Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.
“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”
“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.
Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.
After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.
He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.
Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.
He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.
Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.
He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.
Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.
On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.
“What’s up with the power?” she asks.
He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”
“Wanna call the power company?”
“Maybe wait a bit and see.”
She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.
“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.
“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”
Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.
“You just have the one, right?”
“What is it with you and—”
The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.
“I’ll get it,” she says.
He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.
“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”
“Zinnia,” she says.
“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”
“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”
“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”
Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.
“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.
He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”
“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”
“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.
Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.
“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.
“Please.” He rolls his eyes.
“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”
Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”
A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.
“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.
Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.
“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”
“You guys are the best.”
“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.
The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.
“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”
“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”
She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.
“That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.
“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.
“Didn’t really say.”
“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”
“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”
“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.
“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.
“You have a computer here?”
“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.
Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.
“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”
“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.
“I would say he had real, umm, Harlequin-romance biceps, wouldn’t you?” Zinnia continues as they enter the library.
“What is with you?”
“I haven’t gotten laid since before Clearview.”
“You poor thing.”
They unpack a few more boxes, idly chatting, when Zinnia remembers: “The lamp.”
“Really? Still?” Darrell says in a droll voice.
“Why would you lie about it?”
“I saw it—a second one upstairs.”
Darrell studies her: sweat-spotted t-shirt of some band he’s never heard of, ripped shorts, two-months’ growth of lucent blond hair since she’d shaved her head, and the neck tattoo, the reason she’d been cut out of the will.
“You gaslighting me?” he half-jokes, failing to conceal his discomfort.
“Come see for yourself.”
Darrell sips his water. “Where?”
“The third floor,” she says in a spooky voice.
He frowns. “Lead the way, Clearview.”
At the end of the front hallway, the stairway rises up in a freestanding spiral. At the base dozes the grand piano, toothless as a centenarian. In a shadowy alcove nearby, the grandfather clock ticks away its watch. Halfway to the second floor a recessed mezzanine full of mottled sunlight juts out over the back porch. The musty second floor hallway, carpeted in scarlet, wallpaper peeling, circles around the open front hall and branches off into darkness, the only light streaming in through the shuttered balcony door above the foyer. The third floor is even gloomier, more cramped than the rest of the mansion, but still could have provided ample living space for a family of five—Darrell’s childhood home certainly had been no larger.
Zinnia leads the way to the guest room and with a flourish presents the closed door to Darrell.
The doorknob screeches as he turns it.
Inside he finds an unmade bed, decapitated headboard in the corner, antique bureau, IKEA mirror, and the lamp in question set on a dulled chrome nightstand. Darrell is disappointed with the mismatched furniture all over again and for a moment wonders if this whole lamp to-do hasn’t just been a ruse to get him to face this very real decorating atrocity.
“Looks… I won’t say good, but okay.” He shuts the door.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say that either. This way, boss.”
She leads him down the hall to the next room. Her profile flashes blue as she checks her phone in the darkness.
“Still no signal.”
Darrel pulls out his phone, too. “Me neither.”
Zinnia presents the second closed door to Darrell. No amusing flourish this time.
He goes to open it, then stops short.
“What are we doing, Zin?” he says in a quiet voice.
“I’m showing you what I found.”
He can’t quite make out her face in the dark, and suddenly feels a tremor in his hand. He’s only really known the girl a few weeks. Met her once years ago. She’d had long blonde hair at that time. Then recently, after the honeymoon in Paris, they’d picked her up from Clearview—bald, thirty pounds skinnier, tattoo scrawled across her neck. They hadn’t talked much until they’d all moved in here together. She’s obviously disturbed, a little morbid. He’s thinking especially of that mutilated doll in her bedroom, the one that sets his hackles on end.
The doorknob screeches as he turns it. Unmade bed, decapitated headboard in the corner, antique bureau, IKEA mirror, dulled chrome nightstand—tutu lamp.
“What the hell?” he says, stepping into the room, checking to see if the previous door communicates through the same wall. It doesn’t. “It’s exactly the same.”
She creaks in behind him. “I told you. Where do you get these things anyway?”
“No, I mean the room. It’s exactly the same.”
“You’re right; it is,” she says with sudden realization. “I was so distracted by the pink tutu.”
“Did Max put you up to this?”
“Dar, come on.”
He approaches the lamp, picks it up, examines it. As he does so, he notices through the chiffon curtain, a stain in the sea of green outside. He draws it aside, looking down into the yard, and sees Frank in his white short-sleeves and khaki pants beside a tree at the edge of the grass, a strange device obscuring his face.
“Zinnia, come here. Quick.”
“What?” Her detached tone suggests she’s checking her phone again.
“Come on,” he whispers urgently.
She sidles up beside him. “What’s he doing?”
“I’m so calling the—”
Darrell and Zinnia step out onto the front porch, respectively wielding a five iron and cavalry saber. Frank stands on the heat-cracked clay driveway, facial equipment replaced by sunglasses, backpack slung over his shoulder. He’s not smiling. Behind him, massive waves of clouds have begun to crash over the deep green tree line of pines, oaks, and magnolias—an impromptu summer storm.
“Would you mind if I come inside?” he says.
“Need to use our bathroom again?” Darrell suggests.
“We need to talk. I need to ask you two some—”
“No, we’ll be doing the asking from here on out. What were you doing in our yard just now?”
“Taking some measurements. That’s all.”
“What you got in the bag?” Zinnia asks. “Something messed up like masking tape and rope and shop tools, right?”
“Okay, we’re off to a bad start.” He raises his slab-like hands submissively, then pulls out identification. “Yes, I do have masking tape and rope and some tools, but I’m not a psychopath. I’m Sergeant Frank Kehler, U.S. Army.”
“Toss it over,” Darrell says.
Darrell leaves the shade of the porch and stoops to pick up the wallet from the front steps, furrowing his brow as he flips through various IDs. “What the hell are you doing out here, Frank?”
“Sergeant Kehler, if you don’t mind,” he says in a crisp tone.
Zinnia laughs, but Darrell silences her with a critical look.
“We’re in a serious situation here,” Kehler resumes.
“My thoughts exactly,” says Darrell, tossing back the wallet, and returning to the shade.
“Has anything unusual happened to ya’ll in the past twenty-four hours?”
“Such as meeting strange military men with DIY serial killer kits and head gadgets?” Zinnia suggests.
“That…” Sergeant Kehler reaches into his bag and pulls out a bulky pair of goggles. “A pair of trundle goggles. Measures distance without having to walk it. That’s all. Oh, and one hundred percent transparency here—I bugged your bathroom earlier. I was going to analyze acoustical oscillations—”
“Going to what?” Darrell says
“Look. Time is short. Our lives are in danger. We need to work together. Fast. So, anything else unusual you can report?”
The two exchange a look, saber and five iron sagging in concert. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
“Does a duplicating tutu lamp qualify?” Zinnia asks.
Kehler nods grimly.
They lead Sergeant Kehler into the parlor and point him to one of three severe-backed rustic wooden chairs. It groans under his considerable weight. On the floor at the center of the chairs are a couple of empty wine bottles, an open pizza box littered with a few crusts and one fat, shiny Palmetto bug, which Zin conducts out the front door.
“Could I have a drink? I left my water in the car.”
“Zin, would you mind going to get the sergeant a water?”
She nods, slinging the sword over her shoulder.
“Actually,” Kehler stands, “we should probably go together.”
“Why?” Darrell asks.
“She might get trapped on the way back.”
“I summered in this house as a kid, Sarge. I’ll manage,” she says, offended.
“You can see it from here,” Darrell notes, perplexed, pointing through the columned divider, past a side hallway, into the empty dining room and on to the kitchen door.
“Do you mind?” Kehler nods towards his bag. The sweat has finally blossomed under his shirt, creeping down the sides from his underarms.
“What are you going to do?”
“Check the intervening space with the trundle goggles. Just take a sec.”
“Go ahead.” Darrell sighs.
Kehler fastens the device to his head, flicks a few switches, and a synthetic arpeggio sounds. He adjusts the zoom and a weather-vane-like device above the lenses. “Okay, looks clear,” he says after a minute of reading the space with sweeping eye movements. Rests the goggles on his forehead, ready to be lowered in a pinch.
Zinnia stifles a smile as she salutes and creaks off to the kitchen.
The windowpanes shiver with more thunder.
“So…” Kehler sits back down. “You two…”
“Us two what?” Darrell plants a hand on his hip.
“He’ll never guess,” Zinnia shouts from the kitchen. “I can hear you by the way,” she adds, swinging back through the kitchen door, bottle of water in hand. “Didn’t get trapped.” She tosses the bottle to Kehler.
“Thanks.” His hand engulfs it.
“You were saying?” Darrell says, taking a seat on the other side of the grease-stained pizza box, resting the five iron across his lap.
“Newlyweds?” Kehler’s eyes linger over the track mark scars on Zinnia’s left arm.
“How about we just remain the mysterious couple, and you tell us what the hell’s going on,” Darrell says.
“I’m part of an investigative team,” he nods, opening the bottle and taking a sip. “A tanker truck transporting an experimental entity crashed several miles from here yesterday.”
“Entity?” Zinnia says as if hearing the word for the first time. “What kind of entity?”
“It’s called Project Dandelion. Invisible to the naked eye, its tracking system malfunctioned after the crash, so we’ve been forced to rely on alternative methods to hunt it down.”
“A robot? An alien?” Zin pursues, stepping behind Darrell and gripping his shoulders.
“We weren’t told.”
“Is it dangerous?” Darrell asks with growing alarm.
“Well, it was trained to serve humans, but it could be dangerous—though only unintentionally so.”
“For example, by trapping us?” Zinnia interrupts.
He nods, missing the sarcasm. “Dandelion’s primary objective was agricultural—cloning arable land—but it underwent severe mutations during its training, producing a happy accident of sorts—it inserts new pockets of cloned space, completely altering the dimensions of the surrounding area.”
Zinnia’s hand claws into Darrell’s shoulder. Shadows wash the room gray—the clouds swallowing the sun.
“To build, Dandelion needs a human host mind,” Sergeant Kehler continues, wiping his face. The sweat has erupted into a mushroom cloud on his shirt. “It analyzes the host, assesses its needs, how it should go about inserting spatial clones, and then it repeats that routine indefinitely, but since the mutation, its intentions have become—”
The house pops, echoing in that rapid, almost elastic way.
“That was it!” the sergeant says with an admixture of excitement and dismay, reaching into his backpack and pulling out a digital recorder. He examines the monitor, presses a few buttons, and walks over to show his two bewildered hosts. “This is a spectrogram of the sound the house just made. Spatial insertion creates a signature surface waveform. Somewhere in this house a new pocket of space was just created. I advise we all stick together from this point on. In fact,” he adds, stowing away his spectral analyzer and pulling out a tight coil of nylon rope and three carabiners, “I insist on it—we need to go take a look at that lamp.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Darrell says. “This entity, why did it come here?”
“When it’s released into an environment, Dandelion follows an exploration heuristic, not entirely predictable, but based on the rules of the heuristic, there were several possible trajectories it would have traveled along before finding a host,” Kehler says, efficiently tying in succession three butterfly knots, spaced about five feet apart. “This house happens to be on one of those trajectories.
“Once it finds a host, it begins its nesting phase. First, it analyzes the host’s mind.” He clips one carabiner to the bight of the first butterfly knot, then attaches it to Zinnia’s belt. “Second, it establishes a home base in some inanimate object.” He repeats the process for Darrell. “Third, it sets up construction boundaries and creates pockets of space based on the cognitive analysis of the host.” He clips into the final knot. “If we can find and destroy the home base, Dandelion will wipe its work clean and turn dormant, and I’ll be able to report back to my superiors.”
“Let’s just get out of here. Take my car. Drive to town. Have your superiors come deal with it,” Darrell says.
“No can do. Dandelion has already set up construction boundaries to protect the home base—it’s nested. When I tried to leave earlier, started walking back down the drive, the scenery just stretched on and on, repeating. It’s the same in all directions. First power goes, then phone service; eventually you can’t leave. And…”
“And if one of the members of my team discover the construction boundaries, they’ve been instructed to call in Operation Fire Flower.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Darrell says.
“It gets worse.” A dark look crosses Kehler’s eyes. “Team members are supposed to check in on the hour every hour. If we fail to do so, another investigator is dispatched to our last known whereabouts.”
“And when did you last check in?”
“Forty-five minutes ago.”
They step out into the hall, Zinnia first, sword hanging off her belt next to the carabiner. She looks towards the foyer, then down along the box-lined front hallway to the grand piano. The house is quiet beneath the pending storm.
“Looks okay to me.”
“Is the lamp down here?” Sergeant Kehler asks, adjusting his goggles as he examines the front hall.
“Third floor.” Zinnia says.
“There’s something peculiar by the piano.”
“When Dandelion-inserts new space, adjacent regions undergo a very subtle alteration in their dimensions. I believe I’m seeing one of those now.”
“You don’t know for sure?” Darrell asks.
The sky growls again, and the house quakes in response—windows shaking, boxes of cutlery rattling, wood floors popping.
“No, I was only trained this morning. I don’t have any firsthand experience with Dandelion. In fact, I didn’t know it existed until about twelve hours ago. Now, tell me,” he says as they warily approach the base of the spiral stairs, “does this piano have any significance to you?”
“Yeah, Nooncy used to play for me when I would read in the mezzanine.”
“My grandmother. This was before her Alzheimer’s. Could that be…?”
“The home base? I don’t know, but it’s possible.” He approaches, flipping his goggles up and fishing around in his backpack for a handheld device. He switches it on, places it on top of the piano and presses a button. An hourglass appears on the screen, overturning every few seconds.
“When Dandelion nests, it leaves behind a strong chemical trace, so that it can range and find its way home.”
The hourglass disappears and a list of red-and-green-highlighted words appears. Mostly red.
“Forty-one percent match—definitely not a home base.”
“So—what—we go through the house, testing everything until your thingy there tells us we found the home base?” Zinnia asks.
“That’s one approach.” He stashes the device and snaps his goggles back down over his eyes. “Not the best one. Couple things you should know: Dandelion chooses its home base according to the cognitive analysis of its host, and the only thing it will not replicate is its home base.”
“So it’ll be something psychologically significant?” Darrell asks.
The clock strikes the half-hour. They wait for the brassy resonance of the final tubular bell to decay, but then it repeats—elastically rising in pitch—and repeats again and again, higher and higher in pitch, the intervals between each peal halving to a fire bell clangor, then up-bending into a machine-gun rat-tat-tat, and finally blurring together into the rasping cicada song, swelling, ebbing.
“What the hell is that?” Zin shouts over the noise.
Goggles darting this way and that, Sergeant Kehler shouts back, “Dandelion is building! We need to hustle!”
They mount the stairs, looping up towards the mezzanine. The strident whirring dies out at last, and Zin stops abruptly, neck craned. Darrell almost runs into her, then follows her gaze up the stairs.
“Dandelion” Kehler finishes.
The house has grown.
Above them, tens of mezzanines spill their now-muted light into the winding staircase. The ground floor has been repeated, too, and they find themselves standing before another piano, another grandfather clock. Beyond the mezzanines, the stairs vanish into tar-black shadow.
Zin balks from the aggrandized staircase, hands shaking, retreating to the new front hall piano, and touches the worn wood. It seems to stabilize her, melt her tensed shoulders.
Darrell mounts the rest of the stairs, rushes over and puts a hand on her arm. “You okay, girl?”
Darrell turns as Kehler reaches them. “How do we find this home base?”
“First, ascertain which of you is the host.”
“How do we do that?” Darrell asks.
“Simple. Which of you noticed the disturbance first?”
Zinnia raises a hand.
“There we go. We just need to analyze Miss—Zin here.”
The two men turn to regard Zinnia, who looks more awkward than ever.
“I think it would help if you told me a bit about yourself.”
She suppresses a smile. Fingers probe her track marks. The tumorous house seems to weigh down on her.
“She’s my sister-in-law,” Darrell says.
“I was in rehab till recently,” she adds.
“But before that, my Pop-pop wrote me out of his will—out of inheriting Wellington—because of this.” She points to her neck.
“What does it mean?”
“Latin for ‘fuck off.”
Kehler winces. “Classy. So, Zin, your sister—” Kehler begins.
“Brother,” Zinnia corrects him.
“Brother—” Kehler blinks, glancing towards Darrell, “inherited this plantation; do you feel any resentment towards him as a result?”
“You love your brother—”
“—but resent your Pop-pop.”
“Brilliant, Dr. Phil,” she says.
Sergeant Kehler sighs. “Well, help me out here. We need to think like Dandelion—find a central psychological issue, and then work out an associated object. Think back to your youth, maybe. Anything of moment to you.”
“This part of your training?” Darrell asks dubiously.
“A fifteen minute crash course early this morning—yes. They instructed my team that if Dandelion has started to nest, we need to delve into the host’s psychology.” He glances at the phosphorescent hands of his watch. “We need to move. Talk and move. It’s approaching one hour since my last check-in. They’ll be sending someone for me any minute. We need to find that lamp. Might give us a clue about how to proceed.”
As they ascend, new levels scramble together above and below with that pitch-tweaking echo—Dandelion at work. Other staircases spring up beside them and obliquely through the one they’re scaling, till soon they’re lost in a colossal genome model. After a while they pass beyond the mezzanines and pianos and clocks, entering the scarlet-carpeted gloom of the second story.
Taking out their phones and Kehler his high-powered flashlight to light the way, they continue upward. All the while Zinnia wracks her brains for some object Dandelion might have chosen as its home base, occasionally conveying to them some off-color anecdote from her past, but never quite convincing them—or herself.
“Here we are,” she breaks off from a vignette as they leave one variety of darkness for another—a sublevel of the now-inaccurately-named third floor. Lightning crackles behind thousands of shuttered balconies, tens of thousands of slats of light, stretching on all around them. The house suddenly shakes with a bombardment of deafening thunder, then rain crashes against the front of the house and surges towards the back, with a Niagara whoosh.
As they proceed down the hallway, Kehler speaks, but his voice is drowned out by the Dandelion-intensified roar of the storm, the cavernous echoes of hundreds of rain-thrashed roofs. He pulls out several headsets, hands them out, and soon the noise is dampened. Kehler’s voice cuts across crisp. “Zin, of all of this, what has been most prominent in your mind recently? Just one thing. Maybe even what you were thinking about before you found that tutu lamp.”
“Well…” she begins, leading the way down the dim corridor, seeming to debate what to say. “I know this guy who lives in the area. He’s connected. I was thinking about calling him—getting high.”
“Zin, you weren’t!” Darrell reaches out and grabs her hand.
“Sorry, Dar. I don’t want to let you and Maxy down—”
Pop! The pitch-tweaked creaking floorboard bursts over the headphones.
They turn towards Kehler, but he’s no longer right behind them, instead about fifty yards away, staring mystified at the section of rope that had once connected them—now severed, hanging limp.
“What happened?” Zin asks.
“Dandelion made space,” Kehler says, sprinting up to them, gathering up the slack rope into the coil. “We must have been standing between the point of insertion when it happened. I thought this system would keep us tethered together, but it seems it didn’t read the rope as integral to the cloned space. Need to stay close, people. Keep moving.”
Zin throws open the door to the guest bedroom.
Undisturbed, exactly as it had been before. Beyond the chiffon curtains, rain lashes the windows, lightning sparks, blindingly glimmering down arrays of replicated space, like a pixelated pyrotechnic display.
“There it is,” Darrell says, pointing to the tutu lamp.
Kehler strides over. Takes a reading as he’d done with the piano. “This is closer to a match than the piano,” he concludes.
“What does that mean?” Zinnia asks, looking over his shoulder at the display.
“It means this is one of the first things Dandelion copied when it began its work. The longer it works, the weaker its chemical trace on its surroundings. In other words, the home base is close. Now, Zin,” he turns towards her, placing a hand on her shoulder, “your substance abuse is likely important: salient in your mind and thus likely something Dandelion would read into. Think. When you would shoot up, what would you do? Rituals beforehand? Anything important. A common thread.”
“Oh!” Zinnia exclaims, putting a hand to her mouth. The fingernails seem to have been gnawed down to the quick. “I’ve got it! Geraldine!”
“Who?” Darrell asks.
“Geraldine. My doll.”
Oh, it would be that freaky thing, Darrell thinks.
“I would stick it with a sewing needle every time I shot up. It turned into a kind of ritual, and she became a kind of prison wall for daily tally marks. They told us in Clearview that the best path to recovery was to remove all of these little associations with our addictions, but I kept her. I felt I needed the link to my old self. Otherwise it would be like losing years of my life.”
“And you have this with you?” Kehler grabs her other shoulder, gaze intense. He looks grizzly-bear powerful beside the scarecrow ex-addict.
“In my room with all the other junk, right next door—or hundreds of doors down now, I suppose.”
“Let’s move.” He glances at his watch. “Been fifteen minutes since I should have checked in. Any minute they’ll be finding my empty car.”
They sprint in a tight clump past room after room of tutu lamps and IKEA mirrors. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Kehler curses. The others are too terrified to speak, ears peeled for the drone of aircraft beyond the rain and thunder.
“Here!” Zin exclaims as a pink door with traces of peeled stickers materializes out of the gloom.
They burst into the room. Darrell has never been in here before, only having seen it in passing, always with the same impression—the room, the doll, everything Zin is that Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty phone case—the adorable transformed into the grotesque.
And there she is, reclining on the aged pink dresser—a one-eyed, bald amputee in a torn dress, left arm a porcupine. Zinnia dashes forward, draws her sword, and slashes sideways. A clean blow. Geraldine’s head goes flying, caroms off the wall, and bounces to a stop at Kehler’s boots.
“Wooh!” Zin exclaims, eyes wild, ready to slice more.
Kehler hunches over and takes a reading on the doll head. For a minute there is nothing but the muted rain whisper-screaming through their headphones.
Then, from a distance, Darrell sees the results flash on the display.
They stand in a circle, gazing down at the head. The rain abruptly stops. Sunlight filters in through the pink chiffon and shredded black curtains framing the windows and balcony door. The heat trickles in soon after.
“I don’t get it. Geraldine had to have been the home base. I can’t think of anything else it might be.”
Kehler scrutinizes Zinnia for a moment. “You were the one that first noticed the disturbance.”
“Yeah, we established that.”
“But it was your lamp?” He turns to Darrell.
“My mother’s,” he corrects him. “I could never bring myself to get rid of it.”
“I don’t have much left from her. And to me that lamp is so heartbreaking. She always wanted to be a ballerina. Never happened for her though. She says it was on account of her being black, not the type of graceful swan stage directors looked for in her time.”
“Maybe it’s you,” Kehler muses.
“But I didn’t notice any…. Oh, god.”
“Dar, what is it?”
“I know what it is. It wasn’t the lamp to begin with. Something happened to me yesterday evening. Max and I were having a walk after dinner, and I remember the sound of the cicadas was overwhelming, and this intense nausea struck me.”
“Where was this?” Kehler asks.
“The old slave quarters. Just a field now. I brought something back into the house.”
“You mean that ugly piece of wood?” Zin asks.
Darrell nods. “I thought it might be the remains of one of the cabins that used to be out there. I wanted to honor them somehow, their sacrifice, by hanging it in a prominent place in the house. Stupid, I know. In any case, it’s been on my mind a lot since I found it yesterday.”
“Where is it now?” the sergeant asks.
“About a thousand floors beneath us,” Zin comments.
“No time for the stairs.” Kehler’s eyes wander to the balcony. He rushes over and flings open the door. Darrell and Zin follow, eyes widening.
Through a compound-eye perspective they see the beautiful green lawn ocean shining beneath the sun, hundreds of puddled front drives radiating out, vanishing into a monstrous forest, and the nightmarish convolutions of the mutated house. Dandelion has not simply replicated things and space; it has jumbled and overlapped the spatial components, perhaps in its attempt to more logically fit the pieces together. Whatever the reason, there are gaps below, between ground and house, of empty sky, and above of swards of grass and mangled, nonsensical house. Even through the noise-dampening headphones, the rolling white noise of cicadas blots out everything. They gaze up at the towering structure, how it branches and connects with other towers, some of them vanishing into the clouds.
“There must be millions of replicated spatial units,” Kehler says in awe, voice fragile juxtaposed next to the full chorus of Dandelion. He drops his gaze to the layers beneath them. “I think I can make out some front doors from here.” Lowers his trundle goggles over his eyes. “I don’t suppose ya’ll ever rock-climbed before.”
Sergeant Kehler pulls out a variety of clips and webbing and harnesses and sets everything up, anchoring into one of the sturdy balcony columns.
Zinnia lights a cigarette and shares it with her brother-in-law as Kehler fits him into a harness.
Darrell takes a drag with a shaking hand, then turns to the sergeant. “We ready?”
Kehler straightens, nods.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“Okay. Now, no talking during the descent, but, Darrell, after you hit ground, keep us updated on your progress. We don’t want to be in the process of lowering Zin when the home base is destroyed.”
Darrell gives the A-Okay sign. He hands the cigarette to Zin, steps over the railing, and stares down at the confused space. The descent will not be along the face of the mansion, but a free-hanging drop to the maze of front porch roofs below.
He looks up and finds Zinnia’s outstretched hand, worn Zippo in her fingers.
“For the home base.”
“Thanks.” He stuffs it in his pocket, holds onto the rail and leans back. Nods to Kehler. “Ready.”
His fingers release from the flaking whitewashed wood, and then he’s hanging, spinning slowly above the expanse, hands clutching onto the rope, looking up at Kehler’s strained face and Zin’s encouraging one.
He starts to lower. Slowly, jerkily at first, until Kehler starts to develop a smooth rhythm.
Looks back down—God, bad idea! He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to blank out his mind.
“Damnit, Max, this is all your fault,” he whispers, forgetting for a moment the mouthpiece of the headset.
Zinnia chuckles in his ear.
“Focus people,” Kehler cuts in through gritted teeth.
For a time there is silence, the friction of the rope whispering through their headsets, the growing distance. Even Dandelion has grown quiet, perhaps watching the spectacle of the sweaty man dangling down over the void, like a bit of bait dropped into Hell, luring out some hungry demon.
Is it reading me? Darrell wonders. Reading my mind or whatever it does? Trying to figure out how it should build next? Dandelion, if you can hear me, if you can make sense of my thoughts, stop building. Please, stop building.
He continues down, glancing up occasionally at the Army man and his sister-in-law, their faces soon just specks in the curving skyscraper face of Wellington.
A flock of gulls unmoors from a district of second-story balconies and navigates across freestanding house spires and archways to the immense wall of forest. The sight of Dandelion’s work with nature is a wonder—cliffs wallpapered in a living floral print. At all levels of the forest structure, he can spot deer bounding over fallen trees, squirrels puzzling over the sudden growth of their domain, everywhere knots of black oak tendrils.
He glances below. Halfway into the emptiness. One hundred and fifty feet or so.
He finds he’s been holding his breath, his chest painful, and he forces himself to exhale.
Close now. Maybe seventy feet remaining. Beginning to feel nervous about what he has to do. Needs to move fast. No errors. No hesitation.
More gulls flit past. In their airspace now. One squawks.
And the squawk bounces, up and up, rising in pitch, like the clock bell had, rat-tat-tatting, then surging into the full echoing insect song of Dandelion.
“Darrell!” Zinnia shouts.
He looks up just before it happens, just before Dandelion builds. The height of the house doubles, other buttressing columns and wings branching out and filling in much of the intervening space, but just as had happened before, the rope is ignored as part of the multiplied space. For a second it just stands there like a magical one from Arabian Nights.
Then the magic vanishes, the tension disappearing in a ripple of slack, and Darrell plummets.
He crashes down onto the roof, screaming in pain, rope lashing down on him. He lies there for a moment breathless, then finally groans and prods around his right calf. Something horribly wrong with it—jutting out. His fingers return to his face hot and red.
“Christ.” He pales. Battles a swoon. Can’t afford to pass out. Could be seconds before Fire Flower. Needs to move, broken leg or no. He rolls over onto his stomach, screaming out again as his leg overturns and the bone presses back into the wound.
He tears off the headset, jarred broken in the fall, and hurls it away, needing to vent on something. Glances around with strange, pain-focused vision and finds himself in an angular landscape of porch roofs—islands and peninsulas and straits cutting across empty space and connecting to the cliffs of the Wellington monstrosity. He claws over to the nearest edge. Gazes down towards another sky through a network of white-painted walkways and columns. He loops one arm around the column, lowers his good leg, then starts to slide the bad one over, when the balance of his weight shifts and he spills off. There’s a moment of flailing panic as he falls, but his back collides with the railing and he tumbles over onto the porch.
He pulls the five iron out of his belt and hoists himself up onto his good leg. With this crutch, he hobbles forward, towards a pocket of repeated doorways, a wooden hive in the center of this heavenly porch and its infinity of white columns. He bursts into the foyer and finds the front hallway a twisted screw of its former self, all threads from the many different regions woven together towards one (and only one) library.
Dandelion translates each pop and squeak of the floorboards into its own tongue, presenting Darrell with more front hallways, blooms and blooms of them, trying to distract, to circumvent him, but whatever it tries, whatever monstrous beauty it devises, there’s just the one library, the center of the alien entity’s beautiful, chaotic universe.
He limps over, trailing blood. Passes through the cased opening. There on the desk the blackened lumber pulsates as if crawling with termites.
Massive, warped, hideous.
He slides it halfway off the desk, bends down with his crutch, and hefts it up on his back, nearly collapsing on his agonizing leg. He charges brokenly towards the window, driving the piece of wood through the glass, slicing his arms and hands.
Dandelion strings the shattering sound up into a sparkling glissando.
He shoves it down into the yard, sweeps away the remaining glass with the five iron, and descends gingerly onto the grass. Among countless storage sheds, he staggers into one, plucks up a gas can and staggers back out. Then he drags the lumber out into the field, body white hot, the pain scorching everything in him.
Darrell, don’t do this, a voice whispers in his mind.
The emerald field stretches out around him, each blade glistening with rain, each sun-limned raindrop dazzling back the myriad other sun-limned raindrops.
We only want to be with you, it says. We’ve been searching for you for all of our existence.
He drops the piece of wood with a thunk. It beats, warping the space around it.
We want to build wonders for you.
Douses it in gasoline, each splash of gas spiraling and bubbling around the wood.
We would be blissful together.
Backs up a few feet, blinking the stinging sweat out of his eyes.
You’re safe here from Fire Flower. Deadlines don’t matter.
Sparks Zin’s lighter.
They can bomb us, but we can just make more space, outstrip the explosion, an infinity of space just for us. We’re outside of their time now. We can vanish together into timeless nothingness.
Tosses it into the strange sculpture of opalescent liquid and ancient wood.
As the home base burns, the cicadas crescendo into a disturbing frenzy.
The old slave quarters replicate exponentially. The massive forest disappears onto the horizon. Wellington looms high above, impossibly far away, a hazy mountain range, blue and ponderous. He’s not sure if what he is seeing is Dandelion, some pain-induced hallucination, or maybe all of the dead passing through him, imbuing his mind with their tormented memories, giving him their eyes to see this place as they had seen it when working the fields two hundred years ago, transforming his hands, the refined gesturing blades of an academic, into the blunt farm tools that had defined their existence.
He keels over and vomits.
Darrell wakes to the fuzzy sight of Zinnia holding up the tutu lamp.
“Third floor guest room,” he hears himself saying, his voice heavy and slow, “and enough with the judgment.”
“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.
Fighting the vertigo, the déjà vu, Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.
After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation, then to the desk, where the ancient beam still rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.
Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.
He walks back over to the boxes, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place.
Tim W. Boiteau’s fiction has appeared in such places as The Writing Disorder, LampLight, Kasma Magazine, and Every Day Fiction. Tim holds a PhD in experimental psychology and lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He’s currently searching for an agent to represent him in selling his first novel.