The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- The Poseidon Stones by David Kernot
- Incorporeal by Mark Rookyard
- An Indiscernible Amount of Things by Gary Emmette Chandler
- Eggs from the Cuckoo Clock Bird by Dale Carothers
- Aberrations by J.A. Becker
- The Keeper by Alina Rios
- The White Lady by Nathan Wunner
- Plain Girl by Adam King
- The Silver Spoon by C. L. Holland
- Born of Lies by Rhoads Brazos
- Spare a Prayer by Jess Hyslop
The Poseidon Stones
By David Kernot
Mike Ironbark drove the shovel into the hard dry ground. He glanced at the year-old oak seedling in the pot nearby, and wondered how many years it would take for the tree to shade the farmhouse. “This is for you, Dad,” he said.
Dad had believed that everything is connected, and he died twelve months to the day. They had potted the acorn that night in his memory. Today they’d plant the seedling in the ground and celebrate his life again. Mike’s arms and shoulders ached from the compacted soil. He blamed the early onset of summer. He stood, straightened his tight back muscles and removed his worn wide-brimmed hat. He wiped the sweat off his brow and stared at the small rise of hills in the distance. They marked the edge of the farm and had already turned a deep shade of rusty-brown. In front of them, the heat shimmered above the expanse of wheat. How could it be so hot in the morning? “Curse this heat,” he said and looked around for his crowbar. He stared up at the cloudless, indigo-blue sky, proud of his successes on the land. This was Dad’s farm, his legacy.
He turned at the sound of the back screen door spring stretching. Anna, his wife, stood by the door of their farmhouse, a towel wrapped around her slender body and her long wet hair stuck to her. Mike couldn’t help but smile. She looked beautiful, and he was the luckiest man alive.
“Mike, there’s no water for Maisie Jane’s shower,” she said.
“Have you checked the tank?”
“Yes, it’s dry.”
Mike’s heart skipped a beat and he frowned. Out here, water was their livelihood. Without it everything would die, the crops, the animals… people. Showers were the least of his concern. But it was odd. The bore pump should have automatically filled the house tank overnight. The breaker had probably tripped; it had done that a few times of late. Salt or contaminants became lodged in the pipes that stretched deep underground, into Australia’s Great Artesian Basin.
“Have we got power in the house?”
“Okay, I’ll go check.”
“Daddy, Daddy.” The outside screen door opened wider. Their daughter, Maisie Jane, ran around Anna and made a beeline toward him. He smiled and squatted down. She threw herself into his arms, the spitting image of Anna, except she was tall and her eyes a deeper blue—something she’d inherited from him.
Maisie Jane still looked too pale and thin, but the doctors had said that her leukemia was in remission. He hoped so. “Sleep well, Mouse?” He ruffled her uncombed hair.
The six-year-old nodded. Maisie Jane looked around him, to the small hole in the ground, at his shovel, and the oak tree. “Grandpa’s tree,” she said.
His throat tightened, and he swallowed several times to work it away before speaking. They’d made many promises on Dad’s deathbed, but it had been at Maisie Jane’s insistence that they planted an acorn in his memory.
It didn’t seem a year ago that his father had leaned forward and put his paper-thin hand on Maisie Jane’s cheek. “Mouse,” he said. “You can tell your grandchildren it was Grandpa’s tree because he loved you so much.” She’d nodded. “And by the time the tree is well established, then you’ll have the Poseidon Stones I gave to your dad. Magic stones, like Poseidon, the god of water.”
Dad had chuckled and made one last joke before he passed shortly after, his hand on Maisie Jane’s arm.
Mike’s throat tightened again. Dad had always been bigger than life, and he hoped he’d be the same for Maisie Jane. His hands went to the chain around his neck, to where the three small emeralds were cocooned in silk and their separate hessian bags. Poseidon Stones. Even now they glowed hot as if they had lives of their own. They seemed to call him. Unfamiliar images formed at the edge of his vision, and—
“Don’t cry, Daddy.”
Mike pulled himself from his memories, forced the stone’s images aside; they could wait for another time. He wiped away the tears he’d been unaware of until Maisie Jane spoke and ruffled her hair again. He didn’t trust his voice not to be twisted with emotion and nodded.
“Maisie, come inside and let Daddy check the pump.”
Maisie Jane leaned closer. “Remember?”
He nodded again, and swallowed. “If I see any, I’ll let you know.”
“But don’t hurt them,” she said quickly and held up a tiny index finger in a determined way that reinforced the impression she was such an old soul. At times she seemed years older.
“I won’t.” He stood and watched the young girl run back inside. He smiled and shook his head. There was so much of his mum in her, it was uncanny. He regretted that Mum and Anna had never met, but Mum had passed years before from the cancer. Maisie’s obsession with dragonflies always amused him and especially Dad who had given Maisie Jane his wife’s anniversary gift of an intricate, gilded dragonfly. But Maisie Jane was right; they did tend to dart around near the small, bore pump shed in search of water. They might even be at the header tank, hovering over a broken pipe that fed the farmhouse.
Mike stood at the empty water tank and a sense of urgency gripped him. It clawed at his chest like a wildcat intent on ripping him apart. The stones at his throat seemed to lick him with fire and he swallowed hard. He pushed away an image of vivid, lush green pastures with their horses frolicking across the paddocks and stared at the harsh, dry hillside. Far to his left, a flock of his sheep gathered near a clump of trees, and he could hear the horses in the stables kick at their pens and whinny for food.
A dragonfly appeared. It moved straight up above him, flew backward, stopped and hovered a short distance away, almost as if it waited for Mike to do something. But he couldn’t. The dragonflies would die soon as the remaining water vanished.
He had a bad feeling. Water was everything, and he didn’t have the money to truck in supplies. Not this year. His two thousand acres of land were worthless if he didn’t have water to last the dry summer. He took a breath, slow and deliberate. Worrying too much, as always, never helped. He had water. Everything would be fine, and he strode down the hill to the pump shed, convinced the breaker had tripped again. Maisie Jane’s shower would follow. Anna could wash the soap from her hair.
Mike pulled open the pump-shed door and stepped inside, careful not to bang his head on the low roof. His stomach churned. If water was their life’s blood, then the pump was at its heart. He’d heard of farmers leaving their land once the water supplies ran dry. But out here, he had been blessed. The Great Artesian Basin was an ancient and enormous holding of water, buried under a third of the Australian continent. It had been here for an eternity, and it would remain so. He glanced about the small space, to the pump head in the middle of the floor, and the outlet pipes that fed the holding tank up on the hill a short distance away. Everything was as it should be.
He flicked on a light switch by the door, but nothing happened, and so he clambered over generations of accumulated rubbish strewn across the floor to the circuit breaker and smiled. It had tripped. It happened from time to time. He reset the breaker and dull light shone from an overhead globe above the pump. He breathed a sigh of relief, and the churning in his stomach lessened. The pump would kick in. He leaned over and pressed the reset on the pump housing and waited for it to automatically start and fill the header tank.
A pump light glowed, one that he’d never seen, and his heart skipped a beat. He stepped outside and cursed in the knowledge he wouldn’t be able to fix it. The water level had fallen below the pump inlet. But how? There was supposed to be enough water to last generations.
He sat in the dirt, unsure what to do next. He didn’t have the money to drill a new bore site. The farm was already in debt. How was he going to afford a new pump that could take water from a deeper well?
Perhaps he had overreacted. It might only need priming. Even as a glimmer of hope appeared at the idea, it died. Inside the shed again, he shut off the pump, and wrenched open the top of the pipe that descended deep into the precious artesian water. He grabbed a graduated test probe on a reel, switched it on, and inserted it down the pipe.
Mike checked the circuit to ensure the water light was functional. It was. He unwound it bit by bit, down past previous water level markers etched on the bore inlet years before. He stopped at the point where the next marker highlighted the end. Mike stared at the light that would flare once the probe hit water. He unraveled the cable a tiny amount at a time and watched and waited. A quarter of an inch… Half an inch… the light glowed. Mike sighed. Half an inch. It might as well have been ten miles for all it mattered.
He switched off the probe and stepped back outside, up the hill to the farmhouse. He had no money to extend the pump. And without it, the farm would die. He’d be unable to water the sheep, and the horses, and grow their food in the garden. He’d have to sell the farm. Put their organic lifestyle behind them. He’d have to move closer to the city, away from the support network of the church for Maisie Jane. Anna would lose her friends. He didn’t know what he was going to say to her.
Mike entered the cool, dimly lit farmhouse kitchen and he threw Anna a half smile.
“It’s that bad?” She frowned.
He nodded, uncertain where to begin, unsure how to put how he felt into words that would make any sense at all. “The pump has reached its limit. I need to extend the inlet, and to do that I need to replace it with a bigger one, and we—”
Maisie Jane entered the room, and without a thought he squatted. She ran into his arms and hugged him. He closed his eyes. How? How could he sell the farm and move when everything they could want was here? He looked across the table to where a scattered array of church notices were, and he lingered on a recent one condemning the process of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas from miles below the surface. Chris Owens had visited a month or so back and asked to lease the corner paddock. The church was against it. Against soiling the land. Against getting rich and using the money to spend on useless unneeded things. He chewed on his bottom lip and weighed up the wrath of the church elders against the promise he made to his Dad about keeping the farm. Either alternative had consequences.
He stood and faced Anna. “There might be a way.”
Her eyes lit with expectation. She seemed taller. “What?”
“We can take up that offer from Chris Owens to put a hydraulic fracturing well here and extract natural gas.”
Her shoulders dropped, and she became silent. She shook her head.
He could tell she was recounting the church elders’ recent sermon about the risks of the deep wells. He had to agree. “I don’t see any alternatives,” he said softly and touched her shoulder.
She stepped closer to him. “Isn’t there another way?”
Mike couldn’t think of one.
“Your nest egg,” she said and looked at where the stones lay under his shirt.
“The stones?” His hand went to his neck, to where they rested beneath his shirt. They felt warm and licked him with fire, as if they sensed his dilemma. He’d alluded to Anna once that there was a cache of emeralds on the property, and joked it was their nest egg, their pot of gold that could get them out of trouble. But he’d made a promise to Dad when he was a boy to keep the knowledge safe, and not to do anything with them. They were magic. The stones at the end of the chain around his neck were a reminder of that day.
He had never considered the emerald mine as an option unless there was no choice. But the mine… Another promise… his soul was filled with them. He closed his eyes and tried not to remember, but the images from the past swamped him, from a time he was only ten…
How long had it been? The years fell away as he remembered that time, when he, Dad, and Lucky, their black-and-white border collie had gone out camping in the back paddock. It was just after Mum had passed from the cancer. Dad was still hurting bad; you could see it in his eyes. The pain of losing his best friend and the loneliness. But he’d pushed on because of Mike. Back then there was a small lake out by the corner paddock.
They’d set camp near the water’s edge in the small valley. A campfire crackled from the dry kindling. The air filled with spicy gum smoke, and burning ashes soared up into one of the darkest skies Mike could remember. They’d stared into the heavens and named one of the stars in the constellation of Scorpio after Mum. Dad had smiled and said it was nice and Mum would have liked that.
Lucky ran off when one of the logs in the fire exploded and a crescendo of sparks flew everywhere.
Dad called her, and when she didn’t return, he told Mike to stay put, so he could go and find her, but Mike had told him no. Mike knew what Lucky meant to him and Mum, and Mike went with him and searched for Lucky. It seemed like they’d searched forever, and it seemed like they’d stumbled around in the dark for hours. Apart from Mike, Lucky was the only other thing alive that reminded him of Mum.
It must have been about three in the morning, and they’d all but given up hope. Mike shivered hard from the cold, and he was tired. He’d fallen over a couple of times in the dark and cut his knee open. Dad was distraught. It didn’t help that he was slowing him down. Mike stared up at the star he’d named after Mum and asked for a miracle. He wanted Dad to find Lucky so he could stop tearing himself up inside. It was about the same time that a meteor flared across the sky to the south-west.
“Look,” said Mike and pointed in the direction. “It’s a sign.” He stumbled across the valley with no idea about what he’d find, determined that it had been Mum’s influence. He stopped at the hillside and looked around. Mike couldn’t see anything, but deep in the ground he heard a muffled bark.
“I found her. I’ve found Lucky,” cried Mike.
Dad ran to him, his eyes shone with hope, and he smiled and put his arm around Mike’s shoulder but couldn’t speak.
“Mum found her,” said Mike. “She sent a shooting star from heaven.”
Lucky had managed to squeeze through a fissure in the side of the hill and became trapped behind the stone. They dug away at the clods of grass and dirt with their bare hands, pulled away the small rocks until the opening was barely wide enough for Dad to squeeze through.
“Stay here,” he said. “If I’m not back in an hour, then run and tell Joe Pearce where I am.”
Mike nodded. Joe Pearce was their closest neighbor. Mike sat by the narrow cave entrance and stared up into the dark sky, to the star in Scorpio he’d named ‘Eternity’ after Mum. Soon enough, he heard Lucky barking at the entrance, and they exited the cave safe and sound. They all marched back to the campsite and clambered into the tent and slept.
The next day they went back to the cave and Dad took another look inside. He came out a while later carrying a kitten. They could never be sure if Lucky had gone in to chase it, or to rescue it, but Mike always remembered because that was the day they found the stones. Three emeralds. All had been together in the ground before he found them. Mike remembered his father rolling them around in his hands until he became light-headed. He had to sit down. He rubbed his head as if it hurt or he’d been overcome by something. He said, “There’s magic in these stones.”
Dad told him there were more down there. Lots of them. More than enough emeralds down there to make them wealthy a dozen times over, but that it would be their secret. Mike realized that Mum had been looking down from the heavens at them and she’d taken care of things in her own way. Dad made him promise not to tell. Mike did. Mum would have wanted that.
Mike shook the memories free and faced Anna. Over a course of twenty-five years the place had dried up and the dragonfly swarms had gone. Mike never saw them again, and like the water once in abundance, it too had vanished, leaving a dry dust bowl in its place. But the cave was still there with its hidden cache of emeralds. Mike had always wanted to go in and explore it but never had. He didn’t want to change any of the memories of that night when Mum had touched them all. He never wanted them to fade. From that day on it had always been a magical place.
He smiled at Anna with regret. “I can’t. I promised…” he said. “I’m going to see Chris Owens today and sign that contract. I might not be completely happy with drilling for gas on our land, but it’s for the best. Mike rubbed Anna’s arm and smiled. “You’ll see, everything will work out fine.”
Mike stepped inside the café, a small roadhouse on the edge of town, and he wiped the beads of sweat from his brow. The cool air from an overhead fan and the dim light was a welcome relief. In the far corner of the room, Chris Owens sat at a table reading. He looked up and waved. “Mike,” he said.
Mike nodded and walked over to him. Nervous cramps twisted his gut. He felt trapped as if there was no way out of his dilemma, but he assured himself this was the only way.
Chris Owens was a middle-aged man, balding with short-cropped hair. He wore a business suit, but his tie was pulled loose away from the top of his shirt, and it made him look less formal, approachable. He smiled and shook Mike’s hand. The grip was firm, confident.
“Mr. Owens,” said Mike. “Good to meet you.”
“You too. Call me Chris,” he said and smiled at Mike. “I hope you don’t mind meeting here, it’s a less formal, and we’re not about pressuring anyone.”
Mike nodded and sat down across from Chris. The tension in his stomach lessened.
A waitress stepped over and wiped her apron. She pulled out her pad and pencil.
Mike didn’t know her. He didn’t come into town often, and it had grown in recent years.
“Coffee?” asked Chris.
“A glass of water,” said Mike and smiled at the obvious joke. Here for the town folk water was not such a precious commodity.
“Two waters, please,” said Chris, and waited for the waitress to leave.
Mike sat and didn’t speak. A part of him felt uncomfortable, dirty, with his decision to come and discuss drilling on part of the farm. The other part said he had to be a realist if he was going to survive. His stomach churned again with uncertainty, and he sat with his hands under the table, clenching and unclenching them.
The waitress returned with two large glasses of water filled with ice. Chris pushed an empty coffee mug aside and frowned. “Is it that bad?”
Mike told Chris the story about the pump and the water level. He had nothing to lose being honest.
Chris Owens opened up a survey map of the land surrounding the farm. He tapped his finger on the area out by the corner block. “This is where we’d like to drill. It’s close to the road, so we won’t bother you for access. It’s far enough away that the noise will be minimal. You won’t even know we are there.”
“Is it safe?”
“You’ve got a young girl.” He looked down at his notes. “Maisie Jane?”
“We’ll fence it off. It will be safe. Nobody will be able to get near—”
“It’s not what I meant. Is it safe? The drilling? It’s not going to destroy the land?”
Chris Owens laughed, and he pushed his chair back from the table. “We get that a lot. Trust me. Hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracturing, is completely safe. It’s one of the cleanest and safest methods to extract natural gas. It’s great on the environment. All clean energy.”
“What about leakage? I’ve heard there have been problems.”
“The early wells were poorly designed. Nowadays we encase them in steel and cement to ensure there is absolutely no risk of contaminating any groundwater.” He slid a brochure across the table. “Take this. It shows our unique design.”
Mike took the brochure and leafed through the pages, filled with testimonials from other people who had signed up. There were pages of design drawings showing how the shaft would be drilled and fitted out.
“I won’t lie, Mike. There are always risks, but we strive to minimize them. I’ve conducted a geological survey of your land, and I can see that there won’t be any problems. So, what do you think?”
“I’ve drawn up a contract.” He slid a thick wad of typed paper across the table. Chris tapped a spot on the front page. “Take a look. I think you’ll find that we’ve been more than generous.”
Mike leaned closer and glanced at the figure. It was much more than he’d expected. More than he’d average over five years farming. He’d be able to buy a new pump. It’d see him right.
Mike looked up. “It’s very generous.”
Chris smiled. “Take it home. Talk it over with…” he glanced down at his notes. “Talk to Anna about it, and see what she says.” He stood and held out his hand. “I’d just ask that you keep this between us.”
“Of course.” Mike shook the man’s hand.
“And it’s a minor point, but this is the best offer we can give you. It’s only valid for five days. I’m sure you understand. After that, I’m afraid we tend to reassess the situation downwards.”
“So how long before the drilling would start?”
“Well… we could have a team in place within a month of signing.”
“And the money?”
“As soon as you sign the contract, Mike. I’ll leave you to think it through, but from what I heard, it’s going to be a hot summer.”
Mike nodded. It was going to be a long dry summer. He felt it in his bones.
“You all right if I visit in a couple of days, Mike?”
“Excellent. If you’ve got any questions, perhaps we can go over them then?”
“That would be good.”
“Nice to meet you, Mike.”
Mike shook his hand again. He sat for a few minutes and waited for Chris to leave the café. He leafed through the contract, but nothing seemed out of place with the offer. Things were looking up after all.
Mike stepped out from the café into the heat. He ambled down the street to his car.
Mike stopped. He turned and faced the man.
Pastor Matthew strode across the street, hand thrust forward in greeting.
Mike shook the church elder’s hand. “How are you doing, pastor?”
“Always good, Michael, always good.” He looked over at the café Mike had just left and frowned. “What have you been up to? I heard you had a meeting with Chris Owens.”
Mike opened his mouth, speechless. It wasn’t any of the pastor’s business.
“Anna called,” said the pastor. “She said you might be acting rash.”
Anna? Mike chewed at the corner of his lip. Why would she have done that? “I was discussing cash options to buy a bigger pump.”
The church elder’s forehead twisted with genuine concern. “Problems with your water supply?”
“Funny, a few of the congregation have said water levels have been dropping. We did some tests, and found the water quality has degraded, too.” He looked down at the contract in Mike’s hand. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Did they tell you about the risks?”
“They mentioned they have a new design,” said Mike.
“Did they say they pump disinfectants, acid, detergent and salt down these wells? And sand and ceramic particles?”
Mike cleared his throat. “No.”
“Did they say that the wastewater is stored on your land and contaminated with radioactive material, heavy metals, and other toxins?”
Mike shook his head.
“They will throw benzene and toluene and who knows what into the air and poison your farm, and they won’t care. Who knows what the risks of long-term exposure will be. Birth defects. Blood disorders. Cancer. Of all people I don’t need to tell you about that.”
Mike didn’t need reminding about what Mum and Maisie Jane had gone through. His throat tightened. “You seem pretty much against the idea, pastor.”
“Fracking is a problem.” The pastor pointed to the café where Mike had spoken to Chris Owens. “They are poisoning the land, tainting our water. The Great Artesian Basin supplies water to half of Australia. Here!” He pointed to his feet. “Right below us. It’s not right, Michael. It’s not the church’s way. God wouldn’t approve of this.”
Mike squeezed his hands together. “None of those things have been proven. Anyway, what choice do I have, pastor? I can sell up, move to the coast. Leave everything behind.” He squeezed his eyes shut. Fail. Mike took a deep breath, opened his eyes and sought for understanding within the pastor. “Without water the farm is worthless. Without a pump there is no water. Can the church loan me money for a new pump, pastor?”
Mike heard blood pounding in his ears while Pastor Matthew stood silent. Mike watched the pastor’s forehead twist as he wrestled some inner turmoil.
The pastor spoke in hushed tones, and his voice caught every so often. “A little for food, perhaps…” He shook his head slowly. “Charity has boundaries, I’m afraid… and if I recall, Michael, you have an outstanding debt with the church elders?”
Mike closed his eyes and nodded. The church and the community had pulled together to provide the money to pay for Maisie Jane’s leukemia treatment two years ago. But Mike had been unable to repay the debt. “You don’t understand, pastor. I have no choice. I need it for my family to survive.”
The elder smiled. “I understand, son.” He stepped closer. “You always have choices, Michael. I would suggest that you just ask Him.”
Mike stepped back a step. “But it’s not that simple, pastor.”
The pastor smiled. “You’ll find a way. I have faith in you. God works in the strangest of ways. I know the answer will arrive for you in time.”
Mike nodded. He didn’t believe a word of it. All the pastor had done was to paint him into a dark corner.
“Sleep on it,” said the pastor. “Do that at least. I’m sure your father would have wanted you to.”
Mike nodded. Perhaps there was another way. He stared at the contract in his hand without any idea what to do.
When he looked up, the pastor had gone, and the stones, millstones, burned with a fire hotter than the afternoon sun. It was as if they called to him, almost beckoned him to do something. But what?
Mike stood at the base of the water tank and rapped his knuckles on the side of the corrugated tin. He did it on every rung until he had reached the lowest; the one below the outlet, and it was only then that the hollow tone changed to indicate water. Maybe he’d be able to use a hand pump to scavenge the remains. But that didn’t help him. It only confirmed what he knew.
He sat on the floor with his back resting against the empty tank and stared at the distant hills. Two days had passed since his meeting with Chris Owens, and with it the final drops of their main water supply. He didn’t know what he was going to do. His flock of sheep stood idle in the midday sun around the water trough. Empty. The horses frolicked in another paddock unaware he couldn’t top up their water. It couldn’t get worse.
He tried to massage the tension away at the side of his head, but it made little difference. Chris Owens was visiting at four in the afternoon, and Mike would sign the contract, but he couldn’t wait. He couldn’t sit idle. He’d go now and get it over with before his head exploded. Pastor Matthews and the church would turn their back on Mike’s family. He knew they would, but Mike would rather keep his farm, and continue living the life expected of him. A lifestyle he loved. He’d take care of the family in his own way, and if that meant they would frack his land, then so be it.
He heard Maisie Jane and Anna laughing inside the old family farmhouse. It filled him with joy. Maisie Jane had been immune to what was going on around her thanks to Anna. He couldn’t sell. It was all Maisie Jane talked about while she recovered from her illness. He wouldn’t make them move.
They would find a way to survive on an old corroded tank by the side of the house, one that took water from the farmhouse roof. It was a small tank. The water quality wasn’t the best, and he’d need some of it for the sheep and the horses. There’d be no showers, but it would have to be enough for cooking and drinking, and the toilet. What was the old bush motto: if it’s brown wash it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow. He grinned in spite of his somber mood. They’d survive. They had to! It wouldn’t last more than a few days at best, but he’d find the best outcome he could.
He stood. He’d be with Chris Owens within the hour and sign the contract. He marched down the hill to the farmhouse and crept inside and grabbed the car keys, intent on letting Anna and Maisie Jane play in the next room. He didn’t want to break their mood.
On the way into town he took the longer route, the one that went past the bottom paddock where the hydraulic fracturing well was going to be sited. He pulled the car up on the verge and stopped. From the side of the road, the area looked picturesque. A small valley with gentle hills to the left. The quiet solitude embraced him. He stepped outside, and the morning sun warmed him. Sound pollution would probably not be an issue: it was a reasonable way from the house. They’d probably still hear something, but it wouldn’t be too bad. It’d depend on the way the wind blew at times.
Mike clambered over the fence, and it was as if it triggered the stones in the canvas bags against his chest. It always happened as soon as he walked the land near to the cave that the three emeralds had come from. Fire smoldered at his neck. He ignored it as best as he could, unsure why the stones always became agitated around this place. It was as if they had a life of their own and they yearned to be put back in the ground where they had come from. Mike would never do that. But he twisted his neck uncomfortably against them. There was a power within the stones that he couldn’t ignore. Dad had joked several times and said they were magic, and he’d said never rub them together unless he wanted to start a fire. Everything is connected, he’d said. Even the Poseidon Stones.
Mike had ignored the warning once and dared clamber into the cave. The dark narrow cavern hummed. All the hairs on Mike’s body stood erect. It was a magic place. Mike clambered out of the cave as fast as he could. Dad laughed when he found out, and had told him of a time he’d taken the stones out and rubbed them together. “You’ve never known power until you do,” he said. For years after, he laughed and said, “Don’t ever connect them. Keep them apart, like insolent children.”
Mike pulled them out, away from his skin and breathed a sigh of relief. He had to admit that they were magic. In their own way, they were alive. He’d never taken them out of their silk cocoons, never removed them from the hessian bags. Who knew what they would do. Fire? Magic? Either way, he’d promised to take care of them and the land here.
The once-wet depression was bone dry. The dragonflies that once hovered over the water pools were gone. Mike vowed once again that he’d never go. In the distance, off to his left the low rolling hills were already burned gray from the early start to summer. Nothing lived at this spot. The drilling company was welcome to it. He put the fiery stones around his neck back under his clothes and took comfort in their closeness. The other stones in the cave would remain intact, far enough from the clutches of the miners and their drilling for gas. It sat outside the drilling area, and that was all that mattered.
Everything was quiet in town, as if it slept in the midday sun. Mike strode into the mining office this time and asked for Chris Owens.
The man looked a little startled when Mike held out his hand and announced that he was here to sign the contract, and he didn’t want to put Chris out with the drive.
“Come this way,” he said and ushered Mike into a room. Moments later, a tall woman that he couldn’t quite recognize, although he was certain he had met her family years before, brought in the contract.
Mike signed it without any hesitation and sat down in the comfy black leather armchair.
“Did you have enough time to read it?” asked Chris Owens. His face showed surprise.
“Yes,” said Mike. “Everything was fine.”
“No,” said Mike. He waited until Chris Owens signed it. “That’s it?” Mike asked.
“That’s it.” Chris held out his hand and Mike shook it.
“There was one thing,” said Mike.
Chris Owens smiled. “Name it.”
“I wondered about getting a down payment. So I can buy in some water. Get that new pump,” said Mike.
“Soon,” said Chris Owens. “It’s normally about a week.”
Mike’s mouth fell open. He leaned forward. “A week? I thought it’d be quicker.”
Chris Owens smiled again. “There’s a three day cooling off period. You know, in case we find anything different from what we had initially expected.”
Mike frowned. “Different?”
“Don’t worry, it’s a formality. I’ll organize the team to come out.” He looked at his wristwatch and nodded. “There might be time to get them out later this afternoon. Tomorrow at the latest. It’ll speed up the process so you can get paid.”
Mike hesitated. “Team?”
“They’ll double check the earlier survey. Fence off the site. Get the dozers in.”
“Dozers?” Mike wasn’t clear on any of this.
“To level the site.”
Mike’s stomach knotted. He wasn’t comfortable with what he was hearing. “Why does the site need to be flattened?”
Chris Owens shrugged. “It’s what they do.” He looked at the wristwatch again. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another meeting. I can get one of the site guys to take out your copy of the contract if you like? Saves you waiting around.”
“I should be able to get him out today.” He held out his hand again and smiled. “You’ve made the right choice, Mike. We’re all going to get rich mining gas. You’ll see. You’ll have the best farm in the district.”
Mike left the office. He should have felt relieved now that he’d signed the contract, but he didn’t. Instead, an uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach. Somehow, he had to find a way to make their supply last over the next week.
Mike sat in their kitchen across the table from Anna.
She stared at him. “So it’s done?”
Mike nodded. She didn’t look comfortable when he had told her. “I’ve organized a water truck delivery for the end of the week. We’re rationing until then.”
Anna didn’t speak. Concern swam across her face and twisted the corners of her mouth.
He frowned. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right. I just thought you’d find another way somehow.”
“What should I do?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It’s your farm. You know I’d never get in the way. If it were me I’d see if the church elders would give me a loan.”
Mike nodded. “They told me our credit had expired.”
“Still, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“I’ll think about it.” Mike chewed his lip. The elders were quite clear there would be no more credit last time Mike had asked, although Anna wouldn’t know that.
Mike frowned. “I did what I thought was right for all of us.”
“But bulldozers leveling the paddock… Is that what you want?”
Mike stood and raised his voice. “I had no choice. We’re out of water. The animals are out of water…” He took a deep breath. His throat tightened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m going outside to get some fresh air.” He walked around the table and ran his hand gently along the side of her face. “I thought you’d be pleased,” he said, his voice raspy with frustration.
Mike pushed open the door and strode outside. What had he done? Why wasn’t Anna happy? Couldn’t she see that he’d done it for them? What did she want him to say? That he wasn’t happy they were going to bulldoze the site? If only he had asked before signing.
A dragonfly darted back into the shade by the water tank. It positioned itself in a pocket of shade. To Mike, it looked as though the beautiful insect had minimized its body to the sun, and it used its four huge wings as reflectors. Mike couldn’t blame it. The heat was draining.
He remembered that the cave where the emeralds were located was next to the edge of the site boundary. What if they damaged that area by bulldozing it? What if they uncovered it? Goddammit! What had he done?
In the distance the sound of a hammer striking metal made him stop in his tracks. He looked at the time and realized that Chris Owens’ team had wasted no time in getting here. He heard an engine start up. A bulldozer. What had he done? Fear kicked in and he ran toward the bottom paddock as fast as he could. The stones around his neck came alive like wildfire.
Mike looked around, amazed at what he could see. The corner paddock looked like a construction site. A perimeter fence was going up, and men were banging in posts. A bulldozer was leveling the land nearest to the roadway. Ripping up the vegetation into a mound.
“Stop!” He ran toward the bulldozer and waved his hands in the air.
The driver of the dozer stopped and turned off the engine. He stepped down off the heavy machine. “This is a drilling site. You’re trespassing.”
“It’s my farm,” said Mike. His chest warmed where the stones were, and he moved them.
“I don’t care. I was told you signed a contract. You agreed to all of this.”
“I did,” said Mike.
“Well, then you need to get off the site. I’ve got to level it before the end of the day. The drilling head is being installed tomorrow.”
“Dave!” The dozer driver waved a man in a suit over.
The man strode over and offered his hand to shake. “Mike?”
“I’m Dave Myers. I was heading down to deliver your signed contract. What seems to be the problem?”
“I just need a moment.” He turned away from the man and stared at the line of pristine hills. A dragonfly whipped past. He’d seen them do that a lot recently. They darted about, intent on their solitary missions.
Mike looked around, back where he’d spotted the dragonfly. It hovered in more of a dance than anything else. This was where they had camped all those years ago. Back when there had been water and the dragonflies swarmed the place in abundance. The cave entrance, hidden by a large rock beckoned. Lucky had been lost there … and where they’d found the emeralds… If he did this he’d never be able to take Maisie Jane camping here. He’d never be able to sit her down at a campfire and pass on the story of that night.
It wasn’t right, but he had no choice. He was as trapped as Lucky had been that night in the cave.
The dragonfly returned with another, and they hovered nearby. Mike watched the prehistoric-looking insects with interest. Dad had always called them the jewels of the sky. In the sunlight they dazzled. Their large green eyes looked like big emeralds. Mike touched his neck chain. They looked like the stones.
One hovered, and the other zigzagged left and right. It stopped and then flew backward. It seemed so random. The first one swooped over Mike’s head, made a hairpin turn, and they both flew off toward the area where the lake had once stood. Before, when there was water.
Almost in response to his thought, the stones flared.
Mike smiled. It was like a watershed. The tension fell from him. Why hadn’t he listened? Why hadn’t Mike taken more notice about the world around him? He pulled the stones out from under his shirt and removed each of them from their small hessian bags. Even through the silk cocoons, they burned in his hand.
It all made sense now. He turned back to the man who had stood patiently. There was another way. He smiled at the man. “Dave, was it?”
The man nodded.
“You’ve got the contract?”
“Yes, here.” He pointed to a spot on the paper. “All signed. Endorsed by the local company director.”
“Can I see that?” Mike held out his hand for the contract.
“As you will see, the area is ours now, Mr. Ironbark. I would like to respectfully ask you to move away from the site until we can put up a perimeter fence.”
“That’s not going to happen,” said Mike.
“I’m not leaving.”
“For your own safety, you must leave this area. It’s an industrial requirement. You can watch the works from the other side once the perimeter fence is up.”
“No, I didn’t make myself clear. This…” Mike waved his hands in the air, “…this isn’t going to happen. You have a three-day cooling off period before you can start.”
“Yes, but we’ve elected to start early. We’re happy with the site location.”
“I’m not. I have the same three days to change my mind.”
“I’m not sure. I’d have to check—”
“I’m sure,” said Mike. He tore the contract in half and in half again and threw it onto the ground. “I have elected not to go ahead with the fracking on my land. You are now trespassing, and I would respectfully ask you and your company to leave. Immediately!”
The man stared back at Mike for the longest moment, and finally he smiled. “Okay. I can see you’re not going to change your mind any time soon.”
“No, I’m not. Tell Chris Owens thank you, but I don’t need a new pump. Tell him I have all the water I need.”
Mike strode from the drilling and construction team. They’d leave soon enough. They had no choice. He made his way near to the cave and positioned himself on the high ground, where he had camped all those years ago. Who’d have thought it would have been the dragonflies that would solve the riddle for him. He grinned. Dragonflies were an ancient insect, and had taken to the air long before any of the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Dragonflies couldn’t live without water. They always appeared around ponds and lakes. He’d always seen them around the animals’ troughs, skimming the water’s surface.
And there they were. Not one or two, but hundreds of them. They hovered in the dry paddock where the lake once was. Like a sea of emeralds. Mike stared at the three silk parcels in his hand. Never let the stones connect, he’d been told. But everything is connected, and all this time the power of the Poseidon Stones had been hidden in plain sight. Poseidon was the god of water, and the dragonflies, with their big emerald green eyes had hinted to where there was water. Why else would there be so many dragonflies in abundance? It was as if they hovered and waited for him.
He pulled one out of the stones from its silk cocoon and let it fall onto his hand. He winced. It was as if someone had slid a rough piece of wood along the side of his head. The warm stone seemed to come alive. It pulsed inside his head.
He pulled out the second stone and placed it alongside the first. Pain shot through his head and it grew to a deep throb within him. His hand shook. He wanted to let go of the stones. They burned like nothing he’d experienced. Quickly he let the third stone fall onto his open palm before he lost all courage.
It was as if someone had smacked him on the side of the head with a brick. His heart skipped a beat. His hand felt as if it was on fire. He closed his eyes and bit his lip until he tasted blood and fought not to let go of the stones. He took a breath and braced himself, then closed his hand around the stones so that they joined. So they connected.
He thrust his hand out. The pain in his head grew and he doubled over. The ground shook around him and the fire seemed to burst from his hand, or the stones. A bright flash illuminated through his closed eyelids. He winced and shut them tighter. Still the pain continued to grow until he couldn’t tolerate it. He opened his hand and let go of the stones.
They fell, and the pain vanished. He opened his eyes, convinced his palm would be burned, but it was unscathed. He bent and retrieved the stones, one at a time, and he placed them back in their silk cocoons and returned the magic Poseidon Stones to the small hessian bags on the chain.
He glanced over at the spot where the lake had once been and smiled at the massive swarm of dragonflies. In that small moment, the swarm had multiplied and there had to be a thousand or more there now. They hovered over the old lake and darted in chaotic style just above the ground, to where water bubbled up from a rent in the Earth.
Mike and Anna stood in the bottom paddock, at the edge of a lake that hadn’t been there three days before. In that time he had unshackled the water pump and moved it beside the edge of the lake. It hadn’t been difficult to rig up the inlet to take the fresh spring water, and now the farm tank was full.
Mike watched Maisie Jane run in and out of the water and splash in it. A car pulled up by the road and a man stepped out. Anna waved, and Mike recognized Pastor Matthew.
He strode down and joined them. “I heard that you’d experienced a miracle,” said the pastor. “I had to come by and see for myself.” Pastor Matthew laughed.
“I told you you’d find a way. Your dad would be proud of you, son.”
“I’m proud of him too, pastor. Imagine there being water just below the surface all this time.” Anna grinned at Mike.
Mike grabbed Anna’s hand and squeezed it. There was more than enough water for the animals and the family, and Mike would be able to lavish the oak seedling they had planted. It would flourish.
Anna squeezed his hand back. “Would you like to come in for some afternoon tea, pastor?” She grinned again. “A glass of cold water perhaps?”
Pastor Matthew chuckled. “I’d like that.”
“I’ll grab Maisie Jane,” said Mike. He stood and watched his daughter stalk something near the water’s edge. He saw several dragonflies and smiled. One darted backward and hovered above her head. Its emerald colored eyes glistened like the stones. They made him feel more alive. More connected to the world than Mike ever thought possible. They pulsed with a beat deep inside him. One day they’d be Maisie Jane’s, along with the farm.
By Mark Rookyard
I was there in the room when the policeman told my wife I was dead.
“A terrible accident,” he said. “An explosion. There couldn’t have been much warning, the particle collider…” he trailed away. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”
I wanted to shout, to scream. Instead I held my hands before me and saw nothing but the crimson carpet. I wept and wondered that even my tears were invisible.
I was there when Hannah told Lisa that her daddy wouldn’t be coming home. They held each other until they both fell asleep, their eyes red and their faces pale.
“I’m here, Hannah,” I could have said. “I’m here with you.” But instead I held my silence, ashamed and afraid of my condition.
I attended my own funeral and wept as the empty coffin was carried away.
“Such a terrible thing,” Uncle Joseph had consoled Hannah. “So terrible.”
But, as is the wont of terrible things, time passed and they became less terrible. Hannah began to smile more and Lisa didn’t cry herself to sleep so often. The trees in the garden turned a burnished orange and then powdered white and then a flushing green and occasional laughter could be heard through the house and it made my heart cold to hear it.
I should have felt joy in their happiness, but a man can turn melancholy, drifting quiet and alone in his own house, unnoticed and unseen.
Was I a ghost? Was I truly dead? Was this some kind of hell I had brought upon myself?
But I couldn’t be dead, could I? Did the dead eat? Did they drink? I had to do both, and then hide in the basement, shivering against the cold until I had digested the food.
“Lisa, you’re sleeping at your Nan’s tonight.” Hannah stood in front of the mirror putting on her earrings. She was wearing makeup and a red dress. The trees in the garden were heavy with snow.
I roused myself in the corner. What day was it? Every day merged into one when there was nothing to do but wander disconsolately around the house.
“Lisa?” Hannah shouted. “You going to get ready?” Hannah sighed and checked herself in the mirror, turning sideways to look at her figure.
His name was Steven and he smiled a lot.
Lisa would look at him with serious eyes and Steven would smile and tell jokes and help around the house.
Nobody smiled that much. Had I ever smiled that much? When they were out, I would go through the photographs and see myself smiling. I stood in front of mirrors and saw nothing.
“When’s Steven coming?” Lisa called out. “He should be here by now.”
I started in my corner. Had I fallen asleep? My head hurt. Lisa sounded excited.
“He’ll be here in a minute.” Hannah smiled as she washed the pots.
I clasped a hand to my head. Lisa liked this guy. She was only six. Or was she seven now? The birds chattered on budding trees and sunlight streamed through the kitchen window. The brightness hurt my eyes and my head.
My family. I had to protect my family.
Lisa was asleep when they returned and Steven carried her from the car and into the house. The sight made me weep and clench my fists.
I sneaked into the car and it seemed a long time before he came from the house.
He was evil, this man. An intruder. I wanted to kill him as he drove. No, first I wanted proof of his evil intentions. I wanted to know what it was I was saving my family from.
I lay on the back seat and watched the ghastly glow of the streetlights smear the darkness of the night.
Steven’s lair was a fashionable apartment overlooking a fashionable canal. I imagined pornography parading on walls and handcuffs hanging from bedposts. Instead I got an apartment that was neat and fashionably sparse.
He checked his messages when he got in. Five calls to his mother. He would ignore them and chat to women on dating sites. But instead he called his mum on his mobile.
He sat in a reclining chair, loosening his tie. “I do have a mobile, Mum.” He took off his shoes and placed them next to his chair. “Well, if you used the one I bought you.”
I looked at a bookshelf. He liked history and sports biographies.
“I’ve been out. Yeah, with a woman.”
The kitchen was tidy. The fridge had lots of meals for one.
“I’ve had women before, just never wanted to tell you about them. This one’s different.”
I could tell he was smiling as he spoke.
“No, just different. A widow. Poor guy died in an accident.”
I looked in the bedroom. Flowers on the table.
“One. She’s sweet. Misses her dad, course she does.” He laughed. “She’s great. Hannah. No, I don’t want to rush it, but I think we could make a go of it. Listen, are you going to be in on Sunday? I’d like you to meet her.”
My head hurt and my heart hurt. I slipped out through the door, closing it quietly behind me.
It was a long way home under dark skies and glaring streetlights.
I slipped into the bed as quietly as I could. Hannah rested her head on my shoulder, snuggling in and breathing deep. “Dan,” she whispered, half smiling. “Dan.” She draped an arm across my chest.
I smelled her hair and held her close.
When the first breath of sunlight touched the window, I went to see Lisa. She was fast asleep clutching a toy bear. I stroked her hair. “I love you,” I whispered. She clutched the bear tighter and smiled.
My hand shook as I opened the door. The morning sun was shining, and as I took one last look back at the house, I saw my footprints were already fading in the dew-wet grass.
An Indiscernible Amount of Things
By Gary Emmette Chandler
Outside there is only death. Wren had learned these words almost twenty years ago, as part of a nursery rhyme. Hunkered down in the passenger seat of the crawler, waiting to set out on his first assignment, it was all he could think. He felt small within the bulky white suit, each breath coming heavy through the mask’s filter. Reentry would mean a quarantine lasting more than a week. So far, that at least had worked; there was no record of contamination within Hub.
When the last set of doors slid open and the crawler passed through, Wren only stared without a word. He blinked at the sun until his eyes stung and began to water. Wren turned, then, to gape at the clouds. They billowed upward, dwarfing those in the museum exhibits, putting to shame the clouds in his head. Below, level with the crawler, there was just a vast, green expanse of thickets that rose and stretched about Hub. It was beautiful. Wren had to keep reminding himself that it was fatal, too.
The landscape moved along in silence for almost two hours, without a word between Wren and the driver. They passed abandoned cars and structures punctured by vines, as they navigated around dormant warheads, deep craters, and crippled, grinning signs. In the distance, a dark building loomed over the ruins, still intact, like the last bottle in a sea of glass. With each moment it seemed to grow, until the crawler pulled off the fractured highway and rumbled to a stop at the structure’s entrance.
The forward canopy snapped open and the two men climbed out, letting themselves down over the tall wheels. Wren held back as the driver approached the doors and keyed in the entry code, sending a signal to Hub. It was the only communication left outside their dome–just that request lighting up on a display panel somewhere back home.
As they waited for the Hub technicians to verify entry, Wren felt the terror all around him, creeping through the pale film of his suit. It was like knocking on a door two hundred miles away. What if the filtration on their masks broke down while they waited, as it had for the old man? Wren glanced at the driver. He stared placidly ahead, carrying only a latched tablet. Glass and fabric–that was all that protected them from the air outside. How could he be so calm?
Wren almost dropped his case when the steel doors unfastened themselves, peeling back to allow entry to the decontamination chamber. They stepped inside, and the driver tapped the lock, sealing the entrance behind them. Wren could see nothing through the mist as it pooled around their bodies, wiping them clean.
Once the second set of doors pulled back, and they entered the lobby, Wren stood silent, surveying the building’s floor. Piles of random objects clogged the hallway, nearly meeting his waist where he stood.
“Your contract,” the driver said, his voice distorted through the mask. He unlatched the imprint tablet and handed it over.
“Take off your gloves. Press here, and here, to verify that you’ve arrived and been let in,” the driver continued, gesturing as he spoke.
Wren managed only a nod in response, pushing his thumb against the lines that displayed his name and the words “Delivered.” The driver grunted and turned, pressing the lock once again. Wren watched the doors as they swallowed the man. He waited, and listened as the crawler sputtered to life outside the building and trundled away. After a moment, he turned and fell to his knees. For the first time in his life, Wren was completely alone.
The tower had been built during the war. Each building employed a series of ventilation systems, backed by separate fail safes. When the city died, and power failed, the structure fell back on solar energy to keep the air inside clean. Wren had to repeat this to himself several times before he could take off his mask. “You are safe here, Wren,” he said to himself as he fidgeted with the seal. Even so, as he set the white mask on the ground, he expected his lungs to fill and burst, to leave him drowning on the floor. When nothing happened, he took a deep breath and began to look around.
The tower extended twenty floors upward. In the final month before his departure, Wren had studied the blueprints at the Academy each night. Each floor measured about five thousand square feet, and had been packed with items brought in by the scavenger crews. Outside, the walls were covered by black solar panels, and each window had been reinforced with several layers of bulletproof glass.
Wren sat in the hallway, staring at the closest stack of things. They lay in pieces, in fragments spaced apart, as though the objects had forged the path themselves. The scavengers had been careless. And yet, how could he fault them? They had spent most of their time outside the building, where the threat of pierced clothing meant contamination, and a slow, wasting path to death. Tidiness was not their concern; it was his.
He sighed and stood, bringing his case to the empty room by the entryway. For the long year to come, Wren had been issued seven days of clothing to be cleaned by hand. Each garment was identical to the last: pale blue, with long sleeves and four stripes printed on the breast. He had also been given a stiff mat and a thin set of sheets, which he unrolled and laid out on the floor as his bed.
Wren took the hallway to the left, searching for the store room. The first transport was due in three months, but he had been assured a six month supply cache was already in place. It didn’t take him long to find it. The room was filled with jugs of water, cases of broth, and twenty crates of High Nutrition Sustenance. HNS was dry, bitter, and difficult to chew, but there was no threat of contamination, and it lasted almost indefinitely.
They had left a separate supply of water for bathing, along with a few jugs of soap, and several hundred small packets of disinfectant. In the room next door, he found a small bathroom with two dubious looking toilets set against the wall. He lifted the lid of one and looked in. There was no bowl, just a long, black drop below. Wren straightened up and walked back to the store room, opening a packet of HNS. He chewed slowly, trying to keep the bar from touching his tongue.
After he ate, Wren set out for the stairwell. With the tower’s remaining energy spent on the entrance and vents, the elevators were useless. Wren had to brace the door with his shoulder and press with all his weight to get in. The hinges groaned with age, echoing into the black distance above. There were no windows in the stairway, just old lights left along the wall like dead eyes. He gripped the handrail and climbed the first set in the dark.
The second floor was laid out the same as the first: clothing and bits of broken machinery covered the floor, shoved aside into rooms empty of anything except more piles. Near his feet a stuffed doll with red, curling braids lay ripped at the shoulder. He waded across the room, stooping down to examine a scarf, and then a small stone carving–pale, transparent, a short man with a plump belly. Wren placed each item he examined back among the heaps, tapping his hip idly, memorizing approximate positions and compositions, making minor calculations and estimates in his head.
As he stepped among these artifacts of the past–upturned tables and chairs, broken vases and cracked, ceramic bowls–a thrill swept through him, overpowering the fear he’d felt before. Wren had spent his life from the age of ten studying items he had only seen in photos, or behind glass. Wandering among the piles, he was mesmerized by it all, picking up an old watch or rusted necklace to feel the weight of it in his palm, pressed between his fingers. None of these things would ever be his, and yet–for this year–each one of them was.
Wren climbed six more floors before the dark began to grow. In Hub, there was always light. Another thing to get used to, he thought: living by the sun. Careful not to fall, he made his way down the stairs slowly, gripping the rail.
Each floor would have to be organized on its own, and Wren calculated almost forty thousand items altogether. To meet the deadline he would have to sort at least two floors each month. Wren paused as he stepped back into the main hall, surveying the room, and began to laugh. The sound startled him, crawling along the steel walls and spreading about his feet. He gripped his arms and stared out the tall windows of the first floor. Beyond the crumpled buildings and fractured highways, there seemed to be nothing but a dark, vast silence stretching out before him.
When the first quarterly transport was due, three months later, it was either a day late, or Wren had marked the calendar wrong. He waited in agony, avoiding his work–restless, prowling the floors, and peering through the great windows at the verdant landscape below. Clouds bellowed and broke, until they were swallowed by the darkness. He returned to his room in a sour mood. Had they forgotten him?
As a student, Wren had isolated himself with his studies, but now he longed for Hub–yearned to see another face. He wanted to hear speech, to know there was someone else alive in the world beside him. Wren turned over on the hard mat, begging for sleep to take him.
His dreams the next morning were broken by a low, puffing thunder. Wren blinked, then tore off his sheets and scampered to the entrance of the building. His heart skipped and hammered as he watched the crawler idle out front. He pressed his face to the glass, waiting for someone to emerge. After a moment, the driver dismounted, and opened the hollow at the back of the crawler.
Wren backed away, giddy, waiting for the man to approach and enter the codes. As the second set of doors pulled back, groaning, Wren rushed forward, then stopped and backed off a little, unsure of himself–shy. The driver peered at Wren through the white impasse of the mask.
“Your supplies…” the man said, trailing off, gesturing toward the crates he had wheeled in on a large dolly.
Wren blinked, and then nodded.
“Can you help me with them?” Wren asked.
The driver grunted in assent, and they shuffled over to the load. It was just as Wren should have expected: flats of water and soup, boxes of HNS. Hiding his disappointment, he reached up and grabbed a crate, then fell into step alongside the man, directing him to the store room as they went.
“How is it?” he blurted, once the boxes were on the floor. “Back at Hub. How is everything?”
The driver glanced over at him before raising his shoulders in indifference.
A look of pain crossed Wren’s face, and he turned to eye the soiled, battered shoes he wore.
“I just mean,” Wren continued, in a murmur, “if there’s any news I’d like to hear it.”
The driver sighed and took off his mask, setting it on the floor. Wren’s heart surged; three months of solitude made the man’s face a strange, beautiful sight. There was a kind look about him. Wren tried to smooth the mass of hair that fell in front of his own eyes, and glanced away.
“It must be hard,” the driver said, itching his neck where he’d removed the mask. “All alone out here, for as long as you are. The scavengers go out in groups, and only for a month at a time before they rotate. Do you ever wonder why that is?”
Wren grinned, surprised by the cadence of the driver’s voice. The labor caste wasn’t taught to speak like that.
“It’s always been like this,” Wren said. “And there aren’t many of us, just five at a time–one for each building. I replaced Sorter Kunin, when he–”
The driver interrupted Wren.
“Or maybe they just don’t trust you. A few of you alone for a year, with all of their things.”
Wren stood there for a moment, stunned as the driver walked back to the dolly. He dashed back, catching up as the man hefted another crate.
“I don’t understand,” Wren said. “What would we do but sort it?”
The driver gave him a strange look and chuckled. “What indeed.”
They carried the last of the crates in silence. Wren wanted to ask something else–anything–to begin another conversation, but he felt mute, unable to manage a single word. He found himself repeating his own words in his head, forgetting the man that still walked beside him. It was only as the driver stood at the doors, fidgeting with his mask, that Wren remembered his presence.
“I have to close you in, now,” the man said.
He paused, looking at Wren.
“You asked how things were,” he said, with half a smile. “They’re the same–bad for most of us.”
The driver hesitated, and then shrugged.
“But perhaps that will change,” he said.
Wren only nodded at first, then shook his head.
“Your name. I’ve forgotten to ask, again.”
The driver laughed, and Wren began to think his first impression of the man had been all wrong.
“Kai,” the driver said.
“I know your name,” Kai said, shaking his head and grinning as he secured his mask. “I’ll see you in three months.”
Wren stepped back as Kai entered the decontamination chamber, then watched, squinting through the windows as the crawler pulled away.
Wren had been born into the academic caste. When he was five, contact with his parents had been cut off and he had entered the Academy. At the age of ten, he had been chosen as Kunin’s successor. When Kunin wasn’t off for a year sorting, Wren spent his time with the old man learning the trade. It was an honor, but it had cost him contact with his peers. When the others gathered for sport in the atrium, or migrated to the commons to mingle, often trailing off to copulate, Wren would be the last one in the library, nose deep in a text. At the time, he had consoled himself with the notion that what he was doing meant something, and was greater than himself.
He couldn’t understand what the driver, Kai, had meant. There were regulations in place for his work, but they were no more strict than anything else in Hub. Everything has a reason: survival. That was the answer to every question in Hub.
Hub, as they learned as children, had been built as an experiment. It was a government project, an extension of the Mars Initiative, a trial for a giant dome on the red planet–self-sustaining, and sealed off from the environment, with an initial population of one thousand. When war came, and the germ spread across the country, Hub was the only population center left unaffected. The castes, the Academy, the enforcement sector–all of these were established at the same time. For each safe building beyond the dome, one sorter was designated, and replaced only at death. It was the sorter’s job to save the most important artifacts of humanity. When the items were retrieved, they were distributed between the upper castes. As each day passed in silence, and the nights stretched before him, Wren would remind himself of the honor of his task, like a lullaby, as he tried to fall asleep.
Even so, it seemed the floors rose endlessly above him, heavy with their things. Each day followed the same pattern: Wren sorted, and he ate–he defecated, and he slept. As the months swept by, he dreamed of the piles. They lay out in front of him in waves, writhing, no longer items, but people–naked and charred, reaching out at him, tearing at his face and trying to draw him in.
Sometimes, he dreamed of the old man. As Kunin spoke to Wren, he would begin to dissolve, crumbling at the mouth, becoming the things–the piles–his voice echoing in his head, “Never forget who we are, Wren.”
After the worst of the dreams, Wren would wake in a sweat, shivering. Unable to fall back asleep, he would get up and pace the floor by the windows, staring out into the darkness for hours on end.
When the second transport came, Wren worked quietly beside Kai, saying little as they carried the supplies. Once they finished, and the man was turning to go, Wren managed to say what had been weighing on him for months, in the silence.
“I’ve been thinking about what you told me, the last time you came,” Wren said, chewing on his lip as he spoke. “I don’t understand what you meant about the Academy not trusting me. About change.”
Kai laughed gently and knelt down, sifting through a pile of items sorted into the most valuable tier. Wren flinched as he touched them.
“Do you mean that?” he asked, looking up at Wren with a blank expression. “You might not like what I have to say.”
Wren nodded. He didn’t care what Kai said, really; he longed to hear the sound of another voice, to keep the man in his presence a while longer.
The driver gave a heavy sigh, and seemed to be considering something before he spoke.
“It starts with our history,” Kai said at last, meeting Wren’s eyes. “It’s what they don’t tell us that matters–not the war, or the germ–it’s what happens after all of that.”
Kai stood up and started walking among the piles as he spoke.
“All we have are approximations now. How long ago did this happen? Eighty years? One hundred? They don’t tell us. It’s passed down in whispers: How they formed the caste system in the name of survival, arguing that panic might cause a breach, and contaminate Hub. That we needed order; a structure to maintain the survival of our species. So our parents put their heads down. They worked. You and I? We were born into the life we were born into.
“But what good are all of these things here,” Kai asked, glancing back at Wren. “We have everything we need in Hub to survive without ever leaving the dome. How does any of this enable the survival of our species? We don’t use it. They put some of it in the public museums, true, but most of it goes on their walls. Tell me, Wren–what’s the point?”
“To preserve our culture,” Wren said, after a moment. “To know who we were.”
The other man gave a short laugh and scratched his forehead, looking away.
“How could you know all of this?” Wren asked. “There was nothing that I read–nothing like that at the Academy.”
Kai bit his lip.
“Your predecessor was a good man,” he said. “It was wrong what they did to him.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, very quietly.
“Wren, how many books have you come across while you were sorting?”
The other man had taken off his gloves, and traced the lines on his hand as he spoke.
“Hundreds,” Wren said, shaking his head. “I’ve made stacks on each floor. Books aren’t sorted into the tiers.”
Kai nodded, and began to pace.
“Auditors take note of the books, and go through each before they’re accepted into the libraries. Anything dangerous is incinerated.”
“Dangerous?” Wren asked.
“Theory, history. Certain works of fiction. The sort of work that made Kunin see how wrong everything is in Hub. Twelve years ago, he began to smuggle in books like that. I’m not sure how he got it past the quarantine, but he did. When he wasn’t on assignment, he began reaching out to sympathetic individuals, members of the other castes, distributing and copying the books. Last year he was caught.”
Wren shook his head, regretting having ever asked the man anything. He was nervous, confused.
“They took the other four sorters off assignment and brought them out here, to this building–his building. They made the others watch as they stripped Kunin naked and pushed him out into the open.”
“I don’t believe you,” Wren said, as something stirred in the pit of his chest. “He was–they told me that his clothing was pierced in transit, that it was an accident.”
Kai looked up and smiled, then turned away.
“I drove them,” he said after a minute.
There was a long silence, broken at last when Wren asked, “Why are you telling me all of this? I could turn you in.”
Kai laughed in a tired sort of way, and looked back to Wren.
“You could, when you return in six months,” he said. “The other sorters would, I know that. Even before what happened with Kunin, they would have.
“But you,” Kai went on, watching Wren with half a smile. “We don’t know about you.”
Wren shook his head. It was too much.
“What are you planning to do?” he asked.
“To continue where Kunin left off. Wren–you must realize that none of us know what else is out there. We are led to believe that the entire world is dead and poisoned beyond our walls. But how can that be true? The world is vast, and within Hub we are slaves to the caste.”
Kai’s voice seemed to burn as he spoke.
“If we were to overthrow that, to overturn the caste system, we could build more crawlers–we could go farther than just these towers. There must be others alive out there, beyond Hub. And we could go on equal footing. But first, we need books. We need to keep the words alive, to reach others.”
He stepped forward and gripped Wren’s shoulder.
“Wren, we could be free of all these useless things.”
At that, Wren swallowed and turned away.
“I can’t,” he said.
Kai smiled once more.
“Think about it,” he said, and began fitting on his gloves as he walked to the exit.
Wren opened his mouth, but said nothing. He watched as Kai put on his mask and punched the lock, stepping through the doors.
“What else is there for me to do,” Wren murmured at last, once the other man had gone. It felt like the world and everything he knew was slipping away, piece by piece.
The moment Kai left, Wren found his head swimming with questions. How did Kai organize with the others without being caught? How many of them were there? Was there truly hope of another place beyond Hub that wasn’t contaminated? Wren only grew more impatient with the questions as each day passed.
Soon, he began sorting through the stacks of books with a new purpose. He sought out history books and works of theory with new interest, no longer sorting them into the piles. His studies at Hub had only showed him small details, never the whole picture, and it had left the past of their species obscured.
Wren discovered anarchism and democracy, socialism and slavery. He read about the holocaust and the crusades, the Cold War and the Great War. He discovered an endless amount of religions, and with each, the wars waged in their name.
The more Wren read, the more divided his thoughts became. There was no war within Hub, no religion, and yet there was a class system every bit as rigid and precise as those abolished centuries before their time. Which was better? They were safe within Hub, so long as they played the role they were born into. Did it matter if the privileged had their pick of all these things? Wren couldn’t decide.
Most of all, he yearned for human contact. Often he spoke as though Kai was there, making arguments about the caste system and staging debates. Wren understood it was mad, but it didn’t matter; there was no one to hear, and his own voice echoing about was all the reason he needed.
By the time the third transport came, three months later, Wren had come to think of Kai as a friend. At last he could ask his questions, and have a real answer. Wren waited at the doors, unable to contain a grin. As they unfastened, and a figure appeared in the receding mist, Wren rushed forward, embracing the man.
There was a shuffle, then, and the man backed away, waving his arms. Wren’s heart seemed to stop; as he peered at the face behind the mask, he saw another man–one he didn’t recognize.
The man wouldn’t say what had happened to Kai.
Wren sat on the floor by the entrance until the man finished with the crates and left. As it pulled away, the sound of the crawler seemed so much smaller, and softer, than it had in his memory.
Wren climbed and sorted three more floors in the next month. Even then, he was behind. He had made new calculations, and at his pace, he would only be to the eighteenth floor when the auditor came. Still, all he could do was move through one item at a time. He clung to this as he worked, as though it was all that was left to keep him from sinking into darkness.
He rose each morning to leave a black mark on the calendar before climbing the stairs to the floor he had left off on. As Wren sorted through the piles, doubt began to take hold. He was unsure of himself. Everything he had been doing made so little sense. Who was he sorting for? And to what end? Wren lifted a necklace from one of the piles and watched as it glimmered and burned in the light.
What would these things do for the people that received them? Everything he sorted would hang from necks, on walls, like Kai had said–like trophies, like severed heads. Wren cried out and flung the necklace against the wall, watching as the gems shattered and flew from their chain, cascading about the room. After a moment he fell to his knees, scrabbling to preserve what he had broken, to collect all the pieces, feeling as though he had taken a life.
Wren began to doubt each decision he made. Why was one thing worth more than the other? He knew the method, of course–historical value, level of preservation, the materials used–but he was losing the point, and his judgment was failing. He would try to read, but wouldn’t be able to focus. Instead, at night, he would walk to the great glass windows and stare out into the void that lay beyond. Wren would watch the empty distant black, just letting his mind go for a moment. There, the days swung round, repeating themselves like a strip of film.
August 13th was Wren’s birthday. He marked it off the calendar, smiling a little. There was a jar of pitted, preserved cherries he had found among the piles. He had read about them in his time at the Academy, pouring over the images longer than he should have, memorizing their shape and texture, imagining their taste. They were extinct, and if somehow they were still preserved, they would fall into the highest tier. Wren took a breath and unscrewed the lid. He had lived through the motions a dozen times in his sleep. After a moment he dipped his fingers into the jar and stuffed one into his mouth.
His eyes softened, then shut tightly, and he spat the cherry onto the ground, gagging. Rot filled his mouth, and he sat down, his cheeks burning as he sobbed, rocking, cradling the jar.
Wren was nearly half way through the sixteenth floor when another vehicle came. He was just picking up a silver hand mirror, the glass shattered, when he heard the ragged churn of an engine in the distance. The mirror slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. It didn’t make sense–the final transport had already come, and there was still a month left unmarked on the calendar. He dashed to the windows, frantically trying to place the vehicle that approached. Wren fled down the stairs, counting the floors as he vaulted a few steps at a time. Near the third floor he fell, wrenching his ankle and cursing, staggering up and limping the rest of the way.
In his room, Wren stood gaping at the calendar, staring at the empty page. It came over him slowly, the memory creeping up and settling around his throat like a noose: there were days, scattered throughout the long year, where he hadn’t marked the calendar. It would be the auditor’s vehicle, below.
As the doors of the building shuddered, creaking to life for the first time in several months, Wren’s knees gave out where he stood. He listened as the footsteps echoed through the building. Just one set, like cannon fire. Wren wondered if that was how his steps went as they paced around the building, unaware of themselves.
“Wren,” a voice called out. “Hello?”
The voice sounded his name once more, sharply. At that, the terror holding Wren in place broke, and he rose, sprinting from his room to the entrance, trying to ignore the pain in his ankle as he ran.
Turning the corner, he stumbled to a halt in front of a man he had never met, who eyed him with a look of distaste. He still wore the white suit, though he had taken off his mask.
Wren smiled a little and extended a sweaty palm. The man did not take it.
Instead, he turned away from Wren and began to stroll about the first floor, thumbing a noter as he walked.
“You’ve been on this job a year,” the man said, scrolling through a document. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Wren responded, distracted by the pain in his ankle, and the blood that pounded through his head.
The man looked older than Wren. His hair was dark, worn slicked back over his head. Some sort of jelly, Wren thought–something found by another sorter. Auditors were part of the governing caste, and Wren realized how he must look to the man. He had seen himself through the shards of the hand mirror, but had made no note of it; Wren’s hair fell to his shoulders, tangled and clotted, his clothing torn and soiled. He hadn’t noticed the smell before, either.
Wren began to smooth his hair nervously, pulling it back over his head and draping it behind his ears, imitating the man. He opened his mouth to speak, but all the questions–everything he wanted to say–seemed to jam together and catch in his throat. Only a hoarse whisper escaped.
He closed his mouth and turned away, shuffling over and pretending to examine one of the tiles. It felt like the dreams he’d had where he sat alone, surrounded by books, only to discover he had forgotten how to read.
There was a sigh behind Wren as the auditor muttered something Wren couldn’t make out.
“You need to take me though the floors,” the man said very slowly, repeating himself. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Wren said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I haven’t had anyone to talk to in a very long time.”
Wren took a deep breath, and began.
They were halfway through the first floor when the auditor stopped him.
“How have you marked the sections?” he asked.
Wren halted and blinked at the man.
“When they come to take it, they need to know what to take, how to arrange it. You haven’t done that yet?”
“But I can show them,” Wren said, in a panic.
The auditor sighed and shook his head, making several notes.
“You’re supposed to have that ready. You remember that, right?”
Wren didn’t know what to say. Again, he was conscious of gaping at the man. Of course he knew that. But he hadn’t thought of it for months–it hadn’t been necessary. He would have done it at the end, after everything was sorted.
He swallowed, then, remembering that several floors were still untouched. Wren looked at the man, and began to stammer.
The auditor cut him off.
“You’ll have to do it before the collectors arrive,” he said, with a sigh.
Everything the auditor said seemed to come with a sigh. The man looked perpetually tired, and there were deep lines etched beneath his eyes that Wren hadn’t noticed before.
“This time, just make sure it’s ready,” the auditor continued, looking down at his noter. “Once they’re here, everything goes to make room for the next load.”
Wren nodded, and steadied himself against the wall.
They moved through the rest of the floors as Wren explained how each stack had been organized, or pointed out a treasure of note, showing the auditor why a painting had been set aside in the lower tiers due to a gash in one corner, or why a dark bottle had been left to the highest tier: whiskey, dating back to the 20th century. The auditor rarely spoke or responded to Wren’s comments, but his hands always moved across the noter.
When they reached the last floor sorted, the silence enveloped them. He had shown the auditor the final piles, lingering where he had left off, clinging on to each item as though it was the last foothold at the end of a long climb.
The auditor sighed once more as he looked about the room.
“The piles over there,” he said, gesturing, “why do they look like that. They haven’t been sorted?”
Wren eyed his feet. His toes protruded from the worn shoes, and his nails curled back into the flesh.
“There are three more floors above,” the auditor said. “How many are unsorted? All of them?”
Wren nodded. The man sighed, and noted something. That was his role–to sigh and note–just as Wren’s was to sort.
“You should show me.”
Wren felt dizzy, but nodded, and motioned ahead.
They walked slowly, climbing the stairs and standing a long while at the entrance to each floor. Wren watched as the auditor took his notes. He knew, then, that he had no control over what happened next. He had made his case–had put everything he could into his work, under the circumstances. It was up to the auditor, now.
On the final floor, Wren followed the man to one of the large windows. He watched as the auditor gazed out at the wounded landscape below. Buildings lay spread out across city, submerged in the overgrowth. Wren cast a miserable look at the sky where the clouds grew dark and gathered in the distance.
The auditor spoke without taking his eyes from the terrain below.
“If it was up to me, I would never come out here again,” the auditor said. “You can’t go a minute without a reminder of everything we’ve lost and will never have again.”
He turned, locking eyes with Wren. It made Wren shiver.
“It’s your first assignment, and we had to start you before you were ready. I’m giving you an extension–three months to tag and sort all that remains. Spending any more time out here, alone, is punishment enough. The Academy won’t have any questions until the review. They’ve got enough to worry about right now.”
“Thank you,” Wren stuttered, after a moment.
The auditor waved a dismissal.
“Just make sure everything is done this time. You won’t have a second chance.”
He paused, briefly eyeing Wren.
“Clean yourself up, too. You were left with supplies for hygiene. Use them.”
They descended slowly, in silence. Wren’s head pulsed and pounded, and his ankle cried out with each step.
It was only when they reached the first floor that Wren found his voice.
“Back home, at Hub,” he said. “What is it like?”
The man stopped, and turned to look at Wren. After a minute, he spoke.
“There was a terrorist cell causing problems earlier in the year–riling up the lower castes, poisoning the crops. But they were caught, and executed.”
The auditor paused for a long while, looking straight at Wren.
“One of the men was your driver. Did he ever speak to you?”
Wren quickly shook his head. The auditor sighed.
“No. Of course not. Just keep your mind on what you have left to do,” he said, nodding at the unsorted piles.
The auditor discussed several logistics before he left, telling Wren he would arrange for another supply crawler to come through in a month. Wren watched as the man secured his mask, and entered the door codes, stepping back out into the antechamber. He was aware, then, of how dry his throat felt as the great doors moaned shut, sealing him alone, again, with an indiscernible amount of things.
Wren worked tirelessly in the time he had left. He marked the days off without error, flipping the calendar on its back to chart the time he had left. As he sorted, Wren couldn’t help but feel anger at the things as they passed through his hands. Everything felt different. He wanted only to have everything into their stacks, labeled and ready to be carted away.
There was nearly a week left on the calendar once Wren finished tagging all the piles. At the end of the last day, he sat down next to the final stack, holding a golden watch and staring at the broken hands. He didn’t know what to do, how to behave without the task that had become everything to him. Wren picked up one of the books and looked over a passage, trying to memorize it. Was that how Kunin had done it–how he had smuggled the books home? His head began to throb as he tried to do the same, reading one passage over, aloud.
“If all we are is our things, then perhaps that is it for us. Perhaps it should be.”
Wren sighed and stood.
He went through the stacks again to make sure everything was in place. Wren stood by the windows on each floor as he worked his way back up, watching for the inevitable plume of exhaust to come puffing toward the building.
Wren tried to imagine what it would be like to return to Hub, to once again be surrounded by people. He laughed bitterly when he remembered that he had spent his time in isolation by choice before, studying, reading, and preparing for the task that would one day–always on the horizon–be his. He wasn’t sure he could go on, could embark on another year of the task knowing now what the solitude was like. But then, what other choice was there?
Wren thought of Kai, and pushed the memory away.
He sat down by the windows on the top floor and looked out at the forest below. It clambered upward like the air wasn’t poison, wrapping about the dead city, sprouting veins through its shell.
Wren stood and turned away, gazing at the tidy piles that lay gathered on the floor. It was all there, all sorted at last. They waited with him in the silence, those things–fragments of a history lost–pulled back from the depths and forced to linger, like memories, or ghosts.
Eggs from the Cuckoo Clock Bird
By Dale Carothers
Before I quit my job at Quality Vending earlier that morning, I was the master. I could sell snack machines to anyone. My waistline and my love for refined sugar were my arsenal. My passion for snack cakes translated into excitement during my pitch. My sincerity sold.
Until my sincerity turned to bitterness.
I still ate loads of snack cakes, but they didn’t do anything for me anymore. They’re just a habit. Like breathing. Like masturbation for the ever-shrinking satisfaction of release.
Repetition had worn me down. Eleven years doing the same thing every day will do that to you. When months started to feel like weeks, and weeks like days, I lost my connection to everything. Life was passing me by, but nothing was happening. Time moved faster than I did.
Now that it was over, I needed to retreat to a safe place to figure out what to do next. And that meant Grandma’s house. She used to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and she’d throw you a killer birthday party if you called a few days in advance. The whole family used to come before we all grew up and moved away.
I drove around a curve in the driveway and a gap in the trees revealed my Grandma’s house.
My mother, the real estate agent, called it a lovely Queen Anne Victorian. Three levels with a wraparound porch, a gable roof, and two spire-topped turrets. All of it was still perfect. Grandma had her house painted the same blue-gray every five years, and she quickly repaired anything that broke.
There were two other cars in the parking lot. One was a van for her in-home medical staff. The other was a broken down Kia: dented and rusty. I didn’t recognize it
I got out of my car and several cellophane wrappers came with me. A gust of chilly fall wind blew them into the grove that surrounded the house, where they mixed with the fallen leaves.
I crossed the lot and went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the spindles of the whitewashed railing. I stopped at the wide oak door and rang the doorbell.
I waited a long time before I heard clomping footsteps coming closer to the door. Someone fiddled with the lock, swearing all the while, and finally pulled the door open.
Shit. It was my cousin Cassie. The owner of the crappy Kia.
Cassie frowned. It was one of her two facial expressions. The other was…let me think…oh yeah, bitch. Frown and bitch. They were all she had to work with. She was dressed in a mismatched sweat suit, the top was turquoise and the bottom was pink. Her blonde hair was brown at the roots, short, spiky and angry.
“You selling something?” Cassie asked. “Because we probably don’t want it.”
“No, Cassie. It’s me. Paul.”
Her frown tightened and her lips pulled back to reveal her artificially whitened teeth.
“Your cousin,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“To come in and see Grandma.”
“She’s in the bath.”
“I’m willing to wait.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Are you looking to stay for a while?”
“Just this afternoon, overnight at the max.”
Her frown relaxed to her face’s resting bitch setting. “Come on in then.”
The inviting warmth of the oak foyer brought me back to my childhood. My cousins and I had often scaled the heavy bannister of the stairway, sticking our little arms between the spindles and seeing who could climb the highest on the floor-to-ceiling newel post. Nobody ever got past halfway. The citrus scented wax made it impossible.
Too bad Cassie’s dollar store perfume overwhelmed the scent of the wax.
I followed Cassie down the hallway toward the kitchen. Grandma had finally replaced the black iron, wood-burning stove with a modern stainless steel monstrosity. It looked like it’d never been used. Grandma hadn’t been healthy enough to cook for a few years.
Cassie went over to the microwave and punched a few buttons. “She should be done with her bath soon. Then you can see her and be on your way.”
“Am I in the way or something?”
The microwave beeped and Cassie pulled her coffee out. “No. I just didn’t want you to think you had to stay, out of politeness, because you haven’t seen her in so long. She has me to take care of her.”
“Doesn’t the home health care nurse do most of the work?”
She slammed the mug down and coffee sloshed up over the lip of the mug onto the counter. “I do plenty.”
“Sorry,” I said, though I wasn’t. “It was just a question.”
Cassie stalked off and I used a paper towel to wipe up the coffee. I looked for a garbage can and finally found one under the sink. I heard steps, and steeled myself for Cassie’s return. She’d obviously done little with her life, and I was sure I could find the chinks in her white trash armor.
Instead I was greeted by a thin young man in aqua scrubs.
“Hello?” he said.
I got up and stuck out my hand. “I’m Paul. The grandson.”
He shook my hand and smiled. “Grayson.” He retrieved a mug from the cabinet. “Your grandmother is done with her bath and dressed if you’d like to go up and see her.”
“How’s she doing?”
Grayson sat at one of the stools that lined the counter and wrapped his long, hairy fingers around his cup. “She gets confused a lot, and the machines are keeping her alive, but she seems happy, comfortable even.” He nodded at me. “She calls me Paul at least once a week.”
I let out a single sob.
Grayson stood. “Do you need a moment alone?”
“No.” I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked at the floor. “I haven’t seen or talked to her in years. I feel…”
Grayson put a hand on my forearm. “It’s okay. You still have time. Go on upstairs.”
I grabbed a paper towel from the roll near the sink, blew my nose and headed upstairs. The back stairway, leading from the kitchen to the second floor, was narrow and wound to the right. Photos of the family lined the wall in a mosaic of generations.
The second floor hallway was full of golden sunlight. Its rays were caught in the intricate curls of the silver damask wallpaper. I ran a fingernail down the ridges of the wainscoting, creating the engine noise I used to make with my toy motorcycle.
I stopped. Did she know it was me or was she mistakenly calling for Grayson?
“I told you not to do that,” She called through the open door. “You’ll ruin the finish.”
When I got to her door she was looking at my waist, as if she were expecting me to be a child. She blinked and looked up, her face crinkled in confusion.
“Was that you out in the hall?”
She looked at my hands. “Where’s your motorcycle?”
I didn’t know what else to say. “I left it at home.”
“Good. You’re too old for toys anyway.”
She lay in a nest of tubes and blankets. Friendly white machines and screens with dancing icons surrounded her. This was her escape pod. It kept her floating inches away from death.
I went in and took her hand. It felt like thin sticks within a loose leather glove. Her grip was weak, but insistent and loving.
“It’s been a while,” she said.
I sniffed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Sit with me for a bit.”
I sat and we caught each other up until she fell asleep. When I tried to pull my hand away she woke and her hand tightened around mine. Her eyes were distant, unfocused.
“Did I ever tell you about my clocks?” she asked.
“They’re magic, you know.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. You told me.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me. This is serious. It’s why Cassie is really staying here.”
“Is she going to steal your clocks?” I knew they were old, but I didn’t think they were worth anything.
“You’re not listening, Paul. You’ve always had trouble listening.” She sat up and I packed the pillows in behind her to support her back. “She’s here to use the magic.”
“Okay, Grandma…maybe I should go get Grayson.”
I took a few steps toward the door.
“Wait!” Grandma said.
“You don’t believe me?”
The disappointed look on her face hurt me. The keen edge of her mind was showing the first signs of dullness.
“I’ve been telling you about their magic since you were little.” Grandma held out her withered hand, and I walked over and took it. “Have I ever lied to you?”
“There’s a difference between lying and telling fantastical stories to entertain children.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why I was able to speak in so much detail about my childhood?”
“I just thought you had a really good memory, or kept a diary, or, like everybody else, forgot some of the story and used your imagination to fill in the gaps.”
“You’ve always been one of the smart ones.” She squeezed my hand. “It made everyone wonder why you never… went further in your life.”
I pulled my hand away. “I still have time to change that.”
“Yes. But will you?”
My face grew hot and I turned away to check the readouts on the machines surrounding Grandma’s bed. I had no idea what any of the numbers or bouncing lines meant, but no matter what Grandma–or anybody else in my family thought–I could learn them all and never forget.
“There’s no reason to get sullen,” Grandma said. “You have plenty of time to change your life. It’s why I mentioned the clocks.”
“What do you mean?”
“I remembered my childhood so well because I went back a few times, and then I made it easier to remember.” She saw my face crinkle in confusion. “Let me explain before you ask questions.
“There are two basic types of European cuckoo clocks. Traditional style cuckoo clocks are decorated with carved leaves and animals. Chalet style, both Swiss and German, look like little houses. There are Greek and Middle Eastern examples that predate the European styles, but all of mine are from Europe, and two of them are extra-special because they were made by Johann Franel.”
“I remember you talking about him, when you used to tell stories about your clocks.” I thought for a moment. “He’s an ancestor on your mother’s side, right?”
“As I said, one of the smart ones,” Grandma said, smiling. “Franel was a Swiss clockmaker in the late 1800s. But he was also a mathematician, a philosopher and an…alchemist.”
“And a spiritualist.”
A long line of crazy, from my Grandma all the way back to Franel, formed in my head. I wondered how long it would be before it took me. Grandma seemed like an indicator of late life onset. But who knows? Maybe she’d been good at hiding it?
And maybe I needed to start doing some research into my family’s medical history, and then make an appointment with my doctor. I didn’t want to go crazy. But, then again, brilliant people often had a touch of eccentricity. That I could handle.
“Franel was obsessed with time, and as he got older, and less of it was available to him, he became obsessed with learning how to manipulate it.” Grandma smiled and let out a long sigh of contentment. “Lucky for us he was successful.”
Maybe I could say I needed to use the bathroom. It’d give me time to ask Grayson when Grandma lost her mind and what we were going to do about it.
“I’ve manipulated time on five occasions,” Grandma said. “Three times to go back and revisit my childhood. Once to prolong the time my memories are stored in my conscious mind–I know that’s a bit confusing, but the rules by which this magic functions are rather fluid. It turned out to be a bit of a curse as well. Some memories are best forgotten. And a fifth time, to ask for a longer life. A good manipulation, but one that doesn’t buy you more than a few decades.”
“How old are you?” I searched my memory. She was eighty-five.
I gaped and she raised her faded eyebrows a few times.
“I don’t believe you.”
“What? About being one-hundred-and-thirteen or about manipulating time?”
One presupposed the other so I said, “Both.”
“Fine.” Grandma said. “It looks like you need some proof.”
“That’d be nice.”
“Here’s what you need to do.”
I opened the door to the clock room and one of the clocks signaled the hour. A flat, rattling gong was followed by the two-tone whistle. I checked my watch. It was only 4:15, but as far as I remembered, none of the clocks kept the actual time.
Clocks crowded into every conceivable space, just far enough apart that each pendulum constantly threatened its neighbors’ territories. All of them were made of dark wood from the forest primeval. Some were chalets and some were traditional animals and plants. Patinated pinecone weights hung from chains made their way up and down on their slower-than-the-eye journeys. The cacophony of clicks, knocks and whirrs would drive me crazy if I spent too much time in here.
I located the two Franels. They faced each other: the female on the south wall and the male on the north wall. Both were chalets, but the female had delicate, almost patrician architecture, and the male had the look of a deep woods hunting lodge.
On a whim, I crossed to the female Franel, pulled out the little drawer and revealed the tiny wooden nest. No egg. Damn. I giggled at myself for thinking it’d be so easy.
“What are you doing?”
I turned. Cassie stood in the doorway, a book in one hand and a folding chair in the other.
I made sure to block the Franel, and its open drawer, with my body. “Just looking at Grandma’s clocks.”
“You need to be careful in here. They’re pretty old.”
“Oh. Are they valuable?”
Cassie stuck her book into her armpit, walked to the center of the room and unfolded her chair. I quickly closed the drawer while she set up her chair. She plopped down onto the seat. “Not to anyone who isn’t family.”
“But you said they were old. I’d bet there are collectors who’d be interested.”
“She’s still alive, you know. There’s no reason to go around pricing things.”
“I’m just making conversation. You said they were old. And you never know who’d be interested in old…stuff,” in my mind I hit just the right note of subtle indifference, “like this.”
“Whatever.” She grabbed her book from under her arm and held it up. It was a grocery aisle romance. “Do you plan on staying in here? I like quiet when I read.”
I looked theatrically at the clocks around me. “This room is anything but quiet.”
“A little white noise is okay. It’s like using a fan when I’m sleeping. I’ve gotten used to it.”
I paced, circling away from the door, and loving the way her face went sour. “Are you in here a lot then?”
“No. I read in all of the rooms. There’s nothing special about this one.”
“But it has the ‘white noise,’ like you said.”
“There’s a little too much noise right now for my taste.”
I made a slow circuit of the room and passed through the doorway.
“Shut the door behind you, please.”
I did, but stopped outside it, listening for the distinct three-note song that only the Franels sang. Grandma had told me that if the male and the female struck at the same time the birds would mate and leave an egg in the little carved nest. It rarely happened because neither clock kept anything resembling perfect time. Due to age, and wonky design, the Franels sped up and slowed down randomly, and sometimes stopped altogether. But if I found the egg before it rotted–a process that took less than a minute–I could step into a chronologically null place and ask Franel himself for a time manipulation.
It all sounded so…impossible, but now that I wasn’t working I had the time to check it out.
Cassie and I shared the clock room that whole day and into the next one. She stopped reading in there, possibly to throw me off the scent, but she didn’t make it past the library next door. Once, when she slipped out to go to the bathroom, I walked through the library and saw an empty glass tumbler on a shelf that hung on the shared wall between the library and the clock room. I didn’t know if the ‘empty glass against the wall’ trick worked, but it proved her intent, so I did my best to become a shoeless ninja; pacing the hallway, or lingering around the corner.
Two days in, after several strained, awkward conversations where we both tried to discern the other’s intent, I seemingly gave in and went to bed early. Neither of us had slept much, or taken a break to shower, in the past few days, and both of us were showing signs of wear. I made a subtle show of sneaking off to bed, but I was sure Cassie knew where I was going. There was no way she could win. As Grandma had said, I was the smart one.
Grayson avoided us, and we agreed to leave him alone.
Headphones in my ears to silence my phone alarm, I laid my head against the pillow in my dark room. My eyes were glued to the thin bar of light under the door and I was listening as hard as I could—an idea that sounded silly, especially with my ear buds in, but I wanted to win and sleep deprivation had made me loopy.
Three hours later I woke to the sound of my alarm. I pulled out my ear buds and swore when I realized that the alarm was ringing through the speaker as well. I clapped my hand over the phone and watched the bar of light under the door. It was dimmer than before. Someone must’ve come through and turned off some of the lights. I silenced my alarm, pulled back the covers and slipped out of bed.
I pressed my ear to the door but didn’t hear anything, so I lay down and tried to look between the door and the floor. Nothing but hardwood flooring, and a side view of the carpet runners.
With two socks on each foot to pad my steps, I left my room, sidling down the hall and then the stairs, keeping my breathing slow and even. At the base of the stairs I edged one eye around the corner. The hallway was empty, but a dim light shone through the open door of the library. I listened for a moment, for the sound of breathing, or turning pages, but couldn’t hear anything.
Until I heard the sound that signaled my victory. A snore.
I raised my arms and mouthed a silent yahoo!
Then the silliness of everything that’d transpired over the last two days hit me. Magic clocks? Sneaking socks? Competing with my bitchy cousin for a ‘magic egg’ was just a fantasy to avoid making a decision about what to do with my life.
I lowered my arms.
While it’d been fun to mess with Cassie, and to visit my childhood sanctuary, I needed to go back to bed, get a good night’s sleep and find a new job. All I needed was a bit of a change. No imaginary magic clock was going to fix my life.
The elegant ding of two gongs and a three note duet sent me down the remaining stairs and to the clock room door before I realized what I was doing. The door slammed shut behind me after banging into the wall. I flinched and ran to the female clock.
The faint sound of clicking sounded within the clock, followed by a delicate rattle that came to a rest with a little knock in the drawer. I tore it open, and the drawer came right out. Something fell out of the drawer, but I caught it before it hit the floor.
In my palm lay a tiny speckled egg.
I turned. Cassie stood just inside the door.
“Give it to me,” she said. She was crying and her face was red. “I need it to fix my life. I can’t marry Jim. I need to go back.”
“But you’re divorced. It doesn’t matter.”
She took a step toward me, but stopped when I raised my hand and opened my mouth.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I need to go back to when I was young. Before I…” She looked down at her frumpy body and I understood. “Please. Give it to me before it rots. I don’t have much time.”
“Maybe I’ll let you have the next one,” I said, and tossed the egg into my mouth.
Cassie screamed and I popped the egg between my teeth.
“The next one is mine,” Cassie said. “And I’m going to ruin you.”
The door of the male Franel opened, and then expanded until it was big enough for me to pass through.
“Too late,” I said, crossing the room. “My life is already a pile of shit.”
Cassie sobbed when my toe crossed the threshold into the null space, and I felt a twinge of guilt. She was my cousin after all. But none of my memories of her were good, and her life wasn’t my problem.
The door closed behind me, and I was in the chalet.
A chill ran up my back and I shivered. Behind me, the door rattled in its frame, as artic wind whistled through the cracks. I looked through the window near the door. A long, snow-covered slope wound down the valley, just past the porch. Twilight had turned everything deep, dark blue.
“Come away from the door if you want to keep warm,” said a voice from behind me.
I turned and moved deeper into the room. Heavy timbers lay in an angled row against the ceiling, and two oil lamp chandeliers cast amber light into the room. Trophy heads and furs hung between paintings of hunting parties and somber portraits.
“I’ll be with you in a moment.” A chubby man in a gray suit crouched near the fireplace. He struck a long matchstick on one of the rough stones that made up the hearth and lit the kindling at the base of the fire.
“Are you Johann Franel?”
“I am.” Franel tossed the spent match into the fire, put his hand on his folded thigh and pushed himself up. He circled a couch and extended a hand. “You’ve had an encounter with my clocks?” He had a wide, round face and a luxuriant mustache and beard. His dark hair framed the sides of his head in odd oiled wings that reminded me of Civil War photographs.
“Are you one of the family?”
I could only think of two people that I was sure he’d met. “Cassie Thorpe is my cousin, and Viola Grange is my grandmother.”
“Ah, two women that I know rather well.”
I knew Grandma had been here multiple times, but… “Cassie’s been here more than once?”
“Five times to be exact. And all for the same thing.” He waved his hand at the couch. “Please, sit down.”
I sat at one end of the couch and Franel sat at the other. The couch was a bit stiff and the fabric was decorated in what I’d always called Patrician Paisley. He spoke good English, but his Swiss accent made consonants sound extra hard.
“Why did Cassie keep coming back?” I asked.
“I find it impolite to talk about such things, but you are family…” He pulled out a locket, removed a red piece of candy and popped it in his mouth. He sucked on the candy, and it clacked against his teeth. I was surprised the bauble wasn’t a watch. I scanned the room. There were no clocks at all.
Franel slid the candy into his right cheek. “While you may only be familiar with one, Cassie has had…ahem…five husbands.” Franel blushed, as if he’d said something scandalous.
He shifted the candy to the other cheek. “I am afraid so. She keeps trying to get it right.”
Now I knew why she was so obsessed. Jim was no prize. Though, neither was Cassie. I wondered who the first four were, but all I could see was a line of alternate Jims. Women like Cassie always gravitated toward the same kind of men. She didn’t need time travel. She needed to make better choices.
“So,” Franel said. “What can I do for you?”
Cassie was proof that time manipulation was something that required practice to master. Grandma seemed successful, but she’d had lots of time, and had eaten lots of cuckoo eggs. I was at the beginning of the process, and I’d likely need to do this more than once to get it right. I searched my memories for the pitfalls of time travel, as I’d seen in books and movies, but came up short. Now that I was faced with an actual offer, I didn’t know what I wanted. My initial thought was to slow my perception of time, to make weeks feel like weeks again, instead of days. To be like a child, and live in the moment, without letting it pass you by because you were too jaded to appreciate anything. But now that I was faced with the power to make it happen, it sounded like I’d be cursed with eternal boredom. Every checkout line would be an eternity; every long-distance drive would be torture.
“It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?” Franel asked.
“Yes,” I answered. I needed time to figure out how time works. And I couldn’t do that with Cassie competing with me for the eggs. “It seems like my cousin’s problems are more pressing than my own.”
Franel narrowed his eyes and sucked hard on the candy, before shifting it and saying, “Are they?”
I wished I had a piece of candy to suck on. It’d give me more time to think. “Yes. And as a member of her family, it’s my responsibility to help her.”
“How kind of you.”
“I guess so.”
“And there are always more eggs if you decide to come back.”
“Yes,” I said. Did he know what I was thinking? Time to change the subject. “So. Why the eggs and the clocks? Why make it so complicated?”
His mouth spread into a smile. “The clocks were an obvious choice, of course, and I suppose the rest was a security measure. I couldn’t have just anyone coming here and demanding favors. I needed to make it difficult to weed out the idiots.”
In Cassie’s case, he’d failed.
“And I fiddled with the mechanisms in the clocks, to make them run, stop, and skip, on purpose,” Franel said. “So that the cuckoos would rarely mate, making the eggs all the more rare. Too many time manipulations can get messy.”
I wondered briefly if I could get someone to fix them, to make more eggs, but there was a chance that it would ruin the magic. And I couldn’t let that happen. “Makes sense to me.”
“I’m glad you see the good in limiting the power,” Franel said. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I need to help Cassie. Her life has been hard.” I needed to keep her away from the clocks, so her life was my problem, for now.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Then let’s begin. Where do you want to go?”
“Midafternoon. Christmas Eve, Nineteen Eighty-Five. Grandma’s house.”
“Do you want to travel as you are now, as an interloping observer, or would you rather I put you in your eight-year-old body for a time?”
“Eight-year-old,” I said. “How much time will I have?”
“As much as you need. But, I’ve found its best not to linger. It may have unintended effects.”
I stood. “What do I have to do?”
“Go back through the front door,” he said pointing. “When you’re done, knock on the front door of the male clock, and I’ll let you through.”
I went to the door and put my hand on the cold doorknob. I looked over my shoulder. “Why aren’t there any clocks in here?”
“Why would I, of all people, need a clock?”
“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
I braced myself for a cold blast of wind, opened the door and stepped into the clock room.
Everything seemed so big, so far away. But soon I realized it was me that’d changed. I was four feet tall again, and dressed in OshKosh B’gosh overalls and a striped sweater. In my hand lay the toy motorcycle that I liked to run along the wainscoting upstairs.
All of the grandchildren were gathered in the clock room and Grandma was telling the story of her magic clocks. I listened, amazed at how much younger she looked, how animated her face was compared to now. Well, the now of the future I’d come from.
When Grandma was done, everyone filed out, eager to get back to shoving more Christmas cookies in their faces. Everyone but Cassie and me. She stood under the female clock, staring up at it in wonder.
“It’s all just a joke,” I said, nearly laughing at the sound of my voice. After hearing my adult voice for so long, I thought I sounded like a girl.
Cassie turned and scowled. She wore a green Christmas dress and a ribbon in her hair. “Is not.”
“They got me with it last year,” I said. We were the youngest of the cousins, and Cassie was a year younger than me, so it made sense that she’d be the last to know. “I spent every night in here, waiting for the birds to come out. I didn’t get any sleep and they all made fun of me.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“Robby threatened to beat me up if I said anything to you.” Robby was the second oldest cousin and the meanest.
Cassie rubbed the bruise on her arm. She understood the dangers of crossing Robby.
“It was mean and I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“How do I know you’re not tricking me right now?”
I managed to summon some tears and hoped that her seven-year-old mind wouldn’t see through the deception. “I’m not lying. Honest.”
She took my hand. “Really?”
“Yeah. Maybe we can think of a way to get them back.”
I used the next egg to solidify Cassie’s first marriage. I studied all the relationship books I could find, and befriended Cassie and her husband. She trusted me because of the newly formed childhood bond, and Tony went along for the ride because he was a weak-willed follower. At least he was nice to Cassie.
Over the next few years I stayed at Grandma’s house, acquiring eggs and making sure nobody else in my family used the clocks. If I was going to change my life, to become the man I wanted to be, I couldn’t let them get in my way. I helped some of them, but there were a few that ended up hating me, and I had to go back over and over again until I figured it all out.
Franel grew tired of me, and eventually, our conversations were honed down to a few simple questions. When, where and how?
At times, I struggled with my feelings about what I was doing. I’d manipulated the fates of almost everyone in my family to make sure I’d have exclusive access to Franel’s magic. I had no idea if I’d sent some of them to early deaths, sent them down the wrong career and relationship paths, or even manipulated some of their children out of existence.
To keep it all straight I expanded my operation. I set up my laptop in an unused, concrete-walled room in the basement, and ran hardline internet through a hole I’d drilled in the floor. I bought huge drawing pads, and graphed out everyone’s relationships, following their every move on all the social media sites, and showing up at every get together—no matter how big or small—to grill people about what they were doing. I hid my intentions behind idea that I was writing an extensive family history. Some people loved it and gave me tons of information, others didn’t care, and the rest didn’t want anything to do with the person I’d become.
I was every bit the disheveled author. Unshorn, unshowered, but packed with facts and wearing a worn blazer with patches on the elbows. I played my part and wore my costume, but soon I became the man I was playing. Every one of them needed my help, and nobody could make an informed decision. I didn’t know why. They had access to all the same people and information that I did. Maybe they couldn’t see the big picture?
It didn’t matter. They had me to take care of them.
My work grew more complicated, requiring more focus and finesse. I handled it perfectly, fixing my fixes, dealing with the unforeseen by going back with the advantage of hindsight.
Franel’s hostility eventually grew into full on rage, but he didn’t understand how much I knew. Didn’t understand how I’d refined the process. As I expanded my view of the massive interconnected web of my family’s choices and relationships, I could practically feel the new neural pathways being forged in my brain.
I ate the egg, my sixty-third to be exact, and stepped into the chalet. Franel sat facing the door. He looked pissed, but he didn’t say anything.
“I need to go back to Nineteen-Seventy-Three,” I said. “There’s-”
“I think you’ve done enough, Paul,” said a fiftyish version of my grandmother.
I never figured out how to remove her memory of how the clocks worked. She needed to be able to tell me about them when I was a child. There had to be a solution. I just needed more time.
“Can’t you see,” I said. “I’m helping them.”
“No. You’re not,” Grandma said. “They need to live their own lives in their own way.”
“None of them would’ve gotten this far without me.”
“Think about what you just said.” Grandma crossed her arms. “You’re not a god.”
I looked at the floor, scowled and then looked at Franel. “Tattle tale.”
Franel held up his hands. “I’m stuck here, and I have to follow the rules I’ve set in place. It’s how the magic works.” He pulled out his locket and tossed a red piece of candy in his mouth. “I needed someone who could get through to you. When your grandmother came through my door, I told her what was happening.”
“So, what happens now? Are you going to send her back to stop her from telling me about the clocks?”
“No,” Franel said. “That might be too dangerous. All of your manipulations have caused too much of a strain on the varied timelines resulting from your family’s choices. It’s as if too many threads of time have tangled together, and your constant attempts to reweave the patterns have weakened the fibers, and they are in danger of fraying.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I screamed.
“I tried to,” Franel said. “But you wouldn’t listen.”
I turned toward the door. “Let me get my notes. I’ll help you fix this.” I opened the door and was hit by a blast of alpine wind. “What the hell? Let me through.”
“We can’t do that, Paul,” Grandma said. “You’ve been naughty, and it’s time to take your toys away.”
I hurried past the couch and to my grandmother. “What does that mean?”
“I’m going back to your present, and hiding the clocks,” Grandma said. “The family will get them back after you’ve…passed.”
I gritted my teeth and raised my fists. “You can’t do that!”
For the first time in my life, Grandma slapped me.
“Don’t raise your voice to me!” She stuck her finger in my face. “Our family had this beautiful, powerful gift, and you’ve ruined it for everyone. Franel and I have been talking. The timelines need to settle for a few hundred years, before we can risk straining them again. And the timelines leading fifty years in either direction from your first manipulation may never recover.”
I slumped into a chair near the fire. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t going to cut it this time, mister.”
Grandma had always saved one for the really big screw-ups, like when I broke her favorite antique lamp while playing frisbee in the house. I felt five again.
Before I knew what was happening, Grandma was at the door with her hand on the knob. I got up, but I saw that I wouldn’t make it in time.
“You’re going to sit here for a while,” she said. “And think about what you’ve done.”
With that she closed the door, and I was stuck with Franel.
“That must have been difficult for you,” Franel said. He pulled out his locket. “Would you like a piece of candy?”
I stayed with Franel for a week. Playing cards and listening to stories about the family from way back. When I got restless, I strapped on snowshoes, and after Franel showed me how to walk in them, trudged the Alps of Nineteenth Century Switzerland. Franel had based it on his childhood vacation home. The rest of the chalets were empty and no ski tracks cut the slopes.
I eventually found the edge of the null space. It bordered the base of the mountain. I couldn’t cross the border even though it looked like the land expanded off into the distance all around us.
At the end of the week, Franel took me to the door.
“It’s been nice having company for a little while,” Franel said.
“I thought you hated me for what I did.”
“I can’t hate you. I made the same mistakes.” Franel pulled out a handkerchief and wiped tears from his eyes. “I can’t go back to my own timeline, for fear of destroying it. The world you see around you is both a comfort and a painful reminder of a place I can no longer go.”
Franel hugged me, and offered me another piece of candy. It was awful, and I had no idea why he ate it, so I refused.
“Goodbye, Great to the Nth power Grandpa.”
“And goodbye to you, little grandson.”
I stepped through the door into the clock room. I hadn’t come through the male clock, but the door to the room instead. There were two blank spots where the Franels used to be. Before I left the room I checked every other clock. Just to be sure. But I could tell, by craftsmanship alone, that none of them were Franels.
I searched the house, and ended up in Grandma’s room.
“You’ll never find them,” she said. “They are in a safe deposit box, in another country. And according to the lawyer I hired, they can’t be opened for two hundred years.”
I turned, ready to begin another search.
“You’ll never find the paperwork either,” Grandma said. “In my age-addled state, I accidentally used them for kindling in the front room fireplace.”
“Fine,” I said, crossing my arms.
“It’s been nice of you to visit, but I think it’s time you went home and got on with your life.”
“Okay,” I said. I went over and kissed her on the forehead, and she smiled at me.
“It’s up to you to make something of yourself. No cheating. No manipulations. Just hard work.”
As I walked down the hallway, I trailed my fingernail along the wainscoting.
“Knock it off, Paul. Don’t make me tell you gain.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s alright, Paul. It’ll all be alright, if you just do what I said.”
I packed my things, loaded them into my car and drove down the gravel drive to the highway. I pulled out and merged with the traffic. A pretty woman in an SUV, in the next lane, looked over at me and smiled.
I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t a family member from the future, coming back to make sure I behaved myself. Or, maybe it was the guy driving the Jeep, or the guy on the corner.
It didn’t matter. I’d never let them beat me.
By J.A. Becker
Nina disgusts me. I don’t tell her this though; it would crush her. She was beautiful: creamy smooth skin, ocean blue eyes, raven black hair, and a body to die for–a real hourglass figure.
But now every imperfection of hers is somehow magnified. The tiny divot in the center of her nose, which I found so cute before, is like a crater on the moon. Her eyes aren’t symmetrical either; one is actually quite bigger than the other. Her breasts are sagging, not at all upturned like they used to be. And there’s a thick layer of fat overflowing her hips that I never noticed till now, making her body more pear shaped than anything.
I am nothing to look at. Far from it. I’m a white-haired, gangly, ugly thing, so I am the last person in the world to criticize anything, but for some reason this is what I see when I look at her. When I look at everything, in fact.
The redheaded nurse is a freckled nightmare; the hospital bed sheets have a dozen disgusting stains on them, though Nina swears they’re perfectly clean; the overhead lights buzz and flicker terribly, which nobody seems to notice but me; and the yellow paint on the walls isn’t finished properly, enormous spots are missed down by the baseboards leaving the white drywall to shine through. It’s all so hideous I can barely stand it.
The procedure hasn’t worked as far as I can tell: I can’t do calculations any faster, my memory seems the same, and I am no closer to solving the same theories I was baffled with before. All that’s changed is I’ve somehow become hypersensitive to my surroundings, every little fault pops out as though it were under a microscope.
The thought has painfully crossed my mind maybe a dozen times now that something may have gone wrong. Did the monkeys’ heads hurt this much when I performed the procedure on them? They were rather ornery after, but was it this bad? And what about this propensity for seeing nothing but faults? Is that normal or a sign the formula is incompatible with the human brain?
I desperately want to get back to the lab. Every minuscule change taking place in my brain is of the utmost importance to track and record for posterity. But here I lie in frustration on this lumpy hospital bed, bored to tears and playing a memory card game on my iPad because I promised Nina I would stay till the doctors cleared me.
Something catches my eye. I look over the iPad at my bare feet and see two thin, curved sticks poking out from the top of my right foot, like my big toe grew antennas. I lie the tablet down on my chest and stare closer. They’re moving I notice, twitching in fact. I shift my foot a little and a huge wasp’s head connected to the antennas peaks out from behind my big toe. He’s the size of my foot. I can see his striped black and yellow abdomen sticking out from my behind heel. The sharp ends of his legs scrape across the soft skin of my foot’s arch, sending a shiver rippling through me. Frozen in shock, I stare at the thing.
Then I let out a shriek and a mad buzzing fills the air. He springs up and hovers over my stomach. He’s a monster, just over a foot tall and six inches wide. A long black stinger descends from the bottom of his swelled abdomen and drips amber fluid onto the bedspread.
He flies closer to my face, and I react and swat at him with my iPad. Catching him dead on, the screen shatters and his body blasts into the wall with a sticky, wet splat. Then he slides to the floor, leaving a thin red trail as he goes.
He angrily buzzes and rattles about beneath my bed. Not yet dead, but dying.
I scream for the nurse. My pulse thunders in my chest and I break out in a cold sweat. My God, I think, his mandibles were big enough to lop off my toe with a single bite. How is that possible?
Red bursts in, her wide eyes flare about. Her freckled face is a measles outbreak.
“What’s the matter?” she demands.
“Goddammit, there!” I say while pointing to the floor, completely amazed she hasn’t seen what’s right at her feet.
“What?” she says, staring at the ground and raising her hands in confusion. “I don’t see it. What is it?”
“You dumb ginger,” I say and roll to the side of the bed, so I can point directly at the thing. “There!”
It’s dead now. Curled up into a ball by the poorly painted cream baseboards.
“A giant wasp!” I exclaim. “Don’t you see it!?”
“Oh, of course.” She says. “We’ll take care of it right away.” And with that, she bustles out of the room.
My head has swelled during this insanity and it feels like my skull will split open from the pressure. The room swims a little and I lie back on my bed, breathing heavily.
Nuclear medicine, I think. Somehow that wasp got into the hospital’s nuclear imaging system, was infused with gamma rays, and grew gargantuan in the process. It’s so damn ridiculous when I think about it–it’s like something out of a comic book–but that’s the only explanation I can think of.
My doctor sweeps in through the door. The hairs of his toupee are blond push-broom bristles that are combed flat to one side, a pimple on his cheek has grown into the category of a cyst, one eye is a darker color than the other, and on and on the minutiae of his faults go.
“Grant,” he says. “How are you feeling?” He takes his pen light from the pocket of his terribly wrinkled doctor’s coat and shines it in my eyes.
“Goddammit,” I say, brushing his hands from my face. “Don’t you see it?” Again, I point at the thing.
He doesn’t follow my finger.
“Grant,” he says. “What year is it?”
And then I go a little ape.
“There!” I shout. “There you ignoramus!”
Finally, he follows my finger to the floor, but not a bit of surprise crosses his face.
All of a sudden, I feel water running in my head and a rush of darkness swallows me.
Blood drips from the razor-thin line I cut across my forehead. I dab at the incision, turning the toilet paper a deep red Rorschach.
My bruised over eyes are blue baboon lips. I can barely see between the slits. Unable to stand my visage, I turn from the bathroom mirror.
Little vignettes of the procedure play in my mind. The cold metal slab touching my back. The robotic arm with a silver scalpel slicing open my brow. The circular saw buzzing through my forehead. A sudden gush of hot fluid filling my skull as my formula was pumped in.
I reasoned that if man can use drugs to increase muscle mass, bone marrow, white blood cells, and lung capacity; thereby, increasing his strength and endurance, then cannot a drug be invented to grow the neural pathways of the brain and increase intelligence? Would not a brain with more neural pathways think faster, better, and remember more than one with less?
The monkeys I experimented on certainly showed that to be true. They went from drooling morons that eat their own feces to quiet, contemplative creatures that signed for food.
It was a breakthrough, one I desperately sought as I’d been suffering for far too long in the shadows of obscurity. I figured that with one more courageous push I could show the world that the same could be done for the human mind. It would be a quantum leap forward for mankind and would smash my name into history with such force that all would remember me long after I was gone.
I grip the sides of the white porcelain sink and watch the water stream from the tap and spiral noisily into the drain.
Have I gone mad? I wonder. That wasp thing was real, saw it with my own eyes, killed it with my own hands.
But then why can no one else see it? Not even Nina.
“How is everything going in there Mr. Hopsinger?” The nurse shouts through the bathroom door, knocking my train of thoughts off its clattering tracks.
“Give me a second!” I say.
The door latch clicks open and her measly face pokes in.
“Everything OK, Mr. Hopsinger?” she asks. Her blue scrubs have faded with the million washes they’ve been through, yet a bright green stain is on her shoulder. Couldn’t she see that when she put that on? If that were me, I would have thrown it away and worn something else. It’s awful to look at, like a hunk of booger melted on her shoulder. Deplorable.
“I’m fine!” I hiss.
I see Nina looking in over her shoulder. Her face is pinched with worry.
“I’m fine,” I say to the both of them. “Really, I’m fine.”
The nurse pushes the door open and bright light washes into the room, searing my eyes, making me squint.
“I haven’t finished,” I protest, but the floor shifts beneath my feet and I have to grab the walls for support. The nurse and Nina spring to my side and help me into the bed.
“When can I leave?” I say after Nina pulls the covers up to my neck, like I’m a child being tucked in for the night. “I must get back to my lab. It’s been two days already and that’s two days worth of valuable data I’ve already lost.”
“We haven’t got the test results from the spinal tap,” the nurse replies.
“It’s not meningitis you fools!” I shout. “It’s encephalization, purposeful encephalization.”
That registers nothing but a blank expression on her ugly face.
I turn to Nina and squeeze her hand pleadingly. “Please Nina let me go. There is nothing they can do for me. They don’t have the knowledge or the equipment. Let me go back to the lab. Please?”
“Grant,” she says and squeezes my hand back warmly. “Please stay Grant.”
More than anything in this world I love this woman and my resolve to leave this place melts at her touch.
“OK,” I sigh. “I’ll stay and suffer these fools for you.”
An unprofessional flash of fury crosses the nurse’s face, every freckle briefly flickers red. She didn’t like being called a fool, not one bit.
“Look hun,” I say to her. “Isn’t there a bed pan that needs changing somewhere?”
“Yes of course,” she says and leaves, closing the door to my room with a gentle slam.
“Grant!” Nina says sharply. “Do you have to be so cruel? She’s just trying to help.”
The rims of Nina’s eyes swell and redden. Wet, salty globules begin to trundle down her face. I can barely look her.
“Dammit Nina! This is nothing to cry over. How do you think Jonas Salk invented a vaccination for polio? He had to use it on himself because no one would volunteer to be a test subject. If he hadn’t, we’d be all crawling around with atrophied legs dragging behind us. Testing monkey brains can only take you so far. Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand that?”
I’ve worked myself up into a hell of a fervor. My whole body tingles and my breath comes in ragged gasps.
“No,” Nina says. “I don’t understand how you can risk your life for this.”
“That’s because you have no ambition! You have no drive! You don’t know what it’s like to be consumed by something, to feel something like this burning in your veins. To move forward into greatness, there must be sacrifices. My goal is no less than eliminating the ignorance of mankind. Everything else takes a back seat to that, including my safety.”
I have to stop because the room is spinning again and my breath is falling short. I lie back and look at my chest, rapidly swelling and deflating. I’m tired now. My eyes begin to droop uncontrollably and I drift off to the sound of her sobbing.
I welcome the night. It washes the faults away. When I look at the ceiling, I don’t see uneven, asymmetrical tiles with brackish stains–I just see a dark ceiling. And the walls aren’t covered with filth and painted poorly; they’re just dark walls.
Nina is right. Something has changed inside me. When I think of how I was before this, I remember being nicer, more even-tempered, happier too. Perhaps, the new pathways growing in my frontal lobe have affected my personality. I recall my studies about how lobotomy patients became listless and apathetic after their pathways were severed. What I’ve done is the very reverse of a lobotomy, so perhaps it’s pushed my personality in the other direction. Instead of listless, I’ve become active, animated, irritable.
A shadow splashes through the pool of moonlight on the wall, startling me. A bat, I think. But no, a bat couldn’t disturb that much light–something larger.
The window creaks at the foot of the bed and my body goes rigid with fright. I see two grey hands beneath the sill, slowly lifting it up.
I must be asleep and dreaming because we’re ten stories up, but the pounding in my head and heart tell me I’m awake and that this is real.
The window slides upwards and frigid night air pours through, quickly filling the room. Goosebumps ripple on my skin and a cold, icy lump sticks in my throat.
A head appears in the opening. Two milk-white eyes regard me from across the room. I can feel them, running over every inch of my body. A long arm reaches through the window and grabs the radiator below the sill. Whatever it is, it’s climbing in.
My body roils in revolt, tries to get free, yet the restraints hold me still.
He climbs in, stands at the foot of my bed, and smiles. His two eyes are clear moons and his teeth are shrunken corn kernels. He’s wearing a trench coat so rotted and frayed it’s like a lace cape. Open at the middle, I can see his thin, mummylike form beneath the coat. His skin is grey and is stretched so tight across his body that every bone, rib, and joint is visible. Even from this distance I can smell him: stale, wet earth; the smell of compost.
He smiles impossibly wide and my whole being runs cold.
“Nurse!” I scream. “Nurse! Help me! Nina! Somebody!”
I shriek and shriek, but not a soul comes.
He slinks up to the side of the bed and leans in. His breath is like gasoline fumes and my eyes water. He reaches out and taps my forehead with one of his long, pointed fingers.
My skull is so tender the tapping sends fireworks sizzling across my vision. I thrash my head from side to side to get away from his vicious claw.
He pulls his hand back and points to his huge milky eye. He’s trying to convey something, I realize, but I haven’t a goddamn clue what it is.
A loud click of the lock makes him snap his head towards the door. Light spills into the room as the nurse pokes her head in; annoyance is plain on her ugly face.
He slinks along the walls in the shadows, stops near the window, and turns to give me one last look.
Hate is in those eyes, pure burning malevolence.
Then with a breath he’s gone.
I was screeching and kicking up such a mad fit that the nurse fired me full of tranquilizers. Then she treated the rope burns on my wrists and ankles that I got from twisting in the restraints, cinched them back up, and left.
The drugs have made my mind and heart run still, and I can think clearly without everything boiling over in my mind. With a kind of drug-induced clinical detachment, I begin to analyze myself.
I fully realize that it’s well within the realms of possibility that I could be quite mad. If I was back in my practice and listening to a patient describe the things I’ve seen and thought, I’d have the DSM-5 in hand and I’d be checking off all the tickboxes in the psychosis table: hallucinations (check), thought disorders (check), poor social interactions (check), personality changes (check).
But, the left half of my brain interjects, the fact that I can consider these things, think them through rationally like this negates a diagnosis of madness. Remember the axiom: only a madman thinks he’s sane and only a sane man would consider he’s mad. I still have my wits and I can still step back from my situation and examine myself soberly, ergo I’m not mad.
The creatures though, the right side of my brain says, the sounds and the smells of them say that I am. In fact, they scream it.
Tears are running down my cheeks and into the pillow, turning it into a soggy, cold sack beneath my head. My mind may be detached, but my body is being torn apart by the emotions of this argument.
I suck in the icy liquid in my nose and swallow it with a gulp. I give myself a solid shake and flex my wrists against the restraints. I must continue. Everything depends on it.
If I am truly mad, the right half of my brain continues, then it is the formula that’s caused this. It could be triggering an excess of dopaminergic signaling, common in schizophrenia, and that’s why I’m seeing these full-on, whizz-bang delusions. If that is the case, then it could be easily treated with drugs. I, in fact, could treat myself; probably much better than these idiots here.
But passing these things off as simple delusions just doesn’t feel right, the left side of my mind says. I’ve seen these things. Smelt them. Felt them on my head and feet, so it’s hard to simply dismiss them. They seem as real as anything.
But so says all madmen about their hallucinations, my right counters.
Yet, the left continues, what madmen can think so rationally, so clearly? Patients with delusions usually accept them unquestioningly–and I am questioning!
I’ve become confused by the argument rocketing back and forth in my head. I understand what the right side is saying, that these hallucinations are caused by a chemical imbalance, but what is my left saying? Is it saying that I am well within my faculties? That I’m not mad? If that is the case, and my left is correct, then just what the hell was that wasp and that creature? They’d have to be real if my left brain were to be believed, and I cannot, under any circumstance, accept that those things are real. Therefore, the truth of my mind’s state is plain before me. I am insane.
A soft scraping at the window draws my attention. Wasps, in the hundreds, are pressed up against the glass, a seething mass of dripping stingers, legs, abdomens, and antennas.
As far as hallucinations goes, that’s a pretty damn good one. Every one of those giant wasps are in vivid detail. There’s even subtle variations between them, lending a macabre realism to them. One has a broken mandible, another is missing a leg. Each is covered with distinctive hairs that stick out of all over their bodies.
I’ve got to get the hell out of here, I realize. The hospital can’t help me with this. They don’t understand what’s happening. Only I and the equipment and the drugs back at the lab can help me, can treat me without damaging this experiment.
“Nurse,” I shout, but not too frantically. I don’t want to seem out of control and dangerous. Strangely, my cry sends the wasps into a tizzy and they feverishly boil against the window. A few of them try to bite their way through and their mandibles squeak terribly as they slide across the glass.
“Nurse please. I need a little help.” I shout as calmly as I can.
Spiderweb cracks splay through the window. Though I know those creatures aren’t real and this isn’t actually happening, my skin still crawls at the site of them and my heart pounds in abject terror.
Relief fills me when I hear the lock click. The door swings open and the hallway light fills the room. The nurse steps in.
Her presence doesn’t deter the wasps in the slightest. They continue to angrily buzz and bash against the glass.
“Yes?” She asks, sounding rather put out.
I can barely stomach looking in her horrid face, but I force myself to; and force myself to smile too.
“My wrists are burning,” I say into her sea of red blotches. “May I please have more salve?” I motion my head towards the bedside table where it’s kept.
She harrumphs and disdain pulls her face into a grotesque distortion, but–ever the professional–she bends over and pulls the drawer open.
I lie there as calmly as I can, watching the undulating orgy on the window. She slowly twists the salve’s cap open; she’s not in too much of a hurry.
As soon as she unbuckles the latch on my right wrist I sock her in the jaw, a straight uppercut into her mouth. She screeches in surprise and stumbles back against the wall, clutching at her split and swelling lip.
Quickly, I unbuckle my other hand and then my feet. I leap from the bed and shove her out of the way.
Right then, the window shatters and the wasps come tumbling in. A bristling, buzzing pile of them collects at the foot of the radiator.
I’m through the door and starting to close it behind me when the nurse’s scream stops me. It’s not a scream for help, she’s screaming in pain.
I look back and a cold shiver through me. They’re swarming her. A dozen or so are on her chest, arms, and legs, spearing their two-inch stingers into her flesh. Blood blooms on her blue scrubs. One lands on her face and with a single bit its mandibles shear open her cheek. Blood gushes from the wound.
I slam the door on her horrific shrieks and lock it behind me.
For a moment, she beats on it to be let free, but then falls silent. The terror of the last few seconds catches up to me and all my breath seems to leave my chest. The long, cold hospital hallway rolls about like a ship’s deck in a storm and my legs buckle. I slide to the floor with a thump.
They’re real, I think. The thought sends a shockwave through me. I’m not mad. These things, these creatures are actually real. How is this possible?
It’s not possible, I answer myself coldly. The whole thing is insane. You’re insane.
But her blood, her fear-filled eyes say it is possible. Her lips scream it.
It occurs to me that the nurse couldn’t see what was killing her. She stood frozen in shock, wide-eyed with terror, looking about in utter confusion as the wasps tore her apart. And Nina and the doctor too couldn’t see the dead wasp on the floor either, which was plainly there.
Can it be that these things are real, but are just outside our perceptions?
Perhaps that’s what the formula has done. It didn’t grow my intelligence as it had the monkey’s; it’s grown my perceptions. That’s why every little fault pops out to me so readily–my perceptions are sharper, infinitely sharper, which is why I can see these monsters and others can’t.
I can actually hear them, crunching and munching their way through the door to get to me. I place my hand against the wood and feel the vibrations through my fingertips. They’re no hallucination. If I opened this, they would fly in and tear me apart like they did the nurse.
I stand and briskly walk down the bright hallway, quickly getting as far as I can from them.
The whirlwind of my mind now churns in another direction. Just what the hell are they? Gremlins, demons, goblins? Or some other thing I’ve never even heard of?
I stop in my tracks. No one will believe me when I tell them this. They’ll dismiss the story as lunacy. And the nurse, I suddenly think. How do I explain her? She was horribly killed by invisible creatures? No! They’ll slap a straightjacket on me, toss me back in here, and charge me with murder to boot.
The lab. I’ve got to get back to it and find a way to prove these things are real. If I can figure out what my formula has done, I can replicate it and show the world that these creatures exist and thereby clear my name. And, I realize, I can still be triumphant. The hell with improving the minds of man, this discovery will knock the scientific community on their collective asses! Another world, another civilization, has been right on our very doorstep this entire time–and it’s me that’s found it! My name will be synonymous with the greatest discovery of our time. The hell with Columbus, Dr. Grant Hopsinger will be a name on everyone’s lips.
I’m all kinds of cautious as I round the hallway corner, worried I might bump into one of those things or worse, a staff member.
But the hospital is dead this time of night and the nurse’s station at the end of the hallway is empty. I near it and see the nurse’s cream colored purse hanging from the arm of her chair. I climb over the desk and upend the contents onto the seat. Her car keys, I discover, are amongst lipstick, eye-liner, cigarettes, pills, and tampons.
I press the buzzer on the wall near the desk and the metal door beside the station pops open.
Stepping through the exit is like stepping out of an airlock into space.
The underground parking is a vast dark cavern, lite by a single overhead light, which flickers like it’s on its last legs. A jagged crack runs all the way down the center of the ceiling and I’ve the uneasy feeling it’s about to split open and rain concrete, rebar, and cars down on me.
I press her key fob and far off I hear a beep and see a flash of red lights. Of course, with her stature, she’s a million miles from the door.
The slap of my bare feet echoes as I jog to the car. The sides of the lot are so dark they seem to drop off into infinity.
I run past a cement support column and let out a startled scream when I see him standing on the other side, like he’s been waiting for me. His huge white eyes glow like two phosphor flares.
It’s not just a run I break into, it’s a blinding, blistering dash with my heart pounding in my throat and him hot on my heels. I can hear his fetid coat, madly flapping in the breeze just behind me.
I’m about fifty feet from the car when I slip on a patch of oil. My legs fly out from under me and I’m airborne for a second. Then I hit the ground and slide for a couple meters, ripping my skin across the concrete. As I scramble to my feet, he catches up and rakes my arm with his claws. My white pajamas tear open and five red furrows appear on my bicep.
“Why!?” I shout. “Why?” My mind is racing too quickly to form what I’m thinking into proper words and it all comes out as a single question. I meant: Why me? Why hate me? Why kill me? Why?
He sees I’m hurt and smiles that beautiful corn kernel smile of his. I back away towards the car, keeping my body facing him.
He follows slowly, smiling from ear to ear, confident he has me.
I painfully smack my tailbone against the car door and quickly turn around to grab the handle. With a growl, he leaps onto my back and sinks his teeth into my neck. I throw my head back and scream in pain. Reaching up, I place my hands firmly around his skull. I shudder in revulsion as his skin is moist and clammy like a slug’s. With one swift movement, I twist my body sideways and Judo him over my shoulder. He’s sent flying, but in the process his teeth tear a chunk out of my neck. Blood runs freely from it, staining the front of my pajamas.
He hits the concrete with a thump and rolls along it, a tumbleweed of rotted coat and putrid skin and bones. Not wasting a second, I open the door, leap in, and lock it behind me.
I’m so fired up I can’t get the damn keys into the ignition. I try and try, but it’s like I’m putting a square peg into a round hole.
A loud, shrill whistle sends pins and needles pulsing down my spine. I freeze and look over the dash. He’s standing with his hand on the hood of the car. He taps out the racing rhythm of my heart with his long, bony finger on the metal. Then he purses his emaciated lips together and an inhuman trill issues forth.
Just then, something plunks down on the car’s roof. Then another and another hits the roof, sounding like heavy rainfall. I look up and see a dozen black wasp stingers spearing through the car’s soft top, just inches from my head.
I slam the car key home and the engine sputters to life. Of course, it’s a junker. The fan belt lets out a horrific, protesting shriek as I throw the car into gear and jam my foot to the floor.
The shriveled man calmly steps out of the way of the hurtling car. I rocket through the underground and the wasps are sucked off the roof by the rapid airflow. I fly down the spiraling exit ramp, engine and tires screaming as I go.
I can barely keep the car in the turn. The sides scrape against the walls and sparks flare brightly in the darkness. Then with a gasp I’m shot out of the narrow ramp and onto an empty street.
I keep my foot to the floor, tearing ass down the long, empty road, not daring to look back in the rearview mirror.
The nurse’s tires screech as I pull up to the Science Center. I slam to a stop, kill the engine, and leap out. Not even diligent interns are here at this time of night. The building is a barren brick.
The passcode lets me through the sliding glass doors and into the steel elevator. The levels beep off as I rise.
A million questions percolate in mind, but I can’t fathom an answer to a single one of them. Who is that man? Is it a man? How does he control those wasp things? How long have they been here, creeping around on the outskirts of our vision? For centuries?
Terror and wonder course through me like an electric current, hackling the hairs on the back of my neck. This, I realize, is the thrill that great explorers feel when they find their new worlds. Nothing–nothing!–can compare to this glorious feeling. I am Magellan, standing at the shores of a whole new world.
The elevator dings and opens to a dark hallway. A short dash takes me to my lab. I unlock the glass door, step into the dingy gloom, and wait for my eyes to adjust. When they do, I see Nina lying on the floor beneath the metal operating table. She moans softly, stirs, and turns her face towards me.
I can see a straight-line incision across her brow. It’s still fresh; blood and brackish formula bubble from it.
“Nina!” I shout and reach for her.
She comes to then. Her eyes go wide and she screams and shuffles away from me, crab-like, across the floor and into a corner.
“Nina! What did you do?”
All at once I know. She did this to herself. She wanted to understand what I was going through so she could help me.
All my breath goes out of my chest and I collapse at her feet with a sob. Her love for me is deeper than I could have ever imagined.
“Nina! My poor Nina.” I crawl up to her head, gently lift it and rest it in my lap. It’s too late now. The formula is already acting on her brain, rapidly building new pathways at an exponential rate. There’s no turning back for her.
“Grant?” She says faintly. She reaches up and touches my face, unsure if it’s truly me. Then she recoils like she’s touched a hot stove.
Her face twists horribly in confusion as her eyes spastically scan my face. She’s beginning to see the ugly in me–all the faults in my face, of which there are many, are rising to the top of her perceptions.
“Grant?” she asks.
Unable to stand my appearance, she turns her gaze away. Then she sees something and her eyes go wide and white with fear. She screams and points to the door.
Ghoulish faces line the windows of my lab. A dozen shrunken men, all with moony eyes and rotten yellow teeth stare in at us.
Not a sound issues from them. They watch in silence.
Nina flails in my grasp like a dying fish. This is too much for her. She doesn’t have the mental fortitude or the experience I do to understand and process this. Her mouth fills with white lather and she begins to choke. Her eyes blaze with mad-dog fury. I can tell she’s at her breaking point and one more small push will send her spiraling into a madness from which there’s no coming back.
A face moves in the window. A creature raises a long bony finger to its milkstone eye, taps below the gaunt socket, and smiles.
Suddenly I understand what he’s been trying to tell me all this time. I quickly reach up and unclip the scalpel from the robotic arm. If I cut back the overgrown forest in Nina’s frontal lobes, just a partial sever, then these creatures will disappear from view and she’ll be saved from this insanity. Then hopefully they’ll leave her alone, just as they’ve left everyone alone who cannot see them.
The room fills with the sound of shattering glass and I quickly dig the scalpel into Nina’s incision and begin to cut.
By Alina Rios
It started with a hint dropped in the depths of my stomach, like a key, while I was asleep. When I awoke, my senses were sharper, as if my body had been nearsighted for years and I finally found the right prescription.
Later that day, my new wife–we’d been married just shy of six months—was getting ready to go out. She was talking to me out of the closet over the music of metal hangers sliding.
“Lisa’s man dumped her. She needs a shoulder,” she said, and immediately followed with an exclamation point of a hanger roll. I came and stood by the closet door. She was wearing a black bra and blue panties, mismatched, just the way I liked it, and her thin arms moved through the clothes fast, searching like trained dogs. She turned.
“Oh Henry, you scared me.”
I stood quietly, thinking. Her hands rested on a navy blue silk blouse, fingers feeling the fabric.
“What?” She asked.
A hint of color bloomed on her pale face. “My friend,” she said, tasting the words.
I wanted to say, you don’t have any friends, but that seemed rude, so I said, “Where’d you meet?”
“At the coffee shop,” she answered too fast.
I nodded. It was possible. But as I began thinking, I realized, she’d been going out every night for the past month, or longer. How could I have missed it?
“What about last night?” I asked.
“What about it?” She said, chewing a nail.
“Did Lisa’s man dump her yesterday too?”
“No, just today.”
“What did you do last night then?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what was your excuse last night,” but I was afraid to, in case my suspicions were true. What would I do? Would I leave her? I didn’t think I could. But could I live knowing she’s sleeping around?
“Last night, I went shopping for clothes. Honestly, Henry, you’re being weird. You never cared before,” she turned back to her task.
That was a lie. I cared. But it felt like I’d been asleep. I went back to bed and pretended to read.
When the door shut behind her, I felt small and unsure, the way I did that night on the beach when I proposed. The waves crashed against the shore, nearly drowning my words and the moon looked on in disapproval.
“You don’t want me,” she’d said, or it could’ve been, “I know you want me.” The breeze made her hair especially wild that day. It moved medusa-like round her shoulders.
“I must be free,” she’d said, or it could’ve been, “Set me free.” Truth is, I couldn’t care what she said because I wanted her.
So I’d said, “Marry me,” after her silence told me she was done trying to discourage me.
She sighed. That I heard.
Then she said, “Alright.” Or maybe it was, “We’ll fight.”
However she felt about marrying me, she let my mother arrange everything, even pick the puffed-out frilly dress, which, by contrast, only brought out her wildness, her otherness, her not.
Reluctantly, I got up and went back to the closet. I had a strange feeling like I was entering the room where somebody just died. It still smelled of her, sweat mixed with lavender. Even straight out of the shower, she smelled of sweat. And I loved it, God help me. I loved everything about her. Since the day she walked past me at the café, and her scent, like a wand, rose me to my feet and made me follow her for blocks, until she yelled at me to go away. When I didn’t, she sighed, walked to the park and sat down on the bench, leaving room for me.
I sat on the thick carpet looking up at her clothes, or what was left of them. Was she giving them away? Did she move in with a lover? Below, shoes and boots laid naked without the canopy of clothes that I helped her move.
I woke up with my cheek hot and itchy on the carpet. My watch read 11:48. I stumbled out of the closet. The bed stared blankly at me. The house protested being awoken with a few creaks reverberating through its dark spaces. She was obviously not back. This was unusual, but not unexpected.
I thought about calling the police. But I thought about it lightly, just as something I ought to do. I was fairly certain she was with her lover, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. So I simply sat on the porch, feeling sorry for myself, and very lonely.
When the sun lit up the sky to the East, I went inside and settled for the comfort of a breakfast shake. The buzz of the blender drowned out the silence and loneliness, but just for a moment, until there was a loud unpleasant crunch and the motor chocked.
I turned it off and looked in, but I could see nothing in the purple mush so I poured the shake into a glass. When I looked in the blender again, I noticed a light chunk of something stuck on the blade. I touched it—hard and cold. I took the blender to the sink, pulled the stuck piece off the blade and ran some water over it. It had been mangled by the blade, but it was definitely a small bone with some skin around it, which didn’t feel like chicken skin. I felt a dry heave coming on.
I told myself I was sleep-deprived and hence not to be trusted. I told myself that it must’ve been a chicken bone that fell off the counter last time we made dinner and ended up in the drawer where I kept the blender. Just to prove to myself the possibility of such accident, I went to look in the drawer. There, among the potato masher, a grater, and a collection of peelers was a thumb, a brother of the one that ended up in my shake.
I darted for the trash can and barely made it.
When it was relatively safe to step away from the can, I poured the shake out and ran the water, watching the pieces of thumb getting caught in the mesh and feeling sick again. I thought I smelled the smell but I didn’t know what I was smelling for.
How I missed the familiar sound of her boots on the path, I do not know. I was definitely unwell. I pulled down hard on the paper towel roll and it unwound a long strip (nothing was too much in this case). I crumpled the towel and used it to pick up the thumb from the drawer and throw it in the compost. I dumped the mesh contents and the mangled bone after it. Then, to the sound of her boots nearing, I pulled down a loaf of sliced bread from the top of the fridge, tore the plastic, grabbed half of the slices and threw them on top of the compost bin.
“There you are,” she said poking her head with blood-shot eyes into the kitchen. She wore a dress I hadn’t seen before, it fell above her knee, exposing her legs. I was aroused in spite of everything. She walked up to me and hugged me.
“Sorry I didn’t come back sooner. We got too drunk and I stayed over,” she said into my chest.
“What happened to your other dress?” I asked.
“Threw up all over it. Had to borrow Lisa’s. You like it?”
She stepped back and watched me, her brows frowning in concern. Her scent was different, stronger, making me think of lion cages and rain, and it turned me on terribly. She came closer again and wrapped herself around me, bringing our lips together sticking her tongue in deep, before I could tell her. She tasted of sex and meat, and just as my mind began conjuring up images of breakfast in bed with her lover, she hopped up on the counter and pushed down my pants, revealing my obvious appreciation of everything that was her. With a blissful smile, she impaled herself on me.
Things continued in a similar way after. Some nights she wouldn’t come back and wouldn’t tell me where she was going. I stopped asking. She’d return in the early morning, refreshed and hungry for me. I would spend the night in aroused anticipation, drifting in and out of sleep. Her closet kept growing thinner, no matter how many items she acquired, or ‘borrowed.’
Also, I kept finding small human parts all over the house. More thumbs of all sizes in the kitchen drawers, yellowed toes in my college coffee mugs, the ones I rarely use, except when we’re low on dishes, one dried up ear in spaghetti pot. I discovered that one when we tried to make dinner together. She was washing the bowls when I dumped the dry spaghetti on top of the thumbs in the compost.
“Spaghetti’s gone bad,” I complained.
“Is that even possible?”
“Possible if you don’t make dinners for a while.”
We had to get Thai takeaway that night.
I stopped dry heaving and quietly composted the findings, treating it like any other job I was doing around the house, like washing dishes. There was never enough bread in the house anymore.
I don’t know how long we would’ve gone on like that if I hadn’t gotten hit by the car.
I was walking back from one of my nightly trips to the store for bread, through the fog, thinking about her legs, and how perfectly they fit around me. It would’ve been a good way to go. The impact stunned me and then something caught me, held me, lowered me to the ground. Her face was in front of me until I lost consciousness.
I spent three days in intensive care. Those days are lost to me except for her dark eyes, bright in front of me, and her voice, soft whispers in a language older than the skies.
When they released me, she took me home, helped me get up the stairs to our bed, laid me down gently, and stuffed pillows all around me, like I was a newborn, which in a way, I was. It was all new to me. The vase with strange symbols, between hieroglyphics and kana, that always stood on a little table by the window seemed fascinating. I spent hours turning it in my hands, feeling the rough cool surface of the metal. My fingers looked plump, meaty. The wall color, which I always thought was basically white, turned out to be light pink.
“Did you know?” I would ask her looking all over, “Our walls are pink. How is it we live surrounded in pink?”
“Pink?” She would say looking around in surprise. “I s’pose they are. Looks like your mum’s been here.”
There it was, a smile hidden under the pale reserve. I kept looking at her. She was wondrous, enchanting, beautiful, and most definitely wicked.
She spoon-fed me, watching me out of her endless eyes, forehead creased by worry. In the evenings, she undressed me and wiped me down, slowly.
As the effects of narcotics started to wear off, and I was getting more independent, I began to notice that her skin had turned ashen and when I ran my fingers along her arms, it felt like sandpaper. Her hair had lost its shine and her eyes looked darker than ever.
One day I woke up from a nap and she was rummaging in the closet, muttering. Clothes and shoes, what was left of them, were lying in piles outside the closet.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, attempting to sit up.
She poked her head out, slipping on a smile, “The dress I borrowed from Lisa, remember?”
I nodded. Of course I remembered. I also knew it had been missing awhile and that the item she was looking for (or I should say items, for there were too many to count—fresh, soft ears) I’d composted last week, before the accident.
“How you feeling?”
“Better,” I lied.
A real smile brightened the ash of her face. She came and stood by me, not touching.
“Think you’ll be okay if I stepped out for a bit? We’re out of food,” she said looking at my stomach, scratching her arm.
“‘Course,” I said.
“Okay,” she said and not even a minute later her bare feet drummed out a fast beat down the stairs and the front door slammed. I wondered if she remembered her wallet.
I closed my eyes and let myself wonder if she’d seen those parts attached to a body or picked them up somewhere. Where does one go for human spare parts? A lab, a morgue, a funeral home?
I drifted off. Then, my heart woke up before my mind, as the intense throbbing light broke through my dreams. I was sure the light was a police car and she’d been caught.
I rushed to the open window and predictably collapsed with my stomach across the sill. I lay there inhaling through the sharp pain in my ribs. When I finally looked down at our street, I didn’t see the police car or anything of the sort. The moon was full and proud in the sky and its light flooded the room and bathed the neighborhood in myth. I groaned and blamed the throbbing effect on the meds.
I heard a laughter and looked to the right to our neighbors’ house—the elderly Swansons. The house was unusually alive for the hour. Inside, shadows moved in the amber light and conversations spilled out the open windows. People, dressed in dark colors, smoked on the porch. An unmistakable shape of a hearse was in front of the house. Mr. or Mrs. Swanson, I wondered sadly.
I was just about to drag myself back to bed, when a movement caught my eye. A shadow shifted in the side garden that we shared with the Swansons. I kept looking, nothing else moved…a chill prickled at my neck. A presence out there, just a few feet away, I felt, saw me watching.
I stared, paralyzed, into the shadows, until I was looking into the whites of two eyes, moon-cold. I glimpsed a small movement and my stomach tightened, breath trapped in my lungs. It was her–my beloved. I couldn’t say how I knew, just the way you can tell a familiar person from afar.
Then her eyes were gone, but I could see her head jerking, tearing at the prey, wolf-like. I was grateful for the darkness, for I couldn’t look away. I searched for the glistening evidence of blood, but saw none. I was trying to make out a shape. Images of those thumbs and ears rushed in. Mr. or Mrs. Swanson, I wondered again, and dizzied, slid down onto the floor, head heavy…a rushing sound as if in a tunnel…then nothing.
It was her sobs that woke me. In the soft grey of the morning, I was half-slumped against the wall, in an awkward and painful position. She sat at my feet, hands over her face, hair matted. Her dress had strips torn out of it.
I tried to shift to a more comfortable position and she looked up slowly, resting her pink-red eyes on mine. We looked at each other for a long time–just looked. Her pain and my pain became one and I too cried. She moved closer and I put my palm on her cheek.
She kept her eyes on mine and moved closer still, as if I was now the wand that drew her in. She wedged her shoulder under my armpit and lifted me up. I suppose I always knew she was stronger than she looked. She helped me to bed and lay down beside me. We fit perfectly, as always. I put my face to her breasts and inhaled.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
She stiffened. “You know me, Henry.”
“Not all of you. I need the part I saw too.”
She sat up and watched me, biting her lip, scratching her arm. Finally, she said, “I feed on souls.”
I was confused. “But I thought I saw you…”
“You saw me preparing the body.”
She gave me a long look. Then she must’ve reconsidered, because she sighed and said, “I do eat it, but I’m not after the…physical–meat, blood. But I eat it to get the soul before it has a chance to leave. I never kill. I replace the…corpse. Always. Collect all things of life…leaves, grass, earth, bones, chestnuts. Make a doll. I dress it, in my clothes.”
She stopped and watched me, waiting for the answer to the thinned-out closet mystery to register in my eyes.
“People see the doll as the one who died, the one I took. The spell usually lasts long enough for them to be buried or burned.”
She shrugged, “I make mistakes.”
I kept seeing her head jerking in the moonlight. “Mr. Swanson?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Only women.”
She was quiet a moment, her fingers tracing the flower patterns on a quilt on the bed. “I don’t really know,” she said. “It’s just what I do. I thought about this before and decided it must be because I didn’t like men. It’s an intimate thing, you know?”
I shook my head. “Say more.”
“When I take a soul, I become that person. I mean, I’m still me, but I’m also all the people whose souls I’ve taken.”
“Must be confusing.”
“No, it’s wonderful actually,” her face brightened, “but men’s desires, thoughts, feelings never appealed to me, until…you.”
She went back to tracing the flowers. I fought back the question on my lips. But I needed to know.
“Why me?” I said and held my breath.
Her eyes welled up. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I waited, in heavy silence. When tears began to roll down her cheeks, and her body shook, I felt my own well open. I rushed towards her, swaddled her in my arms. How small she felt.
“Because you love me,” her words were hot against my shirt, ”and because you taught me to love. It’s terrifying and beautiful….”
She pulled away and looked at me, “I love you, Henry.”
“Come,” I said laying back down. She arranged herself next to me, her head on my shoulder, and we lay like this, spent from the truth, drifting in and out of sleep, until the sun licked the walls of our room.
She stirred. “Henry?”
I smiled a lazy smile.
“Will you keep me?”
I chuckled, then opened my eyes. She looked hurt, unsure.
“Yes, yes,” I said.
“But you must promise me something.”
She rose on her elbow and the worry crease was back on her brow. “What?”
“When it’s my time, take my soul. Don’t let me rot.”
Surprise and wonder on her face, she touched her lips to mine.
“Of course, Henry. Anything. Anything you want.”
The White Lady
By Nathan Wunner
For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.
Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.
Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.
She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.
The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.
As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.
To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.
The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.
Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”
And pain there had been.
Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.
By the time the sun had fully set Mati had reached the edge of Ravenwood, den of the witches. Trespassing here would normally be a death sentence, but on this night the witches would be preoccupied with their secret sabbats. Mati had seen them, all those years ago, during her first journey to the Paths. Her memories of that visit were but a flicker of images, of animal offerings burning on bonfires by the hundreds, pools of blood upon blade and stone, and the witches running naked in the moonlight, howling like wolves.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Tante had bargained with the witches for Mati’s safe passage, all the way to the Paths of the Dead and back again. This kind of bargain was forbidden, of course, and for it Tante had paid a terrible price.
The witches had kept their word, though. They led Mati through the sprawl of their shanty towns; little more than wooden sheds and straw huts stacked haphazardly one on top of the other until they leaned precariously over the streets the same way the trees in the jungle would buckle and topple over from the weight of choking vines and their own branches.
The witches’ sabbats were much more elaborate than those that took place back in Mati’s village. Lanterns were suspended on ropes between the buildings so that they swayed in the autumn wind and cast the street in shades of green and violet. Red candles as wide around as a fist burned brightly in shop windows, and behind the glass Mati had seen shadowy figures stirring cauldrons that bubbled over with frothy green liquids. The lost ones, the mindless servants of the witches, were made to dress in elaborate costumes and act out scenes from fiction and fairy tale, scenes that even in her youth Mati knew intimately.
The witches always wore hideous masks, smooth and pale and white, with arched eyebrows and long, crooked noses. The masks left the witches mouths exposed, but their skin itself had an artificial, doll-like quality to it, and when they chose to smile it often distorted their lips and cheeks in an odd way, as if you were staring not at them, but at their reflection in a puddle of water. Tante had explained to her that the witches wore the masks permanently, not just during their festivals. They revealed their true faces only to those they wished to enchant.
Despite their fearsome countenance, they hadn’t scared Mati at first. They were kind to her, showered her with gifts, offered her piles of decorative candy skulls, pinched her cheeks and called her cute. It was only when she refused their gifts and affections that they showed their true intentions. The colorful lights and absurd looking street performers were the exact kind of things a child would find appealing, as if it was all a big performance put on solely to win her favor. This wasn’t uncommon. The witches couldn’t breed, it was said. They added children to their ranks from local villages. And they showed special interest in children that had already been taught the old ways.
Had it not been for Tante’s bargain, Mati shuddered to think what would’ve happened that night, once the last candle flame had flickered out.
But that had been a lifetime ago, and now Mati knew where they lived, and the smell of their campfires, and the paths even the witches were afraid to take. And even if she didn’t, a bargain with the witches would never be an option. She remembered all too well Tante’s last words to her: “Nothing in this world is worth making a deal with them, child. Nothing.”
Mati was silent as a panther in the tall grass as she cut through the underbrush and made her way deeper into the jungle. The entire jungle was silent, for that matter; other than the clicking of sharp talons on tree branches or the flutter of the wings from some unseen bird of prey, or the skittering of insects as they rummaged through the dead leaves on that littered the ground.
Mati ran on, until the stench of death filled her nostrils and brought her to a swift halt. She crouched down low behind a hollowed out tree, slowing her breath and letting her eyes adjust to the absence of light up ahead. And she peered, into the darkness.
Up ahead there was a fetid corpse half submerged in swamp water, belly distended and skin already starting to rot. Standing above the corpse was a cursed dead, a Druka; a ghastly looking thing with rough gray skin and teeth that had been filed to points.
The Druka were doomed to walk alongside the paths of the dead for all eternity. Their meanderings were completely without purpose, they simply wandered until they found something to eat or kill. They smelled almost as foul as the corpses they fed upon, and though they moved slowly they had the strength of five men, and were surprisingly stealthy.
That Mati had gotten so close to one without being spotted was extremely lucky, but slipping past without drawing its attention would require time she simply didn’t have. As Mati looked on the Druka used its long, blackened fingers to fish around in the corpse’s mouth. The Druka stared at its prey blankly as it prodded its cheeks; and then it laughed maniacally as it yanked out the corpse’s teeth and held them up to the light until each tooth sparkled like a shimmering red jewel.
Mati had killed Druka before, of course, but it took careful planning and sometimes the beasts fought for hours before they went down. Mati stared down at her knife and wondered if she could simply hamstring the Druka and then continue on her way, or if that would only anger it.
As she tightened her hand around the hilt of her knife, she heard lumbering footsteps from several yards away, and the snapping of branches. Several pairs of dark hands parted the shrubbery ahead, and another Druka emerged from the shadows. And another one after that, and another, until there were five gathered in total.
That’s it, Mati thought. I’ve failed.
Five Druka was far too many for her to try and take on alone. She’d be lucky to creep away with her life. The slightest sound might alert them to her presence. And that was if they didn’t smell her first. And with only one corpse to keep them occupied, they’d be on the move soon, hunting for more. Not to mention the fact that all the noise they were making was bound to attract the wrong kind of attention…
“Quite the predicament.” A seductive, playful voice whispered from just over Mati’s shoulder. Standing just behind her was a woman in ebony robes with smooth chocolate skin and streaked hair the color of a thunderstorm at dusk. She wore the mask of the witches; white porcelain with high cheeks, crooked nose and a wide smile, and the witch’s eyes glowed a fierce red. With the speed of a snake strike Mati seized the witch by her throat and pressed the blade of her knife to the yielding flesh of her neck.
“The moon waxes and wanes overhead. Midnight looms but promises not to linger.” The witch smiled, that crooked, wide smile. Mati began to draw the blade across the witch’s throat, and drops of blood rose as the skin split at the tip if the blade.
“So you think you have time? To finish me, and the Druka that even now is staring at our backs, wondering what’s making all that noise?” The witch mocked Mati, even with her last breaths.
Mati decided to lower the blade and let the witch speak, and in doing so she knew that she had damned herself. The witch rubbed the skin around the cut Mati had made, and within seconds the wound was gone. “Look.” The witch pointed towards the clearing where the Druka had been feasting. The Druka had abandoned the corpse, and were stumbling off into the darkness of the woods. “The way is clear.”
“All the way to the Paths?” Mati hissed.
“There and back again.” The witch said sweetly.
Mati gritted her teeth and shook her head. But she knew in her heart that the deal had already been made. “Your price?”
“There are so few left that know the old ways. You might be the last, now that Tante has …” The back of Mati’s hand collided with the witch’s jaw with a bone crunching smack before she could finish her sentence, and the witch collapsed to the ground, sprawled at Mati’s feet.
The witch propped herself up on her elbows and wiped blood away from her lips with her forearms. Her eyes burned like bright flame. “Debts can be paid… later.” And with that the witch vanished, dissolved into shadows of the trees, the echo of her voice absorbed into the din of the storm.
Mati ran until she reached the deepest part of the jungle, where the sky was hidden by long leaves and a tangle of vines.
It is said, though few have seen it, that in the heart of the jungle is a small pond that never dries up, even in dry season. It appears shallow until you reach your hand in, and find out that it’s just deep enough to swallow you whole. No animal will drink of it’s waters though they look clear and pure. And on a night like this, when the moon is just a pale sliver behind wispy black clouds, the pond’s waters glow red.
Mati stood over this pond, trying to see something in her reflection across its surface. But all she could see was the bones. She reached her hand into the water, expecting it to feel cold. But the water was hot, terribly so, and the fire arced up her spine and struck the back of her skull with the force of a concrete block.
And just like that Mati was gone from this world, off to the Paths of the Dead.
In the Paths everything moved slowly. Even Mati’s thoughts moved slowly, and it was a strain to simply command her feet to keep marching forward. Every action was like trying to run underwater, or thigh deep in mud. Mati’s first thought was that the pendant in her right hand had begun to glow softly, and so she clasped her fingers around it tightly so that no light could escape. But already strange, dark eyes peered at her from every corner of the jungle, from every tree hollow and ditch, each accompanied by sinister smiles and savage teeth.
The rain in the Paths of the Dead didn’t fall like rain in the living world. Instead of a furious, chaotic roar it sounded more deliberate; and the drops all struck the leaves overhead with a specific cadence, like the ticking of a clock.
As she struggled to move forward Mati heard beasts snarl and spit and sniff the air. Mati hoped that her preparations would be enough, and that whatever the creatures were they would simply remain curious, and not turn hostile.
As the noises around her grew louder, and the leering sets of eyes more numerous, Mati tried to will her feet to move faster. It was a fool’s errand. She felt like she was moving in a dream; running as fast as she could but getting nowhere, unseen danger and certain death breathing down her neck, indifferent to her efforts.
Time became a blur to her. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she knew they could hear it. And they wanted it. The life inside her. Everything around her was dark and oppressive. All that she knew was panic. She felt like she’d been running forever. Like she’d never be able to stop. The sky above was like a broken mirror, shattered galaxies dangling like shards of glass barely clinging to a frame, and every glittering star had been replaced by a deep black hole.
Tante had told her this was because all light died, at the end of things. In the paths the only light came from the burning of living souls that wandered here by mistake.
Faces emerged from the jungle. Lost souls shivering in the rain, rubbing their arms to keep warm. Their eyes and mouths were gaping holes.
“Don’t look them in the eye.” She remembered Tante’s words from decades ago. “Walk steady, and slow your breathing to still the pounding in your chest. If they catch up to you, run as fast as you can, or they’ll tear you apart trying to get to the heat inside of you.”
Mati began to run and closed her eyes. She heard moaning, and the rustling of branches, and the smacking of hungry jowls. She felt the cold breath of some dead thing at the back of her neck and the brush of icy fingers as something tried to grab hold of her arms.
And then it was over. The ground below Mati was transparent, like the clearest water, though it was solid below her feet. Before her was a tree with white branches that stretched high into the sky, and black roots that ran deep into the earth.
Nestled into the thick, twining branches at the base of the tree was The White Lady. She wore a dress made of rags but covered in glittering sequins, and it was long enough that it spilled out onto the ground at her feet. A thin veil, pockmarked with holes, covered her face. But the veil couldn’t hide the death’s head that lay just behind it; the hollow sockets of the eyes and the permanent grin.
The White Lady said nothing as Mati approached. But nonetheless, Mati heard a voice in her mind, a terrible echo that felt like ants crawling against the inside of her skull. “I met you as a child.” The White Lady said. “I told you the hour and the day of your death. And now is not. That. Time.”
Mati felt a sensation across her back, like broken fingernails scraping against her skin. “I’m here for another.” Mati said. “One who couldn’t make the journey for themselves.” Mati released her grip on the pendant in her right hand, and let it dangle in the air before her. The pendant glowed more brightly than before.
“This one I have a place prepared for.” Mati felt a serpent tongue flick her earlobe as The White Lady spoke. “A child, yes? Barely alive fourteen days. Yours? Did you ever give her a name?”
“Then you never will. Her resting place is inside.”
As Mati looked on the base of the tree shifted and split apart, and The White Lady was drawn inside of it. In her place was a cavernous opening that seemed to lead down into the roots of the tree. Mati gripped her knife tightly and stepped inside.
The path was dark, but Mati pressed forward, arms outstretched so that she could use the walls to steady herself and to feel the path ahead. Eventually the tunnel ended and Mati emerged into a forest unlike any she had ever seen before. The trees were impossibly tall, but not so dense that they obscured the sky above. Warm sunlight spilled down from between the leaves and covered the forest floor. Up ahead was a shallow pool of water so clear Mati could see the shape of every fish that darted past.
Mati reached into the water and grabbed a smooth stone. She lay the pendant flat on the ground and used the rock to crack it apart. As the pendant shattered a small blue light emerged, barely the size of a firefly, too light for gravity to pull it down to earth. It sat suspended before Mati’s eyes for a moment, and then, as a breeze swept down from the hills, the little light was lifted up and carried away. Mati watched it until it became too small and distant to see, and it was lost to the horizon like the setting sun.
Then Mati ran, out of the tunnel, away from the tree, and back into the jungle. She pretended she couldn’t hear the laughter of The White Lady echoing in her mind. Pretended she couldn’t feel the sharp claws and fetid breath and sticky saliva of a thousand beasts as they tore at her skin and tried to pull her down. Whatever happened now, she’d finished what she came to do. What happened next truly didn’t matter.
Mati drew her knife when they pressed in too close, and she sliced and hacked away at their flopping limbs like they were vines blocking her path. She felt teeth dig into her thighs, hands pulling at her hair. She cut and stabbed and screamed as she fought back; and all the while she wondered what she was bothering to fight for. She felt buried under the weight of rotting flesh. And she dug her way out, one hack of her blade at a time. At the end of it she stood on a pile of corpses, bleeding and bruised and near death, but still with her heart beating in her chest and breath in her lungs. She walked on.
At last she found the glowing red pool of water, deep in the heart of the jungle. Without hesitation, Mati dove inside.
Back in the world of the living, Mati sat by the edge of the water, coughing. Up in the sky the moon had begun it’s descent back down to the edge of the horizon. A fog was creeping in, seeping through the branches and the gaps between trees.
As Mati caught her breath and used her weary muscles to pull herself up, she noticed shadows flickering just out of sight. They darted past, flitting in and out of the corners of her vision. She realized they had her surrounded.
There were dozens of the shadows, and they moved in closer with every passing second. As they pressed in tighter the whites of their masks become visible, and their glowing red eyes. Witches.
One of the witches stepped out in front of the others. She walked to Mati’s side and slowly, almost cautiously, removed her mask.
“Tante?” Mati whispered, in shock.
“Child.” The witch replied in that all too familiar voice. “It’s time to come home. Are you ready?”
Tante’s face was the same as it was all those years ago, her hair, even the smell of her. The witch looked exactly like the woman that used to scoop her up in her arms and hug her tightly. The resemblance was uncanny.
Everything but the eyes.
Mati hesitated, and Tante looked at her sternly. “You made a deal.”
Tante extended her hand, and Mati took hold of it. “Yes,” she whispered through swollen lips, “I’m ready to go home.”
Tante handed her a white mask. Mati held it in her hands, running her fingers across it’s porcelain surface. The old ways are dying, she thought. Maybe this is just where I belong.
She placed the mask over her face. Her eyes began to glow with a hellish fire. Then she walked, side by side with the Witches, as they disappeared into the fog and the shadows.
By Adam King
When I got home from school Dad was hunched over a jar of peanut butter at the kitchen counter. I hadn’t seen him in a while so I grabbed an apple and leaned in the doorway.
“Hi, honey,” he said, wiping his mouth. “How was school?”
I shrugged and bit into my apple.
His face was stubbled, his hair was a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t showered since the last time I saw him. When he’s onto something big he can be gone for days at a time, coming home just long enough to shower and stuff his face with whatever he could find in the cabinets. Mom didn’t like him going out and she wasn’t shy about telling him. He was too old, she said. He had a family to think about. I never said anything, but I kind of agreed. Sometimes I had nightmares about him leaving and not coming back. Still, I wasn’t as worried as Mom. A lot of girls like to think their dads are superheroes. Mine actually is.
So I should tell you that my dad’s the Sentinel. Like the Sentinel. It’s not like anybody knows his identity or anything, but try having a date over when your dad’s standing there—and I’m not even kidding, his head almost touches the ceiling—with his meaty fists crossed over his chest, cracking his knuckles every two seconds and grunting like a silverback gorilla.
So when I invited Scott Peters over I was kind of hoping that Dad wouldn’t even be in the same zip code. The thing is, I’d had a crush on Scott all year. He had this blue car that was so shiny you could see your reflection in it, and his hair. Sometimes in class he put his feet on his desk and leaned back, and his hair fell across his shoulders like a movie star’s.
“I invited a friend over tonight,” I said. “Hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it is,” Dad said. “Which friend? Laura?”
I cleared my throat. “Scott,” I said.
Dad paused with a spoonful of peanut butter halfway to his mouth. I could see his wheels turning, but I was his daughter and he loved me, and that meant leverage.
We held eyes. We’d played this game before and I was better at it. I cocked an eyebrow and took another bite of my apple. “And it would be so cool if you’d give us a little time to watch a movie and maybe study,” I said. “I know you’re really busy, anyway.”
“You mean leave you alone?” Dad said. “With a boy?”
“Don’t you trust me?” I said, batting my eyes. This was a trick he’d taught me when I was little. It was my most effective weapon against him.
He grunted something unintelligible and I knew I’d won. He brought the peanut butter the rest of the way to his mouth. It fell off his spoon and plopped on the counter.
Scott pulled up at six. Dad stayed just long enough to grill Scott with questions and glare at him a little. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said. “If you need anything, just call.” He lingered at the door a moment. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t do anything crazy. And if you get hungry I left potato wedges in the—“
“Dad,” I said, crossing my arms.
“Okay, okay,” he said, shouldering a duffel bag. For a second I wondered where he was going, but the thought disappeared quickly. I had more important things to worry about.
I listened for his car before turning to Scott. “Guess it’s just you and me,” I said, leading him to the living room. To be honest, I was a little nervous. I’d been kind of seeing him for a week, but we hadn’t been alone yet.
I’m not dumb. I knew we were supposed to do things like hold hands and maybe kiss a little. I brushed my teeth twice before he came, but when I sat down I was wondering how many girls he’d kissed—like if he was a pro and I’d seem like an idiot because I’d only kissed Bobby Maori once, and that was last summer. Or if my breath suddenly got bad like it did sometimes in first period when I was still tired and I breathed with my mouth closed. I wondered if my boobs looked big enough, or if my wrists seemed fat.
I reached for the remote and he shifted in his seat and brushed my hand. It was so soft it could have been an accident, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “Thanks for inviting me over,” he said, inching closer until I could feel the heat of his body.
I started the movie and we sat for a long time with our legs grazing. He nudged closer until our hips touched, and then our arms. He took my hand and my heart almost exploded. Dimly, I heard the movie, but I couldn’t concentrate on it. I felt like all my senses had gathered into one spot so all I could hear, see, smell, touch, and taste was my hand in his.
He leaned into me. I turned and saw his face, and then his lips, and I leaned into him, too. Our lips met. I closed my eyes.
And the phone rang.
Dammit, I thought. I got up and stalked to the kitchen. “Hello?”
“Emily.” It was Dad. Leave it to him to mess up one of my dates when he wasn’t even home.
“Dad,” I huffed. “You said you were leaving me alone for a while.”
“Listen to me, Emily.” His voice sounded serious. It kind of made me nervous. “I need to talk to your mother.”
“She’s not home yet,” I said.
He paused for a long time. I knew he was still there because I could hear him breathing heavily like he did when he was thinking.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“I’ve been calling your mother, but she isn’t answering. Something’s come up.”
I heard a banging like a gunshot on Dad’s end and I jumped. “What was that?” I said. “Dad, what’s going on?”
He didn’t answer, and for a while all I could hear was his breathing. “Crap,” he finally said. “I’m out of time.”
“What is it?” I said. “What’s happening?”
“Emily, I need you to call your mother. Tell her I’m at 84 Oakwood Glen. She’ll understand.”
I searched for a pen. “What was the address again?”
“84 Oakwood Glen,” he said. “Do you need me to spell it?”
“I’m not ten, Dad.” Sometimes he treated me like a little girl. Whether he was in trouble or not, he could still be annoying.
“Okay, then. What are you going to do?”
I went over everything again before saying goodbye.
“And Emily,” he said before I hung up.
I resisted the urge to sigh loud enough so he’d know just how irritating he was being. “Yeah, Dad?” I looked in on Scott. Seeing him in the living room, I felt like it was Christmas morning, like he was a present waiting to be unwrapped. How weird is that?
“I love you,” Dad said.
It’s not like he never told me he loved me or anything, but the way he said it gave me the chills. It was like he was saying goodbye.
“I love you, too,” I said, stunned, and then he hung up.
I stared at the phone for a minute before trying Mom’s cell. She didn’t pick up, which wasn’t surprising. She was just as bad as Dad when she was working. I tried her a few more times, but she didn’t answer. Typical.
Well I gave it my best. I left her a message and went back to the living room. “What’d I miss?” I said, sitting beside Scott.
“I don’t know what you missed,” he said, taking me in his arms. “But I missed you.” It was the sweetest thing anybody had ever said to me.
We kissed for a long time, his hands searching my hips and then my sides, and slowly—so slowly—circling to my stomach and wandering up the edges of my shirt. But even though I was with Scott, I kept thinking of Dad. The way he said goodbye really bugged me, and I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. I tried to push it away, believe me, but it kept coming back.
I opened my lips just enough to feel Scott’s tongue dart into my mouth, but when I closed my eyes all I could see was Dad. I sighed and sat up.
“What is it?” Scott said. “What’s wrong?”
I’d never had anything to do with Dad’s crime fighting before, so it came as a surprise even to me when I said, “I need you to take me somewhere.”
84 Oakwood Glen was a large warehouse in the middle of nowhere, spackled with graffiti and shuttered by boards. A huge, empty parking lot of cracked asphalt surrounded it like a dark, rocky sea. Islands of grass shot through the cracks.
“What is this place?” Scott said, turning off the car.
I hadn’t given much thought to what I was going to tell him, but I knew it couldn’t be the truth. “I have a friend inside who needs something,” I said. Lame, I know, but it was the best I could come up with on short notice. I’ve never been much of a liar.
He seemed to believe me, though. “Then let’s go,” he said, stepping out of the car.
“No!” I said. “I mean, this friend, he’s shy, and he wouldn’t like it if someone he didn’t know came. Honestly, he probably doesn’t even want me here.”
“Okay,” Scott said, frowning. “So you want me to just sit here while you go in there?”
He had a point. The warehouse looked like it might be haunted, and the sun sat low on the horizon, turning the sky an eerie orangey-purple. It would be night soon and the place would be dark. I did not want to go in alone, but I couldn’t chance Scott finding out my dad’s identity, either. That would be worse than a million ghosts.
I forced myself to smile. “Thanks for understanding,” I said, kissing him on the cheek and leaving him with his mouth hanging open.
It wasn’t until I neared the warehouse that I started thinking about how dumb this was. I mean, Dad had asked for Mom, not me. What could I possibly do? The bravest thing I’d ever done was jump off a rope swing last summer, and I screamed the entire way down. And knowing Dad, literally anything could be waiting inside.
I stopped at the door and took a deep breath. Was I really going through with this? Dad probably didn’t even need my help. He was the Sentinel. He could handle anything.
But then I thought of the way his voice sounded on the phone and for some reason it made me think of Easter a long time ago, when I went to a giant party at my friend Jayla’s house. Her mom was crazy about stuff like that, so the whole yard—over an acre of land with a little pond and a stretch of trees bordering the lawn—was done up with giant rabbits in overalls, baby chicks with bowties, and giant golden eggs. There was even a cage with real rabbits in it. Everybody had come. Christy Schmidt was there, and Leah Burton. Pete Horowitz and Patrick Reilly and Samantha Orton, too. It seemed like my entire second-grade class had shown up to Jayla’s party. Our moms sat on Mrs. Douglas’ veranda drinking wine and watching us play.
It was all so magical. Mrs. Douglas had strewn colorful streamers around the entire yard, making everything cheerful and fun. I felt like I’d been transported to a mystical world where I could wave a wand and fly with fairies and play hide and seek with nymphs. For hours we played, until Mrs. Douglas came down and handed us golden and silver baskets brimming with Easter grass. It was time, she said, for the Easter egg hunt. The moment we’d been waiting for all day. And the best part, she said, was that you got to keep your eggs—chocolate and candy-coated treats—and the person who found the most would win a super secret prize. She lined us up next to the house and counted down from ten. By the time she got to one my heart was like a rabbit bounding in my chest. The air sparkled.
Go! She yelled. We were off, little bunnies foraging for colorful eggs amidst rocks and tall grass. I was never very athletic, so I watched as Pete, Jayla, and Christy sped to the eggs in plain sight and stuffed them in their baskets. Patrick bent over and found an egg hidden in a bush. After five minutes, Jayla skipped by me. She had four eggs in her basket. Christy had five. I didn’t have any.
I scoured the lawn but didn’t find a single egg. After ten minutes everybody’s baskets were filling up and I still hadn’t found any. Mrs. Douglas told us that we had five minutes left, then four. When she told us we had three minutes, I wandered to a patch of trees, sat on a rock, and cried. I didn’t understand why everyone seemed so good at finding eggs and I was so bad.
When we had one minute left I heard a rustling in the trees. I got up to investigate and found my dad waiting behind a pine tree with a finger to his lips. I didn’t know how he got there, but seeing him only made me cry harder. I ran to him and clasped tightly to his legs and told him everything.
“It’s okay,” he said, rubbing my back. He pointed out an egg in the crook of a tree, and another behind a stone. He scanned the yard quickly and pointed out egg after egg. I skipped over and collected them all. After depositing the last one in my basket I turned back to him with a huge grin, but he was gone.
Years later I found out that he’d come because he heard me crying. Out of everything else his super hearing picked up he’d recognized my voice, and he’d sprinted all the way from downtown to the west side. Six miles in under two minutes. He’d come, hands shaking with fear, ready to fight for me.
Now it was me who’d come for him. I eased the doorknob and entered a huge, dim room that smelled like basements and motor oil. The floor was concrete and the ceiling was a lattice of metal beams and ginormous pipes. Dim light filtered through filthy windows. I wrinkled my nose. Seriously, who would want to hang out here?
The room was filled with stacks of cobwebby pallets, and everything from rusted car parts to crumpled magazines littered the floor. I held my breath and tiptoed through a maze of pallets.
It was so quiet that I started thinking I’d come to the wrong place. As messy as the warehouse was, it looked like nobody had been here for years. When I started to turn back, though, I spotted something weird enough to make me pause. A humanlike thing crouched in the corner of the room, covered in jet-black flesh that gleamed here and there in the dim light. Every instinct screamed at me to run, but for some reason I didn’t. As I got closer I saw that the thing’s flesh was lumpy, like giant metal scales that rose into a perfectly normal head with hair exactly like… but no, that was impossible. I stepped over a pile of greasy clothes and skirted a stack of pallets. When I saw what it was I gasped.
The human-monster thing was my dad, and the black, metal flesh was the biggest chain I’d ever seen wrapped around his entire body. Was my dad really chained up? I blinked hard, but he was still there when I opened my eyes.
As I crept closer I saw that his face was covered in blood. This might sound crazy, but it was like my dad was somebody else entirely. His hair was gray and his skin was lined with wrinkles. The way he sat with his head down he looked old, and I’d never seen him like that.
I tried to be as quiet as a mouse, but score one for Emily Langston, I kicked a stack of those dumb pallets on the way. They teetered, and before I could catch them, they crashed to the ground. Dad’s head snapped up and his jaw dropped.
Emily,” he said. “Get out of here right now.”
I edged closer, pretending I hadn’t heard. “I don’t think anyone’s here,” I said.
He opened his mouth to say something, but somebody spoke up before he did.
“Nobody here but us.”
I spun around and bumped into the largest man I’d ever seen. I mean, my eyes were level with his belly button and his arms were as big around as my waist. He bent over me. “What do we have here?” he said. Even though his face was broad his eyes were set too close. His breath smelled like a liver and spinach sandwich.
Dad straightened in his chair, his chains clinking. “Tank,” he said, eyes narrowing. “No.”
“No, what?” Tank said, sneering. “You’re not in a position to order me around, and I think you know my policy on witnesses.” He drew his arm back, and before I realized what was happening he backhanded me and I went flying. I landed hard, the air exploding from my lungs.
I tried to get up, but a wave of nausea dragged me back down. I curled into a ball, coughing, and gasped air in ragged breaths.
Distantly I heard Dad cry out. His chains rattled and he called to me.
I’m fine, I tried to say, but my chest was so tight I couldn’t get the words out. Besides my face feeling like a bruised apple and my lungs feeling like a smushed watermelon, I felt great. Peachy.
Tank wheeled on me. “Still alive,” he muttered. “You’re a tough one, huh?” He lowered his head and stalked over like a bull.
Dad’s eyes went wide and he fought his chains like an animal. They jangled and clanked. He roared and pulled at them until they groaned, stretched, and finally snapped like a clap of thunder. Without pausing he rushed Tank, lacing his fists and clubbing him in the jaw. Tank crashed across the room, splintering through stacks of pallets and slamming into a support beam.
Dad knelt beside me. He checked my pulse and pinched my eyelids open to look at my pupils. “What were you thinking coming here?” he said. His jaw trembled.
“I wanted to help,” I said, coughing.
He put out a hand to cut me off. “You’re leaving. We’ll talk about this later.”
“I’m not a little girl,” I said, holding his eyes. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” he said. “But if you got hurt…”
Tank shook himself and with a snarl he shot up.
Dad got up and stood in front of me. “Stay behind me,” he said.
Tank lunged. They crashed into each other, Tank swinging his fists like sledgehammers. Dad blocked most of the blows, but Tank landed one and like lightning he was on top of Dad, pounding so hard that his head cracked the concrete.
Fighting a wave of nausea I willed myself up. I scoured the floor for some kind of weapon… for anything. A metal pipe lay beside a stack of nearby pallets, but I hesitated. Is this really me? I wondered. Maybe I was a little scared. I’m not what you’d call the fighting kind of girl.
As I stood dumbfounded, Tank drove Dad’s head right through the concrete and all my thoughts vanished. I hefted the pipe, its metal ringing against the concrete. Nobody hurts my dad.
“Get off him!” I yelled, sprinting over and swinging the pipe. It clanged against Tank’s ribs, but it didn’t even slow him down. I didn’t slow down, either. I swung again and again. I didn’t stop until he caught the pipe and threw it across the room.
“Wait your turn,” he said, scowling. “When I’m done with him, you’re next.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I said, scowling right back.
Tank shoved me away with the flick of a wrist. I flew ten feet, tripping over an open paint can, slipping, and sprawling into a puddle of the ugliest forest green I’d ever seen. As if this day wasn’t bad enough. I got up, disgusted, and flicked paint off my jeans. I wanted to leave more than ever now, but then I saw Tank wrap his hands around my dad’s neck and something hardened inside of me. I understood then that love is more than a feeling that you have for another person. It’s also hatred for anyone who would hurt them.
Even with everything going on around me, I thought about that Easter again. Dad was gone for most of the day, and by the time he got back it was dark. He came in without a word and sat in the living room with the lights off. I wanted to tell him all about the egg hunt, so I ran and sat on his lap. I yammered on and on until I noticed how quiet he was being. When I looked up at him, I was stunned into silence. He looked sad. I didn’t know he got that way.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
He pulled me close. “Nothing,” he said, hugging me. “Nothing at all.”
I felt his tears slide down my chin. I never found out what happened to him that day.
I scanned the warehouse but came up with nothing. Besides the garbage scattered all over the floor, the place was empty. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the warehouse was more than it seemed, though. There had to be a reason that Dad had tracked Tank here.
Come on, Emily, I thought. What are you going to do?
I rushed around the warehouse, searching anxiously through stacks of dented boxes and long, maze-like aisles of pallets. I finally found my answer at the far end of the warehouse. A forklift lay like a napping lion in front of a set of bay doors. It looked new. If I was a betting girl, I’d say it worked. All I had to do was figure out how to drive it.
I hopped into the seat and searched around before finding the key in the ignition. I turned it and the forklift purred to life. A stick shift by the seat read “forward” and “reverse.” Seemed easy enough. I jerked the stick forward, gave it gas, and drove right into a wall. I reversed into a support beam and pulled forward again, knocking over a stack of those dumb pallets.
After a few awkward moments I started to get the hang of it. I rounded a row of pallets and saw Tank straight ahead. Giving the forklift gas, I steered a path right for him. Tank was bent over my dad when I slammed into him at full speed, knocking us in all directions.
The forklift veered and toppled, throwing me from the seat. Groaning, I got to my hands and knees. By the time I lurched to my feet I saw that my forklift trick had been enough to give Dad the upper hand. It wouldn’t last long, though. Tank was already fighting Dad off, and Dad seemed to be getting more tired by the second. I guess it takes more than a few tons of metal to stop a supervillain.
After today, let me tell you, I was leaving the hero-ing to Dad. My shirt was ruined, I was cut and bruised, and I don’t care how it sounds but I broke a nail. Call me girly, but nails take a long time to grow. They’re a commitment, is what I’m saying. Still, I was in this with Dad, and if he hadn’t quit yet, neither would I. What I needed to do was think outside the box. Dad was known for his ability to not just use his fists but his head. I needed to do that, too. In the corner, by the chair I’d found Dad in, his chain glimmered in the faint light. Most of it lay in shattered links, but a long segment rested unbroken beside the chair. I ran over, grabbed a link, and started dragging it. If you’ve never carried a chain before, by the way, the things are heavy. I put my entire body into it, jerking closer to Dad inch by inch.
By the time I reached him I was sweating and my arms burned. I was probably going to have blisters on my palms. Dad reached out and grabbed the chain, and in one fast motion he looped it around Tank and fastened it to the ground.
I think they call that irony. Get it? Iron-y?
With both hands freed, he struck Tank in the temple and Tank went limp. Dad rolled off of him, breathing heavily.
After a minute he got up. I’d never seen him lift cars, beat up ten guys at once, or take machine gun bullets and keep going. I knew he could do all that, but it had always seemed remote because to me he was just Dad. But as he stood over Tank with his chest out and his arms akimbo, I saw the superhero that everybody else saw when they looked at him. It’s funny when you think about the way you see people, especially those you see every day. Even though Dad looked the same as he had that afternoon, he also looked completely different. I wasn’t sure if he’d ever look the same again.
“Good job,” he said between breaths. In the distance I heard what sounded like a fleet of sirens.
“Sounds like your mom finally got our messages,” he said. “You should get out of here so I don’t have to explain why I needed my daughter to help me fight the most dangerous man on the East Coast.”
I thought about Scott and I got that feeling of excitement like a million ladybugs in my stomach. “Are you sure?” I said. “You don’t need anything else?”
“Go,” Dad said. “Get out of here and have a good time with Scott. But be back by ten.”
“Ten?” I said. “I’m sixteen, Dad. And I just saved your life.”
Dad shook his head and chuckled. “Eleven, then. Be back by eleven.”
“Eleven?” I said.
Dad glared at me.
“Eleven’s good,” I said.
That Easter I wanted Dad to read me a story before I went to bed. I needed him to read me a story. He still hadn’t moved from the living room, though, and Mom said he was too tired. But I was in second grade. What did I know? I insisted that he read to me or I wasn’t going to bed. I’d never go to bed again in my entire life.
Now I’m better at the game of wills than my dad, but I don’t hold a candle to my mom. She sat at the foot of my bed with Where the Wild Things Are opened on her lap, and she cocked an eyebrow at me that told me I’d never eat ice cream again. That was the kind of will Mom had. I folded my arms and pouted, knowing that I’d lost, but just as Mom began to read I heard Dad clomping up the stairs. He’d heard me pleading with mom. Of course he’d heard. He could hear whispered conversations from miles away. He could hear a cat sneaking up on him.
“It’s okay,” Dad said, coming in the room. “I’ll read to her.”
Mom got up and left us. Dad sat down and licked his thumb like he always did before he read. When he finished I asked him to read again, and then again. He inched his chair closer and read to me over and over again. I don’t remember how many times he read the book, but at some point he began making voices for Max. He rumbled and stomped through the room and he became the monsters. When he finished, he set the book down and smiled at me. I smiled back, feeling like I’d accomplished some big thing.
A squad of police cars screeched into the parking lot just as me and Scott pulled out of the warehouse. Once they were behind us the night was quiet in the way that only a summer night can be. The sun dipped below the horizon and the moon shone fat and white in the sky. Along the road the trees were heavy with leaves touched black by the night. Scott took my hand. We drove in silence, our fingers laced together, and the road stretched on like it would never end.
The Silver Spoon
By C. L. Holland
“Lay the table, pet,” Ma says. “Don’t forget the spoons.” It’s Christmas Day, which means she’s cooking dinner for all of us which is me and Ma and Pa, Uncle Benny who’s Pa’s brother, Aunt Pol his wife, and Gramma who’s mean.
There’s lots of dishes to go on the table. More than we have serving spoons, which Gramma always complains about because you get bits of cabbage in the potatoes and things. We have an extra spoon, tucked away at the back of the drawer, but we’re not allowed to use it. It doesn’t match with the other cutlery, which has frilly patterns on the handles, this one’s plain and with markings on the back that I think mean it’s silver. Ma says it’s too special to use for every day, but she doesn’t tell me not to use it today so I decide that Christmas doesn’t count and take it too.
Pa carves the turkey like always, with an electric knife that reminds me of the trimmer Mr Johnson next door cuts his hedge with. Everyone helps themselves to vegetables and things, because Ma refuses to wait on us since she cooked everything. Gramma doesn’t like that, but I do because that way I don’t end up with piles of cabbage.
Ma doesn’t notice the spoon until everyone’s eating and Pa says, “What’s up with the sprouts this year? Who the hell puts bacon in them?”
Ma shoots a glance at the sprout dish with the spoon in, then at me but I pretend not to see.
“Jamie Oliver,” she says. He’s her favorite TV chef.
Gramma snorts. “Boy’s barely out of school, what does he know? In my day we peeled all the vegetables by hand, none of this frozen nonsense.”
“They weren’t frozen,” Ma snaps.
“Turkey’s a bit dry,” Uncle Benny says, covering his turkey mountain with more gravy. “But then it usually is. Not like yours, Pol.”
“Oh please,” Aunt Pol replies. “I buy mine ready prepared, I’m no fool.”
Ma’s lips go all white and pressed together.
“So, pet,” Pa says, “what do you think of the jumper your grandmother gave you?”
I go to say it’s perfect thank you, like I’m supposed to, but something else comes out.
“It’s horrible and itchy, and makes me look like an orangutan.”
Pa stifles a laugh before he says my name in that stern way like I’m in trouble. Gramma’s gone red and I expect her to shout but she doesn’t.
“Why would I waste perfectly good money on such an ungrateful grandchild? Fifty pence in a charity shop that cost me and worth every penny.”
I pull the jumper off over my head and it makes my hair all static. No one’s going to tell me off, they’re all too busy arguing about how they don’t like their presents. I turn to Ma to say sorry for being rude, but she doesn’t look upset. She’s all upright and pale, not saying anything, like a queen on TV.
We eat the rest of dinner and nothing’s right for anyone. The vegetables are too soft for Aunt Pol but not soft enough for Gramma, and the cranberry sauce doesn’t taste homemade. Uncle Benny thinks the Yorkshire puddings are soggy, and I say that’s what happens when you put gravy on them.
Ma fetches the Christmas pudding. We don’t light it any more after the year the decorations caught fire.
“Not this again,” Aunt Pol says. “Why can’t you get a nice shop-bought one instead of making this stodge every year?”
Gramma says something rude about people who get shop-bought. I go to the kitchen for a bowl of peanut butter ice-cream, my treat because Christmas pud is foul, and she tells me off because it’s not traditional. This time I tell her I don’t care because traditional is stupid.
“Can’t you just let the girl have some fun?” Pa says. “God knows you ruined enough of our Christmases without wrecking hers.”
When everyone’s finished, Ma stands up to clear the table. “I hope you enjoyed Christmas dinner,” she says, “because now you’ve all finally been honest about what you really think, it’s the last one I’m making.”
There’s a chorus of protest, which is funny since everyone complained. I don’t think they’re upset about the food though.
“Not one of you had a good thing to say about it,” she says, “so I’m not slaving over it for one more year. You can make your own arrangements. Maybe we’ll all come to you next year, Pol.”
“Buy in for all of you? You must be joking, it’d cost a fortune,” Aunt Pol says, and blushes.
Ma goes in the kitchen and sings a Christmas song as she runs the water for washing up. Everyone else goes to watch the Queen’s speech. I start carrying the bowls out to her.
“I like your cooking,” I say. “But I don’t like turkey.”
“I know, pet.” She smiles as I hand her the dishes, and I’m staring at the silver spoon in with the last bacon bits when I realize that Ma’s the only one who didn’t eat the sprouts.
Born of Lies
By Rhoads Brazos
Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.
Her voice hammered down.
“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”
Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.
Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.
“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.
Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.
“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”
“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”
Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.
“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”
Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.
“Now, where were we?” she asked.
A score of students focused upon their slates.
For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.
During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.
When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.
Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.
At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.
“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.
“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”
Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”
The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.
Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”
“Nothin’,” Royce said.
“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”
“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”
Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”
“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.
“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”
“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”
“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”
The group agreed.
“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”
Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.
“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.
“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.
“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”
“Maximus?” Oliver offered.
Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”
The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.
“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”
“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.
“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”
“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”
“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”
“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”
Royce chuckled dryly.
Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.
“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”
Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.
“I was a-wonderin’—”
“Wondering,” she corrected.
“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”
Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.
“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.
“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”
“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”
“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”
“And who told you that?”
“Genny, she did.”
Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.
“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”
“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”
“Wolves. That may be—”
“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”
Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”
“Sinister,” Royce said.
“I said, no more.”
Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.
That breezy Monday was Miss Humphreys’ last lesson. What had happened that day was now whispered gossip in neighboring counties. Deep into November, Mrs. Marin, the pastor’s wife, agreed to start the classroom up again, once the holidays were finished. The parents expected more than delicacy from their namesakes, but they couldn’t very well force them back when they too quickened their pace before the schoolhouse.
Royce crouched in the dust before Farley’s Implements. His dark hair hung loose and disheveled. He watched sporadic movement through the store windows and waited for someone to exit.
A clatter arose from the eastern street. Royce turned to see Genevieve and her younger brother pulling a cart as shallow as a milk-pan.
“Best get outta the dirt,” Genevieve said. “A big ol’ dung bug’s gonna come along and roll you up.”
Royce sneered. “You should talk, beast-o-burden.”
“Digby’s got an abscess.” Genevieve propped the handcart’s yoke on the hitching rail. “My Pa’s lettin’ him heal up.”
Genevieve secured the cart with a leather thong. She appraised Royce’s mount, a fine charcoal-gray steed also hitched in place. She petted it along the flank before handing a scrap of paper to her brother.
“Show Mr. Farley,” she said, “and help him tote it all out.”
Her brother nodded and jogged inside.
“Good luck pulling it upland laded low,” Royce said. “Maybe some blam’d Mormonite will show you the technique proper, march you all the way to Utah Territory. Good riddance, I say!”
“You’d like to see me go, would you?”
“You bet. I—” Royce blinked hard and shuddered. He affected hushed tones. “Heard about Ollie?”
“My Pa says he’s at Pierpont. Been so a couple weeks now.”
“He has an uncle there, at the paper mill.”
“Is he still—”
“I really can’t say. S’pose he’s managin’.”
The students had at first celebrated the afternoon recess bell not calling them in. But with enough delay even children question a blessing. As always, Oliver had been the obvious choice to look over the sill. He’d stared through the windowpane in pale silence. After a moment he slumped into a listless heap. He started to cry. When he began to scream the students ran.
“Your pa,” Royce said. “He was deputized?”
“He was at that.”
“Ollie said—” Royce rubbed at his mouth and grimaced.
“I was there too, you know.”
“He said it chews from the feet up.” Royce licked his lips. “So you can watch it work.”
“Your Pa saw what was left.”
“Yours did too. Ask him of it.”
“We’re not on speakin’ terms.”
Genevieve gave a quizzical look and glanced over her shoulder at the implements store.
“Genny,” Royce said, “tell me.”
“You look tepid, sittin’ out in the road. You’re not cracked are you?”
“What’d they find in there?”
Genevieve smirked. “Stand up if you ain’t.”
Royce struggled to his feet and made a weak attempt at dusting himself clean.
“Help me uphill?” Genevieve asked.
With a set frown Royce agreed.
Genevieve gave another check to her brother, still busy with Mr. Farley. She spoke low. “My Pa went in with the others. Doors and windows latched, pegged shut from within, you heard?”
Royce swallowed and nodded quickly.
“The men had to chop the door open. Place was empty, of—you know, anything lively. There wasn’t nothing of a person left, just a mess of hair and meat and bones crunched into splinters. My Pa once saw a fella get spindled ‘round a locomotive axle. It was like that, he said.”
“Ollie said it was in the corner,” Royce said. “The corner.”
“Right enough. That’s where the mess was, all smeared and stuck into the slats. In fact—” Genevieve wrinkled her nose. “They were up above too.”
“I don’t follow.”
“‘Bove the ceilin’. In the rafters.”
Royce rubbed his forehead.
“You all right?” Genevieve asked.
“Both of ‘em?”
“Just a mess of scraps, but not their clothes. They were set aside nice and clean. Folded up tight too like they’d been wringered, pressed fancy.”
Royce fought back a whimper. He grabbed Genevieve’s arm. Her eyes widened.
“Genny,” he said. “I made it up. It ain’t a real thing.”
“You don’t need to go fessin’ to me. I can tell when you lie.”
Mr. Farley and Genevieve’s brother exited the shop with bundles in hand. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, they deposited sacks of flour as well as a wrapped slab of salted beef in back of the cart. They went back inside.
“It ain’t real,” Royce said.
“But—if—” He spluttered. “Then how?”
“Talk about the devil and his imps’ll appear.”
“Yes, Royce Kroupa, you villain. The devil.”
“And you’re not scared?”
“Why should I be? I’m God-fearin’.”
“So was Miss Humphreys.”
Genevieve scoffed. “She was mean as a cur-dog.”
“But what about El?”
“Don’t know what was in his heart,” Genevieve said. “But I know what’s in mine. And I’ve got a good guess what’s in yours.”
Mr. Farley returned and placed a cask of molasses and two cakes of beeswax onto the cart. “Are you able to haul this, little miss?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “My friend Royce is helpin’.”
“Why, Master Kroupa.” Mr. Farley wiped his hands on his leather smock. “That’s right decent.”
“Can you bring me two flasks of kerosene?” Royce asked. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a few coins. Farley nodded his ascent and retreated to the store.
“Why do you need that?” Genevieve squinted her brow down low.
“My Pa won’t give me none,” Royce said.
“My lamp. What you think?”
“That you’re gonna set that school to kindling.”
Royce rubbed at his mouth. “That wouldn’t do any good. Let’s rope Smokey round the saddle horn to tow. You’ll still need to walk it, but—”
“A gentleman wouldn’t ride and leave a lady pullin’.”
“Don’t see no—” Royce held his tongue.
“I want to ride,” Genevieve said.
Royce unhitched his horse and walked him out into the road.
“We’ll turn them both around first.”
They shuffled out of town, cutting away from the lifelessly shallow river and winding up the eastern slope. In his mind, Royce could picture how far away Genevieve lived, but measuring it with footfalls drove the fact home flat and flush. From atop Smokey’s back, Genevieve turned and watched Royce with her usual look of smug judgment, as if his every scuff and stumble pointed to some masculine flaw. Royce squeezed the cart handle tight and leaned against it with his chest. He gave a sideways glance to Genevieve’s little brother, puffing beside him.
Genevieve. How Royce hated her. He loathed that freckle-splattered nose and those twin bouncing braids like fat coils of gallow-grass or maybe straw and those arms, even under this sun talcy smooth just like the soft curve of her neck. She was smiling again. Royce watched Smokey’s hooves clop moons into the dust.
A half-hour later they reached the farmhouse, a sad place, unpainted and listing to one side. Genevieve dismounted and her mother hurried out from the house to greet her. Royce almost laughed—they looked so much alike—but he kept himself somber.
“Wanna come in for a drink?” Genevieve asked.
“Naw, got my canteen.”
“It’s okay if—”
“I’d rather not.”
Royce hoisted himself up in the saddle. Genevieve handed him his flasks from the cart. She didn’t release fully so he gave them a little tug. He dropped them in his saddlebag and with a clack of his tongue spun his ride back the way he came.
He rode slowly without looking back. He knew those two were watching him. Funny, he could tell the brother wasn’t, but the ladies were. He could picture them turning to one another and clucking, nodding, about what? Their gaze tickled the back of his neck.
These last weeks had honed his scrutiny sharper than a tattler’s tongue. He’d gained an earthly second-sight, one born not of divine intuition but rather upon mundane instinct and suspicion. Back when he still dared enter the house, he knew how many flies beat against the window pane. Knew a seven-legged spider with a crooked back had scuttled from the kitchen and was making its way to the cellar. He knew that clockwork patter-splat to be a burning tallow that had crested its crown to dribble wax pools on the mantle.
On the ride out of town he’d turned and picked out onlookers in storefront windows with ease. They’d shown surprise when he’d met their eye so quickly, with such speed that he’d read their expressions before they could mask them—equal parts astonishment and amusement.
He could feel it now—every nerve tingling. As he rode down by the bend and finally out of view of Genevieve’s house, the warm tug of another claimed his focus. Nothing he could prove, just a queasy wariness, like when you spy two people whispering amongst themselves and a pair of lips forms your name.
To his left was Willoughby Bicker’s empty barn. The old lout was nowhere near. He was probably at his stead, unconscious in the shade and stinking of mescal and damp trousers. The barn’s door sat edged to the side revealing an inky swath of the interior.
Every fiber within told him to kick to a gallop. Don’t look, leave it behind. But maybe she was right. His soul was sour. He knew it and she knew it along with everyone else. That’s why his generosity caused others to do a double-take. Genevieve didn’t care about Ollie’s charge because she didn’t need to. Royce wanted that sense of ease too.
He pulled the reigns back and Smokey came to a halt.
He watched the darkness. The darkness watched him.
Royce hopped to the ground. He crunched over the brittle grass and dry ground caked and cracked like gator skin. He was treading upon a giant and this was its gullet. Royce stopped a safe distance away from the barn.
A swallow had built a nest upon the main door. Spider webs threaded across the entrance. Royce eyed the husks of insects that had foolishly thought the way clear.
“Ain’t afraid,” he called out. His voice wavered.
He waited for a response. A tickling heat crawled across his face. It stopped on his throat. Royce swallowed.
“Went to church,” he said. “Confessed and did wine and wafer and all o’ that!”
But did you tell the Father every sin?
Royce squinted hard, but only for a second. The darkness needed to be watched lest it seep free of the sun’s hold, blot the doorway like an inkspill and reach out to stain him. He wiped his eyes. He could almost make out the barn’s back corner, hidden in the dusty murk. He looked back at Smokey. The horse had wandered to the roadside to pick at dried clover.
Royce hadn’t heard anything. His own mind filled in the response. The words lived within him. It was just a stupid story he’d spun on the spot. And yet Ollie had said—
You placed him upon the altar.
“Ain’t my fault. He’s stupid.”
Royce shifted his weight uneasily. “You ain’t real. Figmented is all.”
The wind gusted, perfectly natural for late autumn, not menacing at all. The barn didn’t just exhale, fetid and as thirsty as parchment.
A touch brushed Royce’s face. Sticky and yielding, pulled tight and now snapping. Royce stopped within the doorway’s gap. He hadn’t willed his feet forward yet they’d taken him there just the same.
In the near darkness two steps away from the sun’s amber cast, a form shifted, a shadow within a shadow, just a thread hanging in the air. It turned and slid its razor profile sideways for Royce to see, forcing him to drink in the sickening horror of its form.
It towered a half-height over an average man, with long pale limbs the color of dust and a torso stretched thin. There was no depth to its body, which seemed to be plastered against an impossible nothing. It stood indifferent and naked, for who or what could clothe it? Its every joint was knuckled and swollen like those of an arthritic. Its ribs pinched across the shell of its chest.
Soundlessly, it slouched to all fours. It loped toward the barn door with its hind in the air. It lifted its head to reveal a black slash of a mouth yawning open under a leering face crowned with tongues.
With a frantic cry Royce staggered back into the sunlight. He slipped once on the loose earth. A paper finger rustled by his ear and a grip tugged at his jeans. He wrenched his leg away with a rending tear like a blade through sackcloth and scuttled backward sobbing. Somehow he found his feet and launched himself up into his horse’s saddle.
The wind whipped his tears away. He’d never ridden faster.
Royce raced up the shaded approach to the ranch at a full gallop. The homestead, two stories tall and generously wide, offered no comfort. He hadn’t stepped inside its doors in nearly a month. On the front porch sat his father, appraising him with a skeptic’s eye. His father motioned with his chin to Mr. Henwick, who headed the southern acres. Henwick gave a chagrined smirk and headed past Royce to the bunkhouse where the rest of the hands could be heard gathering for supper. The wind carried their chatter along with the acrid smoke from their fires.
Royce gave a leery glance at Henwick as he passed, yet offered no greeting. Henwick had tried to catch him a couple of weeks ago.
“Well, boy?” his father asked.
Royce looked behind him to check on both Henwick’s retreating back as well as the front approach. Nothing was pursuing.
“Come to your senses?” Royce’s father looked him once over, ponderously from head to toe. “Can’t say you look it.”
“I’d like to.”
“The devil’s after me, Pa. It’s . . . I’m a liar.”
Royce’s father scoffed. “Don’t I know it.” He tapped a rolled cigarette from a tin and held it between his lips.
“If you can get Pastor Marin to come out I—”
“What, that again?”
“I didn’t tell him all. That’s why it’s still chasin’ me.”
Royce’s father pulled a Lucifer between pinched sandpaper. It popped alight in a cloud of blue sulfur. He touched its flame to his cigarette and then flipped the matchstick out into the dirt. Royce watched it smolder out. When he looked up again his father’s eyes were upon him. The old guy breathed in deeply and exhaled a slow cloud.
“What’d you do, boy?”
“It was my fault they were there.”
“They . . .” Royce’s father nodded and puffed again. “How so?”
“I told El that Miss Humphreys was a wren at the Battle of Gonzales.”
“Nymph du prairie? That ol’ gal?”
“It was a story.”
“Hmm.” Royce’s father drew in again. He chuckle-coughed and shook his head.
“El asked her ‘bout it, not knowing.”
“Blasted shanny, that boy. That’s why you need proper learning.”
“Yes, sir. But you see?”
Royce’s father watched the bunkhouse. The northern crew was just arriving to whoops and hollers from their southern counterparts, already kicked back and passing a jug of coffin varnish.
“I’m to blame. I put them there. And—and I . . .”
“Spit it out.”
“It’s my fault. I made it real.”
“Your specter again?”
“It’s not. It’s a devil, Genny says. I—” Royce frowned at the porch’s deepening shadows. “I believe her. I’ve seen it up close. It’s everything I said an’ worse. I need to talk to Pastor Marin. One more time.”
Royce’s father rose without answering. He moved to the front steps and mustered a backward shuffle from Royce. He stopped and eyed his son coolly. For a long while the two stood motionless. The cigarette slowly burned itself down to a stub.
The old man finally spoke. “Your Ma was into churchin’ too. Mends all ills, that’s what she thought.”
Royce scowled with his lips tight.
“She lay in that bed for a fortnight.” Royce’s father stepped forward off the front step. “Prayed up to the end. Hell, I joined her.”
“I remember,” Royce whispered.
“Hard not to.” Royce’s father spit the stub of his cigarette to the ground and ground it under the toe of his boot. He stopped within an arm’s reach of Royce. It was the closest the two had been in weeks. Royce blinked quickly. His eyes welled with tears.
“There aren’t any haunts or devils or any other whatnots.”
“But, Pa. I seen it.”
Royce’s father put his hands on his son’s shoulders. The boy winced. “I know you think so. And if there were angels then I might say maybe, but—no, not with what I put on the table. Any fool would have taken the trade. There’s nothing.”
“It sliced my cuff though. Look.”
“You’re seeing one thing and picturing another.”
Royce’s father hugged him tight. Royce went tense for a moment but somehow fought his fears and hugged his father back. It didn’t escape him that the clamor from the bunkhouse had dropped away to a murmur. Both crews were studying this exchange. He felt every pair of eyes on him, plus another.
Royce snapped alert.
“Son, trust me. You’re safe here.”
Royce frantically searched the porch, the windows, and every visible room. His bedroom shades fluttered. For an instant a familiar face was there, pallid and thin with a mouth torn ragged. It flitted past the kitchen window. A motion came from behind the front door.
“Let’s go inside,” his father said.
“We’ll just sit on the step, muse a bit, have a drink. You can tell me—”
Royce tried to shove himself away but his father kept himself clenched tight.
“Boy, you need to trust me.”
He grabbed Royce firmly about the wrist. Royce twisted in his grip but this hold wasn’t about to be broken. Those old hands had pulled too much wire and tugged down too many unruly steers. He had him.
“You’ll see. We’ll sit together like men and—”
Royce’s left streaked upward to crack against his father’s jaw. The old man sprawled into a heap. Shouts went up from behind him but Royce didn’t turn to look. He knew how far back the hands were and had no doubt that he could make the edge of the woods before their longer legs could reach him.
He charged into the brush. The branches tore at him. He held his forearm before his face to stop the worst of the lashings and plowed forward. The cries behind him faded. He knew he was being let go. He felt the moment when his father’s gaze turned away.
Royce had set up camp in a sheltered outcropping a short jog up from a thread-thin stream, a mile and a half away from his home. He poked through the remains of the camp—a cold firepit, a small box of hatchets and saws he’d swiped from outside the bunkhouse, and a sack of foodstuffs that he’d hoisted high off the ground to keep them out of reach of animals and insects. He’d swiped the food out of the back of one of the kitchen’s stock wagons. At the time of the heist he’d fancied himself quite clever. Upon further reflection it seemed curious that the pack he’d taken had been so properly stocked for his needs. Royce rubbed his knuckles. They still ached. There probably wouldn’t be another pack waiting for him.
The wind picked up, setting the treetops to swaying and sending tawny clouds of pollen billowing from their branches. The well water scent of the air and the hastily deepening dusk announced an approaching storm. Royce used to enjoy such things, sitting in his room and watching the water cascade in rivulets down the glass, but he supposed he’d never experience that again.
He pulled his laundry off a makeshift line and after bundling it tight, stuffed the goods in what he hoped would remain a dry nook in the rockface. He’d already done the same with a bundle of sticks and a supply of touchwood. He’d weather this unscathed provided the storm didn’t go on too long.
Royce drew his line between two opposing rocks and threw a waxed canvas sheet over it. He weighed the corners down with heavy stones just as the first overhead crack of thunder pealed in sagging clouds the color of sooty plums. He struggled with his lantern to no avail. The kerosene had been left in the saddlebags. Smokey was probably in the barn by now and Royce’s purchased goods sacked away somewhere never to be seen again. The rain fell and Royce sat.
Over the last weeks he’d given plenty of thought to his options. He knew the Paper Man needed the buildings. It followed him, always guessing his destination and spying from afar. It peered out of neighbors’ windows or from the cracked doors of old sheds. Sometimes he saw it and sometimes he felt it. When he reached his destination it watched and waited for him to get too close. It followed him back the same way.
Yet in the barn when it had gotten so near, it didn’t scramble out into the sunlight to snatch him up. It could move quickly between corners but was held in check by the bounds of the structure. He just had to lose it. He could follow the stream south and leave it behind. It would flit from his home to town to school but it would never guess where he’d gone, not with the entire continent to choose from. The others should be safe for it didn’t seem to want anyone else, just Miss Humphreys for thrashing it so soundly and Royce for telling his lie.
“El,” Royce said. “I didn’t mean it. I swear it.” He tried not to think of that thing in the barn. That thing with Elton’s face.
He lay back and watched the canvas ripple. The rain slapped against the tent’s sides. It traced its way down the sagging line and dripped over Royce’s head. He wished he had a cup or even his canteen with which to catch it. The canvas’s left wall pressed in and the right wall snapped back and forth with the gusts. Royce felt eyes upon him and only then realized what he had done.
Elton’s face slid out of the canvas crease. Arms and legs followed. Royce didn’t wait for more. He flung himself toward the exit. He was plucked out of the air and thrown back to ground.
It slithered down with the rain, with its thin limbs coiling and wrapping, cocooning Royce’s struggling form and cinching his jaw tight. He hummed his screams.
“Belief is a funny thing,” it said. “Faith, some call it. It moves mountains.”
Royce writhed in its grip and wept.
“I was like you once.” It held his face close to its own and pushed his hair back into a loose part. “I can almost remember.”
A tug and a snip and another tongue was added to its crown. As Royce frothed a drawn-out scream, it squeezed his remaining stub tight and slid under his clothes. A twist of its body and they were left in tatters.
“They stick to the teeth.” It pressed its body to his.
Royce howled and burbled. Tears streaked down his cheeks. The Paper Man laughed and, without drawing its hand from his mouth, squeezed his jaw shut again.
“No? I shouldn’t? Well, I think we’ll try something different then, something new. You deserve to see what you’ve created. We’ll go places, meet new faces, just the two of us.” It sniffed the air. “A fresh lamb awaits. Just a hop and a skip from here. Wait ‘til you see!” It twined down his body and held his feet between long fingers. “I have it on good authority that this works.”
It started from the toes and folded him up tight and smooth, as thin as paper.
Spare a Prayer
By Jess Hyslop
Alyss had almost given herself up for lost when she heard the footsteps.
She sat up among her blankets, listening. Yes, there–the rapid click-clack of heels on cobblestones. Someone doubtless in a hurry to get home and shut out the bitter winter evening. Someone fortunate enough to have a home at all.
Alyss fumbled for the battered top hat that lay, bottom-up, before her. Little good it had done. The streets had been unusually quiet all day, and those pedestrians who had ventured out, stingy. Alyss wished she could say that were unusual.
But perhaps this one would be different. She needed this one to be different.
Alyss peered along the alleyway. The glow of a nearby street lamp revealed that the person approaching was a woman, all bundled up in a coat and bonnet. Her nose was wrinkled against the stink of the gutter, and she held her skirts clear of the ground with gloved hands. Not a regular visitor to the Warren then, but not too fine either. Alyss felt a twinge of hope. This was the type who might take pity.
She held out her hat as the woman came closer. “Spare a prayer, miss? Spare a prayer.” Her voice emerged as a cracked whisper, hoarse with disuse and the cold.
The woman started at the words, emerging as they did from the shadows beside a brimming dustbin. Her eyes flickered towards their source, but when she spied Alyss she hastily averted her gaze. Alyss’s hope–meagre in the first place–receded. But she couldn’t afford to give up so easily.
“Spare a prayer for an unlucky god, miss?” she tried again. “Come on, miss. I’m down on me luck. Spare a little prayer.”
Yet the woman only click-clacked onwards, allowing Alyss to glimpse her shoes beneath the hem of her skirt. Patent leather, they were; well made, with smart little heels. Alyss looked sadly at her own boots–cast-offs from a laborer’s child, soles flapping at the toes, laces missing, threads frayed.
Hunger growled in her belly, warning her that it knew how weak she was, that the moment was coming when it would finally pounce.
She wouldn’t have many more chances.
Alyss made one final attempt. Bracing herself against the chill, she let her blankets fall away, exposing her skinny ankles, her tattered skirts–and her wings. Poking out of her jacket, the once-proud pinions dangled down her back, inert and useless.
“Please, miss. Please, one little prayer. I ain’t asking for a litany, just a tiny prayer will do. I’ve fallen on hard times, miss. I’ve no disciples left. Please. One prayer. Spare one little prayer.”
She waited, trembling with cold and anxiety. She didn’t know whether her piteous display would persuade her audience, for her cry was the cry of half the gods in the city. Abandoned deities lurked on every street, hunkered down in doorways and under bridges, thin and wretched, cradling hunger in their bellies just as Alyss did. With so many begging for succor, the populace had grown accustomed–and hardened–to their pleading.
Like as not this lady would be the same, hurrying off into the deepening night in her expensive shoes and never thinking again of the starving god she’d passed on her way. But just as Alyss began to draw her blankets back around herself, the woman’s stride faltered, and she walked back a few steps to look down at the shivering supplicant. Alyss returned her gaze, beseeching, hardly daring to believe her luck.
The lady’s lips were chapped, her eyes sombre, and Alyss realized that she didn’t look so very proud after all. She wondered what the woman thought of her, a child-sized godling with a pale, pinched face and drifting white hair, almost drowned in her oversized garb. Alyss was no beauty, she knew that much. She had been formed of garbage–knuckles made of bottle-corks, wings of sackcloth, features molded from rain-pulped newspaper–and it showed. Although Wakening had smoothed away her seams and transformed her motley parts to flesh, her ignoble origins were still apparent. Alyss’ body was awkward and crooked, her limbs more knobby than a grandfather oak. Newsprint peeked through the skin of her cheeks.
She tried to smile, but found she was so frozen and miserable that she couldn’t force it out. Yet the sight of her must have stirred the woman to sympathy, for she bowed her head and mumbled a few words–some generic wish for health or happiness. A wisp of prayer slid from between her lips, curling in the frigid air. She plucked it from her mouth and dropped it into Alyss’ waiting hat.
“Thank you, miss. Oh, thank you. Bless you, bless you.” Alyss wasn’t in a position to bless anyone, but she reckoned it was the thought that counted.
The woman ignored her thanks. She only leant down and said, quickly, “I’d get indoors if I were you.” Then she turned and click-clacked into the night.
Alyss’ brow creased, but she was too hungry to ponder the woman’s words. The prayer beckoned. Alyss pulled it out of her hat and cradled it in her hands. It squirmed across her palm, glowing faintly, nosing like an underfed grub. It was a paltry thing, formed without faith or conviction; Alyss could see right through it to the grime-caked lines of her palms. But it was the first meal she’d had in days, and when she stuffed it into her salivating mouth it tasted as sweet to her as the yield of a ritual homage.
The prayer was gone in two quick bites, though Alyss prodded and poked her tongue about her teeth until she was sure she had scoured away every last morsel. It did not sate her, not by a long shot, but it at least blunted her hunger, delaying its victory for the time being.
Alyss slumped against the grimy wall in relief, pulling her threadbare blankets back up around her chin. The sky was cloudless above the slanting rooftops, only the usual miasma of smog smudging the brightness of the stars. The night would be a bitter one, and Alyss had only a single prayer to sustain her through it.
With that thought, the intensity of her solitude hit her afresh and the memory of her erstwhile companions rose in her mind’s eye. She remembered them all, her dear little brood, with their scrawny wrists and haunted eyes that had seen too much for ones so small. A gaggle of street urchins. It was to them Alyss owed her existence. In need of a protector, they had fashioned a god out of the odds and ends that lay around them, the leftovers of more fortunate souls. Laying their creation piecemeal in the mud, they had sacrificed a sickly sparrow to give it life. Alyss had Wakened to find a ring of grubby children staring down at her, faces flushed with triumph.
They called her Sister Alyss, after one they had lost.
The urchins had offered Alyss modest prayers cupped in small white hands, raising the offerings reverently to her lips. She had granted their requests as best she could–causing a minor distraction so that a pickpocket could do his work; planting a smidgeon of kindness in the heart of a baker, the impulse to give a hungry girl a loaf; sowing a little luck for an orphan so that he might find a hidey-hole in which to curl up for the night. Alyss’ powers had never been strong–her birth was too humble for great feats–but back then she could perform the simpler knacks with a quirk of an eyebrow or click of a finger. The children’s prayers had nourished her and she had looked after them, her little dirty ducks, in return.
But, just as children grow quickly out of their infant garb, so Alyss’ ragged disciples had moved on from their early godling to a better-fitting deity, one who could offer them more than she. Some new striplings joined her for a time, but they too soon passed on, and the next bunch also. It had happened slowly as these things do, but gradually Sister Alyss, diminutive god of the urchins, was forgotten.
Alyss sighed and tugged her blankets closer. It was a sob story, sure enough, but one all too familiar in this city. People created divinities to fulfil their needs, then forsook them as times changed. Alyss didn’t blame the children–no, not ever–but she still missed them something awful.
Lost in memories of better times, Alyss did not notice the hush intensify over the city. Lights winked out, shutters closed, doors latched. It was only when the bells began to toll that she realized her error.
Alyss leapt to her feet, scattering her scant possessions. Fear lent her energy. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Hadn’t the lady warned her to find shelter? Why hadn’t Alyss understood what she meant, that this was a holy night, a hunting night?
The bells clamored, their discordant peals reverberating through the deserted streets. The bell tower loomed to the west, a pale spire dominating the skyline. It rose from the city’s heart, where the buildings were of stone and gilt and marble, with pillars flanking their doorways and statues guarding their gates. Where the rich and influential flourished silver pocket watches and silken handkerchiefs, and rode about in carriages instead of traipsing through refuse. Where the two prominent cults gathered in elegant parlours and expansive halls bequeathed them by their ancestors. Where the people were hearty and well fed–and the gods were too.
Alyss did not bother to gather her things; the oddments were not worth the time it would take to retrieve them. She merely rammed her hat upon her head and ran.
She dashed from house to house, hammering on doors, banging on shutters, begging to be let in. “Just for this night!” she pleaded. “A few hours–one hour–half–anything! Please!”
Her entreaties did no good. Curtains twitched and shadows shifted behind shutters, but the sight of the frantic god clearly stirred more revulsion than pity, and Alyss was left stranded on the cobbles.
To the west she could hear a ruckus rising–faint shouts and whoops, the clatter of wheels and hooves. The noise made her tremble, but also spurred her on. Alyss scampered between inns, shops, breweries, brothels, knocking and yelling. None would admit her. In her desperation she even tried pounding on the doors of churches and temples, the gates of shrines. But there, of course, the city’s other gods were shut up tight. Safe from the holy night’s perils, they were not about to risk opening their sanctums for anyone, let alone a stinking gutter-god who had been foolish enough to forget the ruling deity’s calendar.
Of her fellow street-gods, Alyss saw no sign. Evidently they had been better prepared than she, begging sanctuary for the night in advance of the bell’s toll. Which was exactly what Alyss should have done instead of sitting in the street, griddling for prayers.
But it was too late now for self-reproach. The racket was spreading from the city centre towards the tangled streets of the Warren, and beneath the general hullabaloo Alyss now caught yet more ominous sounds: a clicking and chittering, snorting and growling. These were the sounds the beggar-gods dreaded most, the sounds that came when the cult of Mantis emerged from their affluent haunt to loose their god upon the city. These were the sounds of the hunter, of Mantis himself.
Alyss paused, panting, and tried to think. Mantis tracked primarily by smell, so where would she be safest? It stood to reason: the filthiest, foulest place in town. The sewers. She’d not get into them from here, though–sanitation in the Warren extended to open gutters oozing along the sides of the streets. She wracked her brains for the nearest access point. The wealthier central neighbourhoods were the obvious place, but with the hunt on the move they weren’t an option. The riverside, then.
Alyss set off again, heading north towards the riverbank. She tried to run, but her initial exertions had left her weak and the best she could manage was a brisk shuffle. Her gasping breaths ghosted before her, her wings trailed behind. She tried not to think of how easy it had once been to dart into the sky, evading trouble with a flap and a twist. She was only goading herself with such memories now. It was a long time since she’d had enough prayers for flight.
The hunt was still to the west of her when Alyss emerged on the promenade overlooking the river, but it was close; the tumult was so loud it could be only streets away.
Alyss cast about, searching for a manhole. There–an iron circle set in the intersection where a bridge adjoined the bank. Alyss raced to the spot and fell to her knees. There was a small hole set in the metal cover. She jammed her hands into it and tugged.
The cover didn’t move.
Alyss tugged again. Nothing.
The clamor mounted behind her.
Alyss got to her feet, straddling the manhole and bracing her legs against the road. Gathering all her remaining strength, she wrenched at the blasted thing.
The cover moved a fraction, grating against its lip.
Alyss strained. “Come on,” she muttered. “Out with you!”
The iron inched upwards.
Then noise erupted at her back as the hunt spilled onto the riverbank. Wild hallooing burst out as they caught sight of the tiny god struggling with a manhole cover in the middle of the street. And then a howl split the night.
Alyss’ fingers slipped from the cover, which clanged back into place. With a despairing cry, she whirled–and terror froze her more utterly than any winter could.
A gigantic shape was scuttling along the promenade towards her. Six legs scissored beneath it, slim and articulated, the front pair serrated with cruel spikes. The behemoth’s body was weirdly segmented, and the glare of the street lamps flashed and slid off its carapace, a transparent shell that revealed the intricate mechanisms within. The god had been constructed with the precision of a mantle clock, the craftsmanship as fine as Alyss’ was poor. Yet there was nothing delicate about the Cult’s creation. Wakened with who knew what horrific sacrifice, Mantis had become muscle and flesh, and although its body retained some appearance of its glass-and-clockwork beginnings it was as powerful and resilient as any natural beast.
That was not even the worst of it, for the tyrant god’s body was only the vehicle upon which it carried its real weapon: the head of a monstrous hound, bristling with metallic hair. Strings of drool stretched between huge, diamond incisors and swung from golden gums. Massive nostrils flared and snuffed, while cold, glass eyes fixed upon Alyss’ tiny figure.
With its prey in its sights, Mantis howled again.
Behind the charging chimera streamed its followers–a retinue of carriages and gigs, riders and foot soldiers. Careening in their god’s wake, the cult of Mantis whooped and hollered, revelling in the perverse thrill of the hunt. Holy night had arrived, and Mantis’ aristocratic disciples seized the opportunity to throw off all restraint. Toupées tumbled from highborn heads to vanish beneath horses’ hooves. Gentlewomen’s skirts flared indecently behind them as they bolted along with the throng. Magistrates and factory-masters whipped their horses until their flanks were striped with blood.
Prayers spilled from the cultists’ lips, flaring like fireworks in the night. The devotees flung them to Mantis, who turned its great head to snap a few of the luminous streamers out of the air. Alyss stared as the rest fell short, bouncing off the god’s flanks to fade, untouched, on the pavement. All those prayers wasted.
Alyss knew the reason, of course: she was better sustenance. Consuming another god was the fastest and surest way of bolstering one’s power, though only the most desperate or most tyrannical would do such a thing. Mantis made a habit of it, each season on holy night.
The fiendish deity loomed over her. She could not flee. Her strength was spent, her hope extinguished. The cult hooted with glee as their god prepared to feed, knowing that every increase in its power cemented their hold over the city, ensuring that their prayers would be answered above anyone else’s.
A huge glittering mouth descended. Mantis’ breath was an acrid blast.
Alyss closed her eyes. “Goodbye, my ducks,” she whispered.
There was a thunk at her feet.
“Oopsy daisy!” said a man’s voice. Then a pair of hands clamped around Alyss’ waist and drew her backwards into the manhole. For a heart-stopping moment Alyss was sure it was too late, that Mantis would pluck her out of the air on the very brink of her escape. Yet the only casualty was her hat. Punctured by the tip of a colossal fang, it was lifted clear off Alyss’ head as she was snatched underground.
Alyss landed with a splash on top of someone. She looked around in a daze, and saw that she and her rescuer were lying in a pool of fetid fluid. A handheld lamp stood upon a nearby ledge. Its light revealed brick walls rising to either side, curving to form an arched ceiling in which the manhole gaped. Mantis snapped and snarled above the opening, but had no hope of reaching through. The cultists’ shouts of triumph had turned to groans of disappointment.
Beneath Alyss, her liberator moaned. Recovering her wits, she scrambled away from him.
“Sorry, sir! So sorry!”
She turned to help him up, and was surprised to find herself looking at another god, grimacing as he struggled to his feet. He resembled an elderly man, but like Alyss he had been built rather shabbily; Alyss suspected that bent nails and twisted planking had played a part. He wore an overcoat with a wilting daisy pushed into one buttonhole, both now thoroughly smeared with filth.
Alyss reached up to clasp his hands. “Thank you!” she gasped. “Thank you, kind sir!”
The other god grunted. “We’re not safe yet, lass.” Then he smiled, showing peg-like teeth. “But you’re welcome. I don’t like to see a fellow soul chomped up on the streets. No, that ain’t a sight I like to see at all. But they’ll send someone down here to flush us out if we ain’t away post-haste.”
Alyss glanced up to find powdered faces peering down at her. There seemed to be a debate going on aboveground.
“You know somewhere we can go?” she asked.
He nodded. “Come on, I’ll show you. You ain’t the first scrap of sanctity I’ve helped escape that monster. I’m Fennick, by the way.”
He held out a hand. Alyss stuck out her own tiny paw and shook it. “Sister Alyss.” She hesitated. “Well… just Alyss nowadays.”
“Glad to make your acquaintance, Alyss. But now–” Fennick retrieved the lamp from its perch. “–it’s time we scarpered.”
The sewers were as foul as Alyss had expected–and hoped–them to be. Even she, accustomed to living amongst litter and waste, was almost overwhelmed by their stench as she followed Fennick through the tunnels. The other god strode before her with lamp held aloft, the greenish glow of the flame casting a ghastly aspect over the already grim scene. Shadows fled up the walls as they passed, briefly revealing stretches of slime-coated brick, before collapsing back again in their wake. Every so often the tunnel would fork or a dark opening yawn to one side or other, exhaling a cold, putrid breath. Alyss peered warily down these offshoots, but to her relief Fennick seemed confident of his route and did not hesitate as he led her through the intersections.
After half an hour of walking Alyss began to tire, her legs shaking as she dragged them through the sewer’s waste. Fennick splashed through the stuff at ankle-height, but on Alyss it reached to her knees and made the going hard. Gradually, the gap between her and Fennick widened. Shadows pressed at Alyss’ back.
“Wait up there!” she called. “Oy, wait up! Me legs weren’t made for this.”
Fennick turned, and, seeing her difficulty, came back a few paces to join her.
“Here, you’re just a little mite, you are.”
Alyss cocked her head. “Makers didn’t have much to work with.” She eyed his own crooked features. “You know how it is, I’m sure.”
He wheezed a laugh. “I do, at that.” He put hands on his hips, considering. “Tell you what. If you wouldn’t mind, Sister Alyss–” He turned his back to her and crouched. “–scramble up.”
Once, Alyss would have been too proud to accept such help. But now, chastened by privation and her near miss at the jaws of Mantis, she did not hesitate. Pulling her boots out of the sucking filth, she caught hold of Fennick’s shoulders and clambered aboard.
“Blimey, you’re one bony mister.”
He grunted as he straightened. “Well, my makers didn’t exactly have much to hand either.”
“Who were they?” Alyss asked, clinging to Fennick like a limpet as they set off again.
“Were. Aye, that’s the thing,” said the god gloomily. “Workmen, they were, and shoddy ones at that. No wonder they needed me for their schemes. Prayers as dishonest as you ever saw. ‘Gull this gentleman, Fennick! Befuddle this old lady so she doesn’t notice we’ve short-changed her! Hold up this house ‘til we’re well away!’ Swindlers.” The god huffed. “Well, it’s done now. As soon as they could cobble the parts together, they replaced me with a god more willing. Glad to be rid of them, to tell the truth.” He sounded far from glad, however. Bitterness tinged his words.
“I’m sorry,” Alyss murmured. At least she had fond memories of her troupe. It was hard enough to be starving, let alone resentful to boot.
They went on in silence after that, each lost in their own thoughts, until Fennick gave a satisfied grunt.
“We’re here.” He held up his lamp to reveal an iron door set into the sewer wall, with three slimy rungs rising to its threshold.
Fennick lowered Alyss to the floor, then reached to knock on the door: two short raps, a pause, then three more strikes. Rust flaked away with each blow.
“What is this place?” Alyss asked.
Fennick grinned down at her. “A hidey-hole, lass. For the needy, like ourselves.”
A scraping sound told of a lock being drawn back. Then the door creaked open to reveal a woman standing in the entranceway. She too held a lamp. A curl of hair tumbled over her forehead, escaping the clutches of a frilly bonnet tied at her chin. The bonnet was complemented by a neat black dress, giving the impression that she was a maid opening the door to a fine house instead of this grubby hole in the sewers. Her gaze held authority, however, as it tracked smartly over Alyss and Fennick.
“Bit late tonight, Fennick. I thought maybe you’d been… unlucky.”
Fennick shook his head. “Didn’t get me this time, Angie. Though it was a close thing for my friend here.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose. “That so? Well, you’re both here now.” She jerked her head. “Now get your toots in here quick, before I choke on that stink.”
Fennick lifted Alyss to the door and scrambled up after her. A long, dark tunnel stretched before them. The walls were brick, like the sewer, and it was no warmer, but the floor was at least dry. The woman–Angie–tugged the door shut and slid the locks back into place, shutting out the stench. The smell still clung to their clothes, but compared to the sewer the air was ambrosial. Alyss gulped long, grateful breaths.
“You all right to walk for now, lass?” Fennick asked.
“I think so.”
Angie led the way down the tunnel. Alyss followed her, padding between the twin pools of light thrown by her companions’ lamps. She could see little beyond the glow. The tunnel might go on forever as far as she could tell.
“Where are we?” After all their wandering, she had no idea what part of the city they had ended up in.
“You’ll see, lass.” Fennick put a hand on her shoulder. The reassuring weight brought tears pricking in Alyss’ eyes. She had been alone so long she had almost forgotten how good it was to have a friend.
After a few minutes of walking, Alyss realized she could hear something up ahead–a faint rushing sound, as though a torrent of wind or water was moving far off. She threw a quizzical glance at Fennick, but he seemed sunk in thought and did not notice. Returning her attention to the front, she tried again to identify the sound. She thought now that she could perceive changes in it, rises and falls in volume. Perhaps the tunnel emerged onto the river, or a tributary. But if they were heading outside then surely she would feel colder; instead, the air was growing warmer. It was a welcome change but a puzzling one.
Then, as the passage curved to the left, Alyss saw light ahead, a smudge of illumination insinuating itself on the walls. The noise was louder now, surging and echoing against the brickwork. Abruptly, Alyss realized what it was.
Applause. A great crowd of people, clapping.
Questions leapt to Alyss’ lips, but before she could voice them Angie halted and turned.
“Now let’s see you, sweet.” She crouched and shone her lamp full in Alyss’ face. Alyss squinted and retreated from the glare, only to collide with Fennick’s legs. His other hand came down to steady her.
“Here,” said Angie. “She really is just a scrap.” She sounded suddenly annoyed.
Fennick’s voice rumbled from above Alyss’ head. “Hardly my fault, is it? There were slim pickings tonight.”
“Hmm. Well, they’re not fools, I suppose.” Angie looked at Alyss again. “Except this one maybe.” She shrugged and straightened. “I guess she’ll have to do.”
A dull horror filled Alyss. “What are you talking about?” she stammered. “Do for what?”
“You’ll only get a pittance for her, mind,” Angie continued.
Alyss tried to twist away, but Fennick’s grip tightened on her shoulders.
“Sorry, lass.” Alyss strained to look up at him, but he was too tall and his face was lost in shadow. “It’s nowt personal.”
“What’s not personal–?” Alyss began, only to give a startled choke as Angie thrust a rag between her teeth and tied the gag tight around her head. Next thing she knew, she had been plucked off her feet and–as easily as if she were a child’s plaything–tucked beneath one of Fennick’s bony arms.
Alyss thrashed and squirmed as Fennick and Angie walked on, but she was small and weak and already exhausted, and her wriggling did not so much as force Fennick to shift his grip. Still she fought–until she was distracted from her efforts as they stepped from the passage into sudden brightness and another wave of applause washed over them.
Alyss hung limp, blinking stupidly, as she tried to make sense of the scene. They had emerged into an enormous circular hall, easily the biggest chamber Alyss had ever seen. The stone walls had been smoothed and polished to an elegant shine, and great marble columns supported the vast vault of a ceiling, from which dangled a constellation of glittering chandeliers. Yet the room stretched not only above, but also below. The tunnel had come out midway up the wall, and gave onto a viewing platform edged with brass railings. Beneath this, tiers of velvet seating descended towards the floor, transforming the space into a huge amphitheatre. The auditorium brimmed with people, a genteel crowd in smart evening dress. Presiding over all was a box built into the wall, swathed with velvet drapes, wherein sat a stately woman with her hair pinned back and her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Alyss started. She recognised the woman from the papers, and although she could not read she had picked up enough gossip to know that this was the Dowager Countess of Redthorn. The Dowager, Alyss knew, was a regular installment in Parliament, where she made it her mission to oppose Mantis’ ministers at every opportunity.
Her stomach clenched, and her gaze fell to the arena.
No. No. It couldn’t be. Fennick couldn’t, Fennick wouldn’t, have brought her here.
But there was no denying what lay before her eyes. In the arena stood a towering creature, gleaming darkly in the light of the chandeliers. It was vaguely humanoid, though taller than two carriages and with hands the size of cartwheels. Muscles rippled beneath its skin, whose sleek black hue was shot through with glimmering silver veins. As it turned its big, broad wedge of a head, Alyss saw that its eyes were the rich red of rubies.
“Bolder.” Alyss’ whisper was distorted by her gag, but she needed no confirmation. There could be no mistaking that dark titan. Carved out of black marble, Bolder was the god of the city’s second great cult, long-standing rival to Mantis. Even gutter-gods such as Alyss knew of the hatred between the two. Though both were strong, Mantis was the stronger and had been so for the past decade. Unable to surpass the ruling god’s power, the Bolderite cult had been forced to accede control of the city to the followers of Mantis. Yet Bolder had clearly been gathering strength. For the god in the arena was almost as big as Mantis, and what with those great, muscled limbs in place of Mantis’ spindly legs, Bolder looked as though he might even be the other deity’s match.
The arena in which Bolder stood was bounded by a high wall and scattered with churned-up sand. Alyss squinted at something near the deity’s feet, then felt herself go cold as she realized what it was. Wreckage–a collection of oddments that might once have been limbs. Her horror grew as a gate in the arena wall winched open and a number of people were thrust through the gap. No, not people–gods. Dressed in tattered garb, they shared a bedraggled look that Alyss knew all too well. These were gods who, like her, had been gathered off the streets.
The gods clustered, terrified, at the base of the wall as Bolder turned ponderously to regard them. His ruby eyes flashed, and he raised a slab-like foot to step towards them.
Alyss whimpered as comprehension dawned. This arena was not designed for fighting; it was designed for feeding. Desperation seized her and she hit out again at Fennick. “No!” she tried to scream. “No, no, no!”
“No good struggling, lass.” Fennick’s words were tinged with sorrow, but he did not loosen his grip. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but a god’s got to eat. All gods got to eat.” His eyes flicked towards the arena. He swallowed. “Times are hard. You know how it is.”
You tricked me. The gag prevented Alyss from voicing her anger, but she thrust it at Fennick all the same. I thought you’d rescued me. I thought… I thought we were… friends. Remembering her earlier tears of gratitude, Alyss felt a hollow pang of grief. She had thought she’d found some companionship, but it had all been a lie. She was as alone as ever.
Angie gestured impatiently. “Don’t just stand there, Fennick. Get on and hand her in.” She gave Alyss a thin parting smile. “Well, goodbye then, deary.”
Alyss turned her face away.
Fennick moved along the viewing platform to where a large oak desk stood at one side. He set Alyss on her feet before it, though not before taking a firm hold of her wrists. Behind the desk sat a man, dressed prissily in a tailcoat and cravat and with a monocle tucked in one eye. He looked at Fennick with distaste. “An offering?” he enquired archly.
The clerk peered through his monocle, unimpressed. “Not much of one.”
Fennick tensed. “‘S all I could find.”
“Hmm.” The clerk bent to write something in a ledger, finishing with a flourish of his quill.
Alyss’ attention strayed back to the arena. The captive gods were now circling Bolder warily. One tiny fellow was clicking his fingers and mumbling, forgetting in his desperation that his divine powers would not work on another god, even if he did have enough strength to use them–which, it was clear to Alyss, he did not. Another was trying in vain to find a purchase on the smooth stone of the arena wall. A third was crouched, sobbing in fear.
The audience, on the other hand, was all but silent. Unlike Mantis’ rowdy crowd, the Bolderites remained quietly in their seats, watching the proceedings with expressions of polite interest. The occasional fan fluttered back and forth, and here and there a pair of opera glasses glinted. Alyss shivered. Who were these people, that they could simply sit and watch the sufferings of fellow creatures? If anything, their cool detachment was even more frightening than Mantis’ wild retinue.
Every so often, the watchers mumbled prayers and cast them into the air, leaving them to float down like confetti and be caught by Bolder. But as Alyss watched, one of the doomed godlings leapt to grab one of the prayers from under Bolder’s nose. Landing with a cry of triumph, she darted away with her prize, stuffing it into her mouth as she went. It wouldn’t do as much good as a prayer offered by one of her own followers, yet it would lend her some strength nonetheless.
A murmur went up from the crowd and Alyss heard a man’s voice declare, “I say, that’s not on!”
Bolder appeared to agree. The great god slowly approached the thief who, momentarily uplifted by her small victory, quailed once more against the wall. Bolder tilted his heavy head to one side. Then, with no more warning, he attacked.
He was much quicker than his bulk suggested. A huge dark fist snapped out, narrowly missing its target who flung herself to the side just in time. Bolder followed with a kick, which again missed by a hairsbreadth as the other god rolled away. The godling scrambled to her feet and took off towards the opposite end of the arena, obviously hoping to buy herself some time.
She wasn’t fast enough. A monstrous hand chopped down and there was a dreadful crunch. The little god screamed in pain as one of her legs shattered into bone-white shards. She writhed in the sand, trying to pull herself forward. Bolder watched, like a malicious child might watch the agonies of an insect it has just de-winged. Then he brought his hand down again.
Alyss cried out through her gag as the god’s other leg smashed beneath the titan’s fist, and tears burned in her eyes as Bolder plucked the broken deity from the floor. The godling hung, shrieking, in his marble grip.
She had been treasured once. Even from this distance, Alyss could see that she had been carefully made. Her proportions were good, and her materials not poor either–those legs, now so cruelly severed, had been porcelain. What sad circumstances had brought her here, abducted by the cult and forced to face their greedy deity? Was anyone missing her now? Was there a prayer for her dying on someone’s lips, or was she like Alyss, alone in the world?
Whatever the god’s story, there was one thing certain now: it was over. Bolder raised her to his lips. His dark maw opened, revealing rows of sharp, pearlescent teeth. And then she was gone, her shrieks transformed into the sound of shattering china as Bolder chomped her down.
Applause rose from the crowd and more prayers were launched into the arena. Bolder caught several in one great fist and washed down his meal with their luminescent power.
Alyss turned her face away, sickened. She had known that the Bolderites must be ruthless–how else had they managed to retain so much power for so long?–but she hadn’t thought their methods would match the cult of Mantis in cruelty. She couldn’t decide which was more barbaric, to hunt terrified gods through the streets at night, or to throw then into a ring to be consumed.
Meanwhile, Fennick had been fielding questions from the clerk, who noted each answer in his ledger. The interrogation over, the man blotted the ink with small, meticulous dabs. “Hmm.” He frowned at the page.
Fennick shifted impatiently. “Well?”
The clerk blinked at him in obvious dislike. Then, rolling his eyes, he spat a quick prayer into the palm of his hand. He held it out to Fennick at arm’s length.
Fennick stared at the prayer. It was barely even glowing.
“That,” the clerk replied, “is what you are owed.”
Fennick bridled. “Here, I know she’s only a sprat, but I snatched her right from under Mantis’ nose. That’s got to count for something. I took her away from him, so’s Bolder can have her instead.”
The clerk placed a finger on a column in his ledger. “That. Is what. Is owed.”
Fennick huffed. “Might as well as left her for Mantis.”
The clerk’s eyes narrowed. He crossed his arms, the prayer hanging limply from his hand. “Listen, gutter-god. Do you fancy a trip in there yourself, is that it?” He inclined his head towards the arena.
Fennick took a step backward, face blanching. “No, sir.”
“Good. Then take your payment and be content.” The clerk held out the prayer again.
Fennick all but grabbed it from his hand. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Pushing the prayer into his mouth, he licked his lips in exaggerated satisfaction. “Delicious. Really, delicious,” he said, bobbing in an awkward bow.
Alyss caught his eye as he straightened and glared at him with all the accusation she could muster. The older god’s face twisted with guilt. “Don’t look at me like that. You’d have done the same, were you given the choice. Desperation changes people.”
Alyss continued to glare. It didn’t change me, mister. I’d never do what you do.
The clerk clicked his fingers. Another man appeared from along the platform and took hold of Alyss, pulling her from Fennick. As she was turned away, Alyss caught one final glimpse of the other god, fingering the wilting daisy in his buttonhole, his expression crumpled with shame.
The man marched Alyss along the viewing platform and down a flight of steps that descended past the back of the auditorium. She could no longer see the arena, but from the frightful noises and smatterings of applause issuing from its direction she knew that the other godlings were being mercilessly eliminated. Dread took her as she pictured being taken straight to the gate and thrust out onto the sand, but to her relief her captor instead turned in the other direction, steering her through an arch in the chamber wall. This led to another passageway, wider than the one Alyss had been brought in by, but just as dank. The passage was lined with doors, each one set with a barred window. Small hands rose to grip the bars as Alyss and her captor passed. Entreaties pursued them.
“Please, sir, kind sir, I’ll do anything…”
“I’ll poach for you, I swear on me life…”
“Long live Bolder, I say! Just let us out of here and we’ll serve…”
“Down with Mantis, yes! Down with the dog-god! Please–”
The gaoler made no response to the gods’ pleas, remaining grim and silent as he reached an empty cell and unlocked the door. Removing Alyss’ gag, he gestured her inside. Alyss hesitated on the threshold. The sight of the cramped prison made her keenly aware of the sheer weight of rock and earth above her head, pressing down, enclosing her. She was a winged god; this was not her place. She belonged up in the open, flying free above the rooftops, not trapped down here in the dirt.
Her captor gave her no choice–a shove on the back sent her stumbling across the threshold. She caught herself on the wall, gasping as the rough-hewn stone grazed her palms. The door slammed behind her. The key scraped in the lock.
Alyss stood still for a few moments, too weary even to move. Then, slowly, she lowered herself to the floor and crawled to a corner of the cell, where she sat hugging her knees to her chest.
In the neighboring cells, her fellow prisoners continued to whimper and beg. Alyss bowed her head, overwhelmed with a mixture of scorn and sympathy. Desperation changes people, that’s what Fennick had said. And yes, she supposed he was partly right. When you found yourself in the direst straits, it was hard to cling to your ideals–your thoughts could twist, your principles decay. These poor, pleading gods were not bad creatures, merely mistreated and petrified.
Yet privation couldn’t change a person, or a god, entirely. The part of you that defined your being–the essence that in gods was brought forth by Wakening–could never be lost. Alyss believed this wholeheartedly, and because of this she knew that she would never make those same entreaties to the gaoler. For from the instant she had opened her eyes upon the world Alyss had felt herself animated by a loving warmth, an urge to care and to protect. Although her original creators were now gone, that love remained integral to her. Even if it would grant her freedom, she could never do what Fennick did, entrapping her fellow gods in order to preserve herself. She would rather die than earn prayers that way.
Her belly cramped, reminding her that she was likely to get her wish.
Alyss did not know how long she sat there. There was nothing to mark the passage of time except the footsteps of the gaoler as he returned to the cells at intervals. Then would come the screeches of opening doors, followed by the screeches of the prisoners selected to be dragged from their cells.
“No, please, no. Not me!”
“…not worth eating at all, sir. Wouldn’t even make a snack…”
“I’ll serve him! Please, I’ll serve him if only–”
It was no use. Their pleas were met always with silence, and inevitably trailed off as the gaoler drew his charges away along the corridor. Alyss tried not to listen to what came next, but even with her hands pressed over her ears it was impossible to block the noise out completely. The sobs and screams. The crunches and smashes. And then, when the carnage was over, the murmurs of approval, the polite applause.
To distract herself, Alyss shuffled through memories of her urchins, that first gang of children who had made her and whom she had loved so dearly. She pictured them all one by one. Charlotte the eldest, with her torn red bonnet and scraped knees; merry Jeremy, always ready with a joke to cheer the littler ones; stubborn Deirdre who always carried that fierce little stick; spindly Reginald, half proud and half ashamed of his posh-sounding name…
“My little ducks,” she whispered. “Oh, my little ducklings. All grown up now, I expect. All grown up. And I helped–yes, I did that. I helped keep you safe, so’s you could move along in the world and get bigger and braver and kinder.”
A smile touched her chapped lips, and when the door to her cell clanged open she looked up at the gaoler with an almost serene expression. “My turn now, is it?”
The gaoler looked askance at her. Then, with a shake of his head, he pulled her out into the passage. A huddle of other gods was already there, about ten of them, wrists tied together with rope. The gaoler bound Alyss the same way, then took hold of one end of the rope and tugged, leading his captives in a staggering line.
Alyss shuffled along with the others, declining to beg, concentrating on staying upright as they were taken to the arena gate. There, the gaoler nodded to another man in a waistcoat and cap, who nodded back before reaching to turn the levers of a large wheel. A pulley creaked and the gate cranked upwards. Candlelight streamed through the widening gap, falling upon Alyss’ face and those of the other gods who stood beside her.
As the gate opened, Bolder was revealed from the feet up. When his head finally came into view, the waiting gods saw that he had not yet finished his previous course–a struggling god was just disappearing into his mouth.
“Oh my days…” Faced again with the awful spectacle, Alyss could not retain her calm. “Oh my days, oh my days, oh my days…”
“Get them ready,” said the man with the cap.
The gaoler nodded. His hand pressed on Alyss’ back. She quivered.
Then, “Wait,” said the gateman. He was frowning through the opening at Bolder. “Look. Look at that.”
Puzzled, Alyss stared at Bolder. The man was right, there did seem to be something different about him. If the marble god had been intimidating before, he now appeared utterly swollen with power. His muscles bulged and his skin shone with an excessive lustre. Crimson auras radiated from his eyes.
The behemoth placed his feet apart and stood to face the curtained box with its single stately occupant. When he spoke, his voice was deep as an earthquake.
“I am ready,” Bolder said.
A collective gasp rose from the spectators and a visible thrill ran through them. Dozens of fans snapped open as ladies suddenly felt the need to compose themselves, and a hundred little glints showed where gentlemen thrust opera glasses and spectacles hurriedly to their faces.
The Dowager Lady Redthorn rose to her feet. Spreading her arms wide, she smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced. “Our god has spoken! Now is the moment we have waited for, patiently, faithfully, for so many years. The cult of Mantis think their dominion of this city is irrefutable, that they can loose their slobbering god upon the streets whenever they choose with none to oppose them. But they have grown fat and decadent in their confidence, while we, with diligence and with dignity, have been hard at work all these years to further the glory of our own magnificent deity.” She bestowed a look of pride upon Bolder, who inclined his head. The crowd clapped their agreement. When the noise died down, the Dowager raised a triumphant fist. “Now is our chance, my fellow worshipers! It has been a long time since Bolder ruled, but we did not give up. And now we are ready.” Her fist fell and her eyes narrowed. “Tonight the hunter will become the prey. Tonight we shall see whose god is the strongest.”
The chamber thundered with applause as the crowd rose to their feet, their decorum finally overcome by excitement.
Alyss shook her head at the cult’s hypocrisy. Bolder might not rampage openly through the streets as Mantis did, but within his arena he was as much a predator as the other. In this colossal struggle for power, the real victims were crushed underfoot–sometimes literally–but these fine gentlefolk did not care. All that mattered to them was power. Swelling it, stealing it, hoarding it.
The gaoler interrupted her reflections, tugging on the rope to jerk the gods round. He too was infected with the general excitement. His face, so stern before, was now split by a grin. “Looks like there’s been a change of plan, then,” he told them.
“Are you letting us go?” a god beside Alyss piped up, his voice strained with hope. “You don’t need us any more, right, sir?”
The gaoler regarded them with half-lidded eyes. “Oh, we still have a use for you fine ladies and gents. You–” He wound the rope around his fist. “–are the bait.”
Half an hour later, Alyss stood hunched on the cobbles of a square. Escorted by the gaoler and a number of Bolderite guards, she and the other street-gods had been hustled through a disorientating subterranean labyrinth and then out aboveground, exiting through a disused warehouse. They had then been led to this nearby square and forced into a tight group in the center, before the guards and gaoler retreated to encircle them at a safe distance. One god had seized that moment to try to flee, but he had been swiftly caught and bludgeoned into submission before being returned to his place among the others. Alyss could hear him moaning.
It was still dark, though a violet cast to the eastern sky suggested that dawn was approaching. Alyss could not reckon exactly where she was, but guessed it was somewhere north of the river. The square was bordered by redbrick houses with tiled roofs, not as shabby as the tenements of the Warren but not the palatial residences of the city’s central areas either.
Here and there, candlelight flickered in surrounding windows as the square’s residents woke and peeped out, but upon seeing the Cult’s guards skulking in the shadows the curious faces soon retreated. No one raised a hand to assist the gods in the square. Fear kept the people locked up tight.
Ten dirty little vagrant gods, standing out in the open on the night of the hunt–it did not take long for Mantis to scent them. After only a few minutes, a delighted howl came drifting over the rooftops, followed by a wild chorus of cheers.
Alyss steeled herself as, for the second time that night, the cries of the hunt bore down on her. She was scared, of course, but after all she had been through she found that her dread was now tempered by a contrary emotion: disdain. Disdain for Mantis and his rival. Disdain for the Cults who created and sustained them. Disdain for a system that kept the cityfolk powerless, too frightened even to help each other in times of need. Disdain for the notion that might was right.
Yet still, beneath her skirts, her knees shook.
The sounds of the hunt grew louder and louder, until Mantis and his Cult surged around the corner and the square erupted in a whirling carnival of noise and motion–clattering hooves and carriage wheels, guffaws of pleasure and squeals of delight, bright bursts of prayers streaming through the air. The godlings cowered back as Mantis lifted his fearsome canine head, saliva streaming from his lips, and pinned them with his gaze. There was no time for them to even attempt to run before Mantis bounded forward–only to come to a skittering halt as Bolder stepped into the glow of the streetlamps.
Mantis yelped in surprise, stopping his momentum with difficulty on his insectile legs. Behind him, his retinue milled in confusion, their bewilderment increasing as the cult of Bolder began to file out of various side streets and line the opposite side of the square. As two factions of the city’s wealthy and elite, they could not have looked less alike. Mantis’ disciples were wild-haired, red-cheeked, breathless from the exertions of the hunt. The Bolderites, meanwhile, stood solemn and pristine in their evening dress, occasionally smoothing down a stray pleat or adjusting a pair of crooked spectacles.
There followed a silence as the two cults stared at each other.
The hush was broken by hoof beats. A rider appeared from behind the hesitating Mantis. Richly dressed in a scarlet overcoat, he sported a resplendent moustache and an equally resplendent girth. Alyss recognised him as Lord Fellinor, an influential peer known for his blustering political speeches that said very little in as long-winded a manner as possible.
“So, the Bolderites have finally deigned to emerge from their burrow,” Fellinor said. “I did wonder when you were going to come up for air.” His smile was mocking. “You bury your god deep.”
“Not tonight.” The Dowager Lady Redthorn stepped forward. She raised her chin, her gaze moving over Fellinor’s shoulder. “Tonight he has come to take you, Mantis.”
Mantis shifted, his nose lifting into the air. His dog’s lips parted and drew backwards. The expression might have been a snarl or a smile.
“This is my night, Bolder.” The god’s voice rasped like claws on stone. Alyss flinched to hear it. “This city runs according to my calendar. This is my hunt and these–” His eyes swept over Alyss and the other gods. “–are mine by the hunt’s rules.”
Bolder’s response rolled out like an avalanche. “They are only yours if you catch them, Mantis. As am I–” He set his feet upon the cobbles and flexed his muscles. “–if you can best me.”
Mantis’ followers sneered, though to Alyss’ eyes they looked a little alarmed at Bolder’s show of strength.
Lord Fellinor licked his lips. “There is easier prey–” he began, endeavouring to sound contemptuous rather than cowardly, but his god was having none of it.
Mantis stepped forward, his towering legs easily clearing the horse and rider. “You think to beat me, Bolder? On my holy night? In my city?”
Bolder set his shoulders. “It is only yours if you can keep it.”
Mantis sprang forward with a growl, striking sparks from the cobbles. Alyss and the other gods backed away, only to realize that behind them Bolder was also advancing. In panic, one of the godlings rushed to the left and tried to push away through the onlookers, only to be shoved back into the square by a Bolderite guard. Alyss swallowed. So they were in the arena after all.
At the realization, exhaustion threatened to swamp her, but she managed to thrust it away. She had evaded death so many times this night. Now was not the time to give up.
The huddle of godlings broke apart as the two leviathans circled above them. Alyss skipped to one side, keeping a close eye on the tyrants’ feet, Bolder’s twin crushing slabs and Mantis’ six razor points. Soon, however, she saw that there was another threat to avoid–for as Mantis circled, he suddenly snatched a godling from the ground beside him, then threw back his head to gulp her down. Another godling screamed, but her terror was drowned by the approving whoops of Mantis’ followers.
Bolder saw his chance to strike the first blow. Stepping in close to Mantis, he swung a fist and smashed the other god around the muzzle. Mantis’ head snapped away and then back again, his lips drawn into a snarl of rage and surprise. He lunged at his assailant, but Bolder dodged out of the way of the diamond bite.
They circled again, their focus sharpened. This time it was Mantis who attacked first, pouncing to bite at Bolder. His teeth caught one marble bicep, gouging deep trenches. Bolder exhaled a rumble of pain. He retaliated, reaching in with a punch, which Mantis swiped aside with a flick of a foreleg. Pulled off-balance, Bolder stumbled heavily to the right. Cobbles cracked. Godlings scattered. The cult of Mantis roared and jeered.
The fight continued, Bolder weaving and punching like a boxer while Mantis tore with jewelled fangs and lashed out with his forelegs. Beneath them, the little gods scrambled to and fro, frantically dodging the combatants’ shifting feet as well as the occasional hand or mouth that attempted to pluck them into the air.
Alyss skirted the edges of the square as well as she could, running her eyes over the wall of people, searching for any chance to slip away. There was none. The cults formed a tight ring around the fighting ground.
Gradually, though, Alyss realized that the two cults were no longer the only onlookers. More people had joined them, crowding behind and craning over their shoulders. Not fine gentlemen and ladies these, but ordinary townsfolk, many still in their nightwear with only coats thrown over the top for warmth. The city, it seemed, had emerged to watch the confrontation. But where the cultists urged on Mantis and Bolder, these other spectators remained silent. Their own gods were sequestered safely away, and yet, although they would survive another holy night, these middling deities would never be powerful enough to challenge the two leviathans. The people had resigned themselves to the fact; it had been that way all their lives. Their interest in this battle was therefore cursory. Mantis or Bolder–it would make small difference to them which tyrant won out.
The fight, meanwhile, took a more brutal turn. A ruinous blow from Bolder dislodged one of Mantis’ teeth, sending the diamond shard clinking to the ground. The Bolderites applauded their pleasure, but as Bolder drew back the other god lashed out a pincered foreleg. The joint snapped shut, its serrated sides closing around Bolder’s arm. The marble giant wrenched against it, but Mantis dug in his legs and retained his hold. When Bolder reached with this other arm to free himself, Mantis snarled and tore at him, so that it was all Bolder could do to keep Mantis’ fangs at bay as he tugged on his trapped limb.
Nevertheless Mantis could not sustain his advantage for long, for of the two gods Bolder was better built for a match of strength. Planting his feet, he gave a monumental heave, forcing Mantis’ spindly legs to slide over the cobbles. Godlings dived out of the way as Mantis fought for balance. Seizing his opportunity, Bolder kicked out. There came a tremendous crack as one of Mantis’ middle legs gave way.
Mantis let out a shrill howl as he crashed to the floor. Almost instantly he righted himself, but was forced to use a foreleg in place of his broken mid-limb. One pincer down, he had lost a weapon. His muzzle wrinkled with wrath.
Alyss had scrambled out of the way when Mantis fell, but in doing so she blundered into the ring of cultists. Exclaiming in disgust, the gentlefolk ejected her. Their shoves sent her wheeling in close to Mantis who, intent on avenging himself on Bolder, swiped her irritably out of the way. To the larger god the blow was nothing–the mere swatting of a fly–but to Alyss it was as though she’d been hit by a speeding carriage. The breath was crushed from her chest, a great pain tearing along her left side as one of Mantis’ leg-barbs caught her flesh. She landed in a heap, striking her head hard on the cobbles.
For a few moments she lay still, dazed and blinking. Then, gingerly, she tried to lever herself up.
It took a few attempts, but eventually she came upright. She looked about her. The world was blurry. She took a few wobbling steps, and then halted as a great black shape loomed before her.
That’s Bolder, her mind whispered. Move. Get out of the way.
Her body reacted, but slowly. As a monstrous hand swept down to claim the wounded godling, Alyss twisted away so that instead of grabbing her, the hand knocked her over. She went sprawling again, crying out as her injured side hit the ground. She tried once more to stand, but found she was shaking too much and did not have the strength.
A kick caught her side. Blearing upwards, she made out a row of pale, oval smears staring down at her. Faces.
Another kick set her whimpering.
“…done for,” a haughty voice concluded.
Alyss instructed herself to crawl away, find somewhere safer, but still she was too feeble to move. For yet another time that night, she sensed death approaching. Well, she thought distractedly, I’ve been close to it for a long while. Mayhap it’ll be nice to rest at last.
The voice was soft, so incongruous among the noise of the battle and the cultists’ shouts that it was somehow enhanced despite its quietness.
“Alyss,” it said. “Sister Alyss.”
Alyss squinted in its direction, forcing herself to focus. A small girl was crouching a foot away, peering between the legs of the cultists. Her tangled hair was half-bundled under a miner’s cap and her face was smudged with dirt.
“It is,” exclaimed the girl in an excited whisper. “Look, it is. It’s Sister Alyss.”
Alyss realized that the girl was not alone. Other small faces peeked out from among the forest of legs–a troupe of urchins crawling through the throng. Some had purses and watches in hand.
A moon-faced boy scrambled closer. “It never is. She’s gone, ain’t she?”
“It is, I swear it. Look.” The girl pointed.
The boy blinked at Alyss. “Blimey,” he breathed. “It is an’ all! She’s got those wings, just like Jem said.” He scooted round and hissed to the other children. “Hey, you lot, get over here. We’ve found Sister Alyss what looked after Jem when he was little!”
Alyss’ mind reeled as more voices joined the first. Jem. That’s what the boy had said. Jem. That must be Jeremy, her little Jeremy, all grown up like she had hoped. Did he look after these children, then? Had he taken them under his wing? She hoped so. Oh, she hoped so…
Her thoughts began to drift.
“Hey,” came a murmur. “She’s closing her eyes.”
“Do you think…”
The children’s voices grew fainter. They brushed across Alyss’ awareness but she could no longer make sense of them.
“…bad, don’t she…”
The girl’s voice piped up again, louder this time. “I pray,” she announced. “I pray that Sister Alyss will be all right.”
“Yeah,” the boy put in. “Me too. I pray that Sister Alyss will get back up again.”
One by one, the urchins joined in. Beneath the eyeline of the adults, prayers unrolled from the children’s mouths. Alyss could see them even behind her closed eyelids–rich, iridescent, golden invocations. The children released them towards her and, faced with their glowing beauty, she managed to crack her eyes open. Opening trembling fingers, she took a prayer and moved it shakily to her lips.
The prayer moved down her gullet sweet as nectar, smooth as silk, warm as cobbles on a summer’s day. It filled her with a sense of rightness and hope. And when she reached out for another, she found that she already felt stronger.
Alyss ate. One prayer after another, savoring each bite. She had never tasted anything so delicious, not even at her peak with her little ducks all around her. Then, the urchins’ prayers had all been for themselves, but now it was for Alyss that the children prayed. No one had ever done that for her before. The sustenance it gave her was immense. As she chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, the wound in her side knit itself back together and energy returned to her battered body.
With Mantis and Bolder still locked in combat, no one but the urchins noticed the small god rise to her feet at the edge of the square. No one else noticed the new glow to her cheeks, the new lustre in her eyes. The other onlookers only took note when her wings twitched, extended, gave an experimental flap, and then propelled her off the ground.
To Alyss, it was as though ecstasy itself lifted her into the air. She had not forgotten the sensations of flight, but she was certain it had never felt as joyous, as liberating, as it did now. She soared into the lightening sky, revelling in her aerial perspective, enchanted by the violet-grey dawn that crept over rooftops and chimneypots. But when she glanced down and saw the battleground spread out below, and the hopeful faces of the urchins gazing up at her, her joy hardened into resolve. She couldn’t desert these children now. She could not leave them–or her fellow godlings–to the mercy of the cults. To flee would be unforgiveable. Whatever small good she could do, she must.
Taking a deep breath, she dove towards the fighting gods.
That certainly caught the crowd’s attention. Cries of surprise and crows of derision rose from the spectators as the diminutive god swooped into the fray. Alyss ignored them, concentrating instead on her target. Mantis. The dog-god was limping now; he and Bolder were both tiring. Yet he spied Alyss’ approach out of the corner of his eye. As she barrelled in close he turned aside to snap at her, but in the same instant Bolder gave him a cuff across the jaw, reclaiming his attention. Alyss darted in. She aimed for Mantis’ ear, large and pointed like a hound’s. Alighting on his crown, she grabbed a fistful of hair. The sharp filaments cut into her palm, retaining some of the metallic properties from whence they were made. She gritted her teeth against the pain and, mustering all of her newly endowed strength, ripped out Mantis’ hairs.
The god yelped in surprise. He craned upward, but Alyss had already leapt away. She zipped in again to land on his neck and yanked out another tuft of fur. Mantis howled, shaking his head in fury, yet he dared not turn away from Bolder.
The urchins squirmed through the cultists’ legs and clambered to their feet to cheer Alyss on. Speaking more prayers of strength and victory, they tossed them up to where she could stoop and catch them.
Then a whole host of prayers filled the air, a luminous shower falling into the arena, launched from the back of the crowd. “Here!” someone shouted. “Here, take ‘em, littluns!” The other godlings–six still survived in the arena–hesitated for a moment. Then the meaning of the shout came home to them and they raced to scoop up the fallen orisons.
Affronted, the cultists shouted for the offerings to cease, but the perpetrators were hidden in the dense crowd and could not be identified. And at any rate (another woman shouted), there was no reason they could not pray to any god they so wished.
Emboldened by the crowd’s support and revitalized by their prayers, the other godlings followed Alyss’ lead. Racing in close, they jumped to cling to the legs of the larger gods and–with tooth and nail and fist and foot–did what they could to distract them.
Buoyed, Alyss plunged in again to fly in circles around Bolder’s head. Still grappling with Mantis, the craggy god grew increasingly irate with the airborne intruder. Breaking with Mantis for a moment, Bolder reached to swipe Alyss from the air, but, anticipating the move, Alyss banked and darted instead to the midpoint of his shoulders. Bolder was clearly angry at being so thwarted. Growling, he reached behind his head to try and dislodge her. Alyss, however, had chosen her location well and Bolder could not catch hold of her.
Mantis lashed out with a foreleg, catching Bolder across the face. Bolder roared. He stumbled back, his progress impeded all the more by the godlings who now hacked and pinched and scratched at his legs and feet. The marble deity roared again and kicked out. Two gods fell away and rolled on the cobbles, but more leapt forward to take their place.
It was only then that Alyss realized that there were more gods–many more–in the arena now than when the fight had started. And not only that–there were people too. They surged forward from the square’s edge, shoving through the cultists to join the combat. There were attempts to stop them, the Bolderites sending in their guards with truncheons and Mantis’ disciples steering horses into the crowd’s path, but the people easily broke through their ranks. Within minutes, a mass of citizens and gods had fallen upon the two tyrant deities, pulling them to their knees. Tired and injured from their long struggle, Mantis and Bolder could not resist the sheer numbers that swarmed upon them.
Then Mantis half-yelped, half-shouted with pain as one of his legs was ripped clean away.
The agonized sound froze Alyss to the core. Instinctively she zipped away upwards, then surveyed the scene from her vantage point to try and make sense of what was happening.
Spread below her was a scene of chaos, a riot of battling people and gods, overturned carriages and screaming horses. In the center, a surging, swarming mass hid Mantis and Bolder from view. Nevertheless, the terrible sounds that issued from that direction made it clear what was happening within. The cults’ gods were being dismantled, piece by piece.
Nausea roiled in Alyss’ belly as she hovered above the fray. What had she done? This was no better than the hunt, no better than Bolder’s subterranean arena. The tormented wails of Mantis and Bolder merely echoed the screams of the gods they themselves had consumed.
Alyss stooped low above the square. “Stop!” she yelled. “Stop, please!”
But her cries went unheeded; the destruction could not be halted. Even the cultists now stood helpless, watching in despair and disbelief as the carnage continued. Among the Bolderites, the Dowager Lady Redthorn’s stately posture had wilted, so that she had to be supported by two servants at her elbows. On the other side of the square Lord Fellinor trotted back and forth distractedly, his moustache quivering in shock.
At some point the bellows and howls of Mantis and Bolder ceased, and when at last the mob drew back, it was only to reveal a wasteland of debris. Chunks of smashed marble lay like sinking ships within a sea of broken glass, with gears and springs of clockwork scattered about them. Here and there, jewels winked and glittered. Yet the crowd was still not finished. With the great gods lying in pieces before them, they now sprang afresh upon the remains, the people looting for wealth, the gods for power.
Alyss could not bear it. She swooped to land upon a large piece of broken marble–what part of Bolder it had once been, she could not tell–and shouted as loud as her tiny body would allow.
People and gods looked up, frowning at the command. But when they recognized the little god who had begun the backlash against the cults, they paused and stood to listen.
Alyss looked around, panting slightly. “Stop this, please,” she entreated. “Don’t you see what you’re doing? This–” She gestured to the detritus, the various pieces clutched in eager hands. “–This that you’re doing, it ain’t no different than Mantis, no different than Bolder.” She let her arms drop and felt her shoulders droop with them. “Leave them,” she said flatly. “Just leave them, can’t you?”
A rickety god cleared his throat guiltily, hefting the diamond tooth he hugged to his chest. “But… the power…”
“Let it lie.” Alyss scrubbed a hand across suddenly tearful eyes. “We’ve had enough of powerful gods, ain’t we? Power-hunting, power-grabbing, power-eating… And look where it’s got us.” She cast her eyes down. Nearby, a ruby lay among the shattered glass. One of Bolder’s eyes, once so dazzling, now dull in the grey wash of dawn. “Can’t we just… Can’t we just let ‘em be?”
The tears spilled down her cheeks. She gulped, unable to continue. She was just a beggar god, after all. A homeless god. A lonely god. This was all too big for the likes of her.
Then a hand slipped into hers. Alyss looked up, startled. It was the urchin girl, the one with the miner’s cap and dirty face. She’d scrambled up the marble to stand beside Alyss. A short distance away, the other urchins formed a ragged little group.
“Let’s go,” the girl whispered. “Let’s go, shall we?”
Alyss allowed herself to be led away. The crowd parted before them, the street urchin and her little god, and in their wake the people began to lower their booty, returning the deities’ remains to the ground.
The girl took Alyss to where the urchins were gathered and together they left the square and began the walk back to the Warren. Alyss trailed in their midst, worn and overwhelmed and grateful. After a little while, a lad picked her up and carried her.
Alyss rested her head on his shoulder. They were not so very different, she realized drowsily, gods and people–not so very different at all. And that was good, that was the way it should be. For what were gods but the anima of the city, the wishes and dreams and yearnings of its people, coalesced into strange, lopsided bodies? The gods were a part of their disciples, created by their hands and hearts, and, in turn, the worshipers’ lives were shaped by their gods. Neither should be oppressed or elevated in preference to the other. They needed each other. They were each other.
If you looked at it like that, you could avoid a whole lot of trouble.
“Thank you, my ducks,” Alyss whispered.
Walking beside her, the girl patted her hand. “It’s all right, Sister Alyss. We’ll look after you now.”