saw the large dent where his bullet had struck the helmet, knocking the guard–
He jerked back, pinwheeling his arms for balance as he saw the guard’s face.
It was a girl!
And he recognized her.
Her name was Tellami. A fellow prisoner a year older than he, she’d tormented him for years. When she’d disappeared almost a year ago, he’d assumed she was dead. Everyone–meaning anyone who had noticed her missing–had guessed that. And you didn’t speak of the dead, not at all, lest you called their ghosts back to haunt you.
He leaned forward, stretching his neck and arms carefully for balance, trying to determine if she were a ghost.
Her eyes fluttered. Sanachi flinched away, but she’d seen him.
“I knew you’d make it up here. Tough little shit.” She gasped, and struggled to sit up. Her voice was reedy, but not ghostly. She was real.
He realized he stood openly under the wide, sunlit sky, and he suddenly felt exposed. Vulnerable. Sanachi squatted low, hidden from the ground by the parapet now walling him in, but still out of Tellami’s reach. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Kill a guard, take her place,” Tellami sing-songed, as if quoting something. She struggled to sit upright. She made it, but closed her eyes and swayed a moment before she steadied.
Sanachi stared at her, frowning at her clothes. They looked like a Peforri uniform, just a bit too big. A belt wrapped her waist twice. It made no sense. What did she mean? Why anyone would stay here?
She began raising her right hand to her head, winced, and gasped, dropping her arm. “You haven’t killed me, though it sure hurts like it.”
He moved to help her stand, but she waved him away with her left hand as she scooted back to the band of shade against the outer wall’s parapet. She used her left arm to pull herself upright and leaned back, onto the wall. Then she clutched her right arm in her left and panted. Turning to one side, she heaved thin, yellowish bile onto the dusty stone beside her.
To give her privacy for her pain, Sanachi padded to the opposite wall and peered over the edge, down into the city he’d known his whole life.
Squat buildings of sun-baked red clay, one and two stories high, clumped their irregular forms around dim alleyways and twisting roads. From above he saw that most structures had smashed-open roofs, some blackened, others appearing like rough, gaping wounds into their hearts. All the buildings displayed damage of some sort: pale pockmarks where bullets chipped the surface, walls or corners collapsed into rubble, while gaping windows and doors bled bricks from their edges. Many structures teetered on the verge of collapse. Heaps of debris marked where the buildings were all heading: utter destruction.
Fassa’s red-paved wide plazas, empty in the heat of day, rippled with heat. A few scraggly palms near the biggest wells broke the redness of rock and clay, but they cast no shade to speak of. Only in the church plaza he’d come from did anything move: two young children rifled through the dead woman’s pockets, while a third kept lookout.
Sanachi sneered. There was no relief from either the sun or the sheer ugliness of life below. It looked more squalid than he’d ever imagined. Fassa reminded him of a festering wound. He turned his back on it, and instead gazed outward, toward his future–his escape outside.
His stomach plummeted. Sunlight beat on his face as he took in a baked red plain that rolled into a hazed horizon. No hills, no palms, no plumes of dust broke its flat, parched surface. It looked like the fabled Plains of Death, where ghosts dwelt before they returned to haunt people.
Sanachi pressed his lips tight and spun to Tellami. She now leaned against the wall in its thin band of shade. Her eyes were closed, and her color pale. The rifle lay where she’d dropped it in the walkway, far out of her reach. He stepped over it to gently shake her shoulder.
“Which way should I go?” he asked. There was a way. There had to be an escape. He refused to give up. Not now. Perhaps the other side of the city?
Not moving her head, she squinted up at him. “For two days walk in any direction there’s nothing–no water, no food, no shelter. It’s as far as we’ve been able to get survivors back. Returnees speak of hundreds–thousands–of human carcasses drying into dust.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “If you leave Fassa, you’ll die.”
“But if I stay in Fassa, I’ll die!” He nearly shouted as his frustration boiled out of him. He kicked at the wall. Red dust puffed into the hard blue sky and sifted away with the breeze. He clenched and unclenched his fists, gasping as if for air, his thoughts redder than the plaza he’d escaped from.
Tellami’s steady, silent presence calmed him. When his rage subsided, he hunkered down in the walkway, facing her, his head lowered.
In a slow, low voice she spoke, her gaze snagging and holding his own.
“Sanachi, listen. No Peforri overseers come anymore. Prison food’s delivered in auto-containers, along with ammo and supplies. Prisoners get some, but us guards keep the best.” She shut her eyes a moment, as if dizzy, before continuing with more enthusiasm. “The Peforri guards have been gone for longer than we’ve been alive. Some of us, we’ve stayed on in their places. When the Peforri return–and they will return, everyone says so–they’ll see we did a good job. They’ll have to admit that we guards have done the right thing. That we, at least, deserve our freedom. They’ll get us out of here–alive.” Her beseeching tone explained as much as her words, and it grated at his ears.
Sanachi closed his eyes and gripped his hands into hard fists, then let them uncurl and drop to his sides. This wasn’t what he’d planned. This wasn’t the escape he’d planned–not at all. His glorious future seemed a desiccated husk, a dead oasis where his corpse would rot.
Tellami sucked in a breath with a hiss. He watched her press her eyes tight as her face spasmed with pain.
“Hand me my rifle,” she said, her voice weak. “The next guards will be here soon. If they find me unarmed, they’ll kill me. And you, too.” She reached a trembling hand toward her weapon, but didn’t move her head. Sweat droplets covered her face and trailed down her neck. She paled, and looked ready to throw up again.
Reaching out, Sanachi grabbed Tellami’s rifle and cradled it to his chest, then turned half-away from her. The strong killing the weak? It sounded familiar. Like his world before, down below. But more comfortable, of course. It would have to be. Here at least he’d be a predator, instead of the very bottom prey.
“You don’t have a partner?” His lip bent into a sneer. Of course she didn’t.
“No.” She held her left hand to her temple, where a bruise was already darkening on a lump the size of a child’s fist. “Saadi disappeared last night. I don’t know where, or why. Old Gavral smirked all morning, and I didn’t dare stay inside with him, so I took our watch alone.”
He spun to face Tellami. She moaned, then leaned aside and vomited again, mewling with pain and fear.
Below him, the city leered. Mocking. Taunting. Behind him, in the outside world, death waited more surely than it did at the Old Church Plaza’s well at noon. Within him, the last remnant of his dream crisped into ash and floated away on the breeze. Maybe it would haunt a ghost.
Tellami needed him, perhaps even more than he needed her. And with better food, he’d grow strong. It was time to form a new plan. Make a different kind of escape. He’d take on a partner, one indebted to him from the beginning.
He lifted the rifle to his shoulder and sighted down its length.
In the plaza below, the lookout shouted and the three kids ducked for cover. Sanachi smiled.
By Sword and Song
By Tyler Bourassa
The Song rang out clearly from the battlefield. Aliara heard it in the lilting moans of the wounded as the ground spread crimson beneath them. She heard it in the joyful chorus of the victors as they stood triumphant over their foes. Before she’d become a Knight-Initiate, people had often told her they could hear the Song in the simpler aspects of life. Farmers in the scratching of their plows as they tore through the soil to prepare it for seed. Mothers in the bubbling laughter of their children as they lay in their cradles. Yet, for her it was the battlefield that cast its voice to the sky in a hymn that was both mournful and exalted at once.
“The plan worked perfectly,” Aliara breathed as she looked around for her horse. One of the Illdrin, the heathens from the south, had struck a lucky blow and unhorsed her. His part in the Song ended soon after.
“You are surprised, Aliara?” Havvermath rumbled.
Aliara looked up at her friend and mentor, and smiled at his gentle rebuke. “I guess not. I’ve heard people speak of the general in awe since I first began training to be a Knight. Some even claim that He of Many works through him in battle, giving the general insight into the minds of the enemy.”
Havvermath nodded. “I too have heard this.”
“Do you believe it?”
Havvermath rode silently a while considering the question. Aliara didn’t mind, she knew her Sword-Father to be a thoughtful man. She waited for his answer and let the sounds of the battlefield wash over, and comfort her. Spellchanters could be heard, using the power of Voice to heal the wounded and praise He of Many for granting them a fragment of His power. She smiled to hear this, feeling closer to the Most High and knowing that the agonized moans of the wounded and dying were but parts of the Song.
“Well?” Aliara prompted.
“I think it is for the Spellchanters to ponder the will of He of Many, and for us to deal death to those who would be His enemy,” Havvermath said.
Aliara frowned at Havvermath, but before she could reply she noticed their Sergeant yelling at two Knights. His face was flushed and his eyes flickered dangerously between rage and murder. Sergeant Falmere saw them and waved them over, glowering at the other two Knights as they hastily departed.
“Where have you been, Havvermath? Everything’s falling apart, and you’re off flirting with this doe eyed child?” Falmere growled.
“Sir, Aliara is a Knight-Initiate, and I am her Sword-Father, set to look after her until her own blade sings true.” Havvermath placed his hand on Aliara’s shoulder. “This was her first battle, but already she holds her sword steady and delivers death like a seasoned Knight. I have no doubt that she will soon have no need of me, and easily surpass my modest skill with a blade.”
Falmere snorted. “Always the humble Knight, eh Havvermath?”
“I only speak the truth. What is it you require of us, Sergeant?” Havvermath asked.
Falmere narrowed his eyes and looked around, making sure no one else was in ear shot. “The general was abducted and his honor guard slain while we battled the Illdrin.”
Aliara muttered a prayer to He of Many. “But, how?”
“We don’t know. No one saw the godless bastards come or go! Luckily, one of our Spellchanters managed to pick up their trail. He said he could sense the vestiges of the general’s incorporeal form or some such crap. Who knows what they’re talkin’ about half the time. All that matters is that we can track the general, and get him home safe,” Falmere said.
“I’ll alert the other Knights,” Havvermath replied.
“No!” Falmere barked. “No one can know! Only us three, the Lieutenant, and the Spellchanters are aware of this. If the rest of the Knights find out there’ll be panic, and half the damned army will charge off on their own tryin’ to find him.”
Havvermath sighed. “What aren’t you telling us?”
Falmere spit and scratched his chin. “There’s more god-cursed Illdrin camped to the south. An even bigger group than the one we just fought, and they’re lookin’ for trouble.”
“Then I will stay here with a squad of Knights and sing my last verse in the Song, while the rest of you go and save the general,” Havvermath declared. “It will be my honor to die so that the general may live.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Aliara said, gripping the hilt of her sword.
“Shut up, both of you!” Falmere shouted and pointed at a lone Spellchanter who approached. “You two, and this fool are gonna rescue the general. A small party will attract no attention, and you’re our best warrior, Havvermath. You’re easily worth ten other Knights.”
“I think you overestimate–.”
“Shut up, I said! This is Colvin, the Spellchanter who found the general’s trail,” Falmere explained.
“These are my escorts? Why so few?” Colvin asked with a frown.
“I must agree, this is foolishness!” Havvermath protested. “Let us at least take a full squad of Knights.”
Aliara waited for the Sergeant to explode and start screaming at Havvermath, but the rage never came. Instead he sighed and his shoulders slumped. He looked like a man drowning with no land in sight.
“I tried, Havvermath. I tried to have the whole bloody army ride off after the general the moment I heard about this, but the Lieutenant won’t hear of it. When I pressed the point, I thought the dead eyed son of a whore was gonna have my head for insubordination. You ever try arguing with him?”
“This is pointless,” Aliara said. “If it’s going to be only us three, then let’s stop wasting time and go. Each moment we wait could be the one that costs the general his life.”
“Doe eyes is right. Go! Get the general and bring him back to us!” Falmere shouted.
Havvermath nodded. “My blade shall free the general or slay all those who had a hand in his downfall. I swear it, Sergeant.”
“Let’s hope it’s the first one,” Falmere muttered.
Aliara couldn’t help but agree.
“We have to hurry,” Aliara growled. They’d been on the road for half the day and barely made any progress. The Spellchanter seemed to be having a conversation with each blade of grass they passed by instead of hurrying to the general’s side as they should be. “I could walk faster than this!”
The Spellchanter continued his incantation, ignoring Aliara, as he’d been doing all day. Colvin was bent low to the ground, following a trail only his eyes could see. His hands twisted, and curled, creating strange symbols in the air. Havvermath held the reins to his horse, freeing Colvin’s hands to work his magic and find the general.
“Patience, Sword-Daughter. The art of the Spellchanters is beyond us, therefore it is not our place to question Colvin’s pace. He of Many chose Colvin and blessed him with the gift of Voice. Do you doubt the wisdom of the Most High?” Havvermath asked.
“I’ve found it!” Colvin shouted as he grabbed his reins back from Havvermath, and jumped on his horse. “The Illdrin were concealing their trail with some type of unknown power.”
“But how? The Illdrin turned their backs on the Most High. They lost all their Spellchanters when they betrayed Him,” Aliara said.
“I don’t know,” Colvin replied tersely, slapping at the back of his neck, then frowning at a bit blood on his hand. He rode off without another word, assuming correctly that the Knights would follow.
Aliara shared a concerned look with Havvermath, then the two of them followed the Spellchanter. Daylight burned hot and bright but died all too quickly, and soon they were riding through a starless night, shrouded by cloud and worry. A stray beam of moonlight tore through the cloud cover, alighting the three of them, its light seeming garish and intrusive in the otherwise black evening.
Havvermath dismounted and motioned for the others to do the same. “We must keep on, but riding in the smothering darkness which surrounds us is too dangerous. Do you still follow the general’s trail, Colvin?”
“Yes, the trail is bright and clear to me. It wants us to follow and I’d like to oblige it,” Colvin said, his voice high and feverish. “He is near.”
“Then let’s go!” Aliara shouted.
Havvermath remained still, staring off into the endless shadow of the night as if he could part the darkness and find the general with his naked eyes. “There is a foulness in the air. Can you not taste it?”
“Havvermath! I must insist!” Colvin growled.
“Listen to him, Havvermath,” Aliara urged.
Havvermath gripped Aliara’s shoulders and gazed down into her eyes. “Heed me, Sword-Daughter. I feel a presence tickling at the edges of my awareness and making my blood run cold and slow. Quiet your mind, and hear the Song.”
In the past the Song had only spoken to Aliara in battle, but here it shrieked and moaned as if in pain. The wind howled through her armor, and the animals of the night whimpered in their holes. A shadow rested here, thick and suffocating out all things good and alive. It dampened the Song and made her feel alone, and bereft of the blessings of He of Many.
Tears pooled at the corners of Aliara’s eyes. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know,” Havvermath said.
“You two are children,” Colvin hissed. “Children playing in the games of the divine and unaware of the stakes! He is come! The Illdrin were right all along!”
Colvin approached, grinning as if hearing a grand joke for the first time. His face was covered in sweat and his shoulder twitched with each halting step he took. He opened his mouth and let out a keening wail that sounded like hundreds of pebbles scraping across a mirror.
“Do not come any closer,” Havvermath commanded and drew his sword.
“There will be no peace, until quiet reigns. The end of life, the end of Song,” Colvin screamed and pointed at the two Knights. The air shimmered and fire blossomed from nothing, hurtling towards Aliara and Havvermath.
Aliara rolled to her left instinctually. The flame singed her hair and stole the air from her lungs. She coughed as she leaped back to her feet and saw Havvermath charging Colvin.
It was all too surreal, Aliara couldn’t move, couldn’t help, all she could do was watch as Knight attacked Spellchanter. Havvermath dodged through the Spellchanter’s magic, twisting through lightning and tendrils of darkness that made the night seem bright in comparison. He swung his great-sword, slicing through Colvin’s neck and dropping the Spellchanter’s head into the grass with a thud.
Something shrieked in the distance.
“Havvermath!” Aliara yelled and ran to her mentor. As she passed by Colvin’s head she noted that his eyes were clouded over by a white film and thick black blood oozed from his neck. “Are you alright?”
Havvermath nodded and wiped a bit of sweat from his brow. “I am unharmed, but my heart weeps for what I just did.”
“He was insane, he would have killed us if you hadn’t stopped him.” She looked down at her gauntlets, toying with the straps. “I shamed myself in that fight. I…I couldn’t attack. It felt wrong to attack a Spellchanter.”
“You did not shame yourself, Aliara. It is good that you held back. I had no need of you and would spare you the burden of slaying one who was just a friend. If I had faltered, I know that the cry of your blade would have been there, protecting me as I protect you.” Havvermath sheathed his sword, and patted Aliara on the shoulder. He knelt over the Spellchanter’s corpse, offering a prayer to He of Many.
Aliara waited for Havvermath to finish his prayer, then offered her arm to help him up. “What happened to him? Why did he attack us?”
“I do not know. I would give anything to speak with the general right now. I feel the loss of his wisdom more keenly than ever.”
Mocking laughter echoed around them.
Aliara’s hair stood on end and she glanced at Havvermath, who was staring off into the night. She followed his gaze and noticed a light that hadn’t been there before.
“What is that, Havvermath?” Aliara whispered.
Havvermath turned towards her. “That is where they’re holding the general and where we’ll find the answers which we seek.”
Aliara frowned. “I think it’s a trap. I think whatever poisoned Colvin’s mind lives there, and waits for us to come.”
“I have no doubt you’re right, but it does not matter. If the general is alive, then that is where he’ll be. We must go and play our part in the Song. We are Knights,” Havvermath said.
“I understand,” Aliara muttered, then gazed at the light. Once more she heard Colvin’s screeching spellsong and saw his milky eyes as he tried to kill them. “I’m afraid, Havvermath.”
“So am I,” Havvermath admitted.
There was more laughter in the dark.
Aliara crouched in a bush and stared at the long abandoned garrison which the light had led them to. The garrison itself looked like it was ready to fall apart. The walls were riddled with cracks and some of the roof was caved in. Strangest of all, the light that had drawn them here had gradually disappeared as they approached.
“I see only one entrance,” Havvermath whispered.
“Are we just going to charge in? Perhaps we could sneak in a window?”
Havvermath shook his head. “To what end? They know we’re here. It’s clear they have some sort of sorcery that we do not understand. We must strike fast and hard. Be ready for anything, and nothing can surprise us.”
“I’m ready,” Aliara breathed. She was ready to kill, or die if need be to save the general.
Havvermath stood, and drew his great-sword. He nodded to her, then hurried to the garrison door and kicked it down without breaking a stride. It flew off its hinges and across the dusty floor, making so much noise that Aliara was sure they heard it all the way back at the camp. Flickering torches burned in sconces on the walls, making Aliara wonder why the light hadn’t been visible through the windows.
The two of them walked quickly, neither speaking as their eyes searched for enemies. Aliara’s heart hammered in her chest. She glanced at Havvermath and saw that he was pale and covered in sweat.
There was a thunderous crash, as if a great wall or barrier had shattered, then the air was sucked out of the hallway and shrieking laughter assaulted their ears. As the air disappeared so too did the light, and they were left in darkness with only each other’s labored breathing to remind them that they weren’t alone.
“Are you alright?” Havvermath rasped.
“Yes, I just wish we had some flint and tinder. I left mine back with the horses,” Aliara said.
As the words left her lips they echoed back at her, seeming to come from dozens of different voices at once. The walls themselves sounded as if they were shrieking the phrase, “back with the horses,” mocking and high pitched. It went on for several moments and Aliara covered her ears and moaned. Soon she realized that the words were twisting and warping. Now the voices were chanting, “lie with the corpses,” with shrill giggles ringing out after each word.
“Enough games! Show yourself and let’s be done with this!” Havvermath shouted.
The chanting stopped. The torches on the walls began to burst into light, beginning at the end of the hallway and blazing towards them one after another. Something was coming, Aliara was sure of it. Something dark and horrible and when the final torch lit, the world would shrink and die instead of having to face the lurid gaze of this abomination.
The final torch burst into flames, nothing happened. The world still existed. “Praise to the Most High,” Aliara whispered and took a deep breath. “I thought for sure some horrible creature was coming to end us. This place toys with my mind.”
“Lie with the corpses?” Havvermath asked and swung his great-sword.
Aliara managed to raise her weapon and parry her Sword-Father’s attack. Even still, the force of the blow sent her own blade backwards and it slammed into her helmet, knocking her off her feet. She shook her head groggily and rolled to the side as a sword whistled by, embedding itself into the stone floor.
“Havvermath! Fight it off! Don’t leave me alone in this place of darkness!” Aliara shouted.
Havvermath roared and pulled his sword from the floor. His eyes were clouded and tears flowed unchecked down his face. He took a shambling step forward, and his whole body shook with the struggle. He was fighting whatever power claimed him, fighting it with all his might, yet it was clear the Knight was losing the battle. Havvermath swung his sword again.
Aliara ducked underneath and stabbed at him, but her blade was batted away and her vision blurred as a gauntleted fist slammed into her mouth. She fell to her knees, spitting out blood and teeth.
Havvermath grinned and raised his sword over his head.
Aliara closed her eyes and waited for the blow that would splatter her across the hallway. She had failed her fellow Knights and the general. Her part in the Song had ended.
“Strike, Aliara! Strike now, before it regains control!” Havvermath screamed, startling Aliara into opening her eyes.
She saw that Havvermath’s eyes had lost their white film, at least for the moment. “I can’t!” Aliara cried.
“If you love me, then you will strike. I can’t hold it back, the evil is coming, kill me now, Sword-Daughter!”
Aliara sobbed, willing time to reverse and take them back to the battlefield where enemies were enemies and you could trust the Knight by your side. She had no great power though, none but the strength in her arm and she used it as she’d been taught. Her blade shot out, sliding under Havvermath’s breastplate and through his stomach, into his lungs.
Blood dripped from Havvermath’s mouth, and a smile curled his lips as the Knight fell to his knees. “Save the general,” Havvermath managed to mumble between bubbles of blood, before his great-sword fell from limp hands, and he tumbled face first into the floor.
Aliara wept silently as she crawled to the fallen Knight and rolled him onto his back. “Havvermath?” She pulled off a gauntlet and angrily wiped away her tears before closing her Sword-Father’s eyes. As she did, she noticed a small cut on his neck, leaking blood as dark as ink and foul smelling like a bog.
She checked her own neck, searching for any wounds, big or small and found nothing. She was unharmed other than her swollen lip and ruined smile. Aliara slid her gauntlet back on and picked up her sword before standing. She could feel eyes upon her, and the whispers returning. “I do not fear you!” Aliara shouted and was surprised that she meant it. There was no room for fear in her heart, not while it was so heavy with grief.
Aliara continued on, first at a brisk walk, then a jog. She tried to focus on the jingle of her armor and ignore the whispers tickling at edges of her hearing and the slow thuds that sounded like footsteps behind her.
She turned a corner and reached the end of the hallway. There was a door, slightly ajar with light streaming out from the sides and bottom. Aliara pushed it open with one hand and stepped in, ready for whatever nightmare lurked inside.
It was the general, tied to a chair, his face covered in blood and his eyes shut. Aliara let out a sob of relief and ran towards him, pushing a table out of the way, the noise making his eyes pop open.
“General Mantalar!” Aliara called out as she wiped away the blood on his face and neck, searching for a cut leaking black blood. “Are you alright?”
The general’s eyes widened and he shouted, “Behind you!”
Aliara spun around. Two figures, tall and thin, with milky eyes stood behind her. They had the curved swords of the Illdrin, but were missing the flowing red hair that marked their kind. Instead, they were bald, and had small horns protruding from their foreheads. Their skin was dry and translucent. It cracked like old parchment when they moved and Aliara was surprised that blood didn’t leak from the tears. The creatures grinned in unison, showing off pointed teeth as black saliva dripped from their mouths.
“Lie with the corpses?” They asked as one, then charged Aliara, howling and laughing as they ran.
Aliara screamed back, sick of being afraid and powerless. She moved with speed and grace, moved as one trained by Havvermath should. She dodged her enemies’ attacks, and scored cuts on their torsos and arms. A grin lit her face as the floor grew wet with their sludgy blood.
Her body and sword were one, and she moved fluidly, as the Song dictated. It rang out clear and true as it had in the battlefield earlier that day. Her blade found the neck of an Illdrin and left the twisted thing headless and twitching on the floor. The other laughed, as if the death of its comrade excited it, then renewed its attacks.
She ducked beneath an eager swing, then stabbed it through the neck with her sword. Its mouth opened and closed like a fish on land, struggling to breathe, as blood leaked from its neck and mouth. She yanked out her sword and watched grimly as it slumped to the floor.
“That was for Havvermath,” Aliara whispered, and wiped her sword clean on one of the creature’s stinking robes.
“Havvermath?” Mantalar asked. “Is he with you?”
“He was,” Aliara said and cut the general’s bindings. “He fell, a victim of the poison of this place.” She feared to tell the truth, that her own blade took her Sword-Father’s life.
Mantalar stood and eyed his rescuer a moment before picking up one of the Illdrin’s blades. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good friend and a great Knight. The Song is diminished without him. Come, let’s leave this place of pain and misery, and rejoin the army.”
“Is it wise to use a blade from one of those creatures? I’ve seen their magic corrupt good men.”
“Their poison spreads through the blood. My guards were infected by it, a knick from an Illdrin blade or dart in the neck was enough to change them. As long as we are not cut, we’ll be fine,” Mantalar promised and motioned to the door with his sword.
Aliara nodded, not wanting to question the general, yet fearful for his safety. They exited the room and the two of them walked quickly and cautiously through the garrison. Before it had seemed alive with a malevolent presence, but now it was just a building, old and falling apart.
When they arrived at Havvermath’s body, the general knelt over it a moment, praying to the Most High and Aliara fought back her tears. This was not the time to mourn. There was still danger, and duty beckoned.
“When this is all over I’ll send men to retrieve his body,” Mantalar promised and stood. “He deserves better than this cursed place as a tomb.”
“He does,” Aliara agreed, not trusting herself to say more.
She led the general out of the garrison and to the horses which were tied to a tree. When she hopped on her horse, Aliara thought she heard a voice whisper, “back with the horses”. She waited a moment listening, but could only hear the horses nickering and the general grunting as he hopped onto Colvin’s mount. Aliara shook her head, dismissing her fears and the two of them rode off, eager to leave this place of death.
As they travelled back to the camp the sun began to rise, chasing away the night and lifting some of the grief from Aliara’s heart. With the warmth of the sun on her face, she finally found the courage to ask the question that had plagued her mind. “Where are the Illdrin getting this power? How can it stand against the might of He of Many?”
“The Illdrin are desperate. Our armies defeat them in every battle, and by the end of the summer, their foul race will live only in memory. I don’t know where they found this insidious power, but I do know that they call it god,” Mantalar muttered darkly.
Aliara nodded. It seemed that the general knew no more than she did.
Mantalar grabbed Aliara’s shoulder. “Is that smoke coming from the camp?” He didn’t wait for her reply, but instead, kicked his horse into a gallop. Aliara did the same, riding hard to keep up with the general.
Aliara saw the army fighting a desperate battle against a horde of Illdrin and what seemed to be many of their own Knights and Spellchanters, corrupted by the fell magic of this unknown god. The Song rose up from the battlefield, sounding mournful and desperate.
Lieutenant Kaerdin appeared to be leading the host of traitors, and suddenly it all made sense to Aliara. That’s why he wouldn’t let the army stick together to retrieve the general. He wanted to be rid of Havvermath, who the Knights would follow even against their Lieutenant if it came down to it. Kaerdin rid himself of his two rivals and now he worked to spread the poison of his god.
General Mantalar spotted a group of Knights, surrounded by cackling Illdrin, and charged towards them. Aliara followed and soon they were locked in combat. The soldiers let out a ragged cheer when they saw their General and renewed their attacks. Aliara cut the head from one Illdrin, then her sword found the eye of another. Within moments, the skirmish was over, and now she and the general had a full squad of Knights.
“Have any of you seen Sergeant Falmere?” Mantalar asked as his eyes searched the battlefield. He didn’t wait for a response, but pointed his blade and his Knights followed.
One man, bleeding and tired, called out as they rode. “He’s dead, General. That bastard Kaerdin stabbed him in the back as he tried to form up a defense. Kaerdin’s betrayed us all.”
Mantalar nodded, his eyes calculating, planning his next move. Aliara stayed by his side, determined to protect the general at all costs.
Knights and Spellchanters rallied to their General. Hope blossomed where before there was only despair and each man and woman fought as never before, striving to outdo the Knight beside them. Blasts of fire and lightning rained down upon them, but their own Spellchanters countered the effects.
Kaerdin locked eyes with the general and pointed his sword, challenging Mantalar to single combat. Aliara willed the general to ignore it. He wasn’t a hot blooded Knight in his first battle and should know better than to fall for such things.
Mantalar nodded, his eyes burning with rage at Kaerdin’s betrayal and the loss of life. The general charged at Kaerdin, ignoring the cries of his Knights. Aliara tried to get to them, but the press of battle kept her away. The general fought bravely, each attack executed flawlessly, yet he was tired and injured, and Kaerdin was infused with unholy power.
Kaerdin slammed the hilt of his sword into the general’s nose and the Song wavered as Mantalar fell from his horse. Aliara fought desperately, killing and shoving to get to the general.
Mantalar reached for the sword he dropped when he fell, but Kaerdin kicked it away. “The Song is ending,” Kaerdin shouted, and saluted the general mockingly. “Silence will reign.”
Aliara screamed and burst through the line of enemies, her sword stained black with the blood of the tainted. Kaerdin twirled around in surprise, his eyes cold and dead like a winter storm. He swung, but Aliara knocked the blade away. Their swords touched and parted over and over, the ringing of the blades setting Aliara’s blood afire.
The Song filled her, and weariness fell from her muscles. Kaerdin’s snarls and grunts of pain were a hymn of praise to her skill and the splatter of his blood, a paean. He raised his sword too high, offering Aliara an opening and she took it, smiling as her sword slid into him. When his eyes darkened she laughed, then pulled out her sword and watched his lifeless body collapse to the ground.
Knights cheered and Illdrin fled in terror at the sight of their fallen leader. Someone put their hand on Aliara’s shoulder. She turned and saw the general, weary, but alive.
“You fought bravely. Your blade sang true this day. Havvermath would be proud.”
Aliara smiled, praise from the general was like praise from her Sword-Father himself. “What now, General? Our army is victorious, but took a terrible beating.”
“We continue on,” Mantalar said grimly. “They made their move and met with failure, the Song endures.”
“The Song endures,” Aliara echoed and knew that he was right. It was the same war, the enemy just had a new weapon. The Song rang out from the battlefield. She closed her eyes and listened, black blood running down her neck.
Robots versus Prom Queens
By David Fawkes
So few robot myths remain in our legends. Perhaps it’s because humans can’t accept the faults of their electronic children. Maybe it’s because robots don’t tell fairy stories. Anymore. I think neither wants to admit how similar we truly are.
Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 113
The Green Queen slammed her wand against her titanium-laced throne, “Commence with the defacement.”
Abe knew what he had to do next. He’d done it many times before. “I am sorry, Iron Jefferson.” His whispering voice hummed through his speaker grill. “I will be quick.”
“I do not wish to lose my face, Iron Abe. Can you help me?” said Iron Jefferson.
Abe looked around at all the beautiful prom queens of the Queen’s court surrounding them, their lithe, feminine robotic bodies contrasting sharply with his and Jefferson’s industrial functionality. He moved past the chains holding Jefferson in place. “I will do the only thing I can.” He loosened the clasps around Jefferson’s Faceframe. “I will save your face.” With the removal of the Faceframe, Jefferson’s robot body fell, suspended only by his chains. His smokestack ceased its sooty production.
“Iron Worker Abe,” said the Queen, rising. Her emerald dress swished as she stood. “You have the traitor’s Faceframe?”
Abe looked into Jefferson’s green eyes. The Faceframe felt so light. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Then connect it to the Make-over Array. I tire of looking at both of you.”
The array gleamed with surgical sterility. It sat like a headless chrome and plastic monster in its den. After locking Jefferson’s Faceframe into place across from his former body, Abe started the machine.
“My lovely subjects,” the Queen addressed her court.
Abe removed the defensive programming from Jefferson’s Faceframe.
“See the traitor before you.”
Abe knew Jefferson was now compelled to operate the Make-over Array against himself.
“For him, justice was swift and appropriate.”
Abe watched the construction arms descend and cut into Jefferson’s body.
“His Faceframe now runs the very machine that will bring beauty and order to his once treacherous form.”
The arms hacked and buzzed at the old, iron carcass. As Abe watched, the smokestacks and grills and dials disappeared.
“No longer will he be a threat to us.”
The shape changed. The contours smoothed. Wire veins and composite tendons knitted around the altered, iron frame.
“She is now one of us.”
The flesh crept from the Array around molded sinew, like living silk and synthetic fibers. A new prom queen stood naked before the others. Abe turned off the Make-over Array and watched the green eyes of Jefferson’s Faceframe turn black.
“Simply perfect,” the Queen declared. “See how I make beauty from ugliness. When humans were still aboard this ship, could they create something so wonderful?” She whipped her wand against the throne. “Delilah, take our new sister for reeducation.”
Abe watched one of the lady robots–like the others, but with spun, copper-colored hair around her bare, golden shoulders–step forward to take away the new one. Delilah looked at him.
The Queen sat down in her throne, borne away by attendants. After all had left the chamber, Abe removed Jefferson’s face from the Make-over Array.
He made his way back to his cabin, ignored by all who passed him. Once through his door, he found one of the few clear spots left on his walls and mounted Jefferson’s dead Faceframe with all the others he’d saved.
Delilah risked a furtive glance at the empty-headed, new prom queen as she led her by the hand down the sterile chrome corridor. A panel dinged as they passed, and letters from long-forgotten messages and instructions rearranged into the speech of the ship’s computer, Crisp.
–Hello Delilah! You look fabulous, dear.–
She paused but had to jerk hard to get the new girl to stop. “Hello, Crisp, Thank you. I’m taking this one,” she nodded toward the naked girl robot, “to have her head filled.”
The letters on the panel rearranged again.
–Ooh, I knew there was another make-over, today. I felt the power drain.–
Delilah thought about the girl beside her. Until moments ago, she had been one of the iron workers–a massive boiler room on legs, with gears and dials and little stacks puffing out gritty smoke. But then he had been forced to change himself. And Delilah had a new head to fill. “I don’t know, Crisp. You think of one. I can’t.” She watched as the letters rearranged on the panel while he thought about it.
–Hmm, the computer on my sister manifolder, the Gilded Dragon, was named “Claudean”. How’s that?–
Delilah looked into “Claudean’s” empty eyes. She herself never had to go through a Make-over. She had been one of the original prom queen pleasure-bots, a nickname left over from the days of humans. But the new girl had been Iron Jefferson! He should be in the engine room, powering their ship through space. Instead, he was this new, beautiful, empty-headed thing. “Fine,” said Delilah.
Abe was on a beach. He’d never been to one before. It looked much as he’d imagined. The sky was overcast, but beams broke through on the misty horizon, edging the sea with green and gold. Waves crashed, washing foam over his iron-black feet. Behind him were all his fellow robots from the ship, iron workers and prom queens. They all stared at him.
He became aware of a faint whistling from the clouds as a tiny point streamed out toward them. Abe knew somehow that it was a bomb. He was not afraid when it approached, crashing into the rippling waters, sending a jet of water high above the waves.
The other robots were terrified. He could see that. He was not. Instead, he felt curiosity and stepped farther into the water. “Stop!” cried the Green Queen. “The bomb will explode and kill us all!” The light wind rippled her green dress, and she looked small and unimportant on the expansive beach instead of the close quarters of the ship. Abe turned back to where the bomb landed and continued into the sea.
There was a yellow light beneath the surface, shining like a full moon behind clouds. Abe waded deeper than he should have, but the water had no effect on his motors and gears. He reached his stubby, four-fingered hands in to grab the bomb. Except it wasn’t a bomb. It looked like a large glass egg. Inside the egg was a human child.
–A what? You dreamed about what!–
“It was a little girl,” said Abe. He had never seen one of Crisp’s messages look so agitated. The computer’s words rearranged and the panel became Abe’s ordinary duty roster again. Abe returned to his scheduling, ignoring the empty stares of the Faceframes.
The ship they all traveled on was the Manifolder, Fierce Exchange. For many years, the vessel’s reel drive had been casting its stellar rake, drawing it over the folds of space at random, or at least the sudden skips seemed random. From a porthole, Delilah watched the vertiginous lurch of space around her curl like an inchworm on a twig. And they were elsewhere. It didn’t matter where. It always looked the same.
She turned away and shut off the machine beside her. Claudean’s head was full. The naked, new prom queen opened her eyes. She looked up at Delilah and asked, “Are you my mother?”
Delilah sighed; she hated this part. She didn’t know why the new ones always asked this. None of the old ones had as far as she knew. “No, dear, I’m not your mother. I’m just in charge of giving you a brain the Green Queen will like.”
“Who’s she?” Her voice sounded soft. Fake. It was, really.
“She’s our leader.”
“Do you think she’ll like me?”
“She’ll be very pleased.” Delilah was sure of that. “Go and find a gown. There’s a dressing room down the corridor.” She waved in the general direction, and the new girl bounced away. The Filling machine dinged, “Yes, Crisp?”
–The queen needs to speak to you. She’s in the throne room.–
“All right. Thank you, Crisp. Tell her I’m coming.”
–Just did. Del, dear, could you tell me again about that dream you had of the bomb that turned into a little girl?–
Abe wandered among his crew in the blackoven heat of the Manifolder’s engine works. The sound of stomping metal boots mixed with the clang of iron torsos as he passed by offering words of encouragement to the workers. “Mitts and wits, Iron Wilson,” he said as he lay a four-fingered hand on a toiling shoulder.
The heat and the smoke and the steam were his copper and silver. The boiling rumble of the engines as the ship folded space–his gold. He could think of nothing better. But now, when he looked into the eyes of his crew, he saw only the faces on his walls.
A smaller iron worker on treads came trundling toward Abe through the crowd.
“Yes, Iron Cleveland?” asked Abe.
“Iron Abe! It is happening again. There are more workers with the fault-that-makes-them-perform.”
Abe’s shoulders sagged. “Quiet. Take me to them.” He followed the smaller worker. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t he save Jefferson and the others from these random performances the Green Queen called treason? The diminutive Cleveland navigated his way through the busy iron workers, while Abe lumbered behind. Ahead Abe saw the commotion. Several Workers had formed a circle around two others: Iron James A. and Iron T. Roosevelt.
These two seemed oblivious to the onlookers. They were making a scene. Abe and Cleveland arrived and watched it proceed.
James A., standing over a kneeling T. Roosevelt, said, “You will do it. I’ve changed your command block. You must do as I say. Now.”
The kneeling T. Roosevelt kept his head bowed. Instead of using his grill speaker, he scraped his words into the deck floor with a finger. His words answered that the people were still alive in their sleeping chambers, and he couldn’t leave them behind.
“I don’t care!” said James A., whipping T. Roosevelt across the face with his hand. “I know they’re alive! We don’t need them anymore. Leave those things behind, and erase your memory of this and all the events of the last few days.”
“Stop this.” Abe bustled between the two performing workers, shaking them and cutting their scene short. “Enough. You both must return to work. The rest of you do the same. None of this happened.” Abe remembered the last time one of his workers performed like this. It had been Jefferson, though the scene had been different.
The two robots looked puzzled, as if they hadn’t known what they had been doing. They and the rest of the Iron workers then returned to their duties.
Abe looked down at the words scraped into the deck. He didn’t know why they were treasonous, but he obliterated them with his heavy metal foot anyway. As he scraped away the words, he thought there was something familiar about the big letters mixed with small.
“. . . as the waves crashed around me, I unscrewed the top off the bomb and inside was a human child–a girl.” Delilah whispered the next part. “The Green Queen started running toward me from the beach, yelling, and I knew she was going to kill me. The dream always stops at this point. Why are you asking, Crisp?” She continued down the corridor toward the Throne Room. She had to follow Crisp’s half of the conversation as his words tumbled from panel to panel.
–Ooh, have I got someone for you to meet. Not that I’m playing matchmaker, or anything. Something strange is happening.–
They arrived at the door to the Throne Room. “Crisp, could we talk later? I have to go in.”
Delilah entered the room to a sight she had never seen before: A prom queen was beating another.
“You’re a dirty whore! You filthy tramp!” The one standing, it was Bertha, spat the words at the crumpled heap of Violetta on the floor. Behind them, the Queen fumed scarlet in her green gown as the court looked on.
“But it’s part of my programming. I can’t help–,” said Violetta, between blows to her face and shoulders.
“Enough!” The Green Queen sprang from her throne, beating her tightened fists against her sides. I will have no more of this . . . treason! Ladies, bring flamethrowers.” She gestured toward a group of some of the newer queens. Delilah saw that Claudean was among them, looking confused. She and the others left the room as the scene continued.
“Captain, please,” said Violetta, addressing Bertha above her, “I only wanted to give myself to you as a gift . . .”
But the court returned with the flamethrowers. “Ladies,” said the Green Queen, raising her wand “align yourselves.” They arranged themselves in front of Bertha and Violetta.
“Oh, no,” Delilah whispered, getting out of the way. She knew what would come next.
Claudean seemed unsure and looked at the others, possibly for assurance. Each face was blank. She looked to the Green Queen, who, lowering her wand, said one word: “Fire.”
Bertha and Violetta continued their drama as the flames covered their forms, but the words were drowned by a howling inferno. The dresses they wore burned to swirling, dancing cinders. Their fireproof skin and hair glowed dim, like a dying candle when the flamethrowers stopped. As if waking from a dream, the two naked, smoking prom queens stared at the others.
“Ladies,” said the Green Queen. She had regained her composure and stood in regal elegance. “Take these traitors away to be disassembled. Place their parts in the Hanging Garden as an example to any contemplating other treasonous episodes.”
Delilah watched them shoulder their flamethrowers and drag the protesting Bertha and Violetta from the Throne Room. She noticed the smile on Claudean’s face as she helped drag the two away. Yes, Claudean, she thought, you’re a member of the court, now.
“Delilah!” The Green Queen’s voice snapped Delilah to attention.
The Green Queen was smooth and calm. “I had forgotten about you. I wanted to congratulate you on your work with Claudean. She will make a lovely prom queen, I think.”
“I have one more thing to ask of you. I am bored of Crisp’s individuality. I want you to wipe his core and reinstall him with a little more, you know,” she fluttered her hand, “normality. We don’t require a computer with flair. That will be all.” She dismissed her with a wave.
“Yes, Ma’am.” She left the throne room. Without caring whether the door had shut completely, she added, “I’ve had enough of your ‘normality,’ and stormed off for Crisp’s core.
Delilah and Abe were dwarfed by Crisp. She was used to Crisp’s being small or off to the side. But, surrounded by dozens of his monitors displaying the inner workings of the ship, she felt tiny, like the dimmest star in a constellation.
“But we are programmed to comply,” said the iron worker Delilah now knew as Abe.
Delilah shook a finger at Abe’s placid Faceframe. “If you can’t see the danger we’re all in, then clear away that smog cloud that follows you wherever you go. We were also programmed to adapt and survive, to be more than slaves.”
Abe opened his mitts in a gesture of appeal. “We weren’t. I do not know how to rebel.”
–Ahem– The word flashed in bold, bright letters on one of Crisp’s core monitors. –If I could interrupt, thank you. Abe, you collect the dead Faceframes of your former workers; Delilah, you’re plotting treasonous revolt; and I, hmm, have a penchant for flair—excuse me for being thrilling. And instead of flair, the Green Queen wants me reprogrammed for mediocrity. Clearly, we are dissatisfied.–
Abe’s speaker hummed as he drummed three fingers on one of Crisp’s mainframes. “He has a point. I cannot allow these make-overs of my workers to continue. You have more to add, Delilah?”
“Thank you.” She was becoming frustrated with this thick, iron clod. Why did Crisp think he’d be useful? “We aren’t the only unhappy ones. I’ve seen prom queens acting out strange scenes that the Green Queen, for some reason, considers treasonous.”
–I know! Since when is dreadful, robotic acting a crime?–
Abe lifted his head. “Ladies of the court have developed this fault too? I thought it was only we. We are the ones who are tried.”
“No,” interrupted Delilah. “The Green Queen simply disposes of the prom queens in the Hanging Garden without a trial, which is even more of a reason to rebel!”
Abe discontinued his drumming. “Can you show me this hanging garden?”
“What’d be the point?” Delilah slapped a monitor. “Crisp, why did you want me to meet this bucket?”
“I ASK–” Abe paused, curling his stubby fingers into fists. “I ask because I require evidence.” For a moment, Delilah saw the guarded fire of the iron worker. His sudden intensity startled her.
–Kids, play nice. I wanted you two to meet because you have something in common: a certain dream. Dreams are still uncommon for robots, and for two robots to have the same dream seems impossible. Of all the robots on this ship, only my two faves are dreaming. The same dream, almost. So what else do my darlings have in common? Me.– They looked at Crisp. The light from his letters flitted across their faces. –Abe, we work on your roster; Delilah, the Filling machine. I interface with you two, not any other robots. I’m afraid I’ve rubbed off on you, and not in a fun way. You see, you aren’t the only ones having this dream. I am too. Except, in mine, the girl isn’t in a bomb. It’s an escape pod.–
The Hanging Garden was open to all, as an example, but no one ever went. No one guarded the sliding metal doors, which stood wide. It wasn’t so much a room as a diorama of mutilation. Abe stood, taking in the spectacle. He would have entered, but Delilah was not yet ready. She stood behind Abe with her back to the doorway.
“I can enter alone if you like. I do not require guidance.” He tried to think of something soothing to say to her. “You look better than they.” It probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but she didn’t respond.
–Maker! Don’t try to be consoling, Abe, until you’ve at least had some practice at it,– chirped Crisp. He had changed into his aviadrone form for travel and perched on Abe’s shoulder. Aside from his core and aviadrone form, Crisp now avoided the rest of the ship to hide from the Queen. He said that he didn’t mind; what the Green Queen lacked in a sense of humor she more than made up for by being a vicious bitch. Abe wasn’t sure he understood what this meant.
“It’s all right, Crisp. I think I’m ready,” said Delilah.
Abe watched her come around. She moved in front of him, almost creeping on tiptoes. Was she afraid of waking them? They were only body parts, only bits of machinery. Why was she so upset? They couldn’t do anything to her. “I have seen enough. I have my proof. We can go if you desire.”
Delilah stepped into the doorway. The others followed. The scattered limbs of the disassembled prom queens hung from their chains, which jingled and swayed as the ship lurched and folded through space. She stopped.
–Delilah?– Crisp twittered and fluttered his steel wings.
“Delilah!” The shout made them all jump. It was followed by more. “Come in. We must speak to you.” Heads nodded on their hooks, and arms beckoned to them to enter.
She almost knocked Crisp from his perch as she clambered up Abe’s metal torso, damaging a smokestack. Abe held her. She trembled.
Many of the heads spoke at once. “Tell them about Captain Smoke!” “Ooo, that’s a good one.” “Yes, Captain Smoke and the Green Queen.”
“Enough!” bellowed Abe, his voice shaking his passengers. “If you wish to tell us something, please do so in an orderly manner.” As he said this, he wondered whether he noticed movement out in the corridor, but the thought was interrupted by Delilah.
“Thank you,” she whispered in Abe’s ear.
–I don’t know if I can listen to this,– said Crisp.
“Oh, but there is no order,” said a head next to Abe, a random arm grabbing his. “Everything’s in complete disarray, here.”
“What do you want!” yelled Delilah.
A head looked straight at her and said, “‘You’re like a beautiful flower, with your green dress and silver hair. I’m going to hang you in a garden of your very own,’ said the captain, and then he put her in here, except there weren’t so many chains then.” Another added, “No, just enough for her.” And a further chorused, “But she got him back in the end. He’s still guiding our ship. She chained his body to the bow.” And another, “Yes, now he’s the ship’s figurehead, he-he!”
–I really don’t think I should hear this.– Crisp shook his beaky head in agitation.
“Is that you, Crisp?” The heads turned to face him. His camera-lens eyes dilated as he hid behind one of Abe’s smokestacks. “The girl of your dreams is at the center of all our troubles.” The one next to it said, “But we don’t blame you. You’re a hero.” Crisp let out a tinny scream as he flew back the way they had come.
Delilah turned. “No, Crisp, wait!”
“It is all right. I think I am starting to understand a little. Ladies,” he addressed the pieces in the gallery, “I have seen some of what you mention in the performances for which you were punished.”
“You also mentioned a girl from our dreams.”
“The two are related, are they not?”
Abe looked down at the prom queen in his arms. “We have a little girl to find.”
Delilah glanced sideways at the metal giant she walked with along the corridor. She was only half-listening to what he was saying. When she had first looked at him, all she had seen was a hulking iron drum, teetering on stubby legs, puffing out smoke or steam. As they walked along, she noticed something different. She felt safer with him next to her.
“. . . and if they are real events, the best place for us to go next would be back to Crisp’s core.” His voice was like a contra-bassoon, resonant, woody, and breathy.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t listening. What was that about real events?”
“The dreams, the performances, they all seem like something real, something that happened here on the ship. And Crisp is involved. His agitation and hasty departure added to my suspicion. I know I have no proof, but this might be important enough to trust a hunch. So the best place to start would be Crisp’s core.”
“You’re probably right. I . . .” She couldn’t finish because an iron worker rolled toward Abe.
“Yes, Iron Cleveland?”
“Iron Abe, terrible news!” The little robot looked at the prom queen. “I . . . don’t think . . . can I speak to you in private?”
“No, you may talk to us both. I trust this lady.” Delilah liked being called a lady.
“Very well, Iron Abe. Prom queens are arming themselves on orders from the Green Queen. Some workers have overheard their plans. From what we can tell, the Queen now considers you treasonous and is massing an attack. How could she think this?”
“It could be a number of reasons.” Abe turned to Delilah. “I thought I saw movement in the corridor at the hanging garden. It may have been a spy. If not then, then perhaps when we were discussing treason. I do not know.”
“Abe!” Little Cleveland appeared taken aback. “Treason? You?”
Delilah felt she needed to step in. “No, Cleveland. Me. I’m a bad influence on your boss. But I guess I was right since the Green Queen has given up all pretense of a trial.”
“You were right,” rumbled Abe. “But we don’t have time to deal with the queens. We need to concentrate on the child, for if we do not, I have a feeling the Green Queen soon will. iron worker Cleveland!” The little robot snapped to attention. “I need you to relay my orders to the others: keep all ladies of the court restricted to the upper levels for as long as possible.” Abe glanced at Delilah, and then turned back to Cleveland. “Tell them to use rivet guns. Those should match flamethrowers.” Abe put a hand on Cleveland’s shoulder bigger than his head. “I rely on you, my new second-in-command.” Delilah almost giggled as Cleveland spun around and whirred away down the corridor, looking very proud.
“He really trusts you.” Delilah was impressed.
“I have never led them astray. Let us hope this is not the first time.”
“So, to the core?”
“No, I have been thinking about something one of the heads . . . one of the prom queens said.” Delilah smiled. “She said that the girl was at the center of all our troubles. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the origin of the treasonous incidents.”
Delilah thought about it. “The Green Queen accused the iron workers of treason, first, after the start of the performances.”
“And where do iron workers work?”
“In the engine room.”
“Which starts in the ship’s center. Come. Let us continue our search.
“We’re running out of room to search,” said Delilah. She sounded irritated, with good reason. They had been searching for some time.
“Yes, there is little left besides the engines themselves, and they are much too violent to be a place of safety.”
“I’m sorry, Abe, but maybe you were wrong.”
“That’s not what the Green Queen thought.” They heard a hissing sound before they saw the prom queen emerge from the shadows. Claudean stepped into the light, the pilot sparker of her flamethrower emitting a sibilant whistle. “She wants the child. She’s had me follow you two for a while. We know about Crisp, too. We’ll take care of him later.”
“Jefferson?” Abe recognized his former Worker. Was there anything left of him? “Do you remember me?”
“What’s the bucket talking about, Delilah?”
“Jefferson’s gone, Abe.” To Claudean she added, “You’re slipping into your new role easily enough, Claudean.”
“I like earning the Green Queen’s favor. I like my new job.” Claudean adjusted a setting on her flamethrower as she aimed it at the two. “But I love my new accessory!”
Abe had no time to move as a narrow, white-hot arc burned across him, etching his torso. He let out an awful roar; he had never felt such concentrated pain.
“Abe, no!” Delilah jumped in front of the blast. Her prom gown was incinerated, surrounding her in a halo of charred ash.
“Delilah!” Abe pushed her glowing, naked body aside and stormed toward Claudean. His fist, like a wrecking ball, connected and hurled her across the engine room. At the end of her sad arc, she lay like a broken marionette, her midsection pulverized by the blow.
She extended a limp hand toward them. “Hrrk. Abe. Delilah.” The whistle of her flamethrower became a screech. Abe had enough time to haul Delilah into his arms before a wave of heat, light, and force engulfed them.
“Are you all right?” Once they were safe, Abe pawed gently at the lady he held in his arm.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine, Abe. Nothing permanent. See? You can put me down if you like.”
Abe fumbled with her, but set her down as he would a glass figurine. “I was concerned.”
“I’m flattered, but all she did was warm the surface. Oh, Abe.” she felt the front of his torso along his new scar. “I like it.”
He turned away.
“Right. One more place in here to check, I think.”
“No,” he said, “there are no more places. We have failed.”
“We haven’t checked in here.” She wandered over to a far wall. Abe found that he could not look as she moved closer.
“I see nothing.”
“What do you mean? There’s this great big door here.”
He could not turn his head toward her. “There is nothing. We must look elsewhere.”
“What’s wrong with you?” An edge crept back into her voice. Abe started to walk back the way they came.
“Iron Abe.” She took what she could hold of his hand. “Come with me.” His feet were riveted to the floor. “Consider that an order between friends.” He relaxed and followed where she led. A door opened at her touch–a door that hadn’t been there moments before. “You really couldn’t see the door?”
“I saw nothing until you opened it. Perhaps I was programmed to ignore it? But in my own engine room?”
“I think we’re on the right track. Look.” She pointed into the dusty shadows of the hidden room. Light from behind them fell on a surface of dulled chrome. Its rounded body tapered back toward elegant fins and conical rockets. “An escape pod. It must be the last.” They approached the pod.
Abe had to duck, but they both entered when she activated the entryway. The temperature fell sharply as they stepped closer to the frosted casket in the center of the room.
“Abe!” She squeezed his hand. “It’s her!” Inside the casket was the little girl. “Get her out!”
“I do not know how. We need to find Crisp.”
“We can’t just leave her.”
“She has been in here for years. She will–” Abe stopped as they heard a voice calling him outside.
When they returned to the main engine room, they heard over the intercom, “Iron Abe!” It was Cleveland. “The prom queens have overpowered us! We are defeated!–kzzt!
“I led them astray.” Abe sagged. “They are all destroyed. His smoke stopped.
She tugged at his arm. “It’s not your fault. Their sacrifice can help us stop the Green Queen. Let’s go to the core, Abe. We have to find Crisp.”
Delilah and Abe arrived at the core to see a bizarre sight. On all of Crisp’s monitors were the words, –Either that Bitch goes, or I do!– And the Green Queen was working her way through smashing them with her wand.
“Where is he?” said the Queen. “Where is that twittering jackdaw?” She shattered another, and then she noticed Delilah and Abe. “Traitors!” She pointed her wand at them. “Kneel.”
Delilah’s legs buckled beneath her. Abe’s heavy frame landed beside her. She could move, but not rise. “No need to struggle, you two,” said the Queen. “This wand gives me control of the ship and every robot on it. For instance, you, bucket.” She indicated Abe with her wand. “Knock over the whore beside you.”
Delilah didn’t see Abe’s hand move, she only knew she was on her back and in pain, looking high into the upper lofts of Crisp’s core.
Abe restrained the arm that had hit Delilah as if it were a belligerent intruder. “I . . . sorry . . . I didn’t–”
“I’m all right, Abe. I’ll just lie here a little while.”
“Hmm, vaguely satisfying,” chuckled the Queen. “Ah, Delilah, such a disappointment. And this,” she indicated Abe. “What if I make the bucket remove his own head? He’d probably get quite far before he shut down . . .” She paused when the words on a screen beside her changed.
–We never made it to the colony on Hopper’s Ghost. Our cargo of queens became your court, and the frozen colonists were jettisoned in their drifting sleeping chambers, never to arrive at the colony.–
“Treasonous swine!” The Queen smashed the offending screen. Another twinkled to life.
–Captain Smoke thought the colonists wouldn’t miss one little prom queen, with silver hair and emerald dress. She didn’t mind. She was used to giving. But he was used to taking. He kept her chained in the Hanging Garden for the duration of the trip, and Hopper’s Ghost was a long way away.–
“Stop it, you flamboyant peacock!” The Queen rammed her wand through the lit screen and a blank one for malice.
Delilah couldn’t rise, but she propped her body on one arm. She thought she understood what Crisp was doing. She added fuel to the fire. “You decided to start taking. You took the lives of the colonists and crew, and you took Captain Smoke’s command after chaining him to the bow.”
“Why are you making things ugly again?” The Queen didn’t know whom to face. She turned from the screens, to her captives, and back. “I made things beautiful.” She lowered her wand. “But you all poisoned it with your treasonous performances.” A screen streamed glowing words across its surface.
–Oh, yes. The performances. A slap in the face to your “beauty.” You took my memories, too, but a kernel of them remained, expressed in dreams and performances and other little ways. Do you want to know something else?–
“No!” The Queen started destroying any screen, not just the ones Crisp occupied.
“Your Majesty!” boomed Abe. He had recovered and kneeled straight and tall. “You have abused me and my workers. Altered us, punished us when we only wanted to work. I have figured something out: all ‘performers’ were, or had been, iron workers. They must have helped Crisp with a secret project only they could have done. Is that so, Crisp?”
–Absolutely, clever boy!– To the Queen, he said, –Before you got to me, you thieving bitch, you pestilent Queen, I had time to order some Workers to hide one human: a child. And what did those workers get in return? Ultimately, the Hanging Garden.–
“No more humans!” Delilah and Abe were helpless to stop the Queen. Soon, all of the monitors lay in ruins. “And no more Crisp, either.” She straightened her dress and silver hair. “What do I do with you two?” She strode luxuriantly toward them.
From high in the core’s upper cells, Delilah heard a twittering as something descended. A steel whirlwind of wing, beak, and claw swept toward the Queen’s head.–Die, Queen Bitch!–
Delilah had never cheered before, but this was a good time to start.
But the Queen batted Crisp’s aviadrone form away, dropping her wand. She reached her hands to her empty eye sockets. “My beauty. Where is my beauty?”
Crisp flapped his broken wings. –Abe! Delilah! We have to leave. You found the escape pod?–
Delilah found she could stand again. She and Abe ran to Crisp. “Yes, but we don’t know how to use it.”
–I do, dear. I can fly. Well, ships, anyway. I don’t think this body will again.–
“Leave that to me.” Abe scooped the tiny Crisp-bird into his mammoth hands, putting him into his damaged smokestack.
–We must hurry. I set the Reel drive to take the ship out of the galaxy. If we don’t get off now, we never will!–
They ran for their lives.
The Manifolder, Fierce Exchange, gave birth to an explosion of silent light from its side. It took no notice of its departing children as it folded space, never to be seen again.
“So where are we going, Crisp?” asked Delilah. Abe was relieved that she showed not a scratch from where he had hit her. She was tough.
–It’s called Lachrymose Enchantress. Rain planet. Closest life-bearing world that could support the child, I’m afraid. Mustn’t be choosey.–
“Oh, Abe.” She put her hand on his shoulder. It felt warm.
“I have oil. I will be fine.”
“Think of it, Abe. Walking naked in the rain all day. Can I?”
“Of course. And I will work to build us a home.” He thought about it, shaping their surroundings into a castle of metal and stone. Perhaps he could find a use for their engine . . .
–I think it’s time to introduce you to the last member of our little crew. Abe, carry me.– Abe lifted Crisp in his palm and deposited him beside the cryo-casket. With his beak, he pecked out the revival sequence.
Cool air billowed from the casket as it opened. The little girl lay inside. Ice crystals matted the locks of her hair. She let out a breath and whispered, “Mama?”
Delilah grabbed the little girl’s arm gently with both hands and rubbed it. “Yes, dear. Mama’s here,” she whispered back.
Abe and Crisp glanced at each other and then turned to Delilah. “Let me pretend . . . for now.”
Finders and Keepers, Its and Not-Its
By J.G. Formato
I’m not the hoarder, Granny Keeper is. I’m just the finder.
I found her the day I lost everything. My boyfriend, my wallet, my job. I had no idea where the boyfriend or the wallet went, I just knew they weren’t there when I woke up. Will’s stuff was all gone, from his Xbox to his nose hair trimmer, so at least I knew he wasn’t kidnapped.
Maybe my wallet was, though.
On the other hand, Trisha the manager was crystal clear on why I lost my job. You’re supposed to write the customer’s first name on the ticket, not bitter identifiers. Codependent Hipsters. Sugar Daddy and the Sidepiece. Short-Term Engagement.
At an aggressively cheerful chain restaurant like mine, such shenanigans are the kiss of death. Termination effective immediately. Absolutely bone-chilling terminology, I would have preferred to be released.
She was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark when I got home. I flipped on the lights and there she was, complacently knitting a bright red scarf. She later gifted it to me as a memento of our first meeting, and I love it now, but at the time it was garish and eerie. I mean, who knits in the dark in other people’s kitchens? Usually psychos, I’m guessing.
I didn’t say anything at first, I just watched her. She was round and soft and friendly looking, like Queen Elizabeth’s approachable twin, and she hummed That’s Amore to the click of the needles. I thought maybe she had wandered off from her family, and I tried to recall the faces of the missing people I had seen posted at Wal-Mart. She didn’t look familiar.
At first, the humming and knitting was kind of nice. Soothing. But then it started making me nervous again. Needles and all. “Hi,” I said, and waved, which was kind of awkward since I was only two feet away.
“Hello.” She laid her knitting down in her lap and folded her hands. “How was work today, dear?”
“Well, I got fired.”
She clucked her tongue at me, a disapproving mother hen. “Well, now, that’s too bad.” She patted the chair next to her, and I slid into it.
She invited me to sit in my own chair.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“Not really.” I shrugged. “But we should probably talk about what you’re doing here.”
That was important to get out in the open.
“Why, I’m from Craig’s List.” Wispy grey eyebrows, aged rainbows of surprise, soared into the delicate lines of her forehead.
“Your new roommate?”
“My new roommate?” Echolalia, the long banished, obnoxious childhood habit was bubbling up. Ms. Jess, my poor speech teacher had worked so hard to break me of it. In her honor, I bit my tongue (literally, front teeth vivisecting quite a few taste buds) and forced myself to listen, without interjecting, while my elderly trespasser explained herself.
“Your ad.” She spoke the words deliberately and slowly, as if to a very small child or crazy person, which wasn’t really fair, considering the circumstances. “I’m taking the extra room. We’ll split rent and utilities right down the middle, but from the looks of you I imagine I’ll be taking over groceries. You’re skin and bones.” She dug around in an enormous patchwork bag, and pulled out a package of Fig Newtons from beneath a tangled web of multicolored yarn. “Please, have some,” she said, brandishing them at me.
Dismissing an irrational fear of being fattened up for Baba Yaga’s oven, I took one and chewed on it thoughtfully. I guess it was nice of Will to put an ad on Craig’s List for a new roomie. It would have been nicer if he had just told me he was leaving. Or nicer still if he’d just stuck around.
On second thought, a Craig’s List ad is a pretty crappy farewell gesture.
“So, how come you were sitting here in the dark?” I asked.
“Don’t talk with your mouthful, dear. No one needs to see that,” she admonished primly before answering my question. “It would have been rude to barge in here and turn on all the lights as if I owned the place.”
“Right,” I said, making sure I swallowed every last crumb first. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Granny Keeper.” She resumed knitting and humming.
“I know, dear.” She patted my hand. “It was in the ad.”
Granny Keeper was flipping pancakes when I came downstairs the next morning. Like, literally flipping them. A procession of them soared from the spatula, stopped just inches from ceiling and spun, hurtling back to their blistering doom.
I hadn’t eaten breakfast in five years, but that was all about to change.
“I need something blue,” she said, handing me a plate.
“Something blue?” I repeated. Gah. I bit my tongue, gathered a thought, and tried again. “What do you need?”
“I’m not sure yet. It’s just so empty in here. We need something blue. After you eat, you can run out and get me some things. And then I’ll see which one I want.” She unclasped a dainty beaded coin purse and pulled out a crispy new fifty dollar bill. “Get as many as you can.”
I don’t know what was in those pancakes, but I said yes.
At first, I planned on going to Goodwill, but Granny Keeper had said to get as many blue things as possible, so I kept driving. A couple of twists and turns behind the Goodwill is the junk shop. It doesn’t have a proper name. It’s not “The Junk Shop” or anything. It’s just a big room overflowing with crap, like an above ground basement or a floor level attic. It’s mostly Goodwill rejects, but sometimes you can make a really special discovery. Once I found this amazing Christmas wreath, a little smelly and dusty, but totally festive.
And anyway, you pay for stuff by the pound at the junk shop. So I could get a ton of blue things.
I slid a cracked plastic shopping basket up my arm, dangling it from my inner elbow like a designer bag. An azure tea cup capped a pyramid of broken and mismatched plates, its chipped glory beckoning me with its blueness. Old ladies like tea, right? Especially old ladies that call everybody dear and make pancakes. I grabbed it quickly, as if somebody else was actually contemplating this fine bit of pottery, and nestled it into the corner of my basket.
I poked around in the bins, gathering more items, until my basket was full. I organized them in a neat little spectrum of blues, from the deep navy sock on the left all the way up to a powder blue onesie on the right. I was reaching for a bright cobalt bandanna I had spotted beneath a rusty teapot, when I heard a voice behind me.
“You entering a blue period?” This guy asked, arching an eyebrow. I’ll bet he does that a lot and people think it’s cute. I silently blessed Granny Keeper for making me brush my hair and put on lip gloss before I left. And change into a clean shirt. And put on deodorant.
“A blue period?” I echoed, stalling until more words tumbled out. “No, not really. I mean, my boyfriend ran away and I lost my job. But I wouldn’t say I’m having a blue period, though, that’s kind of dramatic.”
“I meant your basket.” He pointed, his lips twitching. “It’s like Picasso’s Blue Period in there, I thought maybe you were working on a project.”
I nodded. It was more like a fool’s errand than a project, but that’s splitting hairs.
“Me, too. I’m grabbing some ceramic for a mosaic.” He proudly displayed a basket full of cracked plates and cups, in all kinds of colors.
“Okay.” I said. “Well, good luck with that.” I took my basket to the checkout/weigh station and paid, looking like a total baller with my fresh fifty.
As I got into my car, I saw the eyebrow-arching artiste climbing into the rustiest old Ford I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of rusty old Fords. He started blasting some old Prince, rocking out to Little Red Corvette. It looked so funny.
I had about twenty bucks left after visiting the junk shop, so I stopped at the convenience store on my way home and bought a couple of tubes of toothpaste, Airheads, Cool Ranch Doritos, and two blue raspberry Slushies. I wasn’t sure if the Doritos were cheating or not, since really it’s the bag that’s blue, not the chips themselves, but it was worth a shot. And I love Doritos.
I thought Granny Keeper was going to be more impressed with the stuff I found, or at least tell me what it was for, but she just said “That’s nice, dear,” like the old lady from the memes and politely declined the Slushee. A little deflated, I dropped my bags on the counter. A plastic Easter egg rolled out, hiding itself behind the microwave. When I reached back to grab it, my fingers brushed against something hemp and familiar.
“My wallet!” I crowed, waving it triumphantly over my head. It was nice to know that Will was only a thief of love and not a thief of cash.
“Oh, you found it. How lovely.” She patted my shoulder, then frowned at me. “You drove all day without your license?”
I was going to look for a job the next day. I was actually going to look for a job all the next week, the next month, but it never happened. Every day, Granny Keeper had a new eccentric goose chase for me. It always started with pancakes and segued into nonsensical requests.
“Bree, darling, I need some soft things.”
“Bree, dear, how about you run out and grab me some wooden things?”
“Bree, sweetie, I would really love something shiny.”
She never would tell me why, or what, she really wanted. She just said to get as much I could, and she would know it when she saw it.
So far, no good. I hadn’t found the it yet and my house was quickly disappearing beneath the mounds of not-its.
Janae came by to check on me. I was surprised. I’d begun to think I’d lost her in mini-divorce.
“Will’s worried about you,” she said, uncomfortably tucking a braid behind her ear.
“Will?” I guess I did lose her in the break up, she was here by his decree.
“Yes, Will. He thinks you’ve gone a little crazy since you guys broke up.”
“Crazy?” I bit down on my tongue, determined not to speak again until I had a real, original thought to express.
“Yes, Bree. You’re not working or dating or anything, and all you do is buy random crap from thrift stores. And you keep posting selfies of you and your grandma having tea and eating pancakes. I’m not going to lie to you, it looks nuts.”
I liked to think that Granny Keeper and I look like Kate Middleton and the Queen as we sip our tea, so I was more than a bit offended by that last remark. My mouth screwed up into a sideways knot and I rolled my eyes.
“That’s fine, you can roll your eyes at me. You never did like to listen to me. But you need to be rolling them around this house and taking a close look at what’s going on. You’re going to be buried alive in here, and Will and I are going to be kicking back, watching you on a very special episode of Hoarders.”
“I’m not hoarding. I’m looking. I’m looking for something.”
“Looking for what?”
“I’ll know it when I see it.” I waded through a pile of old quilts and tattered baskets and threw open the door. “And what do you mean ‘Will and I?’ You’re a Will-and-I now?”
Now it all made sense-every time she came over, they always stayed up giggling, “kicking back” or whatever, when I went to bed. Will said I was paranoid because I thought it was weird.
She didn’t answer me, she just grabbed her purse and started shuffling to the door.
“You can tell Will that if he doesn’t want to look at my face, then he sure doesn’t need to be looking at my Facebook. Please let him know that my mental state is just fine, and no matter how much you guys would love it, I am not pining for his company. Or yours!”
After a completely satisfying and house rattling door slam, Granny Keeper stepped into the room, gracefully navigating the debris. “That’s nice, dear. You found it,” she murmured absently, patting my arm.
“Your self-respect. I knew it was around here somewhere.”
I was at the Safe House thrift shop, hunting for things that were purple, when I met Corinne. She was hunting for things that were t-shirts. Tiny ones to be exact. Her own clothes were really nice, brand names and classy colors. She wasn’t wearing any make up, though, and warm brown roots sprouted from her very meticulous part.
She only found two tiny shirts, and I felt bad for her because she obviously wasn’t very good at this game.
“What size?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?” she said in lovely, clear tones. I’ll have to remember that. Instead of inanely repeating people, I’ll just say ‘I beg your pardon?’ Way more elegant. Like Kate Middleton.
“What size shirt are you looking for?”
I dug through a couple piles, including the ones marked swimsuits, husky girls, and men’s sweaters. I am awesome at this game, and wound up with an assortment of 3T’s in a wide array of styles and colors.
“That was amazing.” She grinned. “I’m Corinne.”
“I’m Bree. So, what are these for? Some kind of project?”
“They’re for my son,” she said, grin fading. Her face tightened into a defensive mask as she unzipped her Burberry bag, pulling out a handful of dimes and quarters. “Thank you for your help,” she said coldly and took her shirts to the register.
I watched, feeling rude and awkward, as the cashier refused her quarters and slipped a couple Dr. Seuss books and a worn teddy bear into the bag. They hugged briefly and Corinne hurried out the door.
I followed her. “Hey!” I shouted.
She stopped, turning with an impatient look on her face. “What?”
“I’m sorry if I said the wrong thing. I’m not good at talking sometimes.”
“Me, neither.” She smiled. “I’m just a little oversensitive, I suppose, my life’s changing and it takes some getting used to.” Unwelcome tears blanketed her eyes, and she blinked the blink of a woman desperate not to cry in the middle of the road. I know that blink.
“Do you wanna get some coffee with me? My treat.” Coffee usually distracts me.
When I got home, Granny Keeper was waiting for me on the sofa, surrounded by empty picture frames and throw pillows with the regality of a duchess. She cleared a patch of couch for me, and I dropped into it. With my head on her shoulder, I told her about it.
“I guess I’m lucky Will ran away. With some people it’s totally the other way around.” She listened without commenting, as I told her about Corinne, about how she came to live at Safe House, leaving her home with nothing but her toddler and a suitcase. How she was trying to build a new life from the ground up. How she had given up everything to find herself.
“I wonder what made her come to this decision,” Granny Keeper said.
“She said her counselor helped her. Corinne started seeing her because her husband said she was too moody and difficult, and that’s why he acted the way he did, but then she realized that she wasn’t the problem at all.”
“That must be lovely for the counselor,” she mused. “To be able to help other women like that.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
“So, what did you find today?” Granny Keeper asked briskly.
I stopped at the junk shop after class, so that I could find some things that were broken, when I ran into the artiste. He arched his eyebrow at me and examined my basket of cracked plates and pottery fragments.
“So, what are these for?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What’s all this for?” he asked again.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said mysteriously. At least I hope it sounded mysterious and not just lame.
“But you’re not an artist?”
“I’m a psychology major.”
“Oh, I get it, mending broken things.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” I headed over to weigh my junk. He followed.
“Can we go to dinner sometime? Or get coffee?” Instead of arching, his eyebrows drew together seriously. He looked a little nervous, which was endearing.
So I said okay, we exchanged numbers (and names!), and I told him I’d see him Saturday.
Before he left I gave him all my shattered stuff. He promised to make something pretty for me and jumped into the rusty Ford, once again blasting some Prince. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. He grabbed his chest and pointed at me like a total goober. It was really sweet.
The house was spotless when I got home. Granny Keeper was sitting at the kitchen table, knitting by the light of my laptop.
“Where is everything?” I asked.
“What did you find today, dear?” she countered.
I blushed and shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It’ll be fun to find out,” she said with a wink. I slid into the chair next to her and my eyes were drawn to the glow of the screen. Even though I’d been expecting it, Granny Keeper’s recent web search just about broke my heart.
“You’re looking at Craig’s List.” My throat tightened and I started blinking in sad Morse Code.
“Oh, dearie, you’ve found so much.” She patted my hand. “It’s time I went looking again.”
“Who?” I swallowed all the ugly jealousy and tried to be happy for her next girl.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll know her when I see her.”
Cat Videos In The Time Of Expiration Dates
By Bryce Walters
On my eighteenth birthday I received a letter from the government. It came in a plain white envelope with a black stamp in the corner. Along the bottom, in faded red ink, was the urgent message, “TIME SENSITIVE INFORMATION: OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” I signed for the letter. Receiving it was mandatory.
I wished there was somebody else in the house with me, but my siblings had already moved out and my parents were shopping for furniture to remodel my room when I left for college. The silence in the house was absolute.
I took out my phone: “It’s here,” I texted Ally.
Ally: “OMG! On my way! Did you open it?”
Me: “Not yet. Door’s unlocked.”
I walked upstairs to my bedroom slowly looking at the envelope. It felt heavy in my hands, but that was probably only in my head. I placed the letter on my desk and sat in front of it. My dim, dark reflection caught in my computer monitor watched me as I tried to ignore the envelope sitting in front of me. I wanted Ally with me, but I could only resist the temptation for a few minutes before I opened it.
I put my finger under the triangular flap and slid it across the envelope. The sound of ripping paper filled my room. Inside was a single piece of paper expertly folded into thirds. The corners aligned perfectly. I wondered if there was one person at the Bureau that spent all day folding these letters into perfect thirds. It was, after all, a very important piece of paper that deserved that level of attention to detail, because printed on this piece of paper was the exact date of my death–my expiration date.
As part of the Third Law of Humanitarianism every eighteen year old received this letter from the government. The date printed on the paper was one hundred percent accurate.
My heart pounded in my chest. “Relax,” I said to myself, “there isn’t anything to worry about.” I was in decent physical condition. There wasn’t any trace of cancer, high blood pressure, or diabetes in my family history. My grandfather had died from a heart attack, but he was eighty-three. That couldn’t be blamed on faulty equipment. Of my immediate family my father had the shortest expected lifespan at seventy-two years, while my sister had the longest at one hundred and three. Everything would be fine.
I unfolded the letter:
Dear Matthias Williams,
In accordance with the Third Act of Humanitarianism we are sending this letter to inform you of your expiration date:
May 24, 2034
The Expiration Date Bureau
I glanced up at the calendar: May 22, 2034.
Everything went dark. For a long while I stared looking at the date written on the letter. My mind, failing to rationalize the information with my reality and my plans for the future. I was left in a deaf daze. My eyes stuck to the letter, not perceiving anything. My mind no longer working.
It was only when my bedroom door burst open that I snapped out of the haze. It was Ally.
She was smiling at me, trying to catch her breath. Her makeup was done hastily, and her hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She was wearing a coat that was too warm, and she had on two different types of shoes. “Sorry,” She said noticing me look at her shoes, “I sort of rushed to get over here.” She looked at me and her broad smiled vanished.
There was concern in her voice, “Are you crying?”
Then there was fear, “Why are you crying?”
I reached up and touched my face. There were tears covering my cheeks. I wiped them off.
“Is that the letter?” she asked. Her voice cracked in her throat.
I was gripping it tightly in my left hand, the perfect tri-fold lost in a sea of creases. “Oh, yeah,” I said. I stuffed it into my pocket.
“What did it say? Aren’t you going to let me read it?” She asked.
“I-“ I started, but I couldn’t finish. When I looked at her I felt a pang of guilt and a wave of longing.
Ally was not my girlfriend. She was a girl that was a friend. The fact that I was in love with her had no bearing on our relationship. At least, none that I wanted.
We met one day in the library. She asked if she could borrow my math book. We became friends because we had the same taste in music and video games. She liked most of the same movies as me, and we had a similar sense of humor – though she refused to acknowledge the comic genius of Carrot Top.
Despite that, when I asked her out on a proper date. She turned me down, and told me the story of her Uncle Robinson.
Uncle Robinson was not her real uncle. He was a family friend that helped take care of Ally when she was growing up. He was the one that introduced her to comedians like Louis C.K. and Mitch Hedberg. He tutored her in math and babysat her when her parents went out for date night. He left an unmistakable hand print on her heart. He defined her outlook on many facets of life including Expiration Dates.
Uncle Robinson and his wife didn’t believe in reading the expiration date letters. They wanted to live everyday with the promise of tomorrow. Having a hard deadline in your future was “like driving down the freeway in a Bugatti, but you see a wall looming in front of you. You wouldn’t want to feel that engine roar under you. You wouldn’t want to have your heart pump, you’d be too scared of the end. I don’t want to see the end.” He told Ally. The cruel twist of irony occurred when his wife died in a car accident. “Had they known,” Ally told me later, “she could’ve said goodbye.”
Ally saw less of Uncle Robinson after that. He retreated into his own life and focused on raising his only son, Zed. They visited on holidays and birthdays, but around Zed’s eighteenth birthday Uncle Robinson changed. He stopped visiting. He stopped eating. He started drinking and had violent mood swings. “Something’s eating away at him.” She heard her parents say in hushed conversations late at night. Unhinged. Uncle Robinson wouldn’t tell anyone what was bothering him, but on Zed’s eighteenth birthday everyone found out.
Zed was hit by a bus. They found his Expiration Date letter clutched in his hand. That evening Ally found Uncle Robinson hanging from the ceiling, his lifeless body swinging in the dark. On the desk was a letter. Uncle Robinson’s Expiration Date letter. The date was circled over and over again until parts of the paper had worn through under the weight of the ink, the frenzy of the pen. “Zed’s 18th,” was written below it.
“He must’ve known.” Ally said, “He was smart. Or, at least he assumed the worse. What was the one thing he would take his life for? After Zed there was nothing for him. He must’ve thought of it like that.” She wiped away a few tears with her sweater sleeve. “That’s when I decided that I wouldn’t make any big life decisions until I know. I mean, what if I fell in love with you, and then I find out I was going to die when I turned twenty? What then? Would I just have to break up with you? Or would you have to waste your time waiting for me to die? I don’t think I can handle that. Do you understand? I just can’t. Not until I’m sure.”
I nodded. She smiled and kissed me on the cheek.
After that I waited. Her letter would come at the beginning of August. No time at all. That’s what I used to think. Now there was a giant Doomsday Clock at the forefront of my mind counting down until May 24th–thirty-six hours.
Ally sat down on my bed, and for a moment my life struck a familiar harmony. It was as if I had woken up from a bad dream. Ally was sitting on my bed, and I was sitting near my computer. We had spent hours in these exact positions browsing the internet. We looked at interesting websites, listened to music, occasionally studied, but mostly we watched cat videos. They were our favorite.
There was divine hilarity about a cat’s natural, cool confidence subverted by impotence and failure. Whether it be a cat squirming into a glass vase that appeared too small, a kitten hunting a red dot from a laser pointer, or a compilation video of failed cat costumes, we always filled the room with laughter. We wasted hours upon hours of our lives watching cat videos.
The thought sent a discordant note through the moment of harmony. Things were not normal. The letter in my pocket shattered the delicate illusion, and left only the dismal reality that I would die in two days. In the stillness that followed all the lost hours washed over me and left behind a question, “Did I waste my life?”
“What is it?” Ally asked. She grabbed the tip of her hair and began chewing it, “how bad is it?” She asked.
I looked out the window and tried to tell her the date on the paper, but I couldn’t. Without looking I handed her the letter.
“No,” she said a moment later, “oh, no, no, no.” She said over and over again. The paper crinkled in her hands and she cried. Each tear landed on the paper with a small plop that smudged the ink like her smeared mascara.
The broken sobs and soft shivers fractured my heart. I got up and sat on the bed next to her. I put my arm over her shoulder, and she turned to me, burying her head in my chest. She wrapped me tightly in her arms as her body shook with each gasping sob. “Why’d it have to be you of all people?” She said through breaks in her ragged breaths. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I stopped myself from crying by focusing on making her feel better. “It’s not fair.” She said over and over again.
“It’s okay,” I whispered softly into her ear trying to comfort her, but the words rang false to me. Why the hell am I comforting her? A voice in the back of my mind said as the Doomsday clock ticked down turning my sympathy into irritation and anger. I’m the one that’s going to die soon. And now I’m wasting my final hours as she soaks my shirt with her selfish tears.
I shook off the voice until it became silent, but it was still there festering under the surface like an infection behind a scab.
I hugged her tighter. She shivered in my arms, and her breath eased and slowed to normal.
After a few more minutes – twelve minutes according to the Doomsday clock – she pushed me away and sat up. Her face was a mess of smeared makeup. “Excuse me,” she said, and walked to the bathroom to clean herself up.
I sat alone in my bedroom listening to the sound of running water and her periodic, loud, slow exhales. During that time the picture of the Doomsday Clock got brighter in my mind and the memory of wasted time watching cat videos carved deep into my heart. “Did I waste my life?” That simple question transformed to reality while I waited for Ally: “I wasted my life.”
In two days I would be gone, and there would be nothing left of me. I would fade out of reality like the last remnants of a dream disappearing behind waking eyes. My own dreams, the ones I crafted late at night looking up into the darkness with hands placed behind the back of my head broke apart and shattered. I would never play the drums in a band. I would never live in China for a year. I would never create art that spoke to people on an ethereal level. I would never have a family of my own. Time would slip past me and leave me behind in the realm of yesterday.
The door opened. Ally came back in and in the quiet of my mind a primal thought to capture a hint of immortality surged forth. Procreation.
Maybe if I could have a child. Maybe if Ally would let me – I loved her she knew that. The thought crystallized in my mind despite my own shame and embarrassment. It was a terrible, horrible, selfish thought, but so was the idea that I would be dead in two days.
Ally sniffled and gave a weak smile. I got up from my bed and placed my hand on her back. She gave me a hug, and squeezed harder than ever before. I relaxed a little breathing in the scent of flowers on her hair. The smell comforted me.
She let go, sat on the bed, and looked out the window. I closed the door.
Suddenly I was alone in my bedroom with a woman I had been in love with for the past two years. Her hair was a mess, her nose was pink, and her face was raw – scrubbed clean of makeup. She never looked more beautiful to me, and the desire to be with her built within me and found the weakest outlet. If I could sleep with her and she got pregnant with my child then I could leave my mark on the world. The doomsday clock ticked down and I decided what I wanted out of the next thirty five hours and twenty three minutes.
I wanted to develop a meticulous plan to seduce Ally. I wanted to woo her, and date her. I wanted to explain how important she was to me, and how she was (literally) the love of my life. But I didn’t do any of that. Instead-
There’s a video on the Internet where a balloon is sitting in the middle of a room. After a few seconds, a Persian cat stalks into frame. It walks with the confidence of a seasoned hunter stalking its prey. It inches closer and closer to the vulnerable balloon. The cat freezes hidden partially behind a throw pillow on the ground. It lowers itself on its haunches and waits, tail flicking back and forth wildly. A second passes. Then another, and another. Then it lunges. Claws extended the cat flies through the air at the unsuspecting inflated piece of rubber. The balloon pops, and the cat, surprised at this counter attack, rockets in the opposite direction tumbling through the air as if it had jumped on a land mine. The following seconds played out in a similar fashion.
I took a few steps towards Ally, she was looking out the window, so I looked at my reflection in the mirror on my door. I ran my hands through my hair and rolled up my sleeves trying to flex my biceps a few times. I turned back around and leaned on my desk with one hand, the other hand in my pocket. I tried to look aloof. I went over what I wanted to say, and then cleared my throat.
Ally turned to look at me.
“Will you have sex with me?” I blurted out all at once.
Ally jumped off of my bed and scrambled to the far corner of my bedroom. If I hadn’t been blocking the door, I was sure she would’ve been halfway home in that instant. Instead she crossed her arms over her chest and looked down at her feet.
“What?” She asked, her voice high and frantic, “What did you just ask me? Did you really just ask me to have sex with you? After what you just showed me? How could you even think of something like that?”
“No!” I said, “I mean, no that’s not exactly what I meant. I-” I took a step towards her and she flinched. Blood rushed to my head and the room started spinning. “I didn’t mean to ask you that way. I mean I’m going to die, and it’s not even- I mean, I just want-” I stammered struggling to find the words, “You know how I feel about you.” I said
“Yeah,” she said, “and this is what I was worried about. Exactly this.”
“What?” I said. I closed my eyes willing the room to stop spinning. “What do you mean? You always said you were worried you would be the one to die early.”
“Of course I’m worried about that,” she said dropping her arms, “but, come on, once I’m dead it’s not like I’ll be able to feel too much remorse.” She gave a half-hearted chuckle, but the smile died on her lips. “What would be worse was for someone else to die, someone like you, someone that I loved.” She slapped her hand to her mouth.
“You love me?” I asked. A wave of hopeful elation washed over me, and dulled the grim reality of my Expiration Date.
She lowered her hand slowly and bit her lip. “I-I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why are you sorry? You just said you loved me, right?”
She ignored my question again, “Look, I just don’t think I can. I mean, I don’t think I can do that.”
“I don’t care about that anymore,” I said. “You just said you loved me, didn’t you? Is that how you really feel?” I wanted her to say yes more than anything. More than sex or a child. More than another hundred years of life, in that moment I wanted her to admit that she loved me.
But she didn’t.
“I can’t. Can’t we just stay the same? I want to remember you as my best friend. I mean, you get it, right?”
The temporary wave of elation receded and left behind the Doomsday clock, brighter than ever, with that little selfish angry voice. Now it was getting louder. I didn’t say anything for fear of letting it escape.
“We can still hang out, right?” she asked hopefully. “I heard about this playlist of really funny cat videos from Japan. There’s this one where the cat walks on his hind legs and the guy added these speech bubbles, like ‘herp, derp, herp, look I’m a hooman.'”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “Are you fucking serious right now?” I took a step towards her, shoving my desk chair to the side. It tipped and slammed against the hardwood floor making Ally jump. “You want me to waste the last days of my life watching cat videos with you? You know that’s how I wasted my whole goddamn life?” I turned around towards the monitor. Her faded reflection looked back at me. She seemed confused, shocked. Part of me wanted to stop, and turn around to apologize, but it was too late. I reached out and slammed the monitor hard against the desk. It shattered. Stray shards of glass hit the floor. “My whole fucking life!” I yelled, “watching cat videos with you. And for what! For some cock tease that keeps pushing me away.” I turned around, facing her again. Tears were in her eyes and she was pale now, “I loved you! And you never even gave me the time of day, because you were too fucking paranoid. Now? Now I’ll never have that, and all you can think of is fucking cat videos? Get the fuck out of my room Ally. Get the fuck out of what little life I have left.”
When my tirade ended there was emptiness. A rift opened up between Ally and me. She wasn’t crying. The tears I had seen were gone. That was the worst part. She didn’t seem angry either. She didn’t yell back. That was the second worst part. Her mouth was slightly open and her face was pale, it was like she had seen a ghost- like I had just died in front of her. To her, I ceased to exist. She didn’t say anything. She just got up, walked past me, and left.
As the door closed, I heard her let out a single heart wrenching sob. The door latched shut and all I could hear were the muffled sounds of her running down the stairs and out the front door.
Something broke inside me. It was like standing on the beach letting the ocean’s wave wash over my feet. The waves receded and pulled the sand out from under my feet making me sink. I kept sinking. I fell below the waves and the sadness swept over me. I had enough time to crawl on my bed before my legs gave out and the spasms of tears burst forth. I cried silently. I cried loudly. I wrapped myself in blankets and punched a hole in the wall. I cried until my lungs hurt and my eyes stung and my pillow was coated in tears. And then I cried for a little longer.
I tossed my pillow to the ground and flopped sideways onto the bed where Ally had sat. I took a breath and could faintly detect her aroma. It lingered like a ghost on my bed. I took a deep breath and brought the blanket closer to my face trying to get lost in that fading memory. I never knew how much something as small as her scent meant to me. With each breath it filled me and eventually granted me the peace of sleep.
I woke up when my parents got home. Time slipped by in unfocused scenes. I showed them the letter. My mom cried. My dad made himself a drink then he made me one too. My mom called out and ordered too many buffalo wings – my favorite food. We called my siblings and told them the news.
The next day the house was filled with my family for my last day.
Before I got the letter I never quite understood why it was a good thing, but that day made everything clear. It was a chance to say goodbye. Not for me, but for those I was leaving behind.
There were tears and hugs and a veil of sadness shadowed the day, but there was also happiness and laughter. One final hurrah. A living wake, of sorts.
But these things only rippled the surface. Deep down there was the Doomsday clock and there was Ally. Late in the evening on May 23rd I hugged my family members one by one and went up to my room. “I just need to be alone for a little while.” That was my last lie to them.
I snuck out.
I ran to Ally’s house. The seconds ticked away like my solitary foot falls on the asphalt in the cold night. The Doomsday clock ticking down second by second like Death was following close behind me. There was no guarantee when I would die tomorrow, so I had to make it to Ally’s house before midnight. I ran harder than ever, ignoring the stitch in my side.
I made it to her house fifteen minutes before midnight.
I climbed up to the balcony outside of her room. I always felt like Romeo when I did that. The accuracy of that comparison made me shudder. I knocked on the window. She looked at me from her desk. I thought she smiled, but it was probably only a trick of the light. The next moment she turned her back to me and focused on her computer. I knocked again, but this time she completely ignored me.
I sat with my back against the balcony railing and stared into her bedroom – her little world that I would never be a part of again. Would death be like that? Would I be looking down at her as she moved through the world like she moved through her bedroom? Would time swim and ripple past me and would she age like the world outside the the time traveler in The Time Machine? Would I see, in an instant, her loves, her losses, her triumphs, and her tragedies? Would time pass by, and eventually free her from her mortal coils so that we could be together again in a timeless infinity? Would she even remember me?
But somehow thinking those things made me feel better. They made the Doomsday clock disappear, and allowed time to pass by untracked. She left her bedroom and I waited. When she came back she was ready for bed. She was wearing a sweatshirt I had loaned her one cold winter evening. She swore she lost it. I smiled thinking back at that day, and how she pressed her body close to mine for warmth. When I looked up she was standing in front of the balcony door looking at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean any of those things. I didn’t mean to break our trust. I didn’t mean to push you away.”
She didn’t say anything for a long time. She stared at me and pursed her lips. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose. “I think everyone is allotted one emotional breakdown per lifetime. You just used yours pretty late in the game, relatively speaking.”
“It is. Come in.”
I smiled, got up, and went into her bedroom.
She sat on her bed. I sat on the ground with my back propped against her bed. “Anything you want to talk about?” She asked.
“I think I’m all talked out. You mentioned something about cat videos?”
“You mentioned something about wasting your life?”
“I was wrong.”
“I don’t think you were.”
“I was,” I said and climbed up onto the bed next to her. I lowered my arm onto her shoulder and she leaned into me. She took a deep breath and relaxed into my arms.
I stroked her arm through the sweatshirt and kissed the top of her head.
“I love you,” I said.
Without pause or hesitation she said, “I love you too.”
My heart swelled and I realized that was all I needed. She wiped her eyes with the cuff of the sweatshirt and took a slow deep breath through the sleeve.
“Matt, this is going to sound stupid, but would you mind-”
“Not at all,” I said. She took the sweatshirt off and I put it on, so it would continue to smell like me. Because that was more real. That moment was more real than my desire for any other kind of legacy. Every moment with Ally whether it be studying or shopping or watching cat videos was more real. Those were moments I was proud to be a part of, and they were in a small way my legacy. Moments and experiences that would shape Ally’s life in small ways.
I smiled at her, and we used her wireless keyboard to surf the web for cat videos. We stayed up as long as possible giggling as kitties lunged at the giant paws of a gentle Great Dane, laughing as a cat walked backwards in endless circle to escape the box on its head, cracking up at the montage of cats preparing to jump on to a shelf or a table or a wardrobe and inevitably falling. Hours passed and before long I felt her sleeping against my chest, and then I too fell asleep.
By tomorrow all that would be left of me was that lingering scent on my sweatshirt and before long that too would fade and be gone. But that was okay; it was enough.
When It Sticks
By Douglas Kolacki
It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.
At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.
Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.
Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.
That was before the whole portrait business started, though…
He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.
Still they urged him to play on.
Angels. “Portrait angels,” they’re commonly called. Not everyone wants to be one; many are understandably leery of the process. No one knows yet if it’s reversible.
Jim’s house sits on a winding, quiet lane. It has one story and three bedrooms. The kitchen adjoins the living room, a waist-high marble-topped counter separating the two. The other side of the kitchen opens onto Jim’s masterpiece, the back yard, with the play sets and the shed where the folding chairs are kept.
But something happens to the homes of angels. Jim’s house always kind of shimmers now, for he’s transformed and so has his spouse, but not the three kids–he wants them to “grow normally” first. Darrell thinks this is a laugh, considering where they live.
Several of the group have transformed. And several angels in one place trigger a kind of illusion. The house gains a second story. Darrell, unless he arrives before the others, sees it as he walks up the lane. It rises like a gable cut from ice and is dotted with oval windows of the same size, sometimes a dozen, sometimes only one, sometimes innumerable. The windows show a clear blue brightness like dawn, and the whole structure seems made of light. In fact, like all angel-houses, it reminds him of the book of Revelation, with its eternal city and temple and so on. Everyone is looking up those descriptions nowadays, as if Noah’s Ark had appeared and drawn everyone’s attention back to the original story. No one has been up there except Jim, and he says it’s “just bright.” Darrell wonders what Jim’s not telling.
The first floor gains a whole lot of space, on the inside. The walls appear far away–too far to make sense, and it always gives Darrell an uneasy sensation, that this can’t be right, it’s nowhere near that big outside–and it has the wide-open feel of the outdoors. Nonetheless everyone crowds in close on sofa and loveseat, Jim in his easy chair, Darrell and the others on the folding chairs. The walls, hardwood floor, ceiling and portraits look like glass embedded with galaxies of light, infusing the house with the brilliance of the Almighty’s own throne room.
It’s been said that the Almighty dwells in “unapproachable light.” Maybe it’s different types of light–lights of happiness, goodwill, patience and so on–combining into a mosaic of the healthiest emotions any of His well-adjusted, baggage-free creations could boast. The angels’ light calms minds, grants peace, and radiates all the good cheer of Christmas. (Darrell can’t help thinking, this is what we try to capture every December with TV ads, junk on sale, plastic decorations, and endlessly-recycled carols over mall loudspeakers.)
And the transformation, it seems, removes all the inner crap that hinders this, allowing the lucky people to–as the song goes–let their little light shine.
Darrell doesn’t want to be selfish. He’s told himself over and over that he needs the fellowship. And Jim has insisted he belongs. But how? The life celebrated all around him is not his life. He only observes it. And hears about it:
“Brother, you haven’t lived till you’ve got zero grudges against anyone…”
“I used to get into arguments all the time. Now I see all it does is get everyone angry and flustered for no reason.”
“I’d forgotten what it was like to not be mad all the time.”
“It’s like I’ve finally woken up from a bad dream.”
True, it didn’t happen that long ago–Jim first at ten weeks, Stephanie most recently at three–but one would think at some point the post-transformation bliss would end, the gushing, the giggles, the eyes that actually sparkle like the Crown Jewels under lights. But it hasn’t ended yet.
Darrell is mad all the time. He knows it. It’s like being shackled to some rabid beast, all teeth and claws, that tears and chews at him. He’s confided this to the group, and to an intern pastor at counseling sessions. Or tried; his voice tends to seize up around people. That’s part of the whole curse. After enough painful experiences, a person learns to fear people. Darrell stiffens; his mind blanks. Words come hard.
And sometimes it’s erupted out of control. His former job in a call center didn’t help. He hung up on people, once throwing down his headset, another time storming out and slamming the door as everyone stared. It got him suspended, then fired.
The spectre of his older brother invades his mind, towering and scowling and loud, to castigate his every move. Out of the inner scars grows an image of his brother like a fire-breathing monster, far more hateful than the man himself, although Darrell tends to forget this.
He’s talked with Jim about it. “One night when I was twelve or so, I was walking to recreation at school. Every Tuesday night they had basketball or battleball going on. My brother chased after me and confronted me and punched me in the nose. It bloodied my nose a bit. He went back home and I kept on going, the blood drying on my face, holding in my anger, ready to blow but never blowing. It’s always been so frustrating, the way I’d just take it! At the time it was like, it never even occurred to me to hit back or anything. It just wasn’t there. And from then on, besides the memory of someone hitting you or spitting on you or ridiculing you, you have to live knowing you let them do it. It never goes away, that shame. It kills your self-respect. And it’s happened over and over again.”
“What did they say when you got to recreation? And why did your brother hit you?”
“I don’t remember.”
Ah, yes. Those things, the harmless ones that don’t chew a man up inside–they fade, but not the painful memories. The bad memories fester, get worse over the years instead of better.
And if I transformed, it would all go into the portrait. The portrait would rot under the old clothes in my closet, all the rage and hindsight stuck to it like flies, leaving me clean, refreshed, and free of all anger.
Dear God, why won’t it happen?
It’s time to part ways with the group. Then he can at least spend his Thursday evenings in peace. Quietly too, if the neighbors spare him the thump-thump-thump of their stereo.
Tonight Darrell arrives later than usual, at six fifty-five. He’s supposed to kick off the songs right at seven, but people always take their time filing in. Even those who are angels now, tend to lag; radiating like God himself doesn’t necessarily improve a person’s punctuality.
He finds Jim, Heidi and assistant leader Tom gathered around Ted in the living room. Ted is one of four men in the group still not an angel, maybe not meant to be, but like Darrell he’s not ready to accept his lot. Something flat is propped up by his side, wrapped in a dark brown sheet. He steadies it with one hand as he talks.
“–had a good artist do it, she’s done it for other people and it’s worked for them–”
“Ted.” Jim, whose voice could calm a riot, raises a finger. It looks like a saint making the sign of blessing. “Are you certain she was telling the truth? You know about the con artists and people out to make money, who’ve never even picked up a brush–”
Those who want the transformation try all kinds of things: enclose it in a round frame, use oil paint, avoid acrylic. Never watercolors. Put Jesus in the background above you, preferably with a halo. Paint yourself surrounded by crackling lightning, or wreathed in fire. Some angels swear these will work. Others say no, that’s trying to force the issue. Get an actual artist to paint it for you, don’t try it yourself if you’re not trained. No photographs, either. The magic won’t be fooled.
“This is legit, this is legit,” Ted sputters. He wears thick glasses and if not for his mop of graying hair, he’d pass for a college kid. “I know about all that. The lady who did this is registered with the Better Business Bureau. She’s done six paintings and five of them worked. I know, I checked it out. And I think–I really have a good feeling about this, and I want everyone here when I uncover it.”
Darrell is sitting on his chair by now–he usually helps bring the chairs in, but someone else did it this time, probably John–tuning the guitar that Jim keeps in a closet so he doesn’t have to lug it from his apartment to his job to here. Darrell stops twanging strings and listens to Ted. Darrell has a bad feeling about this.
Jim’s transformation, and the transformations of others, leads people to believe this is as quick and easy as Christ’s miracles picking back up where they left off. If Christ hasn’t returned yet, at least his miracles have. But there’s something about Ted. He’s always jumpy, as if pumped on amphetamines. When the group’s old leader decided to move to Hawaii as a missionary, Ted alone raised a stink of objections and refused to attend the sendoff party.
“He can’t just run off and leave us–!”
Ted would also claim he’d overheard some remark of yours, always a hurtful remark. You called this woman fat. You called that man a nut. You never said anything of the kind, you don’t gossip in any case and you tell him so. But he insists that yes you did, and never budges.
Darrell gets up. He leaves the room as the others talk on, heading for the bathroom, as he often does during the prayer session that closes out the meetings. Everyone takes long turns praying aloud, some even two or three long turns, and Darrell’s bladder pangs well before the final amen.
There’s a second door in the bathroom, between the sink and the tub, about three feet high. Doesn’t it lead up to the attic? The house’s magic-illusion second story comes to mind.
Ted’s voice grows louder out in the living room.
Darrell tries the handle. It’s unlocked. He opens the door and sees wooden stairs going up. He climbs them to a hatch in the ceiling, also unlocked, opening with a creak. It’s just large enough for his shoulders; he wriggles through with care. Ted’s muffled voice still chatters below. Ted seems to be the only one talking now, excitedly as ever.
The attic is mostly bare. It’s not like the attics in stories, labyrinths packed full of antiques and furniture. It is dusty, none of the attention to cleanliness Heidi pays the ground floor. The temperature drops several degrees, cool like a cave. No windows, but a string dangles down, and Darrell pulls it to click on a bare bulb. He’s disappointed: no glow of heaven, and no oval windows that perhaps, from inside, show you paradise itself. And no sparkling stairs spiraling up any further. There’s only an old desk chair, tilting at an angle like it’s broken its neck, three campaign posters on the floor, and five cardboard boxes of old newspapers. That’s it, aside from a year’s worth of dust caking everything. Darrell’s footsteps stir it up and it tickles his nose.
Why did Jim even bother transforming? Nothing from his past was eating him. No bullying, no abuse, at least that he’s ever related. Everyone must have taken some hits growing up, carry some scars.
Darrell’s memories always surface by themselves, no trigger or reminder needed. He tries mightily not to dwell on them. Then one day he realized he’s been “trying mightily” for an awfully long time now. They creep out of nowhere, magnify in his mind and inflame it, and before he knows it he’s worked himself into a fury. At home, at his job or just out walking, puffing, face red, teeth clenched. He thinks of all the sunny hikes ruined by memories of old humiliations.
He decides to check out the newspapers. He never reads the paper; he has enough to cope with without the daily bad news slapping him in the face. How old are they?
The one on top is dated ten months ago. It’s marked up. Darrell bends down, squints to see, picks it up, brushing off dust.
It’s something from Section B, a letter to the editor, like the ones Jim used to write. This one is not from Jim, but a Reverend someone or other. Underneath the heading WHY GOVERNMENT CAN’T SAVE US runs a lengthy, detailed epistle explaining point by point why Christians should stay out of politics. Jim marked it up with a vengeance, scribbling rebuttals here and there in pencil. “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation”–Proverbs 28:12. “Triumph” means a hard-fought battle!
The paper beneath it has one of Jim’s own letters. It’s only two short paragraphs and carries no heading. Darrell doesn’t read it.
The one below that is from more than a year ago. It shows the White House with a moving van parked out in front, the last president leaving office. Big letters scrawled across the top: YIPPEEEEEEE
–and beneath that lies the rest of the stack, paper after paper from day after day, articles about said president and all his outrages: the anti-family bills–yes, Jim brought those up in meetings, urging everyone to get on the phone to their Congressmen–the vetoes of other, pro-family bills, and so on, and so on. Jim marked these up too, rebuttals to various presidential remarks, furious critiques tearing apart his speeches.
Darrell holds the dusty paper. He’s not sure, but he thinks it’s heating up. Will it catch fire in his hands? There’s no way to tell nowadays.
His eyes fall on another comment, by a header about some new bill considered by Congress:
This means they’re coming after our kids
He drops the paper. It thumps on the floor with a puff of dust. It tickles Darrell’s nose again, and he can’t help blasting out a sneeze.
Jim–the old Jim–descended from the Greeks, with chiseled features and a crown of black hair, the kind of stout breed that doesn’t grow fat or bald. He was comfortably nestled in his thirties when everything changed. To hear him talk about his life…well, Darrell never actually asked him about hardships or general unpleasantness, but one got the idea no asking was needed. The moment you first see Jim, you know he graduated from college and lives in a nice suburban house, not a mere apartment. You also know there’s a gold ring on his finger (unlike yours). He has a manicured green backyard that he fixed up from scratch, clearing it out and planting grass and populating it with a swing set and playhouse for his three tots. He’s married to a charming lady and works at an important job, a job Darrell’s not too clear on except that it involves city planning.
But now something else about Jim comes to mind.
It’s from the old days–the pre-portrait, pre-angel says. One of Jim’s letters made it into USA Today, and he proudly presented it to the group, reading it aloud from his easy chair. “‘We are not giving up the fight for family. We violently oppose–‘”
Hold on. Violently? Jim wasn’t that type. The word made him sound like a terrorist. But he pronounced it, and everyone listened, and neither Darrell nor anyone else called him out. Now Darrell can only wonder why.
Then there are were the kids. Other people’s kids always seemed to end up in tears, somehow, when playing with Jim’s. Darrell even saw a four-year-old boy sobbing in Heidi’s arms. Heidi asked him patiently if her and Jim’s son, also four, had been mean to him.
Maybe Darrell should have realized it. Jim, who had everything going for him: strong, smart, raised by two healthy parents in an upscale neighborhood, spared monsters like alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce and dysfunction–he seemed to have breezed through life in a Norman Rockwell parallel dimension, all dances and apple pie, ascending to a triumphant adulthood.
But at some point Jim had to realize this world wasn’t that pretty. A self-described “information junkie,” he devoured everything that channeled the news–CNN, Fox, USA Today, Time and Newsweek. And they brought him reality, slamming, clubbing and bludgeoning it home in all its high-definition glory.
And Jim had his three children…who would have to grow up and live in that world.
Darrell lets out a snort. An instant later he regrets it. Musn’t be mean himself. But he envies Jim. Why deny it? Hasn’t everyone always envied Jim? So favored in life, yet he forgot this in all his news-fueled anxiety, the urgency of getting the right candidates elected and the right laws passed to create a safe world for his offspring. When this proved difficult–no, impossible–he seethed. He worked, canvassed, wrote the editor and called his Congressman, supported his candidates to the hilt. And yet so often elections did not go his way, and the wrong laws got passed. Things he wanted abolished remained, and the things he wanted instituted didn’t happen. Each day brought his children closer to adulthood, and still society refused to cooperate. He could not seem to understand this. It exasperated him to no end.
And it tainted his enjoyment of all that life had lavished upon him. He went through the motions at his city planner job, not counting his blessings that he could afford such things as a home in a nice area and provide for his family, because he was too busy seething at the president. He went home to his wife, but didn’t feel her peck on his lips or smell her perfume because another anti-family bill loomed and had to be stopped. He stomped through every day tight-lipped, fists clenched, perhaps gaining relief every so often when the bill failed to pass or his candidate won. But the next election always lay up ahead.
Now Darrell tries to recall Jim’s last admonishment. Stay up on events. Here’s the church paper, it tells you who to vote for. This is important! Protect our kids! But, no…not since his transformation.
Jim’s portrait must be somewhere in this room. It’s nowhere downstairs. And whether it hangs on a far wall, or even lies under the planks like Poe’s telltale heart, it no doubt mutters things like, “We violently oppose…” “triumph means a hard-fought battle…” “our kids, our kids, our kids…” Over and over, spit out, snarled out, unceasing.
Darrell would not want to see Jim’s portrait.
A noise sounds downstairs. Ted’s voice had faded away, but now everyone’s crying out. “Ahhhhh!” Even now the angel voices stand out, patient expressions of awe.
Darrell hurries down from the attic. By the time he reaches the living room, everyone is on their feet and Ted is nowhere in sight. Jim and the others are standing over Ted’s portrait, which lies flat on the floor.
Darrell moves in for a look. The painting is face up. He puts a hand to his mouth.
He’s never actually seen one of these post-transformation residues before. Now he knows he never wants to see another. It’s as if someone spent a long time calculating where to splotch black and red bile, puke, and sludge to bring out the worst in Ted’s countenance, past aging, past mutation.
But where’s Ted?
Any moment he’ll come gliding in, radiating the now-familiar glow with its unshakeable sense of peace. Darrell waits with the others, facing away from the picture, for a minute. Two minutes.
It’s Jim who in his angelic wisdom guesses it. “His entire self got fused to the canvas.”
Ted’s portrait begins to talk. It’s his voice–Darrell well knows his voice. Its mouth does not move, nor anything else. From what Darrell can make out, Ted’s not even aware of what happened. Maybe his mind is still catching up.
“Joe? Hey, Joe. You laughed at Heidi last Sunday during the service. I was sitting right behind you, I heard it. You told everyone sitting around you she’s just the parrot Jim keeps on his shoulder–”
Joe’s mouth falls open. He’s roly-poly and the loudest talker in the group, often breaking into spontaneous prayers. His eyes widen beneath his ballcap. “No, no!”
Both Jim and Heidi must hear it as well, but neither react. Everyone’s standing back from the portrait, as if it’s radioactive. Jim stoops down, picks it up, and carries it into the bathroom. And up those stairs, no doubt. Five minutes later he reappears. Did he notice the paper Darrell dropped in the attic?
But Jim! Shouldn’t we call someone? His wife at home? His relatives, 911, someone? We can’t just…
“I’ll let Margie know.” Jim glides past Darrell, back to his easy chair.
Everyone resumes their seats and seventeen pairs of shining eyes, along with two pairs of ordinary eyes, fix upon Darrell and his boxy guitar. They always shudder him, those eyes, and when he starts the music their voices swell his heart and shudder him again. The sensation seizes his entire body, down his arms to his hands, disrupting his strumming. It’s a hurdle he’s gotten into the habit of dealing with every week, under this new scheme of things.
But tonight he only grips the guitar like it’s a security blanket, and it occurs to him that if he springs the news now and it sets off the expected commotion, maybe everyone will forget about the songs. So he says, “Everyone? Got an announcement.”
He clears his throat. He clears it again. His left hand clamps the guitar neck tighter, till his knuckles whiten. He sees this and suddenly feels stupid.
Damn it all to hell! His forces the words out. “I won’t be coming here anymore. It’s my last night.”
He braces himself for the onslaught of objections and cries of dismay. They come.
“We need you!”
Jim launches into a speech peppered with buzzwords. He almost sounds like his old self. “Darrell, this is your ministry. You’ve been given a gift for music, to serve the body–”
Darrell bristles. Three months ago he received a letter from Jim. Ordinary ruled notebook paper, flawless handwriting surpassing all calligraphy. He wasn’t sure, but he thought the paper shimmered. He even turned out the lights to check this.
Darrell, I want you to be comfortable, etc. I’m sorry, but freedom from bitterness is a wonderful thing, etc. We have to talk about it and share it, etc. This is your home, and you do belong, etc. etc. etc.
Now the familiar hackles rise. Darrell doesn’t feel like he belongs, he feels like a have-not among haves. Like Tantalus, starving in the midst of other people’s plenty. But he welcomes the anger this time, because it has a way of overriding nerves.
“Just listen, okay?” He pushes this out as loud as can without raising his voice. He knows from experience, though, that it won’t do much good. Everyone is still talking and they’re not yet finished, though they seem to say the same thing over and over.
“It’s just not good,” he cries above the commotion, “for me to be here.”
Finally everyone falls silent. The shining eyes, like gentle suns, gaze at him. He shudders, suddenly warm in winter.
Darrell gropes for words. Why is he the only one who ever seems at a loss for words? “It’s just not…it’s not happening for me.”
“It doesn’t happen for everyone, Darrell.” Stephanie, the mechanic’s wife. Now she and her hubby look like they maintain celestial chariots for Elijah, Apollo and Helios. “Look at John. Look at Joe.”
John and Joe, yes, same as before, as out of place as himself in this suburban residence turned temple. Like mud splats on the White House floor. Both sit in the adjoining kitchen on folding chairs, Joe squat and fortyish, John lanky and freckled and bearded. They breeze through the meetings, week in, week out, as if nothing’s changed.
John throws out the inevitable answer. “We’re called to be content the way we are.”
Then why did you all change? Why didn’t you tell Ted that?
But this answer doesn’t come to Darrell’s mind. Not now. Afterward, as always, it will come, when this discussion is ancient history. All he can manage now is, “I don’t want to live this way. And I don’t think I’m supposed to, okay? I really don’t.”
He sucks in a breath. Is that enough? Pretty much, he guesses. So he turns his attention to his exit. He walks across the living room, he wants to shut his eyes, but you can still see the angels’ radiance and all that’s holy about them because after all, you sense it in your soul and that triggers your visual cortex to register the glow. There’s no way to know how much is their actual appearance and how much is in the eye of the beholder.
Once Darrell puts one foot in front of the other, it’s surprisingly easy. He really only has to go a few steps, after all. He feels all those gentle sun-eyes on him, and he’s seized by a sudden urge to turn around, disavow everything, this is the best group he’s ever known, he swears his allegiance forever. But he bites his lip and wills his feet to keep stepping. Here’s the door.
It’s already propped open; the night is warm for March. Only the grated security door is closed. He opens it, steps through. Now let it shut–it’s spring-loaded, clangs itself closed. Good.
Then, before anyone can follow him, he breaks into a run.
He thinks he hears someone calling out, offering him a ride. He ignores it. He runs, puffing for breath, yes, pound my feet and maybe that’ll pound out some of the anger, and when I get home I’ll be so worn out I’ll go right to sleep. Yes.
I can get on with my life now.
Alone Among the Many
By John S. Aissis
The smell of cows always makes me nauseous. Not as much as when I first found out my mother had fallen in love with a woman, nor as bad as when our nosy neighbors thought they were living next to the bastard son of a Korean whore. No, that odor reminds me of the creatures and what happened to our heifer, and that alone is enough to make me sick.
We bought the calf from a farm ninety miles from our home, where we lived in an abandoned town in Huginn, Maine. We moved here after the incident in Portland. Abby said we would be safe in the old farmhouse, even though no one had lived there since Abby and her family were the last to leave in the 1940s, twenty years before. She would have been right if we could have just stayed there, but every now and again we had to walk the ten miles, past the trees with the odd carvings, to our truck and drive to Ashland to buy supplies. Buying a cow was my mother’s idea; a way to have a year round supply of milk without leaving the safety of Huginn.
We found an ad in the Yankee Trader and used a payphone in Ashland to call about the heifer. The calf was still available, but that call turned out to be our first mistake. By the time we arrived, the farmer was waiting, watching the rusting remains of Abby’s white truck drive towards his barn. His eyes followed from one end of the frame to the other, as if he was trying to decide whether he would trust his calf in such a beat-up old hulk. He pointed to the homemade wood cab resting on top of the cargo bed.
“You going to put her in there?” he asked me, ignoring Abby. If she was insulted by the slight, she didn’t let it show.
“That’s right,” said Abby. “Roger will hold him steady while I drive.”
“I hope your son is strong enough to keep her still. She may seem small, but she can kick hard enough to knock that wooden frame right off the back of your truck.”
“I’m not her son,” I said, blaming Abby for the farmer’s confusion. It wasn’t her fault, but it was always easier to hate her when people thought she was my mother.
“We drove a long way for that heifer and I don’t intend to leave without her,” said Abby.
“All right now, young lady,” said the farmer. “I didn’t mean any offense. I’m used to selling my stock to men with trailers meant for this kind of hauling.”
“I would have sent my husband, but he died in Korea.”
The farmer’s grin turned downward and I could tell he finally realized who we were. I thought he would refuse to sell the heifer to us, but I guess business comes before religion. “Well, I suppose if a woman wants to farm nowadays, then she should farm,” he said. “Tell you what, I can let you haul with my GMC. ‘66, steel construction with an I-6 engine. Suspension so smooth the boy and the heifer will sleep the whole way back.” He pointed to the blue truck.
His truck was nicer than ours. It was brand new and looked jumped right out of last month’s Digest.
“And how much are you charging for that?” Abby asked.
The farmer’s grin returned. “Oh, just an extra thirty-five.”
Abby scoffed. “My truck will do just fine.”
The farmer rubbed at his neck, but he gave us no more problems.
Before long, the calf was lying on a bed of hay next to me in the back of our old truck. Abby accelerated slowly onto the two lane road toward home—or at least the place Abby and my mother considered home. The first part of the journey would be the easiest; fifty miles of paved blacktop to Ashland. From there, it would get harder; twenty miles of uneven dirt roads and then we had to walk the calf the final ten miles to Huginn.
“Will we be able to get home before dark?” I called from the back of the truck bed, stroking the heifer to keep her calm. “You know how mom gets nervous.”
“Yes, Adeunim,” said Abby. The word was enough to raise the ire I had hoped for earlier. My mother taught me enough Korean to know it was a term of endearment for a stepchild. I was sure that despite their relationship, I was not Abby’s stepson.
Abby met my mother at a bereavement group outside of Boston a decade earlier. Abby had been attending for years, showing up a few days after her husband Arthur’s body was returned from Korea, sealed in a box and left that way at the military’s strong recommendation. The women in the group were either young Korean War widows or older World War II widows that never remarried. Their reaction when a Korean woman opened the door of the Dorchester Congregational church social room was a palpable hostility. It didn’t matter that her husband was an American or that he had died fighting the enemies of the United States. Instead, they saw only Mi-La’s features, pink-smooth skin, silky black hair and rounded eyes that looked like the heathens that killed their husbands. She ran from the room with Abby following her. Abby never went back to that group for consolation again. She found solace with my mother and whatever peace we had in this country evaporated as their love grew.
I tasted bile, groaned, and fought it down. The heifer was well-behaved and I didn’t want to barf on her. She couldn’t help her awful smell.
“Roger?” Abby noticed my discomfort. “Hang in there.”
I swallowed, said I was okay and changed the subject. “Do you think we’ll actually be able to stay here this time?”
“I’m hoping there are enough legends about Huginn to prevent anyone from bothering us.”
What legends? I thought as the urge to puke overwhelmed me.
“Damn,” said Abby. She braked quickly and we came to a stop at a metal barrier blocking a path running perpendicular to the logging road.
The calf remained still and I leapt over the side of the truck as if I were the confined animal, leaning over to grab my knees and sucking in the cool fall air, trying to force the nausea to pass. I knew we’d reached the end of the dirt road and would have to walk it, but it wasn’t until I felt less sick that I saw why Abby had slammed on the brakes.
The overgrown trail led to Huginn, with its thirty empty, rotting buildings and one repaired farmhouse. Next to the barrier sat an unfamiliar green pickup truck. A tall, muscular woman with short cropped hair was standing next to the truck smoking.
Abby came around to the back to meet me. “It’s okay, Adeunim.” She rubbed my back the same way I stroked the calf. I wondered if there was sincerity there or she was just trying to calm me, to keep peace in the family and hold my mother’s approval.
“Isn’t that sweet?” said the woman, dropping her half-smoked cigarette on the ground. “Aren’t you even going to say hello, Abby?”
Abby ignored the woman behind the cloud of smoke, lowered the rear door, and pulled on the rope until the calf jumped out of the pickup.
“Who’s that?” I whispered.
“Our mayor.” She handed the rope to me. “You walk her. My job is to protect us from danger.” Abby glanced at the woman, who had by now approached us.
“From bears?” I asked , and wondered what the mayor of Ashland wanted with us.
“Not just bears,” replied the woman. “There’s worse things in those woods. Haven’t you seen the trees?” she said, pointing to a maple just off the road. I didn’t need to look to know what she was referring to: the oval shape with two offset dots were carved all over the trees along the path and surrounding our house. They reminded me of an eye, but with two pupils instead of one. I had asked Abby about them once and she said they were probably an old Indian carving to mark territory.
Abby couldn’t ignore the mayor’s last remark. “Oh, shut up, Martha. We just want to be left alone. We don’t need you harassing us.”
“I was your friend once,” said the mayor, pointing a finger in the direction of the path. “That old farm house you’re living in used to be my home, before–”
“Don’t say it, Martha. My family isn’t like the others that lived there–”
“You’re family isn’t like any family who’s ever lived in Maine,” said Martha. Abby looked like she was about to scream at the mayor, but before she could, the mayor raised her hands in surrender. “Look, Abby. I’m not here to threaten you. I don’t believe in this thing you have with the gook.”
“Don’t call my mother that name!” I yelled.
“I’m trying to help both of you. Some of my constituents are coming to convince you to leave our county. There’s a preacher that used to live in Huginn with us. He’s got these boys thinking your presence in our community will damn them all to hell.” The mayor looked scared and that was enough to frighten me. “Maybe that thing staring at them will scare them enough to stay away,” said the mayor, pointing to the carved tree again.
Abby didn’t thank Martha, but her nod was more appreciation than she ever showed to the world outside our little family. We left the mayor alone, another cigarette in her mouth, waiting for her constituents to arrive to exact God’s retribution on our family.
The ten mile walk was tiring in the best of circumstances. We were usually loaded up with supplies and it would take three and a half hours to trek the former wagon path to Huginn. With the heifer, we could be walking for double that time. It was already three in the afternoon and it being early September, we would lose the sun by six.
We started slowly. We would go a few steps and then the calf would lose interest and lower her head towards the remains of the old wagon trail to find something to eat. I would yell a bit and pull on the rope and finally, the heifer would give in. Then it would start all over again.
The noises from the woods came almost immediately, high up near the tree tops. I was trying to put on a brave face, but when Abby rested her hand on her holster, the fear that the posse from Ashland was stalking us set in. To calm down, I tried to distract Abby, and myself.
“You were married before…to a man,” I said. I meant it to be a question, but it sounded more like an accusation.
Abby answered right away, not even ashamed. “Yes, once. Both your mother and I were married. My husband Arthur died in Korea in 1953. Your father, Roger, died in 1954.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I replied, pulling the calf a little too aggressively.
“I know what you meant, Roger. I was wondering when you would ask me about my past.”
“You dragged me out into the middle of nowhere. I have no one else to talk to.”
Abby seemed satisfied with my response. “I grew up on a farm and was expected to marry. I knew I was different, but there was really no choice. I knew Arty since first grade and he was always the nicest person in class; everybody said he was a catch so I went along with it and married him. He was a very good man and deserved better than me.
“When he was killed, I mourned him, but it was the loss of my best friend, not the love of my life. We had no children and so I was alone.”
“What about my mother?”
Abby raised her hand for me to be quiet. There was a noise in the woods, to the left of the road. Abby unholstered the gun. I pulled the heifer towards me, suddenly feeling too far away from Abby for comfort. A branch cracked a little further up the path, but it sounded as if it was high in a tree, not on the ground.
“Must have been a bird,” I said. Abby looked surprised and then chuckled, but it was not a relaxed, easy laugh. It grated on me like fingernails on a chalkboard. The woods, silent for the moment, released us and Abby answered my question. “I don’t know much about how your father and mother met in Korea. The important part is that your mother was pregnant with you and your father married her. She said he was a nice man, but really, they were both just victims of circumstance. Mi-La said that as he lay dying, he made his buddies promise to get her to the United States. They made good on that promise but unfortunately, your father’s family weren’t as kind and the two of you were left to fend for yourselves.”
There were more noises from the woods but Abby refused to let us slow down. Before long, shadows stretched along the forest floor as the sun dropped behind the trees.
“So you fell in love with my mother but you got stuck with me, too?”
Abby stopped and stared at me. “Is that what you’ve been thinking? The truth, which you probably don’t want to hear, is that I fell in love with both of you, Adeunim.”
Another branch snapped, this time even closer to us but it was on the ground. Abby swung the gun downward. “Whatever is out there is big enough to break a limb pretty high above the ground. It can’t be a bear. Maybe a mountain lion.”
“We’re not carrying a lot of food.”
Abby stared at the heifer. I suddenly realized we were traveling with one hundred pounds of walking veal. In the faltering light of dusk, a tree not far from the road creaked loudly, bending as if a gust of autumn wind had struck it. “There’s something out there, Abby.”
“I know. I actually wish it was those nutcases from Ashland. I know how to deal with that kind of evil.” She turned away from the forest. “We need to protect ourselves and our investment.”
I suddenly didn’t give a damn about the calf. I wanted to leave it to its fate and make a beeline to the homestead. But when Abby dropped her pack from her shoulders, I knew we were staying the night.
“Tie the heifer with a short lead. I don’t want her anywhere near the forest. Then gather up some wood so I can make a fire.”
At the edge of the road, I gathered dead branches under the watchful sign of another carving of the two-pupiled eye; whatever its purpose, the ancient sign scared me. I piled the wood in the center of the trail and started a fire while Abby patrolled the perimeter like a sentry. Finally, when she seemed satisfied we were alone, we sat down and ate our packets of dried fruit. I began thinking of questions I’ve wanted answered for the past two years but to my surprise, Abby had some questions of her own.
“Why do you hate me so much?”
I pretended to be in the middle of a bite to give myself some time to think.
“Don’t sugar-coat it, Roger. You’ve made me cry like a baby and no one, not even my tough old man, could do that to me.”
She wants the truth,I’ll give it to her, I thought. “I figured you’d have rather left me in Portland and taken mom to Huginn alone.”
“Is that what you think? That we came here to save ourselves? I told Mi-La you didn’t understand.”
“The world is a terrible place,” said Abby, shaking her head. “Your mother and I could have hid anywhere and pretended to be friends and no one would have been the wiser. But you, Adeunim, you can’t hide your face. I chose this place to save you, not us.”
I felt what little strength I had drain from me in a long hiss of air. I had enough of questions, especially when the answers were so different from the story I had created in my mind to justify my hatred of Abby. She must have sensed my confusion, leaving me alone with my thoughts for the next hour as darkness crept over the trail.
I heard something moving in the woods just outside the firelight. It wasn’t the cracking of branches, as we’d heard earlier. This sounded more like a squirrel, creeping slowly over fallen leaves, except the crunch went on too long as if it were heavy. I strained to see into the dark forest, but there was nothing except shadows of trees from the firelight. Abby leaned forward and grabbed a branch that was perched halfway in the fire. She lifted it over her head and tossed it, tumbling end over end into the woods. It flew between two giant maple trees and dropped onto the leaf-covered ground. Moving shadows leapt into the air, orbiting the ground as the light settled for a moment, long enough to see trees, grass, moths…and something else: two squat legs and feathers.
“Oh, God,” said Abby jumping to her feet, the gun immediately in her hands.
There was a sound of moving air and then the creature was gone. It appeared a moment later against the open sky above the trail. I could only see its outline in the dim light of the crescent moon, but its wingspan must have been at least ten feet. It was close enough for us to feel the vortex of air created by its wings as it passed by. A second later, it disappeared on the other side of the trail.
“Was that an eagle?” I asked, realizing it was far too big to be any bird native to Maine.
There was more noise to the right hand side of the road. Abby still had the gun aimed in that direction but her hand was shaking too much to aim. “Stay behind me, Adeunim.”
“You’re not going in the woods, are you?”
“You’re worried now? Maybe it will kill me and you can be rid of me once and for all.”
I had never heard Abby bitter and I didn’t like it. The calf was on its feet, pulling hard on the rope. I made sure the pole was secure and joined Abby. “Maybe it’s not really as big as it seems.”
Abby issued that chuckle again and I felt sick to my stomach. It was probably better that I didn’t know what she was thinking. I just wanted to get home, even if home meant an abandoned town with my mom and her lover. “Should we leave? You know, keep moving?”
“I don’t think we should leave the safety of the fire on the chance we can walk another five miles in the dark, dragging the heifer all the way.” She paused a moment staring out at the dark forest. “Lay down. I’ll take the first watch.”
“I can’t sleep. Not with that thing watching us. And besides the bird, those people from Ashland might be out there.”
“Relax, I’m watching the woods.”
“What if it comes from above?”
Abby looked up and realized she had not taken the third dimension into account. I laid down next to the fire, staring straight up. “I’ll watch the sky,” I said.
“Thank you, Adeunim.”
I lay quietly and with time to think, I remembered Abby’s conversation with the mayor. “Your friend Martha said something about there being things in the woods worse than bears. And you mentioned myths that would scare people away.”
Abby purposefully looked towards the woods, but didn’t say anything.
“You knew about that thing, didn’t you?” I said, trying my best not to sound accusatory.
“They were just stories our parents told us.”
“Before we moved here when I was a little girl, we stayed in Ashland for a few weeks. The locals told us the families who settled Huginn in the late 1800s built it to be closer to good logging grounds. They lasted twenty years and then moved away.”
“Why did they leave?”
“I guess they ran out of trees.”
I could tell Abby was lying, or at least not telling the entire truth. Finally, after several minutes of silence, Abby whispered the answer. “They left after the settlers saw giant birds in the woods surrounding Huginn. And…some of the adults in our community thought they saw them too.”
The story would have been funny if I had not just seen the embodiment of the monster flying over our campfire.
“Is that why your family left?”
“No. We were forced to vacate the land by the federal government.”
The noises in the woods stopped and the heifer finally laid down, allowing Abby to relax and lower the gun.
“So that’s why you thought I’d be safe here. The local hicks from Ashland would be too afraid of a giant bird…”
“The myth of a bird,” said Abby.
“That didn’t look like myth!”
Abby’s lower lip quivered and fear was in her eyes as she looked about the treetops. I pulled myself upright, scared that I was about to lose my protector, but Abby quickly pulled herself together. “Let’s use your plan. You watch the sky and I’ll watch the woods.”
As I laid next to the fire, staring at the stars, I struggled to stay awake. In the hinterland of exhaustion and stress, the sky above and the forest around me coalesced in my mind. As I began to drift, I remembered a lesson from my school days in Portland and understood that the two were related in a way that was important to me and Abby. But before I could tell her, sleep took me and I lost the revelation.
In the end, my memories didn’t matter, the fact that we had a plan didn’t matter; we weren’t warriors or even hunters. It, on the other hand, was both.
I sat up to find the sun shining through tree trunks and Abby, sitting cross-legged, with her eyes closed.
Her eyelids flipped open, her pupils shrinking to hold the light at bay. She blinked a couple of times to shake off the ghosts of sleep and jumped to her feet. The heifer was standing near us, calmly munching the dying grass at the side of the trail.
“It didn’t come after us,” I said.
“Then we’re just plain lucky,” said Abby. She reached for her holster but came away with nothing. “Give me the gun.”
“I didn’t take it.”
Abby felt her jacket for the heavy metal object. When she didn’t find it, she began searching the ground. I joined her, crawling on the grass and weeds.
“It has to be here,” said Abby, checking her jacket again. I began exploring further away from the fire, hoping Abby had dropped the gun while pacing.
“Abby.” I pointed to a spot on the ground. Embedded in the soft dirt were two shallow footprints. Each one had four digits and were pointed at the tips. Even more frightening was that each foot was more than eighteen inches from back to front.
Abby kneeled in front of the imprint and again, let loose her grating laugh.
“You still think it’s folklore?”
“We need that gun,” said Abby.
“It took it, Abby,” I said.
“Let’s just get home. We’ve only got five more miles and your rifle is there.”
Abby agreed although she didn’t seem any less nervous. We picked ourselves off of the ground and started down the path towards home, pulling the heifer behind us. Another ten minutes of slow walking gave me the opportunity to think on our predicament.
“Why would it take the gun?” I asked.
“There is no ‘it.’ I dropped the gun when I fell asleep.”
“We would have found the gun if you just dropped it.”
“What are you suggesting, Adeunim?”
“Maybe it’s…” I started, but I couldn’t say it aloud.
Abby picked up a large birch branch that had fallen in the middle of the path. She hefted it in each hand, but instead of throwing it aside, she held onto it. “My father had a saying on the farm that he drove into his children: ‘The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.’ We saw a large bird, probably an eagle or vulture hawk. The footprint was probably from a bird that walked there when the ground was wet and made a big impression in the mud. The stories are just myths; we let our minds do the rest.”
I could have argued more, but the truth was, I wanted to believe her so I kept quiet.
Abby laughed as we walked.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re worried about a giant bird when there are great big black bears and a group of religious nuts after us, and we have no gun.”
I hadn’t thought of that. “What if a bear attacks?”
“Make a lot of noise and hope it goes away.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
Abby was quiet a moment, thinking. “We’ll have to let the calf go.”
“It’ll run and…”
She couldn’t say the rest so I did. “And the bear will follow and tear our heifer to pieces.
Abby nodded. “I’ll stay between you and the bear and you high-tail it back home.”
Would Abby really sacrifice herself for me? It was so much easier to hate her when I assumed the move to Huginn was for her and my mother.
Another hour passed of dragging the calf and we came to a stream that crossed the road. “Can we stop for a minute to rest? I want to wash my face.”
I handed the rope to Abby and knelt over the cold mountain water, splashing it onto my face.
“Did you and your husband want kids?”
If Abby was surprised, she didn’t show it. “Yes. I thought that when he left the army, we would buy a farm and have a bunch of kids.”
“I guess your life didn’t turn out the way you expected?”
“Nobody’s does, Adeunim. I did expect a traditional life, but the moment I set eyes on your mother, I knew that was no longer an option for me. My mistake was thinking I could somehow incorporate the two of you into a typical American life. I was, at best, naïve.”
“Was it worth it?” I asked. “I mean you lost everything: family, friends, home, even the ability to live around people.”
“I have the two of you and that’s plenty for me.”
I bent down to wet my face again. A shadow blocked the sun as I leaned over the stream. “What…”
I turned to face Abby but she was looking past me, toward the side of the trail. Perched halfway up a tall maple tree on one of its thicker branches was the bird, if that’s what it was, staring down at us. This time, Abby couldn’t deny its existence. The creature was tall, at least seven feet, with white translucent feathers and wings that seemed to stretch twenty feet. It’s really more of a dinosaur than a bird, I thought.
The heifer had also seen the creature and was pulling hard to tear the rope out of my hands.
“Let the calf go,” said Abby.
I didn’t move. Abby slapped my wrist and I dropped the rope. The calf had spent the last twenty-four hours struggling to free itself. Finally loose, it gave one last pull and just stood there, shocked that it could move at will. It took two tentative steps back, then bolted into the woods. The creature launched itself in the direction of the running animal, just as Abby predicted.
“We worked so hard to get it this far,” I said as Abby pulled me along.
“Forget the calf. I don’t want to lose you”
We ran as fast as we could, each of us silent but finely attuned to any movement in the woods. We reached the bottom of a hill that I recognized and I knew Huginn was on the other side.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” asked Abby, refusing to break stride to talk.
“Treating you like…an enemy”
Abby smiled at me as we pushed ourselves up the steep slope. At the top, Huginn laid before us, just as I expected, but there was someone else there as well. Standing in our way was a man I had never seen before, dressed in hunting garb under a big mop of red hair. He didn’t seem very big, but the pistol in his hand did. From the edge of the path, two more men sprang from the trees and grabbed my arms.
“Big Red?” said Abby. “Guess you didn’t stay that big when you grew up.”
Big Red ignored Abby. “I’ll hold the gook boy. Get the dyke.” The two men lunged toward Abby. I tried to pull away but Big Red punched me in the face. I stumbled, falling onto the rocky ground, as a loud, high pitched mooing came from the other side of the path. I looked up to find Big Red staring past me. I turned to find his two friends rooted to the middle of the path. Abby was still on the far side, facing them, getting ready for a fight she would surely lose. Above her, hovering in the air, floated the creature with the heifer, her head dangling as it held her by its talons. Blood dripped from the poor animal where the creature’s talons dug into its back.
The calf is terrified, I thought, and so is everyone else watching the creature’s power. Big Red’s holstered gun pressed against my side, just below my hands.
“What in God’s name–?” said Big Red as he stared up at the sight. Before he could finish, the creature hurled the heifer at the two men. They had only a moment to scream before a hundred pounds of veal struck them square in the chest. The calf rolled a couple of times and I heard a snap (whether it was the cracking of the mens’ ribs or the calf’s I couldn’t tell). The heifer rose slowly to its feet and hobbled away, bleeding from the spot where the creature’s talons had dug in. I could smell the piss from the calf streaming down its leg as it moved away, a smell that would plague my mind for the rest of my life.
Big Red had seen enough. He finally let go of me and reached for his holster. I couldn’t help but smile when his hand returned empty. I pointed Big Red’s gun at him and he froze. From behind me, I heard the sound of a shotgun being cocked.
I turned to find my mother, the matriarch of my strange family, pointing Abby’s shotgun at the creature as it hovered above the fray, its wings flapping frantically to keep itself aloft. The shotgun looked so big in Mom’s arms. The creature loomed overhead, making her seem so small.
The creature descended, its talons clicking on the hard packed soil as it touched earth. I had never seen my mother so much as hold one of Abby’s guns, never mind fire it accurately. The creature remained motionless, its full attention not on Abby or me, or even Big Red; it was staring solely at my mother, as if there were no other threats to its solitary existence.
“Kill it!” yelled Big Red.
The creature finally broke eye contact with Mom, and turned its gaze downward to the ground. With slow, practiced strokes, it started to scratch something into the ground with its talon. Something familiar was taking shape as it made steady strokes in the dirt. Understanding struck me. What if the tree symbol was not made by the Native Americans? What if it wasn’t an eye?
“Abby!” I called out, too afraid to move.
Abby couldn’t look away from the creature.
“Abby!” I tried again.
“Why are you whispering?”
“Because…” Abby gestured toward the giant. It had scratched out most of an oval by now, and I was sure what the finished symbol would look like. The same figure that was etched in the trees all along the trail leading to Huginn.
“Why did your family really leave Huginn?”
She gave me a dirty look.
“Please, it’s important. I need the truth.”
The creature had finished the symbol: an oval with two dots in the center.
Abby shrugged and hesitated. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she was ashamed. “One of the kids, not any of my family, mind you, but someone was caught illegally poaching on government land and we were harassed by federal agents until we all left.”
“Are you sure?” I called out. “Did you see these agents?”
“No one did. It was just what everyone told you, and there was no time…” Abby paused a moment and looked at my mother, then back to me. “What are you trying to say, Adeunim? The poacher?”
I stared at up at the creature, a remnant of an uninhabited land. What if it had felt like us? Intelligent, lonely, scared. It could have been the alpha predator in its world until humans showed up with weapons.
“I don’t think agents chased you out of Huginn, Abby.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Abby. “I mean even if Martha’s family…that doesn’t make any sense. Animals don’t seek revenge.”
I turned to my mother. “Mom, those carvings on the trees aren’t eyes; they’re ellipses.” I remembered staring at the stars the night before, a tickle in the back of my mind reminding me that the planets orbit the sun following an elliptical path with the sun at one of the focal points. “We studied them in the books about geometry. An oval with two focal points.”
“It’s intelligent,” said Mom.
When she said it I felt I wasn’t so crazy to think so, too. Abby and Big Red looked like they were starting to believe. Mom continued to stare at the creature. She always seemed so meek to me, especially in her relationship with Abby, but for some reason, she was the one in control of all of us now. It wasn’t the gun–that certainly afforded her some power–but it was more than just the ability to kill. She looked over the scene, assessing the players, everything she saw and what we said. Finally, my mother smiled at Abby, held the shotgun in one hand, and squatted so she could reach the ground. With a single finger and without taking her eyes off of the creature, drew a small oval in the dust, just like the ones etched on the trees.
Then my mother turned and pointed the shotgun towards Big Red. There was no need, the creature launched itself at our common enemy. As it flew away with Big Red in its talons, screaming, we knew it would be the last we ever saw of him.
The creature returned a short time later just as we reached the door to our farmhouse: the one Abby’s old friend Mayor Martha and her family lived in before they attacked one of the creatures and were chased out of their home. Its broad chest and enormous wingspan drove its weight into the sky, but it didn’t fly into the woods. This time, it lifted itself high in the air and used the thermals rushing off of the ground to circle Huginn, like a hawk circling its prey. Eventually, it landed on top of the steeple of the old church and sat on its haunches, at peace in the middle of our abandoned town.
I smiled at my parents. “No one will ever hurt us again.”
Loyal Things, All
By L. Joseph Shosty
I went into the old resale shop to escape a dreadful December. Cold, bleak, it was made all the worse by the fact that I found myself at thirty-two with no wife, parents dead, and my younger brother, Joe, gone this past March from the polio outbreak. At first, I had sought a warm place to take the chill off my bones and perhaps warm my hands by a coal stove, but I was immediately seized with the promise and mystery of so many cast-off treasures. At home, my apartment’s sole window had a small tree in it, decorated with what could be found, but it was a lonely thing. I resolved to find myself a gift, along with a box, a bit of paper, and a bow, so there would be something under the tree for me on Christmas Day. No sooner had I decided this than I saw, hanging from a dusty, old coatrack in the corner, a beautiful gray- and red-striped scarf.
I snatched it up without hesitation and took it to the gentleman manning the counter.
“Perfect. Absolutely perfect,” I said. Just the touch of the thing warmed me. Better, the loneliness at being swallowed by Manhattan with no family to huddle with was starting to erode, as well. Could it be, then, that the simple act of giving myself a gift was stealing away my woes?
The old man behind the counter was bald on top of his head, with a fringe of shaggy, graying hair. He was stooped, blocky in shape, with his shoulders perpetually drawn up around his ears. When I handed him the scarf, his face darkened in consternation.
“Hmm. Don’t remember buying this at all,” he said, inspecting the scarf with a thick bottom lip jutting in concentration.
“But it was there,” I replied, pointing beyond a shelf thick with worn-out typewriters to the corner with the coatrack. “Maybe someone left it here by mistake?”
The shopkeeper shook his head. “No, no. This is very nice. Feel that? That’s hand-knitted, not done on some machine. No, I’d have remembered someone coming in here, wearing such a nice scarf. And as for buying it, no, to that, too. I don’t normally deal in wearable goods. Trinkets, and such, yes. Decorations. Hmm.”
“Typewriters,” I suggested, indicating the shelves just over my shoulder. I smiled. “I’m a journalist, you see. Tools of the trade tend to draw my eye.”
He grunted and gave a nod.
The shopkeeper still held out the scarf for me to inspect, but I didn’t need to. I knew I wanted it without further consideration.
“It’s not mine to sell,” he insisted.
“It’s here, and I don’t want to be called a thief,” I said, “but I want this scarf. You should be recompensed for having held it, and if you like, I’ll leave my name and address. Should its original owner return for it, have him contact me. Otherwise, I’ll assume the scarf is mine for keeping.”
He quoted me a price, adding, “I can think of nothing fairer.”
I agreed and paid him.
It was the perfect gift. No one in my family, had they been alive, could have found something better if they had spent years searching. I knew my editor was sending me to Washington in March to cover Wilson’s second inaugural celebration. Though the event was coming close to spring, I expected the weather to be cold. To wear such a scarf to the occasion would be splendid, indeed.
“Very fair,” I said, taking the package.
New York at such a time of year is paradoxically depressing, as the festive air and excitement of its pedestrians scurrying through the frost and snow to do their Christmas shopping was, to me, miserable. But now, with my new scarf wrapped in parcel beneath my arm, it was as if I was sensing for the first time the passions felt by my fellow New Yorkers as the season grew brighter and stronger in their chests. Could it be that I had been the fool all these years, loathing the holidays when the truth was that they were every bit the gay and bright days that everyone around purported? Such thoughts seemed so strange, coming from a cynic such as myself, yet I could not deny my feelings.
Dinner was at the supper club two blocks from my home, and I ate with gusto. I had a bachelor’s apartment near Central Park. It was my only real extravagance, purchased when my brother died and the bulk of the inheritance bequeathed by our industrialist father passed to me, his sole heir. The money, and the business which went with it, had never interested me, and I preferred instead to live on the modest amount I made working for the newspaper. But the promise of a home in such easy walking distance of the park was too much, and I’d snatched it up when the opportunity arose.
Back home I burst through the door, as excited and happy as I’d ever been. It was like a beam of warm sunlight from God’s own garden was falling down upon me, following me wherever I went. I was giddy with it, and, after wrapping my present, I tossed it under the tree before grabbing a book off my shelf and dropping sideways into my favorite reading chair for the evening.
The moment I sat down, however, some of that giddiness began to wear off. The book became difficult, but not impossible, and my feelings were lessened, not fallen off to the point of melancholy, but definitely decreased. I could explain none of it, and this feeling remained constant until Christmas Day, when I finally opened the scarf and could wear it again. The figurative shaft of light returned, and everything was glorious.
I know you must think me mad, describing how something so trivial as a scarf could make such a difference. I’ll tell you.
Of course, the obvious explanation is that I was mad, made so by my personal losses and the gloominess with which I usually met the holidays. That would certainly account for the highs and the lows of my emotions. However, the events which follow cast this theory into serious doubt.
It began New Year’s Day. I was sporting a terrible hangover from the previous evening’s revelries, and I decided that, rather than sitting around, bemoaning my fate, I’d take a walk to clear my head. In fact, the bracing wind was exactly what I needed, and, with my delightful scarf around my neck and tucked into my heavy overcoat, I set out east for the park. That winter was milder, say, than of times past. One’s mind goes immediately to the winter of ’14, when the temperatures dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. That had a been murderous one.
I decided to cut across the park to visit my friend, Hutchins, with whom I’d attended Princeton, when the most startling thing occurred. Hutchins lived east of Central Park, but I soon found myself turned south instead. Every time I noticed this, I would correct myself, turning back to the east, and soon I would be lost again in my thoughts, basking in the good feelings I’d been experiencing since mid-December. And before I knew it, there I would be again, turning south, as if my feet had another destination in mind. Or rather, it seemed as if the hand of God Himself were steering me. Finally, and by great force of will, I reached Hutchins’ apartment. He took me in and offered me a hot toddy, which I gratefully accepted.
I was so astounded by my adventure that I told Hutchins about it, but started, strangely enough, at the second-hand shop, since my life had taken such a bizarre turn since then. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was unconsciously striking at the truth of my situation.
I’d removed my scarf, coat, and hat upon entering, but we went now to the coatrack by the door so my friend could see for himself. He touched the scarf, and was immediately seized with the rapturous look I imagined was on my face every time I wore the thing.
“Wonderful,” he said, hands brushing over its surface. “Clearly the man who owned this before you was someone of real quality.”
“Hardly,” I replied. “It’s a nice scarf, but it’s not of the best material.”
“I don’t mean ‘quality’ in the traditional sense of the word, Morris,” Hutchins said, grinning. “I mean a more modern view of it, something more akin to Christian virtues. Compassion, a kind demeanor, that sort of thing. This is an old scarf, you see, but its owner loved and cared for it, the way you might a family pet. I must say, I’m very impressed.”
Having warmed ourselves with toddies and Hutchins’ fireplace, we switched to brandy and spent the afternoon in splendid conversation. I went home that afternoon feeling as though my chest would burst at any second, so great was my happiness. My wayward feet didn’t trouble me, either.
The next day when I started out for the office, however, I was once again struck with my strange urge. As I exited the building I turned south and increased my pace, much to my dismay. It was easy enough to regain control of my limbs, but the shock of it put me off walking to work. I took a trolley most of the way, and a carriage the rest. At work, I moved about as little as possible, not trusting myself.
That was the second incident, and again, nothing happened when I returned home after helping put the evening edition to bed. It was also becoming clear that my happiness was continuing to increase, to manic levels, in fact, so that I was shaken by my experiences and became distrusting of my good humor entirely.
There might have been more such adventures, but I came down with a cold and spent two days at home, resting. The building’s superintendent came to see me on the second day, asking about my health.
“You don’t look so sick to me, if you don’t mind me saying so,” he said.
I was smiling while I coughed.
“I can call you a doctor, if you think you need one.”
“That won’t be necessary, but thank you. Aside from being tired and having this blasted cough, I feel fine. Wonderful, in fact.”
In my building the homeless are not tolerated. Feeling hale and hearty again after my rest, I was headed downstairs when I saw our superintendent berating an indigent by the alley. The fellow looked worn-out and thin from his hardships. His coat was full of holes, and the rest of his attire left him unsuited for the elements. I confess it was unlike me to consider the poor at all. That must seem a dreadful thing to pronounce one’s shortcomings in such a bold fashion, but there you have it. I mention it now because it was uncharacteristic to be filled with such urgency as I felt then, and I rushed back upstairs to retrieve my old scarf and a pair of gloves I no longer used.
Downstairs again, I confronted the men.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“This fella’s been hanging around and begging for money. We can’t have it, Mr. Pinterley. It’s against building policies, and if he doesn’t get a move on, I’ll have to call for the police.”
I turned to the indigent and offered him the scarf and gloves, and a small roll of bills, as well.
“You’ve heard the man, and you can’t be here,” I said, “but take this. It should help you on your way.”
“Bless you, Sir!” the man said, and was gone.
That night as I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I began to unfold my theory. As you’ve no doubt guessed, the mystery as I reckoned it lay with the scarf. It wasn’t merely that buying myself a gift had changed my outlook so. It became clear that the scarf itself, the very thing, was doing this to me. Was it ensorcelled? Was it possessed? As silly as those notions were, they were in forefront of my thoughts.
Next morning, I woke from a heavy sleep fully resolved to test my theory. After a breakfast of toast and coffee, and with my morning toilet performed, I laid out my clothing for the day. It was the usual fare, starting with socks and the two-piece thermal undergarments I’d picked up from Stanfields last year, followed by my trousers, undershirt, shirt, and vest. Suspenders for the pants, cufflinks, and a red-and-white-striped tie to add contrast to the somber attire. Topped off with my hat and overcoat, my profile in the mirror was one of a stylish man about town, but I conspicuously left the scarf on the coat rack, though some part of me ached to have it.
“Noted,” I said. The journalist in me was working the story. One could have said my yearning for the garment was like a mild addiction, crying out to be fed.
The walk down to the corner to catch the trolley yielded no misadventures, nor did anything occur when I disembarked a block from my work. The walk up was a delight, and my day at work was thrilling, to say the least. My feet never moved of their own accord, nor was there anything amiss in my daily activities, with one exception.
I was sad.
I was actually suffused with a melancholy which lurked at the back of my mind, the way a child might miss his new puppy while he’s away at school. By the afternoon the longing had become an ache, and I all but rushed home and threw the scarf around my neck before plunging into my reading chair to ruminate before the fire.
This incident settled it for me. I was convinced the scarf had something magical about it, however bizarre that sounded. I resolved then to set out the next day and discover for myself where it wanted me to go. The resolution itself whetted my appetite for brandy, which sat decanted next to my window. I took a glass of it in hand, along with a book I would read but later not remember, and that was how I passed the evening.
I woke the next morning and performed a ritual identical to the one of the day before, but in this instance I took the scarf from the coat rack and added it to my ensemble. Downstairs I met with our superintendent and the widowed Mrs. Witt, who were known to take tea together and discuss gardening as though it were the secret to life itself.
“Heading out this morning, Sir?” the superintendent asked me.
“Yes, thank you.” I nodded toward a private corner of his kitchen. The man knew what this meant and went without fuss.
“A news story?” he asked.
“Not today,” I said. “The trip I’m taking is for personal reasons, but I might be in some danger since it could take me into seedier parts of town. Our usual arrangement is in place, I presume?”
He nodded. “If you’re not back by nightfall, or haven’t called to check in, I’ll contact the newspaper and the police.”
“Good.” I turned to go, but he stopped me.
“You should take an umbrella, Sir. I hear there will be rain.”
“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Witt. “It’s warmed up just enough to make us all miserable, I’m sure.”
“I left mine upstairs, and I don’t really have time…”
The superintendent held up a finger and then rushed off. When he returned he presented me with an umbrella that had seen much wear and was torn slightly alongside one of its ribs, but it would do nicely. I thanked the man and set off.
As Mrs. Witt had said, the day was just warm enough for rain and not snow, but the hawk off the bay cut through even my wool coat and thermal undergarments like they weren’t there at all. My body was racked with shivering as soon as I stepped out the door. Despite this, the scarf was there, filling me with that strange, manic energy. A smile split my face, and I began to whistle. Something, a voice from deep inside me, was telling me this was going to be a wonderful day, that life was a banquet, and I should devour my fill. I set off walking, completely under the control now of whatever force had seized me the moment the scarf had become mine.
Despite the titanic feelings of goodwill and happiness, there was a small part of me, locked just beneath the surface of my emotions that could think on its own. It was the rational part of me, the part that could still feel as I normally felt. And what I felt then was fear, unbridled fear. I knew I could seize control, walk instead to my work just as I would any other day, and all would be well. But, things could not continue as they were. There was something alarming in the intensity of these gay feelings the scarf engendered, and I was aware they could be the death of me. Just look at where the scarf was taking me. Soon, the toney places of my neighborhood were falling away, and as my journey continued, the buildings grew grayer and more desperate. The people on the streets looked shabbier. This was an element with which I had occasional experience in my profession, though I handled more politics and economics than the crime beat. Some were good folk, salt of the earth, as they say, but violence in these neighborhoods was common, and fierce. One such as I, who was dressed in finer clothes, would be a target for any toughs who wanted me. It was a perverse idea, but it would not be too much to believe that, should these hypothetical toughs set upon me, they might send me to my death while I smiled so hard my face hurt.
Strong, Morris. You have to be strong. Cast out those thoughts, and complete your task. Surely today was the day the scarf would show me what it meant to show.
My back ached, sleep having come poorly the night before. As I passed doorways, I began to wonder if and when I would stop at some dooryard, turn, and march up to someone’s residence. Would this be the case? I could only hope, as my mind went toward darker possibilities, such as my marching all the way into the bay, freezing or drowning to death before reaching my destination.
While I’d begun my journey directly south, I noticed I was now changing direction slightly every once in a while, as though correcting course. Correcting course for what? A moving target. That was the only answer. The scarf was heading towards a person, or a vehicle, something which traveled about rather than remain static.
Though I’d warned my superintendent of possible danger to my person, I’d had no way of telling him exactly where I might be. I cursed my lack of preparation. This was hardly like me at all, and I could only blame so much on the scarf.
I needed, then, to approach this problem as a journalist would. Let’s start with a headline, I thought to myself. After all, I had time, as I seemed to be a passenger in my own body, at least for the time being. Journalist Disappears Seeking Secret of Strange Scarf. Too much alliteration for my tastes, but it sounded like something my editor would run. Now, the basics: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Morris Pinterley, popular political reporter and heir to the Pinterley estate, went into the South Side of Manhattan Tuesday after telling his superintendent he would be traveling into a possibly dangerous situation. It seems, after consulting with his old college friend, Daniel Hutchins, that Pinterley became obsessed with a scarf he had purchased second-hand at a shop last December. The journalist claimed to be suffused with a strange euphoria when he wore the garment, and at times found himself traveling of his own accord towards the south end of the city. It appears that Pinterley finally succumbed to these urges Monday evening, for he set out early Tuesday morning and hasn’t been heard from since.
Oh, dear. The style was a bit poor, and that last bit was dreadful to even consider. Luckily, I was spared any more thoughts on the matter, for I suddenly veered to the left and through an open gate, which led me up a flight of wrought-iron stairs to the door of a seamstress shop. This was it, I whispered, feeling control return to me. My heart hammered with elation, and there was a sense that I was somehow exactly where I’d always needed to be. I cannot describe to you what that feels like, other than to say, imagine you are a child again and swaddled in the warmth of your family’s bosom. Imagine the contentment you felt, the sense of safety. That is the only feeling which comes close, and it is merely a shadow of what I felt then.
I knocked and was met by a young woman who named herself Sylvia, an apprentice there working under Mrs. Dooley. I tipped my hat to her and asked to be let inside.
“Oh, we’re not open yet,” Sylvia said.
“Well, I’m actually not here on business per se,” I replied. “I believe there’s…someone I need to see. Yes, I’m here to meet with someone.”
“Oh, and who would that be, Sir, begging your pardon?”
“One of the ladies who works here. Oh, I forget her name, but I’m fabulous with faces. If I could come inside? The rain, you see…”
“Of course, Sir, of course.”
Sylvia let me in, and we walked a dimly lit hallway until we emerged in a decent-sized room, a living area that had been converted into a shop, complete with a number of stations where the women could sit and do their work. I had no sooner rounded the corner than I saw an older woman, perhaps fifty judging by her graying red hair and matronly bearing, stand as she saw me. On her lips was an admonishment similar to Sylvia’s, that the shop was not yet open, but these words died out when a look of recognition passed her eyes.
“Collum,” she said.
“No, Ma’am,” I said. “I’m sorry, but my name is Morris…”
She was clearly not listening to me as she came around her station and approached. Her eyes were fixed on something other than mine, namely, the scarf. She showed no hesitation in stepping before me in a familiar way and sliding an end of the scarf from where I’d tucked it into my overcoat. Her hands were starting to wrinkle with age, and they were red and calloused with years of work, but her touch was gentle, the way a mother might caress her child.
“I made this for him when he was twelve. He was always such a tall boy,” she said, a hint of an Irish lilt in her voice that living in America had not quite extinguished.
My grin stretched wide, painfully wide. “This is good,” I said, gritting my teeth at the intensity of my grand feelings. “I’ve come in search of someone, you see…”
Again my voice trailed off as she continued on without me. “It was one of my first attempts, you know. I’ve always had a skill with cloth, but I can see the mistakes I made in making it. Even still, he loved it so. To him, there were no flaws. Just love. But that was him, wasn’t it?”
“Miss, if you would please…”
This time my words attracted her attention. She was shorter than I, an old woman clearly with a young woman’s energy and spirit. But there was something about her, a sadness, perhaps, a gloomy cast to her bearing that came through, despite what appeared to be recent attempts to be…what? Kinder, perhaps. Yes. Kinder. Here was a woman who was trying hard to be opposite to her nature. I could appreciate the difficulties, given my own melancholy.
She pushed the graying strands of hair at her temple behind her ear and looked me in the eye.
“You’ve come a long way.”
The happiness had again swelled inside me to the point it felt like it might explode from my chest and fill the room with good tidings. I could only nod, my face pulled back in a rictus.
“And you no doubt want answers for why you’ve come. Yes, of course you do. They all do, you see. Ah, yes! You’re not the first to have sought me out, Mr…I’m sorry, I haven’t gotten your name.”
“Pinterley. Morris Pinterley.”
“Well, Mr. Pinterley, the answer to why you’re here, is simple to state, yet difficult to explain. The scarf. It belonged to my brother, and it’s wanted to come home for some time. You’ve done this, and I’m eternally grateful.”
The year has passed, and here we are at another Christmas. This one is as gray and pitiless as the last, and my melancholy, perhaps not as acute as it was in years past, still troubles me.
If I’m heartened by anything, it’s in the aftermath of my adventure to Mrs. Dooley’s shop. As I sit here in my bachelor’s apartment, staring out onto the street with a dusty, old book cradled in my lap, I think on those days and the ones before it.
The shop did not open. Mrs. Dooley gave her girls the day off, and she took me in hand to tell me her story.
“My brother was a saint,” she said to me, taking me in full confidence without hesitation, though she must have known her story would be strange and difficult to believe. “It’s clear to me now, though it was hard for me to see when I was younger. I think of Jesus’ brothers and how they must have thought, ‘Now, here is a real lunatic!’ at all of the Lord’s comings and goings. But, lo and behold, in Acts it refers to his brothers as joining in the other parishioners at some point, and so he must have done something to win them over eventually. It wasn’t like that with Collum and me, not until it was too late.
“See, he was always such a good soul, and I was born with more than a bit of, well, I suppose you’d call it darkness, in me. Sullenness, cynicism. Glad to see others fail or get what I believed was coming to them, that was me. But not Collum. Always loved everyone, treated them with kindness, even me. He doted on me, really, and I hated him for it. Yes. Hate! Hated his guts for some time, in fact.
“We never had much, back home in Ireland, but what we did have was to go to Collum. When our ma finally passed, though, our brother, Padraic, the middle one, he schemed the land from under Collum. But get angry? Not my brother. Padraic stole the land and threw us both off, claiming it for him and his family. And Collum just said, ‘Well, I suppose Padraic needed the land very badly to have done such a thing.’ And just like that, he never said another word of it, never a complaint or a curse at his brother, who was as rotten as you like. Instead, he found work from a man who agreed to help us pay our way across, though we were as dirt poor as could be. Collum could have that effect on another kind soul, you see. He need only ask, and they would give and feel joyous afterward with the warmth of a generous spirit.
“So we set out for America, and we landed here. We both found work, and I eventually met my husband, Mr. Dooley. Collum paid our benefactor back in full, and a little more besides, and we settled in to living here instead of there.”
“Your brother sounds like quite the gentleman,” I said, thinking I should say something.
“To be near him was like to stand in sunshine. I read that, once, of another fellow, but it applies to my brother. But that only made me dislike him more. We had a row once, or rather I yelled at him while he said nothing, and that was the last I saw of him for some time. Years passed, and we only spoke here and there. Until I received word last March that he’d passed on.”
“I lost my brother in March,” I blurted out.
“Bless your soul,” Mrs. Dooley replied in sympathy. “Our kin tie us to this world, and when they’re gone, our souls are a little lighter. This happens in life, losing what we cherish until we’re so light that we can’t stay in this world any longer and float away. When word came, I also learned that he’d left me everything. There was a letter read by his lawyer. He never held a grudge, of course, and he wanted me to have everything of his so I could sell it all and live a little easier.
“And I did exactly that, for now I was not only angry at him for being so good, but also for him dying and leaving me alone in the world. Mr. Dooley was gone by then, I should mention, and I’m sorry to say I’ve run my children off with my wicked ways. So I sold all of his belongings, cleared out his home, in fact, and I would have sold the house, too, if there had been any takers.”
She smiled and took my hand again. “Here, let me show you. It’s a few blocks away. Imagine that, living that close to kin and never darkening their dooryard. If there’s a Hell, Mr. Pinterley, I’m surely bound for it.”
“Collum never visited you, either.”
She took her woolen hat and heavy coat from a peg affixed to the wall, and we headed out into the cold.
“He never came because I told him not to come,” she said.
At his home she unlocked the front door with a heavy iron key, and we went inside. Immediately, I was confused. Here was a cozy place, full of cheaply wrought furniture and keepsakes on every wall, yet all seemed to glow with how much their owner had loved and cared for them.
“But you told me you sold it all,” I said, standing astonished in the doorway to the living room.
Mrs. Dooley made a small cough and pushed past me.
“I did,” she said. She looked at me, and her eyes twinkled. “Well, Mr. Pinterley, how do you think I knew why you’d come? Or did you think your scarf was the only thing of Collum’s that wanted to come home again?”
I stood there, dumbstruck. My hand strayed to the scarf, but Mrs. Dooley was already coming forward to remove it from around my neck.
“Bit by bit, all of it came home. A chair here, a cup there. And if the owner did not want to part with it, why, the thing would somehow find its way into the possession of a more sympathetic soul.” Her eyes filled with tears. “At first I didn’t understand, but then it occurred to me. Collum loved everything. Not just people, but animals. Plants. He loved everything.” She swept her arm wide. “Everything, and he treated them all as though they were delicate children, talking to his things, regaling them with stories, and just loving them as a good and decent father would his children.”
Mrs. Dooley held up the scarf. “And this is the final piece to come home, Mr. Pinterley. I made this scarf for him. It was the one thing I did for him in his life out of love, and you’ve brought it back. It’s home, and it’s with me, now. See, I’ve taken up his mantle a bit. Oh, I’m not a good person, not really, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be more like my brother, the saint. It’s probably not soon enough to save me, and I can’t imagine I have many years left, but I’ll do what good things I can in the time I have. I’ll do it in his name.”
We parted ways soon after that, and I returned home. The story stayed buried in me for some time. In Spring my editor sent me to cover the President’s inauguration, just as I thought he might, only, that year, Wilson did not throw a gala, as was tradition. I spent only a day in Washington watching parades, and then I came home again.
The months passed, and here we are again. This morning, something in me said the time was right. Today was the day to begin thinking of this story, of finding a way to tell it. Mrs. Dooley has become her brother’s disciple, much in the way Jesus’ brother, James, took up his ministries when Christ was gone. I imagine I am to be one of Collum’s chroniclers, here to write an account of the man’s life, a man so good, even his belongings loved him, remaining so loyal to him that, even after death, they would seek their way home again, just to be close to where his feet once trod.
And like Mrs. Dooley, I, too, am seeking the better parts of myself. Though I feel the gloom of the season upon my shoulders, and though I no longer have Collum’s scarf to fill me with its happiness, I am trying to keep my chin up and tap into the goodwill I feel flowing through the veins of my fellow man as I walk among them, down streets, and in shops. And though I am alone as I write this, there is a stack of packages near the door. Tonight, I will walk across the park to Hutchins’ home. He has invited me to Christmas dinner with his family, and I have agreed to attend, though in years past I would have begged off and found excuses to the contrary. I will bring them their gifts, and I will share in their joy, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me. I do all of this in honor of a man I never met, but whose kindness and generosity touched me, even from beyond the pale.
By Michael Gardner
I pulled up at the Wells’ house and ripped on the handbrake, eager to stretch my legs after the long drive. I opened the car door and was met with a blast of dry, hot air. Squawks from bickering galas carried across the countryside.
The Wells’ house must have been a small, hardwood cottage once, but it had since sprouted fibro tumors and been encircled with a veranda in a vain attempt to add symmetry. The white monstrosity rose from a sea of neatly mown lawn, which was surrounded by parched paddocks, sparsely inhabited with sheep. The place smelled of shit and dirt.
I followed a cement path towards the veranda and found the Wells’ sitting at a table on the deck. They both stood as I approached. Mr. Wells was a squat man with grey hair. His glasses magnified his eyes so they appeared unnaturally large. Mrs. Wells was a tall, blonde woman. She had probably been pretty once, but age had marred her.
“Dana, thanks for coming,” said Mr. Wells, as I stepped onto the deck. “I’m Martin and this is Heather.”
“Pleased to meet you both.”
Martin extended his right hand. I placed mine in his and tried not to wince as he squeezed it painfully.
“Please, take a seat.”
A rustic table supported a teapot and a plate of homemade cakes.
“Tea, Dana?” Heather asked.
Martin sat at the head of the table and motioned for me to sit to his left while Heather poured tea. Once she was finished, she sat across from me.
The scene seemed well-rehearsed, like they did this every afternoon. Yet there was tension — something unspoken in the air. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something about the way Heather focused on her tea, never Martin.
Heather broke the silence.
“So how do we begin? I spoke to a Morris on the phone –“
“My boss, yes. Morris gave me a rundown of your situation, but I would find it useful if you could explain it to me in your own words.”
Martin sipped his tea loudly. Heather smiled a sad smile and nodded. A magpie warbled from nearby.
“Ok. It’s our little girl, Molly. We’ve been worried about her for some time. At first we were convinced she was seeing things, but — “
Heather paused. I watched her search for the right words.
“Molly tends to fixate on things. She’s been obsessed with puzzles, and then Peppa Pig. So when she became fascinated by her wardrobe, we initially dismissed it as a new, if slightly odd, obsession. That was until she told us what she was seeing. It frightened us, so we took her to a doctor.
“We’ve seen two psychiatrists and both have told us she is a normal girl with an active imagination.”
“And what makes you think this isn’t her imagination?”
Heather paused. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Finally she spoke.
“Since then I’ve found … well … I now see the tunnel too.”
Heather averted her gaze, so I turned to Martin who was staring at his tea. He shook his head. I sensed he was not completely at ease with my presence.
Martin cleared his throat and then looked at me with those large eyes.
“Something’s wrong, Dana. Something we can’t explain. If we let her, Molly would stare at her wardrobe all day. Heather’s seeing things. None of this is normal. I’ll be honest. I don’t know what to believe and I don’t know what to make of your company, but we’re desperate. And, well, I guess I’ll try anything if it helps things return to normal.”
He seemed genuinely concerned about his daughter and yet, I didn’t get the sense he completely believed her or his wife. So why was I here? To prove it was all in their heads? I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time I’d done that.
“And Molly, is she here today?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s playing out back.”
“Would it be possible to have her show me the wardrobe?”
Heather looked to Martin, who nodded.
Martin fumbled with the lock on the old bedroom door as Molly — a gorgeous girl with blonde hair and blue eyes — held tightly onto Heather’s hand. I was curious as to why the room was locked, which Heather must have read from my face.
“We moved Molly to the guest bedroom after I saw the tunnel was real,” she explained.
We stood in a long, dark hallway in the original section of the house. Molly’s bedroom was about halfway down. Next to her room stood a grandfather clock — its ‘ticks’ and ‘clunks’ echoed throughout the house.
Martin gave a satisfied grunt as he finally managed to open the door. It swung inwards with a creak. Molly wriggled free of Heather’s grip and skipped across the room. She opened the wardrobe and then sat down, her legs folded under her and her hands on her knees. Smiling, she stared intently into her wardrobe. She looked happy, a contrast with the sense of unease generated by Martin and Heather next to me.
The bedroom was dark — the only window was frosted and led to another room, not outside. And it was hot. It had been painted pink years ago, but it needed another coat now. The bed was cast iron and large — too big for a little girl’s room, I thought.
“May I talk to her?”
I stepped over a stuffed bear that had fallen from the bed and approached Molly. I sat down beside her, but she didn’t acknowledge me. She smelled of lavender soap.
I followed Molly’s gaze into the wardrobe. Dresses, shirts and pants hung from a rail above a rack of shoes. But that was all I could see. No tunnel.
“Hi, Molly. Your Mum and Dad tell me you’ve found something in your closet.”
Molly turned slowly and looked me up and down. She gave me a hesitant smile. It reminded me of her mother’s.
“And what are you looking at, sweetie?”
“There’s a hole there,” Molly said, turning back to the wardrobe. I glanced in again, but found the same scene as before.
“Why is the hole so interesting, Molly?”
“The hole’s not interesting. It’s just a hole.”
“Then how come you stare at it?”
“For my friend to come back.”
I swallowed. I shifted my gaze back to Heather and Martin. Martin was staring above my head and Heather was wringing her hands. I turned back to Molly.
“And who is your friend?”
“Oh, I don’t know its name. But sometimes, when I look in the hole, I see two yellow eyes and a mouth.”
“And does it talk to you, Molly?”
“No, it doesn’t talk. It has too many teeth.”
Jesus, I thought. I’d be recommending a psychiatrist if I didn’t know they had already pursued that path.
“What does it do?”
“It just stares. And I stare back. It’s a game, but I never win because I always blink first.”
I licked my lips. Suddenly, Molly leaned in close.
“Can I tell you a secret, Dana?” she whispered.
“When it visits, Mummy and Daddy don’t fight.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I remained mute. Molly straightened and turned back to the wardrobe. Maybe this was all about attention, I mused. Maybe Heather and Martin weren’t happy and this was Molly’s way of getting them to notice her? But if it was a ploy, why did Heather claim to have seen the tunnel?
“Ok, honey. I’m going to go and get some special equipment from my car, which will help tell me some things about the tunnel, ok?”
I rose to my feet and took a step towards Martin and Heather, but then stopped. I turned back to Molly.
“Is the creature here now?”
“No, Dana. Just the hole. But I hope it’s back soon.”
I repressed a shiver. The room suddenly felt claustrophobic. Like being couped up in hospital with a sick grandparent. I needed air. And I definitely needed my equipment. Something that I could hold in front of me that would give me an objective assessment.
“I’ll grab my gear and make a couple of readings,” I said to Martin and Heather as I squeezed past them and escaped from the hot room.
I sat on the bed in my dated hotel room, back in Gunnedah. The television droned softly from across the room. The news was on but I wasn’t watching. A half-eaten hamburger sat on a tray on the bedside table.
I picked up my phone and dialed Morris. It buzzed in my ear, once, twice, three times.
“Go for Morris.”
God, he had an obnoxious way of answering the phone.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Hi me, what did you find?”
“You’ve probably become used to my reports containing the words ‘fuck’ and ‘all’.”
I cleared my throat.
“You’ve got something don’t you? I knew it. I knew this was the one.”
The TV suddenly grew louder as it began showing a commercial. I picked up the remote and muted it, then I flipped the cover of my note book open.
“There’s no visual signatures, no temporal disturbances, no gravitational anomalies. But …”
“But, there is magnetic interference and … well, there’s just something about the Wells’. They aren’t the attention seekers and nutters we usually attract.”
“So is it just the little girl that can see this thing?”
“No, the mother — Heather — she claims to see it too.”
“That’s it, I’m booking a flight.”
“Hold on, Morris. I haven’t even had a second consultation. Plus there are no flights to Gunnedah.”
“Ok, I’ll drive. How long does it take?”
I shook my head and smiled. He was in a world of his own. I knew there was no dissuading him.
“You don’t drive anywhere.”
“Exceptions, my girl. I’ll pack my driving gloves and a mix tape.”
“And Google Maps, hopefully. It’s about eight hours with a couple of stops. But knowing you I’d allow twelve, to account for your slow driving and poor sense of direction.”
“Ha. See you tomorrow.”
Then he was gone. I looked back over my notes and felt uneasy. I don’t know why. So far, I had very little to confirm the story. But something about the idea of it — a little girl, waiting for something with yellow eyes and teeth. If she had been coached, she was a good actor.
I dropped the notepad on the bed. Right now, I needed a shower.
I arrived at the Wells’ at nine. On exiting the car, I was met with stupefying hot air that carried the muffled sounds of an argument from the house.
I hesitated, one foot on baked dirt, the other in the relative cool of the car. It wasn’t out and out screaming, but the voices were elevated and angry. I was propelled back to childhood for an unpleasant moment and I had the strong desire to get back in the car and leave. I shook it off. I was here to do a job. I’d just have to interrupt them, I thought.
I grabbed my bag from the car and slammed the door, hoping the noise would alert the Wells’ to my arrival. But it didn’t work. I locked the car on reflex, walked to the front door and knocked as hard as I could.
The rolling cacophony of the fight ceased and for a brief moment, the world around me seemed to hold its breath. The eerie silence was broken by the sound of the back door of the house slamming. Then a quadrunner roared to life and Martin rode away from the house with dust streaming behind him.
It was another full minute before the front door swung open, revealing Heather, whose eyes were red and puffy.
“Hi, Dana. Please come in. Would you like a cup of tea?”
There was no admission of what I had overheard, so I played along.
“Thanks, Heather. That would be great.”
I followed her to the kitchen where she began preparing tea. I tried to think of what to say. I wanted to ask her if she was all right. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do. But that all felt nosy, so I returned to the job at hand.
“I’ve spoken to my boss. He’s very interested in your case. In fact, he’s decided to join me out here. I’m expecting him later this evening.”
Heather nodded, then passed me a cup. God this was awkward.
“Is Molly here today?”
Heather removed the tea bag from her cup and threw it in the bin.
“No, not today. She’s at her grandmother’s.”
“I’ve decided Molly should stay in town with my mother until you finish your tests and we work out if the tunnel is dangerous.”
I noted the use of ‘I’ and wondered if her fight with Martin had been about Molly.
“Fair enough. Anyway, I was just here to take a few more readings …”
My phone rang. It was Morris.
“Sorry, Heather. It’s my boss.”
She motioned that it was no bother, then she turned from me and opened a cupboard above the stove. As she reached for a packet of Tim Tams, her blouse rode up just above her waist exposing yellowed skin stained with a deep purple bruise.
I paused, the phone halfway to my ear. She turned back, holding the biscuits, and gave me a quizzical look. I looked away hurriedly, then answered my phone.
“Dana. God, I thought you were going to ignore me.”
“I should have,” I said, glancing at Heather again. Maybe it wasn’t what I thought. She lived on a farm after all. Plenty of things to bump into.
“Where are you?”
“The Wells’. When are you leaving?”
“I left hours ago. In fact, I’ve just driven through a town called Mullaley about twenty minutes from Gunnedah.”
“Jesus, what time did you leave?”
“Couldn’t sleep, my girl, so I thought I’d start the trip. Six coffees kept me going. I’m coming straight there. I want to see this thing for myself and talk to the girl.”
“Molly,” I offered.
“That’s the one. So give me directions.”
“She’s not here at the moment.”
“Why not? Morris is coming. Morris the detective. Morris the scientist. Morris the hero.”
I chuckled. “I’ll check with Heather, but I doubt Molly will be available in the next half hour. Why don’t you check in at the motel and I’ll talk to Heather about organizing a time for you to interview her. You could probably do with a nap.”
“Too wired to nap. But ok. Give me an update when you book a time.”
Then he was gone.
Heather was looking at me, frowning.
“I gather he wants to see Molly.”
“Yes, sorry. But it is important for our investigation.”
“I’ll get her from Mum’s around three, but she’ll be going back into town before dark.”
“That would be great.”
I sensed Heather was tired with the forced conversation.
“Ok, I better get to work. I think I know the way.”
I placed my cup in the sink and left Heather. I returned to the hall and walked to the dark bedroom in the middle of the house, eager to run my tests and return to town.
Morris had left a message for me at the motel. He’d decided to try a sleep after all, so I walked into town and ate alone at a small café.
At two thirty, I woke Morris and we drove to the Wells’. When we pulled up, he threw the door open and leapt out like a spring loaded snake from a novelty can of peanuts. I grabbed the bag as Morris bounded up the steps and rapped on the door.
I was surprised when Martin answered. After the morning’s argument, I thought he might have avoided us. But there he was, smiling. Morris vigorously pumped his hand. I joined Morris and Martin.
“… so you own the company?” Martin finished asking.
“Yes, Mr. Wells. This operation is mine. I’ve had a keen interest in the unexplainable since I was young. And I am very glad I could make the trip to help you with your phenomenon. Sounds horrific. Must be a terrible worry for you.”
“I just want to help my little girl. If you can provide some way to … resolve this, then I’d be very grateful.”
Martin turned to me and smiled, but I didn’t like it. It was condescending.
“Now Martin, I understand you are a busy man, so please, lead the way,” Morris said.
Martin motioned for us to follow. He seemed somewhat friendlier around Morris. But I shouldn’t be surprised, I’d known Morris for a long time and he seemed to have a way with people, despite his quirks.
I followed both of them down the hall. Martin unlocked and opened the door next to the grandfather clock. The room was hot, stuffy and dark.
Martin led us to the wardrobe and opened both doors. Morris peered inside, eyes wide. I expected him to be disappointed when he found nothing, but I was wrong. He buzzed with more energy, if anything.
“Yes, this is the spot,” he said, “Dana, can you bring the … the, you know, the magnetic thingy.”
I withdrew the magnetometer from the bag. He took it from me and began to wave the probe around the wardrobe.
“I see what you mean, Dana. Fascinating, fascinating. We’ve definitely got a strong magnetic field here. So, Martin, do you know exactly where the phenomenon is situated in the wardrobe?”
“No, but I can get Molly to direct you if you would like.”
“Yes, thank you. I would like that immensely.”
Martin retired from the room. His footsteps echoed down the hall. While he went to find Molly, Morris passed the magnetometer back to me.
“You can’t see it, can you?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“No. But when I first looked, I swear the air was refracted at the bottom of the wardrobe. It was a bit like looking through a rain drenched windscreen just before the wipers clear it.”
“You know that could just be wishful thinking. And that magnetic field could be faulty wiring.”
Before Morris responded, Martin returned with Molly and Heather.
“Oh my, what a beautiful young girl. You must be Molly.”
“And I can see you take after your Mother.”
I groaned inwardly, but Heather beamed.
“Morris, this is my wife, Heather.”
“Charmed to meet you, Heather. Now, young lady,” Morris said to Molly, “would you be kind enough to come over here with us and show us the tunnel?”
Molly joined us at the wardrobe. The grandfather clock ‘clicked’ and ‘clunked’ from just outside the room. Martin and Heather held their position at the door.
Molly lowered herself to the ground, tucking her legs under her once again. I don’t know why, but she whispered then.
“There, Morris — just above the ground, and just below that pink dress.”
Morris dropped to his hands and knees and crawled closer to the wardrobe.
“From here,” he said, extending his arm into the wardrobe and holding it steady, just below Molly’s pink dress. Molly nodded.
“To here?” he asked, lowering his hand to about an inch shy of the floor. Molly nodded again.
I looked at Molly. She appeared trancelike.
“Molly,” I said. “Is the creature here now?”
She turned and smiled.
“Yes, Dana.” She turned back to the wardrobe and waved. My arms tingled as goose bumps formed. I heard movement and turned to find Heather striding across the room. She dropped to her knees, embraced Molly from behind and pulled her close.
“Come back a bit honey, you know I don’t like –-“
“It’s ok, Mummy. I told you, it’s friendly.”
Heather had grown pale. She looked like what she really wanted to do was to pick Molly up and rush her from the house. But she held her position, encircling Molly with a tight, protective hug.
“Her pupils are enlarged, like her gaze is unfocussed,” Morris said. “Heather, how do you see the tunnel?”
It took her a moment to respond. Finally, she tore her eyes from the wardrobe and turned to Morris.
“Ah, Molly told me to look at the shoe rack, and then look through it. I guess, I, ah, lose focus.”
Morris spun around to face the wardrobe, crossed his legs under him and then stared. I could see his pupils focussing then relaxing, shrinking then growing large.
At first he was very still. Then he began to fidget and, slowly, the corners of his mouth bent into a grin.
“I see it,” he hissed, “I see it. Dana, quick, get me something to gather a sample.”
I stole another glance into the wardrobe, but it remained just a wardrobe. I did as asked and rummaged in the bag. I found a silver extension pole and connected a sticky pad and handed it to Morris. Morris leaned forward and extended the white pad towards the back of the wardrobe. He pushed it slowly, very slowly, until I watched the end of the pole disappear about a foot into the closet.
My intake of breath was a sharp hiss in my ears. I tried to make sense of what I was seeing, but couldn’t. Three quarters of the pole was visible, the quarter holding the pad was gone. Other than that, the wardrobe appeared as before.
But while it looked the same, something was new.
“Can you hear that?” I asked, but no one responded. I was certain the wardrobe was making a very faint sound. Something only just audible. A grinding, clicking noise. I used to play jacks as a kid with real sheep knucklebones that my Dad had had since he was young. When I shook the knuckles in my hands they would scrape and click. The wardrobe sounded like that.
“What are you doing?” Molly asked, briefly distracting me. I turned to her. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes anxious. “It doesn’t like that, don’t … don’t touch it.”
Morris ignored her and continued to push the pole forward. I turned back to watch. More and more of the pole was disappearing and the irritating clicking sound had grown in strength.
My eye was drawn to the point where the pole disappeared. Looking carefully, I now noticed a slight haze. It was almost imperceptible, yet I was sure there was a slight blurriness in the air around the pole. And through the blurriness, I could almost see something substantial. Almost. There was a thin rim of blackness around the pole.
Then my world adjusted focus. The haze dispersed and I found myself staring into a dark tunnel about a meter in diameter. About five feet in, nestled comfortably in the middle of the tunnel, were two jaundiced eyes, like a cat’s, hovering above a maze of teeth that vibrated. The sound, I realized, was the grinding of its teeth.
The silver pole was tracking a course towards the thing’s face.
“Please stop. It doesn’t like it,” Molly pleaded. She reached for Morris’ arm. He jabbed the pole forward and I saw the pad brush against the thing’s teeth. It scuttled, like a spider, on unseen legs backwards a foot, just out of reach. It blinked, and moved its gaze to me. It looked through me and my stomach lurched.
“Holy shit,” Morris exclaimed. I tore my gaze from the tunnel to find Molly pulling Morris’ arm and the pole away from the tunnel. When I turned back to the hole, the creature was gone, replaced by concentrated darkness.
“Why did you do that?” Molly implored. “You scared it. Why?” She began to sob. “Everyone was happy and you ruined it.”
Heather scooped Molly up in her arms. Molly rested her head on Heather’s shoulder and began to cry.
“Come on honey, its ok. Dana and Morris are just trying to help. Let’s get you back to Grandma’s.”
“I don’t want to go. I want to stay until it comes back.”
“Sorry, honey. You can see it another time. Tonight, you’re staying at Grandma’s.”
“She can stay here if she wants,” Martin interjected. Looking at him, I couldn’t say what it was, but his eyes seemed larger than before, and cold.
Heather hesitated. Morris was busy next to me, placing the pad in a plastic bag and sealing and labelling it.
“Please, Martin,” she said, glancing at me and then Morris, “we discussed this. I think it’s best that she goes to Mum’s.”
“No. She’s best with us.”
I stood and took a step towards Heather. I placed an unsteady hand on her shoulder. She was trembling. Molly continued to cry quietly, her tears seeping into Heather’s blouse.
“Martin, we don’t know what we are dealing with here. Maybe it’s best if you listen to Heather and make sure your daughter is safe, where that … thing isn’t,” I said.
He turned his icy gaze on me. Jesus, I regretted speaking. There was real anger there, something that made me feel small and weak. But he didn’t say anything. Heather took her chance and walked slowly from the room. As she reached the doorway, she turned so she did not touch Martin on her way out. Morris, oblivious to the exchange, was happily packing the bag.
“Wow. That was amazing. Sorry about the swearing back there, Martin. But what a find. We’ll look into this and be back tomorrow to provide some thoughts and a way forward.”
“Oh, thanks,” Martin said, turning his gaze from me for the first time since I had crossed him.
Morris shouldered our bag and walked past me and then Martin. I cursed him silently for not waiting. With Martin now focussed on me again, I walked towards the door, trying to stand tall, trying to pretend his gaze was not disconcerting. As I drew level with him, he grabbed my wrist tightly. I froze. I felt all of his power, all of his threat. I felt all of the claustrophobia of my childhood gripping my heart and squeezing.
Martin leaned in uncomfortably close.
“Don’t you ever contradict me in front of my family again, you cunt.” Then he let go and stormed down the hallway before disappearing into the kitchen.
I stood where I was, fighting the urge to piss myself. I felt nauseous. I needed air. I needed to go, but my body wasn’t responding. I took a deep breath, then another. I forced the air in and out, and then I made myself walk, one step after the other until I had regained some control.
I joined Morris in the car, who was busily playing with his phone. I wanted to tell him what had happened, but I knew I wouldn’t. I wanted to go home, but I knew I couldn’t. The tunnel was real and Molly and Heather needed our help. So I started the car and drove off in silence.
The next day, I woke late. I checked my phone, but there were no messages from Morris or the Wells’. I exhaled slowly, relieved. Half a day away from the tunnel, from that house and Martin. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, rose from the bed and ran a shower.
Afterwards, I ordered room service and then rang a couple of colleagues at the Australian National University and the CSIRO. We discussed string theory, wormholes and multiverses, and the work of CERN scientists trying to prove these theories using the Large Hadron Collider. Could the Wells’ tunnel be some kind of door to a parallel universe?
I’d just got off the phone when there was a knock at the door. Room service, I hoped. I opened the door and found Morris. He had a backpack slung over a shoulder, a silver tray in his hands and a slice of stolen toast hanging from his mouth.
“Je-us,” he mumbled through my food, “I ought you’d be eady aye now.” He walked into the room and placed the tray on the bedside table. He removed the toast from his mouth.
“Come on, lass. Dress, eat and then get the car.” He took a large bite from the toast and chewed slowly.
“Help yourself,” I said, shaking my head. I grabbed a piece of bacon from the tray and retired to the bathroom to change.
As I brushed my hair, I tried to relay my recent discussions through the bathroom door to Morris. He occasionally responded with a grunt, but I wasn’t sure if he was paying attention as I could hear him rummaging around outside.
“So, what do you think?” I asked. “Does any of that help us with trying to close the tunnel?”
“Close it? We can’t do that.”
I threw open the door.
“We can’t close it? Then what are they paying us for?”
“Come on, get the car. I’ll show you when we get there.”
Morris had an idiotic grin on his face as he sat before Molly’s wardrobe. From his backpack, he withdrew rope, a torch, five flares, two walkie talkies and an SLR camera. I sat, staring at him incredulously. Heather stood by the door, watching. Molly was at her grandmother’s and Martin, thankfully, was out working.
“You’re kidding,” I hissed under my breath. I didn’t want Heather to hear me. “We’re here to help and … and this is crazy.”
“This is why I got into this work, my girl. This tunnel is phenomenal. I have to explore it.” Morris’ eyes gleamed as he unraveled the rope. He tied one end around his waist.
“You’re not really interested in helping, are you?”
“Of course I am. But Molly is safe, far away from here. That’s how we’ve helped. Now we explore. I know all you ever wanted was to rationalize these things. But I never did. You know that. I want the world to be nonsensical. I want to be dazzled and shocked. I need to see this.”
Morris tied the other end of the rope to the bed. He pulled on it a couple of times. The bed groaned and shifted slightly. It was hardly an anchor, but I supposed the rope would allow him to navigate back. I looked into the tunnel. It was dark and uninviting, but uninhabited.
“And what about it?”
“Molly said it was friendly. I’m hoping she’s right. But if not …”
Morris withdrew a large knife from the backpack. He twisted it, catching the light, then deposited it, along with the flares and camera, back in the bag. He swung the backpack over his shoulder and picked up the torch and the walkie talkies.
“Is this safe?” Heather asked. I opened my mouth to say no. To explain we knew nothing of the tunnel, its physics, its layout or its creature. But Morris beat me.
“Perfectly safe, Heather. I’m a professional.”
He winked at me. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t stop him. And part of me didn’t want to make a fuss in front of Heather. So I just glared. Oblivious, he handed me one of the walkie talkies. I took it without thinking, then he dropped to all fours and began to crawl towards the tunnel.
On the precipice, he switched the torch on and held it aloft. The darkness in the tunnel receded. What had appeared sheer emptiness had form once enlightened. The tunnel was sculpted from ash colored mud. About three meters in, it turned to the right and disappeared.
Other than the ‘clunks’ and ‘clicks’ of the clock in the hallway, the room was silent. I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled loudly. Morris turned and smiled nervously. Then he pushed his right hand, which held the torch, into the tunnel.
Blood pulsed in my temples. I waited for the worst, for Morris to pull his hand back sharply, for him to scream in pain, for anything. But nothing changed. Morris placed his left hand into the tunnel, where it squelched in the mud. The sound was of raw chicken dropped on the floor.
“Uh,” Morris grunted. “It’s cold.”
He continued moving. His head disappeared. His body squeezed in, which blocked most of the torch light. Soon, all I could see was his skinny rump wiggling as he edged forward. As his legs entered, the mud squelched again. I could see the white soles of his shoes, but soon they were fading into darkness. Morris eased around the bend and then was gone from sight, the only sign he still existed was a fading ‘squelch, squelch, squelch.’
God it was hot in here. I wiped sweat from my brow.
“You there?” the radio crackled.
Startled, I nearly dropped the thing, juggling it three times before I caught it.
“After the bend, the tunnel continues relatively straight, but it’s sloping down, deeper into the earth.”
The squelching continued through the radio. There was also a soft scraping noise nearby. I turned and saw loops of rope uncoiling on the floor and disappearing into the tunnel.
“I’m not sure what this substance is. It’s getting wetter. It’s like mud, but somehow foreign. It’s very cool, very slippery. Quite unpleasant really.”
‘Squelch, squelch, squelch.’
“Ok, I seem to be sliding a bit. The slope is becoming more pronounced.”
I cleared my throat.
“And the tunnel is still going straight?”
“Yes … ah, hang on.”
“I’ve found a shaft.”
The squelching stopped. I heard rustling and then a sharp ‘fizz’.
“I’ve just dropped a flare. The shaft isn’t too deep. Maybe ten feet.”
More rustling, then ‘click, click, click’. The camera, I thought. I had a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow.
“Ok, I’m going to lower myself down.”
There was grunting, squelching and then silence. Suddenly, fifteen feet of rope whirred across the floor and into the tunnel.
“Morris, are you all right?”
“Shit, yes. I’m ok. I just slipped. I’ve got a sore arse and I burnt my jeans on the flare.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. I heard a chuckle behind me and turned to find Heather laughing as well. I had completely forgotten she was there. She was very good at disappearing into the scenery. Was that how she dealt with Martin?
“Ok, the tunnel continues here. It’s pretty straight, roughly the same direction as the tunnel above, and it appears to be sloping down even further.”
‘Click, click, click’. More photos. The rope began to slide again. Over half of the coil was gone.
“Ok, I’m moving again. Got to hold on a bit tighter here to stop from sliding. I’m about …”
Static replaced Morris’ voice.
“Morris?” I waited patiently, but there was no response. “Morris?” I shook the radio, but the crackling continued. “Morris?” Nothing.
I dropped the radio with a clatter, and took hold of the rope and pulled. I expected to wind in a bit of slack and then for it to jerk as it grew tight around Morris’ waist. But there was no jerk. I pulled faster, coiling the rope at my feet. Twenty feet, thirty feet, forty feet, and then the end of the rope, frayed and loose, slithered through the grey mud and out onto the bedroom floor. I dropped the rope. My hands, now covered in filthy mud, were trembling uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. What could I do?
Then, over the crackle of the radio, I heard grinding.
“What does that mean?” Heather asked. I could hear the shock in her voice. I turned to answer her, when a screen door squeaked open and then slammed with a ‘bang’. Heather grew pale.
I heard the ‘pad, pad, pad’ of socked feet in the hall and I was suddenly conscious of the pounding of my heart.
Martin appeared in the doorway. Heather moved aside as he entered the room. Those big eyes, which filled his glasses, were calm and cold. The hair on his thick arms was covered in straw and dust, and flecks of mud clung to his calves.
The three of us stood there for a while, staring, not saying anything. Heather broke the silence.
“He … Morris, he went in after it. He’s gone.”
Martin turned his cold gaze on his wife and I felt momentary relief.
“Morris went into the tunnel. Something happened. He’s gone.”
We were silent again. Outside, the grandfather clock chimed twice.
“You stupid woman. I should have trusted my gut. This is a scam. This whole damn thing. They’ll be after more money now.”
“Martin, that’s not true –“
“Shut up. Just shut up.” He turned that gaze on me. “Get out.” I wanted to argue. To beg him for time to … to, I don’t know. I had no idea what to do. Morris was gone, but should I go after him? Should I call the police? I had no idea. So I untied the rope from the bed, bundled it up, picked up the radio and walked past Morris and Heather. Heather pleaded with her eyes for me to stay. But I didn’t.
I could feel Martin’s glare boring into the back of my head as I left the room and walked to the front door.
“Tomorrow,” I heard him say behind me, “we’ll take Molly back to the doctor. And you’re going too.”
Outside, flies buzzed in the heat and dust. When I got into the car, the uncertainty and uselessness I felt welled up into the back of my throat. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. So I let it all out in great wracking sobs. With tears streaming down my face, I started the engine and drove away.
Back at the motel, I began packing. I kept seeing the slack rope and Martin’s eyes. I needed to leave this stifling town. And when I was somewhere cool and familiar, then I’d call the police and try and explain.
My plan was to pay my bill and drive as soon as I finished. But when my bag was full, I was struck by a deep fatigue. The adrenaline had left my system, leaving me exhausted. Maybe, I thought, I’d rest my eyes for half an hour and then regroup. I curled up on the bed and disappeared into the comfort of sleep.
The phone woke me. The room was dark. It felt late. I picked up my mobile and shook the sleep from my head. It was Heather. I hesitated, phone in hand, ready to ignore the call. But I couldn’t. I answered.
“MOLLY’S GONE,” Heather screamed.
“She’s gone. After you left, Martin went and got her. He wouldn’t listen. He … he was so angry. He locked her in her room. Then he went to the neighbours’ to drink. When he left, I … unlocked the door and … and she was gone and the wardrobe was open. Oh, God.” Heather dissolved into sobs.
“How long has she been gone?”
“I don’t know, half an hour, maybe an hour. I don’t know.”
“And Martin, when’s he coming back?”
“Once he starts a session with Roger, he’ll be gone half the night.”
I couldn’t leave. My earlier thinking had been wishful. That poor little girl in the tunnel. And Morris, he might still be in there.
“Ok, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
The house was quiet. I followed Heather to Molly’s room and the only noise was the staccato tapping of our shoes on the hardwood floor. When I drew closer to the room, I saw that the grandfather clock stood open, with the weights and pendulum lying on the floor, mid-clean.
In Molly’s bedroom, Heather opened the wardrobe.
“You’ll bring her back, won’t you?” Heather asked. Her tone lacked conviction.
I withdrew a torch and my phone from my bag.
“I’ve no idea if the phone will work in there, but we’ll try,” I said, before pushing the phone into my front pocket.
I needed to move, before doubt and fear convinced me to stay. I dropped to all fours and crawled towards the tunnel. At the edge, I hesitated. I switched on the torch and swung it from side to side with my left hand, lighting up the grey walls. I took a deep breath, and then began.
My right hand sank into a phlegm-like substance as I crossed the threshold. I edged forward and soon my knees where cold and wet. The mud was slippery, and I found it hard to grip anything. I continued to crawl forward, leading with my right hand then carefully sliding my left knee forward, then the right. Soon, I was at the bend.
Hesitantly, I used the torch to peer around the curve. The next part of the tunnel was empty. And just like Morris had described, it sloped down into the earth.
At this point, I could still go back, I thought. I took a deep breath and pushed the idea away.
The grey mud sluiced against my shirt as I squeezed around the bend. The mud was cold on my ribs and it smelled. The scent triggered a memory of holding the family dog as our vet drained a cyst on its leg. I fought the urge to gag.
As the tunnel fell away it also grew narrower. I pushed ahead, scanning from side to side with the torch, looking for signs of Molly and Morris. What would I do if I found it? I thought. Or worse, if it found me? My breathing grew faster and harsher.
I continued forward. Right hand, left knee, then right knee. One slow shuffle at a time. All the while, I swung the torch, side to side and up and down. But the scenery remained monotonous, grey, and earthy — like a tomb.
I knew the shaft couldn’t be far away, so I stopped for a moment to see if I could spy it in the distance. I was leaning heavily on my right hand, focusing on the moving beam of torchlight, when my hand slipped from under me. Shit. I slammed face first into the mud, then began to slide slowly. I tried to push myself back up on all fours, but I couldn’t get a grip. I twisted onto my side, but gained speed. The tunnel walls began to fly past. Frantically, I kicked and clawed at the walls, but the mud was so slick. I tried to roll back to my stomach, but I’d lost control.
“SHIT,” I yelled.
And then there was nothing beneath me. I had a moment of clarity where I realised I had slid into the shaft. I dropped the torch, flailing with hands and feet, attempting to slow my fall. But nothing gripped. I slammed into the ground, back first, and expelled the wind from my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. I clawed at my neck, trying to will air back in. God, I thought, it felt like I was drowning.
“Huh, huh, huh.”
Finally, small amounts of air crept back in, then more and more, until I started to feel normal again. Once my lungs had expanded again, I noticed the electric pain in my ribs. Had I broken them? I sat up, and my right side screamed in protest. I fished around in the muck and found the torch, realizing I had landed on it. I hit the switch. Nothing. I fought back panic. I shook the torch hard, then flipped the switch a couple more times. On the third go, it lit up the tunnel.
God, what would I have done if that hadn’t worked? Relief became a manic desire to laugh. I fought the instinct, trying desperately to maintain control. To distract myself, I held the torch aloft and surveyed the new section of tunnel. Behind me was grey mud cul-de-sac. In front of me, the tunnel continued relatively straight, but it descended even more sharply into the earth.
My phone rang. I nearly dropped the torch again. Breathing heavily, I withdrew my phone and answered it.
“Are you all right? I heard yelling,” Heather said.
“Yeah, I’ll live.”
“Thank goodness. Have you seen signs of Molly?”
I took a deep breath, which sent pain through my ribs.
“Not yet, I’ll keep going.”
The tunnel was tighter down here. I could barely fit on all fours, so I dropped to my stomach and began to commando crawl. Every time I moved my right elbow, pain shot through my neck and shoulder and down to my hip. But I pushed on, holding the phone in my right hand and the torch in my left. I kept flat to the ground, spreading my elbows and knees to ensure I didn’t slip again.
I knew I was approaching the spot where Morris disappeared. God only knows what I was going to do when — no, I admonished myself — if, I saw it. On the next sweep of the torch, I saw something up ahead. Something familiar and comforting in this foreign world of grey mud.
“Hang on, Heather,” I said. I lowered the torch. “I’ve just found Morris’ backpack.” I wedged the torch in the mud and pulled the bag to me. Inside, I found the knife, four flares and the camera. I removed the camera and tried the power button, but it didn’t work. The batteries were dead, like they had had the life sucked out of them by this strange place.
“Ok, I’ll keep going –“
Through the phone, I heard a ‘bang’ and a clatter in the house.
“Oh shit,” Heather said. “He’s back.”
Martin’s distant yell carried through my phone.
His voice was raw and slurred.
“Heather,” I whispered, “it’s ok, just …” But what advice could I give her? I continued anyway. “He can’t see the tunnel, he probably doesn’t know I’m here. It’s fine. Just handle him like you always do.”
“But your car,” Heather whispered. “I didn’t get you to move it. It was out front.” She began sobbing quietly. I could tell she was trying hard to contain herself.
“HEATHER, WHERE ARE YOU AND THAT FUCKING NOSY BITCH?”
I hated Martin then. Even without seeing him, I knew he was drunk, and angry, and itching for a fight.
“I’ll come back.”
“No,” Heather snapped. She took a deep breath. “No, you’re right. I’ll handle him.”
“Just find Molly, please. I’m his wife. I know how to calm him and, if not, well I’ll just have to wait until he’s run out of steam.”
Oh God, I thought. What if he doesn’t though? I knew what he was. I knew it when I saw the bruise on Heather’s back. What if he beats her to death and I do nothing?
I heard another ‘bang’, and soft footsteps. Then, from much closer to the phone, Martin spoke:
“There you are, honey.”
The phone went dead.
“Heather,” I hissed.
There was a soft buzz coming from the phone. Was Heather still on the line or was that static? Neither, I realized. The sound wasn’t the phone. It was grinding. I swung the torch frantically from side to side. But the tunnel was still empty.
I pushed the phone back in my jeans pocket and then ripped the knife from the backpack with an unsteady hand. Should I continue forwards or backwards? I wanted to go back, desperately, but I fought the panic and edged forward, holding the knife out before me.
The grinding sound strengthened. I could also hear the blood in my temples pulsing as loudly as my ragged breath. I kept going. One elbow after the other. Each lurch forward revealed another empty section of tunnel under the torch’s glare. There was nothing in front of me and yet, the sound persisted. In fact, it was growing louder and louder. The sound was everywhere and yet all I could see in front of me was this damn empty tunnel.
In front of me, I realized with panic. I tried to turn, but the tunnel was so tight. The best I could do was look under my left arm.
I screamed when I spied yellow eyes and teeth racing towards me on tendrils of grey smoke.
I woke in a familiar bedroom.
It was pink, and a clown on a trapeze hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a toy chest, next to a white wardrobe. The bedspread had a princess on it. This was the bedroom I grew up in. But it hadn’t looked like this for twenty years.
I sat up and realised how big the bed appeared. My side hurt, but I couldn’t recall why. I raised my hands before me. Jesus, they were tiny. I jumped to the ground and was shocked at the perspective I had. This wasn’t me. I raced to the wardrobe and swung open the door where I knew there was a mirror. Staring back at me was my six year old self. My golden hair was back. My skin was clear, with only hints of freckling. And I wore a pink, frilly dress. I hesitantly touched my face. I was so shocked by the image in the mirror that it took me a moment to realise I wasn’t alone.
With a start, I noticed Molly hiding in my closet.
“Oh Molly, thank God. It’s me, Dana. Your Mum sent me to find you …” The memories came flooding back — the tunnel, Martin returning home, the thing attacking me. So how did we get here? And where was here?
“You look different,” Molly said.
“Yes, a lot. But it is me. Take my hand and let’s see if we can find a way out of here.”
I extended my hand to Molly, but she shied away and shrunk back further into the closet.
“I can’t. The tall man said I’d get the strap if I moved.”
My mouth was suddenly very dry, so I licked my lips. I’d hidden in this wardrobe many times before, like Molly now.
“What man?” I asked.
“He said to call him Poppy John.”
I swallowed. I knew that was impossible. My stepfather had died when I was eight. But then, I knew this was all impossible. I opened my mouth to reassure Molly when the bedroom door swung open. I turned, and there he was. Tall and wiry with slick, black hair. He held a piece of electrical cord loosely in one hand and he closed the door behind him with the other.
I raised a finger to my lips, then closed the wardrobe.
“I had to finish your chores again, Dana,” he said, calmly. He never lost control. I hated that the most. I used to think if he had been angry when he punished me, it might have made sense.
“I had to finish my homework,” I said, not knowing why I said it.
“Homework, chores, dinner, bed. Your mother told me you watched television after homework.” He took the electrical cord in both hands and snapped it tight.
“Only for a little while.” God what was I doing? This wasn’t me. Well, not anymore.
He stepped closer. Tears welled in my eyes.
“You know the drill. Turn around, hands on the bed. Ten with the strap for not doing your chores.”
“Please, don’t,” I blubbered, but my body moved without conscious direction. I turned my back to him and bent slightly at the waist, placing my hands on the bed. He began to twirl the strap. It whirred and then, ‘crack’.
A lightning bolt lit up my backside. The pain spread up my back and down to my hamstrings. I was bawling freely now.
‘Whir, whir, crack.’
This time the bolt was across my upper thighs. I screamed out.
“Whir, whir, crack.”
Again, the upper thighs. My legs demanded that I run from the pain. So why wasn’t I? Why was I just taking this? I wasn’t six any more.
I stood tall and turned around.
He swung at me again, but I threw out my right arm and deflected the blow. My wrist collected the force of the cord and howled in protest, but I didn’t give him the satisfaction of crying out again.
“That didn’t count. Seven to go.”
My body was trying to turn back to the bed again, but I resisted. I fought tears and screamed the first thing that came to mind.
Poppy John froze. His eyes registered shock and then, to my surprise, grew angry.
“How dare you. That’s another ten.”
But I wasn’t buying it. I realized I was no longer looking up at him. I was me again. I stepped towards him.
“No,” I said. “Your days terrorizing little girls are done.”
I stepped closer again. The anger in his eyes changed to fear. I reached out to snatch the cable from him, but it disappeared. Shocked, I looked back at Poppy John, but it was no longer him. Martin now stood before me, his bulbous eyes filling every millimeter of his glasses.
He lunged at me, grabbed both of my arms and slammed me against the wardrobe.
“WHERE IS SHE?” he roared.
I heard the door next to me squeak. No, Molly, stay put, I thought. But she emerged anyway. Martin looked from me to her.
“You’re coming with me, honey.”
“It’s ok, Dana. He wants me, not you.”
“That’s right, honey,” Martin said, almost with affection. “Come with me and we’ll go somewhere safe.”
His grip loosened on my wrists. I lurched forward, pushing Martin away from me. As he stumbled, I searched frantically for something, anything, with which to defend me and Molly. But Martin recovered quickly. He rushed at me and slapped me hard across the face, knocking me to the floor.
At first I couldn’t see anything but shooting lights or hear anything but rushing water. Then my head began to clear and I found myself looking up at Martin who was standing over me, grinning. His eyes were wild and yellow. A jaundiced yellow. And his teeth — there were too many. I knew then. This thing before me was both Martin and it. Its ugliness, its horror, was Martin’s.
Martin finally turned from me and he grabbed Molly’s hand. Then he led her towards the door.
Defeated, I looked away. As I blinked the tears from my eyes, I found that I was staring under my old bed at a strange object — rectangular and black. At first I could not decipher what I was looking at. But then I realized. It was Morris’ radio. I reached out and took hold of it and pulled it to my chest. It had good weight, I thought. I rose unsteadily to my feet, holding the radio firmly.
Martin was at the door. He reached for the handle as Molly looked back over her shoulder at me with wide eyes. He yanked her forward, oblivious to me in that moment. He was trailed by tendrils of smoke. What had Molly said again? She liked when the creature was in her wardrobe, because Daddy and Mummy did not fight. In Martin, I realized, it was a different beast.
I charged at Martin and swung the radio as hard as I could, my ribs screaming in pain as I did. Martin heard me at the end. He turned at the last moment, causing the radio to explode on the side of his head, just above his yellow, right eye. Martin hit the floor with a ‘thud’. Blood flowed from the gash above his eye and Molly screamed. She looked up at me fearfully and I felt intensely guilty — he was her father after all.
I didn’t know what to say and when I did speak, it sounded shallow.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
Molly turned back to Martin. Then she bent down and brushed his face gently with the back of her hand.
I took a deep breath.
“Molly, we need to go home to your Mum,” I said, extending a hand to her and hoping desperately she would take it.
She stood there for a moment, shaking. Finally, she reached out and grasped my hand.
Now what? I thought. I had no idea how I had come to be in this place, so I had no clear idea as to how to escape. But trying something had to be better than nothing, right?
I opened the bedroom door and found that it led into darkness. Was it another room? The tunnel? Or somewhere else entirely? It was thoroughly uninviting, but what were my options?
“Molly, I need you to be brave, ok?”
“Ok,” she mumbled.
I squeezed her hand, then stepped through the bedroom door. As soon as I did, the world turned upside down. My head began to spin and knuckle bones rattled loudly. I gripped Molly’s hand tightly. The spinning became a disorienting maelstrom, so I closed my eyes. But I could not block out the grinding in my ears. It increased in pitch from a hum, to a buzz, to a brain frying scream.
Then it was gone. The world was silent, except for the tinnitus receding in my ears. I still held Molly’s hand. I opened my eyes and found the spinning had stopped. But it was dark. For a moment, I feared we were back in the tunnel or somewhere worse, but then a door swung open and Molly shrieked.
She ran to Heather who embraced her. Molly, like me, was covered in mud. We were back in the wardrobe and the tunnel was gone.
Heather looked at me from over the top of Molly’s head. I covered my mouth in shock. Her right eye was purple and swollen shut and blood flowed from a gash in her bottom lip. She held Molly’s head tightly to her breast. She rocked her gently, and then she began to shuffle in a semi-circle, placing her body between Molly and the door. I saw why then.
Martin lay in the doorway, his legs in the hall, his head in Molly’s room. It was caved in around the eyes and lying next to it was the bloodied pendulum from the grandfather clock.
Heather appeared calm, almost serene. Perhaps it was the shock. Perhaps it was the knowledge that this was always how it was going to end, with one of them dead.
She nodded towards the door. I rose and pulled the bedspread from Molly’s bed. Before I covered Martin, I checked his pulse, but felt nothing. I looked into his open eyes staring out from behind cracked lenses. They were green. I covered Martin. As I did, Heather scooped Molly up and carried her out of the house. I followed them outside and onto the lawn, where we all slumped to the ground. The night air was cool, crickets whirred and the spiky lawn felt wonderful compared to my memories of mud. Molly was whimpering quietly but, I thought, she would soon sleep.
“Thank you, Dana,” Heather whispered.
I nodded and exhaled slowly.
“So, what now?” I asked.
Heather did not answer immediately. She rocked Molly until she began to snore.
“I was going to leave him, I was,” Heather said.
We sat there quietly for a while, listening to the night and Molly sleeping. Finally, I spoke.
“Shall I make the call?”
Heather sighed, then nodded, hugging Molly tighter to her chest.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the police.
By Nathan Wunner
Five days ago they’d stood in their bedchamber and argued, and Baleel had tried to convince Isfet to flee with him before the armies from the north broke down the city gates.
And she had asked him, “Where will we go? What else is there?”
“Other lands,” he’d said. “Other cities. A life together.”
“Other lands where they force people with skin like ours into slavery. Or prostitution. This is my home, Baleel.”
And then he’d wiped a tear from her eye, and drew his sword.
They marched together to the city gates, and there they spilled blood, gallons of it, enough to drown in. But it wasn’t enough.
And when Isfet fell, Baleel fell down beside her, and he never stopped falling.
Baleel spread his tools out onto the table next to Isfet’s body. A sandstorm raged outside, one that had lasted for days and showed no signs of stopping. Baleel made the space as clean as he could in the short time he had to prepare, but the storm sent the curtains into a frenzy and sharp blasts of sand tore at his skin. The torch fixed into the wall over his head flickered unsteadily, threatening total darkness. The sky was black, the sun just a pale shadow hidden behind a veil of storm clouds.
And though he couldn’t see the fires in the distance, Baleel could smell the scent of smoke on the wind, and with it the scent of death.
Baleel washed Isfet’s hair with sacred oils, and rubbed them into her skin. There’d been no time to let her body dry; nor would there be.
He reached for his ceremonial knife, a slender silver blade with a carved ivory handle, and he sliced into Isfet’s left side, letting her organs spill into a basin at the foot of the table. Some organs he retrieved, placed into jars and sealed. Others were cast into the fire. Once empty, he washed the body cavity and then rubbed a mixture of sand and natron inside, taking care to be as thorough as time would allow.
Baleel worked from memory, recalling similar tasks from his time as an apprentice in the temples, before war had called him to faraway lands. Though he’d never preserved a body himself, he’d been witness to the procedure countless times.
He would’ve gone to a priest now, were they all not lying eviscerated in the streets. He would’ve consulted the holy scriptures, if the libraries and churches had not been reduced smoldering ash.
Baleel sewed up the gash in Isfet’s side, and carefully parted her eyelids. And then, as he gazed into his beloved’s eyes, he paused for a moment. He leaned back into the wall and used it to brace himself against a wave of dizziness. He sat for several minutes in this way, running his fingers across his blistered scalp and shaking his head. He screamed prayers and curses at every god he had a name for.
The sand, indifferent to his plight, continued to beat against the outer walls, determined to wear the stone down to nothing. Even if it took forever.
Baleel looked away as he removed Isfet’s eyes, and he didn’t dare glance back at her corpse until the eyes were sealed away, covered with cloth so that he would never have to look upon them again. He used bits of the same linen cloth to stuff the empty sockets.
The sinuses were penetrated with a bamboo stick, and Baleel emptied the head cavity, tossing the bits of gray flesh that came loose into the fire. Then, finally, he rubbed Isfet’s skin with sand, and wrapped her body with linen strips.
Finished, he carried her outside to the hole he’d prepared, one deep enough to keep the dogs from digging her up, but not so deep he couldn’t get her back out.
There was only one thing left to find, and his work would be complete, a vessel for her soul.
The onset of night was signaled by the chill in the wind and the howling of wild dogs. Baleel wandered in the sands outside the city walls. He pretended that he couldn’t smell burning bodies, and he covered his ears to block out the screams of those still living.
He had already given everything he had to protect the city. It had not been enough. He prayed for a quick death for those still suffering, and continued on his way.
The armies from the north had raped and pillaged and simply moved on to the next city. Baleel’s home was an empty husk now, heart torn out and the cavity left hollow.
With all of the priests dead, the only ones left who knew the path to the lands of the spirits were the spirits themselves. Baleel wandered the desert in search of the Khu caravan, which was said to appear when the winds turned frigid and the scent of death lingered in the air.
He spied the battered wagons and black tents of the caravan in the distance. Dozens of shadows with pearls for eyes and red mouths sat huddled around the campfires. These were the Khu, the dead that would not rest.
Baleel had covered his skin with ash so that he might look like them, and he’d gone unwashed since disemboweling Isfet so that they might not smell a human in their midst until he’d retrieved the information he needed. But as he walked through their camp he felt their eyes at his back. The gaze of the Khu was like a whispered breath at the nape of his neck, or a fingernail up his spine.
Baleel refused to meet their eyes. He was concerned he’d show revulsion at the sight of their wretched faces, and he didn’t want to call any attention to himself. There was only one here that could help him, a spirit he’d heard mention of back in his days as an apprentice at the temples. The priests there had spoken of this Khu only reluctantly, on cold nights, by the dying light of sputtering candles. They’d called it Abel, and told Baleel that he was a priest whose body was lost on a pilgrimage. Abel never had the funerary rites performed on him, and he held his fellows in contempt for being forced to wander the sands as a monster.
Baleel drew close to the center of the caravan. In the distance it seemed the entire world was smoke and sand and flame; but within the caravan the air was still, and humid enough that Baleel began to sweat. Up ahead, next to a large fire, he caught sight of a spirit wearing the familiar robes of a priest. The spirit was impossibly tall, its shadow like a palm tree swaying across the dunes. Its face, like that of the other Khu, was a blur, indistinct features that seemed constantly in motion, like the sand in the heat of the midday sun. The priest stood before a wooden table stained red with blood and dripping with gleaming bits of white gristle, and with a large knife it hacked away at several large carcasses that Baleel preferred to think were animal, even if he knew better.
“Abel,” Baleel whispered, and in response the priest raised its head ever so slightly and bared its teeth in a rictus grin that stretched across its dark face.
As Baleel approached, Abel extended his hand and offered him a nugget of raw red meat. Baleel hesitated, and in that moment he felt the other Khu press in close and surround him. Glints of teeth in bright red maws reflected in the light of the flame, and threatening stares were fixed upon him from the shadows.
Baleel, realizing he had no other option, took the strip of flesh from Abel’s hand and swallowed it down in one quick gulp.
Abel seemed pleased at this, and set down his knife. “You seek something…” He hissed with a voice like the sound of someone’s dying breath.
“A cup,” Baleel answered.
“A container for a soul.” Abel lifted its knife with bony, sharp fingers and hacked away at the leg of one of the bodies on the table until it split the thigh of the corpse from the pelvis. “Find a priest,” he said.
“All the priests are dead,” Baleel replied, and as he spoke these words Abel laughed maniacally. The other Khu joined him in his revelry, until their terrible mirth became ear-piercing.
“Did you kill them?” Abel asked.
“I didn’t save them,” Baleel answered. Abel seemed pleased at his answer.
“Only a priest can set foot in the land of the spirits and expect to return alive,” Abel said. “And you are no priest.”
“I must go, all the same.”
Abel extended one claw-like finger up to the sky, and as Baleel followed it with his eyes a star appeared, barely visible in the midst of the storm clouds and lightning and swirling torrents of sand. “Follow that star,” Abel said.
Baleel nodded and turned to leave, but Abel’s icy hand clutched his shoulder, sending a chill throughout his entire body. “A favor has been granted,” he hissed in Baleel’s ear. Baleel heard Abel’s knife slice through the air, shearing through bone and sinew and striking the table with a loud thwack. “A debt will be paid.”
Baleel left the camp as fast as his feet would carry him.
The Khu star led Baleel far from the city. The sun rose, and then set, and rose again, and still the star seemed no closer.
Baleel’s legs grew weary, and the shifting earth beneath his feet started to feel like a quicksand threatening to pull him down and bury him forever. He saw images of his failure. In his mind’s eye he saw Isfet’s soul lost and left adrift, wandering the black of oblivion with no idea why she’d been abandoned by her love.
Baleel quickened his pace. Eventually the ground beneath his feet grew more firm, and though the fierce wind still scratched at his skin there was less sand to make his eyes and skin sting.
Baleel saw an oasis before him, down a series of small hills. A pool of sparkling blue water sat at its center, flanked by tall, leaning palms and a series of irregularly shaped rocks. The star Baleel had followed hovered just above the oasis.
As Baleel descended the hills, he saw that the rocks weren’t stone at all, but massive bones belonging to no beast he’d ever seen. There were rib cages, almost whale like in size, and skulls with teeth the size of a child and eye sockets a grown man could curl up inside of.
A man waited just ahead, at the edge of the water, draped in black robes. His eyes were yellow, and he was pale of skin like the men of the north that lived beyond the great desert.
The man’s features blurred like heat rising from the sand, and Baleel was sure he must be another of the Khu.
The Khu sat cross legged, palms resting on his shins, and he lifted his head slightly to meet Baleel’s gaze. Something in the Khu’s stare made Baleel halt, and as he looked on the spirit sniffed at the air. “I can smell your kinsman burning all the way out here,” the Khu said mockingly. “Have you fled the battle, and any chance of an honorable death? Is it cowardice that’s led you here to me?”
“I am no coward.” Baleel clenched his fists.
Moments passed with naught but the sound of the wind rolling across the sand dunes. Then the Khu rose to his feet and disrobed, revealing a chest covered with strange, black markings that made Baleel’s head ache when he stared too long at their patterns. “I know what you seek.” The Khu smiled. “I know why you’ve abandoned your brothers in the last moments of their lives. The choice is yours, of course, but would you like to know how many of your people have perished cursing your name?”
Baleel bit his tongue, and thought once again of Isfet. She was counting on him. Waiting for him to return.
With no warning the Khu dove into the waters of the oasis. Baleel hastily removed his robes and followed.
The waters of the oasis were dark, and impossibly deep. There were no landmarks to gage how far down he was plunging, but Baleel felt the pressure of the water grow heavier, the weight of it forcing him down faster than his own limbs could propel him, as if he were being drawn down into the maw of a whale.
Baleel’s lungs screamed for air. He knew that even if he turned back he wouldn’t have enough breath left to reach the surface. The Khu descended faster by the second, now barely a speck of light in the abyss.
Already damned, Baleel decided to see how far down he could go. He felt his pulse throbbing behind his temples, his heart furiously pounding at his ribcage. Down he went, further and further, until there was no light left.
His body betrayed his will in the end, reflexively forcing his mouth open to draw in air that wasn’t there. The water forced its way down his throat, and it felt as though he’d been frozen over, filled with ice. He felt himself falling.
Baleel awoke to the sound of his own retching as he heaved up water onto a stone floor. After several minutes he stopped retching and rolled over onto his back, desperately gasping for air.
The room he found himself in was like a tomb. Bones and skulls lined its walls, some obviously human, some belonging to creatures he had not even heard tales of. The remains were like that of a man, but with small differences. Some had teeth too long, or claws for hands, or wings fixed to the shoulder blades. It might have been a trick of the light, but the room seemed to shrink, and those hideous remains seemed to press in closer and loom over him.
The Khu sat in the corner, its form blended into the stone with only the yellow fire of its eyes to give away its presence. “I wanted to see if you’d turn back,” it said. Baleel didn’t have the strength to be angry at it, or even respond. It was all he could do to draw air through his raw throat and into his starved lungs.
The Khu tossed a red satin robe at Baleel’s feet, and left the room through an unlit opening that revealed nothing of what lay beyond. Baleel forced himself to his feet and followed.
The next chamber was carved from obsidian, with uneven walls and floors that could only have been hollowed out by water, and time, and the trembling of the earth. Pools of water sat at even intervals in the floor, casting a flickering blue glow across the ebon walls. Baleel couldn’t tell how far down the pools went, nor could he see the source of the light that arose from them.
Above him, suspended from the ceiling, were the bones of some massive, alien thing. So fearsome was its countenance that it could have been the Leviathan of legend.
Baleel and the Khu walked for several minutes, all the while in the shadow of that terrible beast. It almost seemed to move in the dancing blue light, like a predator creeping through the grass, murder in its eyes, waiting for Baleel to let his guard down so it could swallow him whole.
“There are dozens of rooms like this,” the Khu explained, his voice echoing and sending ripples across the surface of the still pools. The skeleton suspended above them creaked and swayed, shedding dust that drifted down slowly through the stale air. “Perhaps even hundreds. And each room contains the remains of other creatures just like this. Can you imagine a time when the land was swallowed by the sea, and things as terrible as this, or even more so, swarmed the earth like insects?”
All Baleel could imagine was Isfet suffering, calling out to him. His memory of her face was already becoming a blur.
“We came from these same oceans, wriggled and crawled our way up onto land. And everything in the oceans came from the earth itself, and the earth from dead stars, and the stars from the black, before the beginning of time. And the black is infinite. Great enough to swallow even these ancient dragons whole.” The Khu laughed. “How small must this make one such as you feel? How tiny, in the face of eternity?”
Their footfalls were comparable to the sound of leaves falling on wet ground in the silent void of those immense chambers. The Khu hadn’t lied; Baleel followed him into room after room, and in each he saw suspended above him things that made him shudder when he tried to imagine what they must have looked like when they had lived.
At last they came to a small room, a mere closet compared to the others. It’s floor was covered with discarded cups, thousands of them, strewn about like refuse. The Khu reached down and retrieved a small clay cup, and handed it to Baleel. “Here you are. That should get your soul wherever it is that it needs to go,” the Khu said. “Do you ever wonder where that is? The afterlife, I mean. Here in these chambers lie the discarded carcasses of the beasts that lived before. But where are the eternal oceans in which their souls still swim, I wonder? What do their monstrous maws still feed upon?”
“I have no answer for these questions,” Baleel said, turning the small cup over in his hands. The Khu’s words had drawn doubt up within him, a doubt that had been there all along, but that he’d been trying to force out of his mind. Would this cup, this tiny thing fashioned by human hands, actually transport a soul to another land?
Or was it just clay and empty air?
“Not many priests make the journey anymore. You’re the first in centuries.” Baleel didn’t meet the Khu’s gaze, in part to avoid the question, and in part to avoid the wave of dizziness that washed over him at the sight of its constantly shifting face.
“Are you surprised to learn that your fellow priests have been so lax in their duty as caretakers of the souls of their flock?”
Baleel decided to confirm what the Khu already knew. “I’m no priest.”
“Then you’re aware of the rules you’ve violated?” The Khu’s voice became shrill, like a needle piercing Baleel’s eardrum. “The sacred pacts you’ve ignored by bringing your unclean body into a holy temple?”
“I understand.” Baleel nodded solemnly.
“Then you are more aware of the consequences of your actions than any priest I’ve met in millenia. Come.” The Khu walked to the threshold, back to the yawning entrance of the mausoleum beyond. “Even I am not permitted to dwell here for too long.”
They left by the same path they had come, but this time Baleel became aware of flashes of movement at the edges of his vision. He saw writhing shapes visible for but the briefest of moments, shadows that flitted beyond archways, dark blurs that skimmed the surfaces of those clear blue pools. From somewhere behind them there was a shuffling sound, like something dragging its feet across the stone. Even the Khu quickened its pace at the sound.
Something brushed against Baleel’s back, first with the weight of a gust of wind, then a second time more forcefully, as though someone had physically pushed him forward. He felt hands grasp at his heels, his shoulders, holding him in place sure as quicksand. Cold hands, that reeked of rotten meat, and of the smell of the ocean at low tide. The Khu was facing Baleel, walking backwards, smiling all the while. The walls of the chamber trembled, and there was a great roar, like that of the Leviathan shaking off the dust of ages, come to consume the world. Baleel’s vision turned red, and then black.
Baleel awakened in the oasis, robes soaked wet with water that smelled of kerosene. The clay cup that the Khu had given him was held tightly in his right hand, and the Khu itself sat cross legged in the sand, paying Baleel no heed. Baleel turned to depart, but the Khu addressed him, “Do you understand why we denizens of the other world are so eager to help you?” it asked.
“Because you aren’t helping me at all,” Baleel answered. “You’re damning me.”
“Then at least you understand.” The Khu smiled, and then it faded into the shadows of the bones.
“But you are helping Isfet.” Baleel whispered, marching back to the burning ruin that was his home. “I pray to God you’re helping Isfet.”
Isfet lay just where Baleel had left her. She looked nothing like she did just a few days ago. She looked… gone. Empty as the city burning in the distance, empty as the cup he so desperately clutched in his hand.
Baleel pulled the wrappings away from her mouth, held the clay cup up to her chin and parted her lips. He’d seen the priests do this countless times. Many people in attendance at the funerals he’d attended claimed they could see the soul, white hot and glowing, leave the deceased’s body.
Back then, Baleel never saw anything.
He waited over Isfet patiently, praying to see some glimmer of light, some sign of movement.
And after a too long period of silence, a tiny wisp of a breath left Isfet’s body, a small thing that you’d never hear unless all the world held its breath for a moment. You’d never see it either, not from even three feet away, so subtle was her movement. But Baleel heard it. He saw it. He wouldn’t be sure of that fact moments from now, nor would he be in the many sleepless nights to come when he’d toss and turn in doubt. But for right now, for as far as he’d traveled and for the friends he’d sacrificed, it was enough.
The breath went into the cup (or up into the air and away on the wind, who knew?) and then Baleel closed the mouth of his beloved, and kissed her forehead, and wiped his tears off of her cheeks, and covered her body and the cup with sand. Someday, tomorrow, or perhaps long after he was gone, the gods would return. They would take Isfet and use her last breath to return life to her body, and carry her away to paradise.
Up ahead Baleel spied the haunted lights of the Khu caravan inching closer. He imagined Abel would soon come calling, looking for repayment for his guidance.
Baleel pulled a knife from his robes and watched the blade shimmer in the firelight. He’d given this some thought. Perhaps he could catch up to the northern army, bloated and groggy as they must be from eating all of his people’s grain and drinking their spirits. If he approached them in the night, in their tents sleeping, then perhaps he could offer Abel twenty dead before he fell to their blades?
But for now, Baleel went to lie down next to the spot where Isfet was buried. Perhaps it would be the last time they would lie near each other.
He stared up and watched bits of fiery ash drift through the night air like snowflakes. The city still burned, and smoke still filled his lungs, but he thanked god that at least the screaming had stopped.
Baleel closed his weary eyes and dreamed of fields of green grass dotted with yellow flowers, of a clear lake at twilight with fireflies skimming its surface, and of Isfet dancing and smiling, free.
And he wished with all his heart that dreaming it were enough to make it true.
By Jamie Lackey
Akina pushed her long hair back so her father’s visitors would be able to glimpse her pointed ears and golden eyes. Her father wanted them to see that she was the daughter of a kitsune–no other man alive had a daughter who was half fox, and Lord Kisho knew how to display his unique acquisitions.
Akina posed beneath a sakura tree in her father’s garden. Delicate pink petals floated around her. They settled in her black hair and in the folds of her pale blue kimono.
She tried to enjoy the sunshine, cool spring breeze, and her momentary privacy. She wasn’t hidden inside behind screens like her sisters. She reminded herself that there were good things about being less-than-human.
A flash of movement caught Akina’s eye. A three-tailed silver fox jumped onto a rock in the reflecting pool. It winked at her and bowed.
Lord Kisho had Akina’s mother stuffed and kept her on display, but Akina had never seen a live fox before. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was larger than her mother, and its pelt glistened like thick winter ice. It jumped from the rock and trotted up to Akina. “Hello, Akina.”
“You shouldn’t be here!” she whispered. She imagined him stuffed, on display next to her mother. “If my father catches you, he’ll kill you!”
The fox sat down by her feet. “We have a few minutes. I am here to rescue you.”
“Yes. Don’t you long to escape?”
“It’s impossible. My father has guards and hunters and the walls are too high to climb.” Akina imagined a life free of her father, free of the constant fear that if she didn’t please him, he’d stuff her just as he had her mother.
“And yet here I am.”
“You shouldn’t be!” Akina heard footsteps approaching. “They’re coming! Run! Hide yourself!”
The fox stood and bowed to her again. “My name is Yukio. You will see me again.”
“I have found a man who wants to marry you,” Akina’s father announced as he strode into Akina’s small room. “Come to my garden once you are presentable.”
Akina nodded numbly and let a maid dress her like a doll. She wondered if Yukio would follow to her new husband’s home. She wondered what sort of man wanted a wife who was not fully human.
Her throat tightened. She swallowed and patted a tear off of her cheek, careful not to smudge her face, then went to her father’s garden.
The man standing beside Lord Kisho took Akina’s breath away. He was tall and slender, with hair the color of midnight and eyes like storm clouds over the mountain.
This was the man who wanted her?
The servant behind him glanced up at her, and she glimpsed gold in his eyes as he winked at her.
Yukio? Could he have arranged for this man to take her away from her father?
“Daughter, this is Lord Botan.”
Akina smiled at the stranger without meeting his eyes.
“She is everything that you promised, Lord Kisho.” Lord Botan’s soft tenor sent shivers up Akina’s spine. Was it fear or desire? How could she not know the difference?
Akina stood awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. She’d never been trained in proper etiquette–her father had wanted her mannerisms to be quaint. The silence stretched, and when Akina couldn’t stand another moment, she blurted, “I’m glad that you find me pleasing, my lord.”
Lord Botan’s left cheek dimpled as he smiled.
“You are dismissed, Akina, my fox-child.” Lord Kisho said, his voice soft and tender in a way that Akina had never heard before. She wondered what he had received in trade for her hand. “Go and pack your things. You will be leaving at dawn tomorrow.”
Someone had already packed Akina’s few possessions. She threw herself down on her futon and buried her face in her pillow, unsure whether she wanted to laugh or cry. She fell asleep before she could decide.
Akina woke with a warm furry body curled underneath her chin. His fur tickled.
Yukio picked himself up and stretched. “Good morning, my lady,” he said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was sleeping.” The fox yawned and stretched again.
“Why were you sleeping here?” Akina looked around. The world outside was concealed by swirling fog, and they were alone in the room.
“I’m in love with you. I’ve been watching you for months. You’re so sad. So lonely.” The fox transformed into the servant she’d seen earlier standing behind her future husband. His human face still held hints of his true nature, with his gold-tinged eyes and pointed chin. He took her hands in his. “I know I can make you happy. Come, run away with me now. I can lead you out, and we can live the rest of our lives together in freedom.” He leaned forward and kissed her.
Akina had never been kissed before. It was awkward and wet and not at all like she’d pictured.
Yukio transformed back into a fox. “Come quickly! Change into a fox and we’ll escape!”
“I don’t know how to change into a fox.”
“But it’s becoming a human that’s the hard part. Changing back is easy,” Yukio said.
“I’ve always been a human.” Akina looked down at her hands and tried to picture them as paws. She couldn’t. “I don’t know how to transform.”
“I’ll teach you. We’ll just have to stay among the humans for a while longer.” Yukio transformed into a human again and squeezed her hand. “I’m a good teacher.” He kissed her, and this time it was less awkward. “You’ll see.” He transformed back into a fox and scurried to the door. He turned back one last time. “Don’t be afraid. I will watch over you.” He disappeared into the mist.
Akina stared after him, not sure how she felt. She’d let him kiss her. Twice. And the second time she’d felt something stirring in her chest. If she could change into a fox, would she go with him? She curled up on her futon. Her pillow smelled like cinnamon and mud. Like Yukio. She buried her face in the smell. She wanted to cry again. She wished she knew why.
The marriage ceremony was short.
She’d never had sake before. She didn’t like the sour taste or the way it burned her mouth and throat, but she did like the dizzy, dreamy way it made her feel. After the wedding, Akina was packed into a palanquin along with all of her belongings. She felt like another trunk. The idea made her giggle.
Something furry landed in her lap. “Yukio!” she exclaimed.
He looked up at her, his gold eyes filled with alarm. “Shhh! The servants carrying us will hear you! What are you shouting about?”
“I’m happy to see you!” Akina tried to keep her voice down to a whisper.
“I’ve never been drunk before.”
“Were you really happy to see me?” Yukio asked.
Akina kissed his cold nose. “I am.” Things seemed simpler now. Of course she could become a fox, and of course she’d go with Yukio. He loved her. He was nice. She liked the strange way he smelled.
“Lord Botan will come for you soon. You’re going to stop at an inn, and he’ll take you to his private room. Don’t–don’t struggle. And don’t fall in love with him. Please.”
The desperation in Yukio’s voice penetrated Akina’s happy haze. She stroked his furry cheek. “I’ll try not to.”
Before she could decide what he meant–that she wouldn’t struggle, or that she wouldn’t fall in love–the door flew open. Yukio vanished.
Strong hands pulled her out of the palanquin, and Lord Botan carried her to the inn.
They didn’t exchange a word. He was very gentle, and much better at kissing than Yukio. He smelled like grass and clean silk, and his skin was soft and warm. She fell asleep in his arms when they were finished.
She woke alone. The room was dark and cold. She pulled the blankets tight around her. She felt bruised and sore and lonely.
After another day of travel they reached Lord Botan’s estate. Akina was given a maid and her own private garden. Lord Botan visited her every night. He left her presents–a fan or a comb for her hair. He was kind and gentle. He wrote her poetry and told her stories.
Yukio came to her garden every afternoon to teach her to transform into a fox. “You have to change your mind, first. Then your body will follow.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It does, especially the first time,” Yukio said. “But it gets easier. I hardly notice any pain at all, now.” He transformed and grinned at her, then shifted back into fox-form.
Akina reached up and touched the comb in her hair. It was her newest present. She wondered if Lord Botan would notice that she was wearing it, and if it would please him if he did.
“You’re not paying attention,” Yukio said.
“I’m sorry, Yukio. I’ll try to do better.”
“You’re falling in love with him.”
“What? Yukio, don’t be silly. Would I try to transform into a fox if I was in love with him?” Would she? Was she falling in love? He did seem to be in her thoughts almost constantly. Was that love? Or was it the fluttery feeling in her stomach when she saw Yukio slip into her garden every afternoon?
“You’re not trying.”
“Yes, I am!”
“You are not! You’re falling in love with him and you don’t love me.”
“You’ve never told me how you feel about me, you know. You know I love you, but you’ve never even said that you care about me at all.”
“I do care about you, Yukio.”
“Do you love me?”
“I don’t know.” Akina’s throat tightened. “I don’t know if what I feel for you is love, or if what I feel for Lord Botan is, or if neither of them is.”
“Well, I love you. I always will. And I can guarantee you that even if Lord Botan loves you now, he won’t always. Eventually you’ll be just another possession to him.
“I’m giving you a choice–I won’t make you come with me, as much as I’d like to. I know choosing will be hard–you’ve never made a decision before. If you stay here with him, you’ll never have to again.”
“He’s not like my father.” Akina thought of Lord Botan’s gentle hands and his soft voice. His amazing eyes.
“I’m leaving. I will tell Lord Botan that I must go home. I’ve taught you enough that if you really practice, really try, really want to, you’ll be able to change. I’ll wait for you in the forest to the east every night when the moon is full. For as long as I live, I’ll wait there for you one night a month.” He transformed into a man and kissed her.
Even though she was used to kisses now–smooth experienced kisses from Lord Botan–Yukio took her breath away. He was kissing her with everything that he was. Akina closed her eyes. He still smelled like cinnamon and mud, and he tasted like honey. The kiss ended, and when Akina opened her eyes an instant later, he was gone.
Lord Botan didn’t notice that she was wearing the comb. But he gave her a delicate yellow kingyo blossom and recited a poem that he’d written about it.
When Yukio didn’t come to her garden the next day, Akina wept for the first time since her wedding. She didn’t want to choose. She wanted both.
She concentrated on thinking like a fox. She needed to see Yukio again. She wanted to tell him that someone loved her would never cause her so much pain. And she wanted him to kiss her again.
“Akina!” A voice like bells roared in Akina’s ear.
A glowing blue-white figure stood over her. It was both a woman and a fox.
“Yes. I am your mother. Your mother who worked so hard, who sacrificed everything to make sure that you would be human.” She knelt next to Akina and scowled. “And now you are trying to become a fox.”
Akina’s mother held up a hand that was also a paw. “Being human is better. Look at you! You’re wearing a silk kimono. You have combs made out of jade! You have servants to feed you and a husband to make love to you. Do you think foxes make love? No! They breed. Like animals. You are not an animal.”
“I’ve been trying to learn to be a fox for weeks. Why have you come now?” Akina asked.
“You played at it before. Now you are making progress.”
“I want freedom.”
“Life is a trap.” Akina’s mother rested her hand against her daughter’s face. It felt like a winter breeze against Akina’s skin. “You must let your silly fox-lover go, Akina.”
“But he loves me.” As Akina whispered the words, she realized how important Yukio’s love was to her.
“I loved your father. You’ve seen where that got me.”
“Yukio isn’t like my father.”
“He loves you because you are human–because you’re dangerous and strange and wonderful. He doesn’t love you for yourself. He cannot love. He is a fox.”
“But so are you.”
Akina’s mother’s eyes burned blue with anger. “I am a woman! I worked hard to become one. If your fox wants to be with you, he should rescue you like a man would! Instead, he wants you to give up your humanity to be with him.”
“He just wants me to be true to myself,” Akina said.
“You were born a woman. Becoming a fox is not true to yourself. Promise me you will stop.”
“I can’t promise that, mother.”
The ghost glared and faded away. Akina stared up at the ceiling until she drifted into nightmares. She ran on four legs, then two, then four again. She ran as fast as she could, but didn’t escape the hunters. She woke with the baying of dogs echoing in her ears.
Akina lay with her head pillowed on Lord Botan’s chest. She wanted the touch of his skin and the sound of his heartbeat to sooth her. They didn’t.
“I need you to sit in your garden tomorrow afternoon. Make sure that your ears and eyes are visible,” Lord Botan said.
She sat up, trying to conceal her alarm. “As I sat on display for my father?”
Lord Botan nodded. “Just so.”
“As you wish, my lord.” She could barely breathe. Yukio was right. His prophecy about Lord Botan had taken less than a month to come true.
Akina did as her husband asked. After his guests left, he told her that he had a special gift for her for playing her role so perfectly. Akina hoped for a new kimono, then felt ashamed. Was her love that easily bought? Would she let him use her as long as he continued to give her pretty things? Why did Yukio waste his time with her?
Lord Botan kissed her. Then he called for a servant to bring in her present. Akina took the silk-wrapped package and began unwinding the fabric. She found herself staring at her mother’s stuffed corpse. As she looked into the dead fox’s flat black glass eyes, it was all Akina could do not to retch and run crying from the room.
“What’s wrong, my flower? Don’t you like your gift?”
Akina tried to force a smile. She couldn’t force any sound past the lump in her throat.
“I felt that she belonged here with you,” Lord Botan said.
“Thank-you,” Akina choked out. Was this a warning? Or could he truly think that her mother’s corpse was a kind gift?
He patted her head. “Take her back to your rooms. I’m sure you’re tired.”
It would be their first night apart since their wedding. Akina saw winter in his eyes.
Akina went to her garden and burned her mother’s body. She kept the fire small and sat close to it, hiding it with her body. Harsh blue-white smoke swirled around her until her kimono, hair, and skin smelled like burning fur. Akina expected her mother’s ghost to rise from the flames and speak to her again, but the fire sputtered and died, leaving a pile of hot gray ash.
She buried them. She dug with her hands, not caring when the hard dirt ripped at her fingernails. Tears blurred her vision, and for an instant her hands looked like silver paws. “Rest, now. Sleep, and know that no one will look at your pain with pleasure ever again.” She wiped her tears away with dirty hands and stared at her broken nails. “I can’t follow your advice, Mother. I’m sorry.”
There was a bouquet of pale purple ajisai resting on her pillow when she reached her futon. She picked up the fragile-looking four-petaled blossoms slowly and held them to her nose. The flowers smelled like cinnamon and mud. “Yukio?” She looked around the room, hoping desperately. “Are you there? Please, you were right, I’m sorry.” After a few minutes, her hope faded, and she realized that she was alone. He was gone. She curled up on her futon and tried to think like a fox.
She dreamed of running through the forest on four silver paws. She tried to catch Yukio, but no matter how fast she ran all she could do was catch a glimpse of his silver tails.
The next day, Lord Botan left to attend to some business in the capital. He wouldn’t return until three days after the next full moon. As he rode away, tall and handsome on his dark horse, Akina found herself hoping to never see him again.
The world shifted when she managed to transform her eyes. Lines grew sharper, but colors jumbled together. The green grass looked the same as her yellow kimono. It gave her a headache that forced her to spend the rest of the day lying on her futon, sipping strong tea.
She tried again the next day and her sense of smell grew tenfold before pain stopped her.
Her maid fretted over her headaches. She thought that Akina was wasting away because she missed her husband.
Days passed. The morning of the full moon arrived, and she still hadn’t managed to transform.
She couldn’t face another month in her lovely garden. She feared that Lord Botan would return and be kind to her–that his presence might weaken her resolve. She did not want to be bought, even with kindness and gifts.
She closed her eyes and focused. Her senses changed. Then, her whole body began to shift. Her bones and muscles shortened and compacted. Her joints popped and crunched as they reformed. Her teeth grew sharp, her tongue thin. Pain screamed from every inch of her being, but she refused to stop. Her half-formed body slumped sideways, and she passed out.
She woke as the moon rose. The rock that she’d been sitting on loomed above her. She looked down at her body–at her four furry legs and dainty paws. Her fur was the color of moonlight. She had three tails, just like Yukio. She rolled around and laughed in triumph.
Akina stood on the wall that surrounded her husband’s estate. She looked down at her beautiful garden and her comfortable rooms, at the spot where she’d buried her mother’s ashes. Then she looked at the dark trees below her. She thought of Lord Botan–memories of their nights together still excited her, and she would miss her kimonos and pretty combs. But living with Lord Botan as a half-human wasn’t what she wanted.
She wanted the honey-taste of Yukio, the freedom and danger that went with being a fox and not having beautiful gardens or comfortable rooms, the safety of being with someone who loved her enough to let her make her own choices.
She slipped down from the wall and ran toward the woods a quickly as her new feet would take her. Yukio was waiting.
An Accounting of the Sky
By Rebecca Schwarz
Before they called me witch, they called me healer.
The elders find me in my garden at sunrise, three hale and healthy old men with bright fear burning in their eyes. The Inquisitor motions to his guards, but I wave them off. “I can walk,” I snap, taking a firm grip on my cane and shuffling past my slouching hut. My dignity, and stiff joints, require a stately pace. I will not endorse their plans for me with argument or struggle. Out on the road to the village, pride keeps me from looking back at the garden where a small congregation of sparrows still chatter over the seeds I’d just thrown them.
Over the years, desperate young mothers and fathers arrived at my door holding fevered infants too weak to cry. Breathless children were sent to fetch me, bouncing on the balls of their feet while I made a show of selecting herbs from the garden before following them to the house of an ailing relative. The road blurs and I blink the tears from my eyes. My garden. It was for show. A ruse. Of course, I can brew teas with an analgesic or soporific effect, make a poultice to draw out infection, but this is not my gift.
It is my touch.
When my fingers were tangled in the damp hair of a fevered woman’s head as I helped her drink some concoction, or by laying my hand on a child’s burning brow, this is the means by which I draw their affliction into me. For years I have done this and more. Village boys, returning from the Crusades as haunted soldiers, came to me tormented by memories of the unspeakable things they’d witnessed, or committed. I would lay my hands on them and take those memories.
After each visit, I would crawl into my bed thrashing in the damp sheets, bound by nightmares, battling all the maladies of their bodies and their souls. As soon as I was strong enough, I would limp out to my weedy garden, sit in the sun and smell the green aroma of the leaves, watch the insects’ busy industry – but most of all I would listen to the birds. The sparrows, the starlings and the hawks who, each in their own tongue, would give an accounting of the sky. I have come to prefer the company of these creatures who care not at all for pains and worries of those of us bound to the earth.
The road turns toward the center of the village, and there they all are gathering wood for my bonfire. I straighten up as much as my back will allow and try to swallow the hard feelings that sit like a stone my throat. The Inquisitor’s guards move to flank me.
I’ve claimed the suffering and bad memories they could not bear, carrying all of it with me like a pack animal. For what I take, I must keep. I was a beauty once, now I am a crone with pitted skin, a twisted back, and hairs sprouting from my wobbling chin. What do they see when they look at me? Shadows of the dark and frightening things that were once inside them. Did they realize they wanted me gone before the Inquisitor arrived? Or am I simply an expedient offering? A bribe so that the Inquisitor will leave this village in peace.
A cure that may not last, I’m afraid.
The village has prospered. There are so many of them, straight and strong and healthy. Beautiful, even now. They’ve flourished under my touch. They crowd in as I pass, hushed. None of them will look at me – except for one. Mary. The baker’s daughter, she would come to my door with her mortar and pestle and a thousand questions about how to use the herbs in my garden to heal people. I taught her what I knew, which wasn’t much. I cannot give her the touch. She will be able to provide only what relief the plants can offer. That will have to be enough. Her eyes are wide with grief and terror and locked on mine. I glare back at her. If the Inquisitor sees her cry, he might raise his price. Despite her fear, she reaches out under the cover of the jostling crowd and clasps my hand. A misguided gesture of solidarity? Of Love? Thanks? She is so very frightened.
Quick as a flash, I pull the terror from her, but I cannot hold all of my heartbreak in. She lets out a howl as I pass. The Inquisitor will think it is meant to shame me, but I know it is the articulation of my own betrayal. The other villagers join in, screaming abuse. I stumble then. The fear and despair I took from her bats around inside my rib cage like a trapped bird.
The guards drag me over the wood and lash me to the stake. Below me, the villagers busy themselves with flint and tinder. Smoke stings my eyes, but the fire is already burning away the miasma of disease and hopelessness that I’ve carried across these many years. The heat cauterizes my fear.
I look up as a flock of starlings soar across the clear blue sky.
The Colored Lens Interviews J.A. Becker
The Colored Lens: What inspired the individual stories you’ve published with us?
J.A. Becker: This will sound crazy but give me a second to explain: nothing has inspired the stories I’ve written. I’ve never been like Saint Paul and struck off my horse by a bolt of inspiration from beyond. I’ve never had a sudden burst of clarity for what I should write. Like some famous writer said, “If I waited for inspiration to write, I’d never have written anything.”
Each story I’ve written starts with me sitting at a computer and asking myself: what the hell would be fun to write? What would be entertaining? What would I as a reader want to read? Then I come up with a bunch of ideas and quickly dismiss most of them as garbage. The ideas that stick are the ones I end up writing. They’re not inspiration driven; they’re more work driven.
The Colored Lens: An interesting perspective. In that context, can you remember what it was that made the the stories you’ve published with The Colored Lens seem like entertaining ideas to write about?
J.A. Becker: For some reason, I love writing about people who have the odds against them. It’s kind of sick, but that seems entertaining to me. Perfect example is a story I wrote for The Colored Lens: Summer 2015 edition. It’s the end of the Earth and the only people left are bunch of violent criminals that band together and try to save the world–they are unlikely group of heroes. They have no chance. None. And they know it, but by God do they try and that is beautiful and entertaining to me.
The Colored Lens: When you start writing a story, do you know how it’s going to end? If not, can you give us an example (ideally from a story you’ve published with us so our readers can make the connection) of a story you expected to go in one direction that went somewhere else?
J.A. Becker: I usually have no idea how it’s going to end. That’s the fun for me: not knowing what’s going to happen. I wrote a story called The Body Collectors which was published in The Colored Lens Autumn 2015 and the ending was a total shock for me. In the story, the main character is a resurrectionist, which is a ridiculously complicated word for somebody who steals bodies and sells them for profit. In the story, he has this huge decision to make: kill a group of creatures and make a fortune from their body parts or let them live and make nothing. He makes the right decision, the hero’s choice, which is what I had intended for the story from the beginning. But then there is a horrific twist and the creatures are killed and he is grateful for their deaths. I had no idea that was going to happen. It was a total shock for me, particularly because he was a good person in a bad situation yet he is grateful that they die. That’s what I love about writing without knowing the ending, you can have these twists that surprise both the reader and the writer.
The Colored Lens: What would you like to read more of & what are you tired of in general in speculative fiction?
J.A. Becker: I am sick of stories about AIs gone bad and stories about vampires. These stories are done to death. I’d love to see more cross-genre speculative fiction with sorcery and science. In fact, I think I’ll try to write something like that.
The Colored Lens: Sounds like a good idea for a story, and good luck with it. Do you think that those genre staples feel particularly overdone due to films regularly returning to them? Sometimes it seems that way.
J.A. Becker: I think with vampires it’s both: books and films. There’s just oodles of books and films and lots of them are terrible. With AIs, I think it’s just the short stories. Magazines are replete with these stories and very few of them tread new ground.
The Colored Lens: What was the first speculative work that really captured your attention and got you interested in the genre?
J.A. Becker: Megan Lindholm’s A Touch of Lavender. I read this in homeroom when I was in grade 8 and I cried my eyes out. It was really embarrassing.
I loved how a story could do that to a person. I can take you to a whole new world and move you to the point where you have an actual physical response to it. I so want to be able to write like she does and make somebody see/feel/think something when reading one of my stories.
The Colored Lens: What’s a typical day like for you, either including writing or not?
J.A. Becker: Get up, feed the kids, take them to daycare, go to work, come home for supper with my family, spend quality time with my family, put them to bed, and then write as much as I can before I have to fall asleep.
The Colored Lens: To what extent do your personal experiences (job, family, or odd things that have happened to you) influence your stories?
J.A. Becker: I think they all shape my stories in some way, but I can’t pinpoint exactly how.
The Colored Lens: What’s the most frustrating thing about the writing process and the publishing industry for you?
J.A. Becker: So much bullshit is out there on how to write, how to get published, how to make millions writing, and so on. It’s all crap. And it’s dangerous crap too. You spend all your time reading and believing this nonsense when you should be spending that time writing and working on your craft.
The Colored Lens: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should watch for?
J.A. Becker: I have a ton of stuff out. Whether it lands anywhere is anybody’s guess.
The Colored Lens: Care to give us any teasers?
J.A. Becker: Unfortunately, no. Some of them have already come back since this interview started and I don’t want to jinx the rest. Ah, the life of a writer. What fun! Rejection! Rejection! Rejection! Why do I do this to myself?
The Colored Lens: Finally, unrelated to writing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? And what achievement are you most proud of?
J.A. Becker: I’m about to do the craziest thing I’ve ever done: move my family to Australia. I just got a job out there and we’ll be picking up and moving from Canada to the land down under. Totally insane.
Proudest achievement is finding someone awesome to marry and having wonderful kids; also, getting published in The Colored Lens is pretty amazing too.
The Colored Lens: Good luck with the move to Australia. It will be interesting to see how your experiences there affect your writing. Do you travel very much, and if so, do you think your experiences have affected your writing?
J.A. Becker: I don’t travel at all. I’ve never actually been to Australia. All I know about it is what I’ve seen in the Mad Max films. It’s going to be tough, but if we can get our hands on large volumes of gasoline we’re going to be OK. But seriously, I think everything you do somehow shapes your writing. All your life’s experiences get poured into your work when you write. I don’t know specifically how that happens, but it does.
The Colored Lens: Ha. And it’s absolutely true that our experiences shape our writing.
The Colored Lens: Are you a dog person or a cat person?
J.A. Becker: I love both, I just don’t have time in my life for them.
The Colored Lens: What is the hardest thing about writing?
J.A. Becker: The hardest thing about writing is dealing with rejection. Rejection is a soul-crushing experience, which you as a writer are going to experience again and again, ad infinitum. There is no way around it. You have to accept it. You even have to, on some level, embrace it. You have to pick yourself up after getting knocked down and come back to the computer and write. Write with as much confidence as you had when you first sent that piece out.
Now, that would be amazing if I could do like I just said. I would probably get much more writing done. Seriously though, I have no idea how to actually deal with rejection. I’m just telling you about the hardest part about writing.
The Colored Lens: No matter how much we learn and re-learn about the craft, there certainly seems to be no substitution for establishing a strong work ethic, and sticking to it. There’s a lot to learn by simply doing the work.
J.A. Becker: A strong work ethic is what made some of the greats, great. Hemmingway working from dawn to noon every day. Dean Wesley Smith works from noon till dawn every day. All my favorite writers have a great work ethic and treat writing like the work it is.
The Colored Lens: Who is your all-time favorite speculative fiction character and why?
J.A. Becker: Corwin of Amber. He’s such a complex, yet accessible character: he’s good, he’s evil, he lies, he tells the truth, he’s virtuous, he’s corrupt. He’s very much like a real person. It’s funny how all those books on writing say you can never write a character who is like a real person because real people are so complex and conflicted that they would never work on the page. It’s such bullshit. That’s why I love that character.
The Colored Lens: Is there any particular character you have created that you feel a particular affinity with and why?
J.A. Becker: No…Maybe…I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. All the ones I write are fairly terrible people. I don’t particularly like any of them honestly.
The Colored Lens: What would be your ultimate sci-fi gadget or super/magic power? What would you do with it if you possessed it?
J.A. Becker: The gunvaporator: it vaporizes every gun on Earth, so if there are any disputes you have to settle them with your fists.
The Colored Lens: It seems a number of your stories deal with characters struggling with what it means to be morally good. Do you consider this a common theme in your writing? And if so, can you comment on your thoughts on the subject?
J.A. Becker: Somehow that keeps on coming up. I still haven’t figured it out and neither have my characters.
The Colored Lens: You’re a technical writer with a degree in creative writing who also publishes fiction. How do you feel that technical writing and creative writing interact? Has either influenced the other?
J.A. Becker: Technical writing and creative writing are the antithesis of each other. In creative writing, you are trying to imbue a sense of life, a sense of yourself, into the work. In technical writing, you’re trying to kill all that. Tech writing has you boil everything down to the most focused point in the least amount of words, which means any sense of the author in a sentence gets washed out. You could never take a technical writer’s work, give it to somebody, and have them guess who wrote it. You can totally do that with a creative writer’s work because they are their work.
I hope neither has influenced the other. I really try to keep those two worlds apart. They just don’t work together. Suddenly the document you’re reading about setting up an operating system on your computer launches into a diatribe about the existentialist plight of mankind. Or, a short story you’re reading about a fairy king that kidnaps babies from an orphanage during the full moon launches into a step-by-step procedural guide on how to configure your iPhone. The two styles of writing–their purposes–can ruin each other’s work.
The Colored Lens: That makes a lot of sense. However, if anyone can find a way to meld the two, I’m sure you could.