Weird, Strange, and Wonderful

Casey had dreamed of a library just down the street from her house. The nearest library was at the corner of Juniper and Graham, two whole bus transfers or a hard-wrought ride from her father away. It wasn’t any fun anyway. It mostly had stuffy old books and water stained paperbacks the other libraries didn’t want. The kid’s section was confined to a single shelf. No separate YA section in sight.

“I was thinking of starting a petition,” Casey said over toaster waffles, “we could put it in the old farmer’s market. That would be perfect.”

Her father said “mmm” and sipped his coffee, not looking up from his laptop screen.

“Think about it. We could have a whole graphic novel section where the kettle corn stand used to be. It even has an upstairs part, so we could make a silent study area.” Casey leaned back, basking in the warmth of her idea.

“Don’t count your chickens,” her father said absently.

Casey scowled and finished her waffles, dumping the dishes right in the dishwasher instead of rinsing them first.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to start the petition. Because the library was already on her street.

Her block was half-full of creaky old houses that would never be lived in again. Dad said they were just waiting for gentrification to knock them down and plop five or six houses on the lot. Disgusting. Casey liked them because they looked like real houses. The new houses looked like cardboard boxes to her, boxes that someone tried to disguise with tempera paint.

The old houses had windows that were blank and hungry, the rooms beyond them had what little furniture was left after the houses had been abandoned from mold or vermin or failure to pay dues. Casey balanced on a line down the sidewalk as she walked past.

665

667

669—

She stopped.

The red-brown house at 671 had a large picture window in front. Beyond that window was a faded honeycomb pattern carpet and one of those old chairs that looked like an egg slicer. But there was a crack from where the front wall met the part of the house that jutted out for the garage. One half sagged while the other remained straight and true. And it was between the peeling red-brown slats that Casey saw the library.

She walked slowly up the dead front lawn, eye out for squatters or possums. Her first glimpse had been almost nothing but a bunch of dim vertical shapes, but putting her eye up to the crack confirmed that yes, it was a place of books and shelves.

Casey held her breath and looked between the crack and the window. The book space went far back, farther than even the back end of the house, she realized upon some quick mental math. The air that wafted out to her face was dry and cool and smelled like old books. Her knees went weak.

Breathing out, Casey flattened herself as much as she could. Her sternum caught on the splintering edge of the wall, but she managed to wiggle through by tearing her sweater.

The room was real when she finally flushed out into it; comfortingly, solidly real. Casey wiped her hand down the spines of a shelf, trembling inside. She selected a title at random, one with poison-green leather binding.

A Lady Loves a Fainting Couch,” she read. It sounded so wonderfully bizarre.

Next book. The Nightmares of the Wenderly Children. The book had scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations, she loved those.

An hour passed with her just squatted on the floor, going through titles. There were no boring books in this library. Even the books too difficult to read were still so stunningly beautiful she felt she might be able to decipher them with enough work.

Choosing a book to take away was the hardest part. The Wemberly Children won, along with a botanical guide written in french that had full color plates. Maybe the library was only a one-time thing, maybe it would be here when she came back. But she needed something solid, something to prove that she wasn’t dreaming.

Casey threw her backpack out first and then squeezed after it, wood shard scratching her breastbone.

“I thought you had school,” dad said to a printout when she walked in, filthy and ratty.

Casey shrugged. “Half day.”

She spent the rest of the day holed up with her books. The next morning she forged her father’s signature on an absence slip. She’d had plenty of practice, so it passed scrutiny.

The books were the best ever. Better than her dream libraries with a mammoth fantasy section and an attached tea shop. It was hard to quantify, but these books were the mix of all the best things she saw in books. Weird, strange, and wonderful. She tried looking up the authors of the books, often finding nothing. The authors she did find had no record of the books in the library. Edgar Allan Poe had not written A Jaunt Through Hell. Emily Dickinson had not penned The Summerwise Sky and Thee. Arthur Conan Doyle had only ever alluded to The Giant Rat of Sumatra. The weight of having something truly special was in Casey’s chest at all times. It was her duty to read them all, devour their pages so that their stories were not wasted on an empty space. She stayed up late and her grades plunged. Teacher’s conferences went unfulfilled as her father would absentmindedly erase messages as soon as he heard them.

Of course she knew the end was inevitable. Someone else would find the library and her peace would be broken. She had just hoped that she would touch on a fraction of what the library possessed before that came. Alas, she had barely skimmed the first shelves when the hammer came down.

Casey was walking back from the bus stop when she saw Mrs. O’Neil speaking to a group of people in front of the library house. Oh. That wasn’t good. Mrs. O’Neil was a busybody who had to insert herself into every single aspect of the neighborhood.

Casey’s father was among the gathered, thumbs constantly in motion on his phone. Casey crept up to the group from the opposite direction, praying he didn’t look up.

“…and I say to you, my grandson Nathan nearly fell through one of these moldy old boards.” Mrs. O’Neil orated. Fundamentalist preachers would be jealous of her cadence. “Why, I ask you, why? So that we can keep up a bunch of eyesores that aren’t important enough to be historical landmarks? Just look!” She held up an embarrassingly puffy coat missing a button.

The crowd stirred uncertainly. What Mrs. O’Neil wanted usually fell into place because no one felt strongly enough to resist her.

Casey drifted to the front of the crowd.

“—derelict, fit only for squatters—”

Casey raised her hand.

“—my attorney called it an ‘attractive nuisance’, which I feel is all too fitting—”

“Excuse me,” Casey said loudly.

Mrs. O’Neil reacted poorly to being interrupted, perpetually frowning mouth wrinkling into an anus.

“You can’t tear it down.” Casey felt slightly feverish. “It has the library.”

“Library?” O’Neil squinted down at Casey, like she might an ant or a torn seam. Casey’s father glanced up from his phone and realized she was present.

“Yes. There’s a library. Look in that crack right there.” Casey extended a trembling finger. Someone(possibly poor Nathan’s distraught parents) had wedged a spare board in the library hole.

Mrs O’Neil shook her head. “Do you think this is funny, young lady? There’s nothing in there but roaches and spiders. Does your mother let you run around in abandoned houses?”

Casey’s father caught her arm. “That’s enough, Case. You’re embarrassing me.”

Casey felt tears sting her eyes. Oh god, she couldn’t cry. Not now.

“Just. Move the board. You will see,” she said, measuring her words out like gunshots. She felt hot and cold all over.

Mrs. O’Neil just looked annoyed now. “You see the problem? It’s a challenge for children.” Good god, she was waving at Casey. She wasn’t a child. “They think it’s fun.” The word fun shriveled and died before it ever left Mrs. O’Neil’s lips.

Casey’s father tugged her again. “Now, Case.”

Casey let herself be pulled back from a crowd shooting her pitying and mystified looks. She wanted to cry, but her throat blocked up.

“Have you been going in there? I am very—” his phone buzzed. “Hang on, just a sec.”

Casey blinked rapidly, looking up at the house. “I hate you.”

“What?” Her father was texting furiously.

“Seriously. Leave me alone forever.”

“Mmm. In a bit.”

Casey wandered away, circling around until she stood on the side of the house. From there she could hear the old bat tie up her ranting with a pledge to see the house demolished. Casey crouched among the burr clover and wild geraniums, biting back a scream. Two books nestled in her backpack, but that didn’t matter when compared to an infinite well of knowledge. She could sneak in and bear out books by the truckful and it wouldn’t minimize the loss.

She spied a lump in the weeds near the corner of the house, a bit of the brick facing had broken from the corner and fallen. Suddenly she got a flash of a poster in her school library, one that loomed over the reading nook where she had spent so many free periods curled up. Two large hands bearing an open book into the ground, green sprout shooting from the spine. “Plant an idea,” it said.

Casey pocketed the brick.

“Look, I know you really want a library, okay? Maybe one day they’ll move buildings so that it’s closer.” Her father was attempting to console her, but he drifted away with every step.

“Do you think you could take me to the Juniper library meanwhile,” Casey asked casually, “I mean, could you try?”

Her father sighed. “Casey…that’s just so…” He drifted off again. Casey glanced over and saw him texting.

She planted the brick in the garden beneath her window. Before bed that night, she read The Perils of the Poison Pen until she fell asleep.

In the morning her eyelids did not want to open. She felt a great, sad stillness that seeped through her blankets and made the whole room seem colder.

Casey?” Her father rattled in the hall, opening and closing doors. “Case? Did you move the swiffer? I just—I put it in the linen closet, third shelf. I know I did. Since when do we have four shelves? Did I miss something?”

Casey opened her eyes. The cupboard above her bed had once been someone’s medicine cabinet, mirrored door and all, that she’d converted into her bedtime reading shelf. Now she opened the double doors.

The space recessed into the wall. Casey removed a thick handful of paperbacks to reveal a second row of spines, and behind that another.

Casey smiled.

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Dave’s Blue Hole

Dave’s Blue Hole is an unusually deep freshwater spring located outside of Gunsmith, Colorado. The actual measure of the hole is unknown; the last attempt bottomed out at 115 meters before the surveyor ran out of line. The water becomes anoxic at about 43 meters. After the incident of 1988, the spring has been capped indefinitely by a metal gate. Dave’s Bait & Wait remains standing beside the entrance to the pool, abandoned after tourism dropped off completely.

The first recorded description of the spring comes from a Spanish traveler’s diary dated 1796. The writer, a Franciscan friar on his way to San Carlos, detailed a stop at a place sheltered by high bluffs. Within the cliffs, they found an unusually round spring that produced clear, crisp water. Another member of the traveler’s group fell into the spring and sank out of sight almost immediately. The group cast lines into the hole to no avail. What’s more, they found through experimentation that the water had almost no buoyancy. Light things like sticks and even folded paper would not stay on the surface for more than a moment.

The traveler also noted the existence of a petroglyph on the bluff immediately above the spring, depicting a whale-like creature. The petroglyph has been all but worn away in the intervening centuries. The rock where it sat now contains only a few faint lines.

The parcel of land where the hole lies was purchased by one David Killigan in 1860 for the princely sum of $.35 per acre. He initially intended to mine for silver but found the novelty of the hole too striking to pass up. He built a store in hopes of attracting travelers en route to the rockies, touting the supposed restorative powers of the spring. The place became a local fixture, Killigan a tolerated eccentric that added color to the countryside. When he disappeared in 1876, it raised a mild furor. Killigan’s lantern was found placed beside his shoes at the rim of the spring. A line was secured to the nearby horse-hitching post and led down into the water, upon retrieving the line they found it had been tied into a series of knots to serve as a ladder. Neighbors in town had heard him complaining of mild temblors coming from inside the spring just a few days prior. He had possibly entered the waters in hopes of discovering the source of the noise and fallen prey to a thermocline.

The shop passed from hand to hand over the years. It was a solid tourist draw, so the operation was run by an official town trust. The spring drew no more unusual interest until the onset of recreational diving as a pastime.

The spring had long been a draw for thrill-seeking divers when Mark Boyle attempted his descent on June 5th, 1988. The anoxic nature of the spring meant that many animal skeletons littered the walls of the hole. Divers who ventured past the indicated safety zone spoke of human skeletons glimpsed at greater depths, in numbers that might suggest human sacrifice. The spring had been equipped with a submerged gate that warned divers that venturing past that point was unadvisable. Mark’s plan that day was to do exactly that.

Mark had brought along two friends and a safety line as guards against a possible accident. Neither friend was diving-certified, nor did they have diving equipment.

At 3:07pm, Mark went over the side of the spring.

At 3:46 the safety line began trembling. Mark’s friends became alarmed.

At approximately 4pm, the safety line went taut. Mark attempted a rapid ascent, too rapid. He showed signs of decompression sickness when he surfaced, slurring his words and lacking coordination. As one friend raced to call an ambulance, the other attempted to administer first aid. Mark rambled about something that lived in the waters of the spring, that the spring was really just a small outlet of a much-larger subterranean body of water. He was incoherent when the ambulance arrived. He fell unconscious on the way to Gunsmith’s only hospital and died a few hours later.

After an inquiry, a second gate was set on the mouth of the spring and welded in place. Through possible corruption due to metals fallen into the spring, the water has taken on a corrosive effect. Seismic activity in the region has increased steadily since 1988.

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Hen’s Teeth

There was a large, grey egg under Norma. Norma was an Araucana, her eggs had always been light blue. What’s more, the egg was almost twice the size of a regular chicken egg.

“Whatcha say, Norma,” Denise said half in jest, “you take up with an ostrich?”

Norma was their only brooding hen, the only animal left on the farm after old Hep had been hit by a passing semi. Mitch thought it would be just fine to get along without animals on a farm that didn’t grow anything.

“Talk to me, girl.”

Norma’s eyelids were rolled up over her eyes. She seemed to tremble a little with the sharp breeze that stitched through the open coop slats. Denise set her gently down over the monstrous lump, making sure it was in the gap between her wing and body.

“Wherever you found it, you can keep it,” Denise said.

Mitch had draped the kitchen table with newspaper as he disassembled a motor. Denise set the empty egg basket on top of the fridge and picked up a rag.

“Old girl not laying?” Mitch’s tone was light.

“Damndest thing. She’s got a big ol’ grey egg out there. You think it come from a pheasant?”

“No damn pheasant I know lays grey eggs. Maybe she just needs a creme rinse. What color you call that?” Mitch pointed to her hair with an oily finger.

“Barn slat brown.” Denise flicked a ragful of crumbs at him. It was their way, the shape that love took between them.

 

The next day, the feed lay in the same place where she had scattered it. Denise frowned and put today’s scoop back in the can.

Norma was still in her little henhouse, one little cubby out of twenty. Norma had come with the house, same as the coop and the barn and the fields that were growing a fine crop of thistles. Even the man who sold them the place didn’t know how old she was. Maybe she’d gotten something rotten inside, something twisted around wrong, and she’d laid the last egg she’d ever lay.

Denise felt her little cheek patches. Were they supposed to be warm? Norma shivered in place, not stirring when Denise checked beneath her. There was the grey oval and beside it was the blue shell and saffron yolk of a smashed egg.

“Oh, hell.” Denise picked up the remnants of the wasted egg, as if that would fix anything.

“Whatcha after?” Today Mitch was staining a tobacco box.

“I’m mixing some cornmeal with water and give it to her with an eyedropper. Poor girl’s so weak she can’t come down to feed. She’s et her own.”

Mitch snorted. “Why don’t you mix her up some formula while you’re at it?”

“Don’t make fun. She’s in a bad way. Maybe we should take her to the vet.”

“Might as well take a field mouse to the vet.” Mitch wiped his hands on an oilrag. “Or even a fly.”

“I’m serious.” Denise set her hands flat on the counter. “I can’t just let the old girl go. She’s like…”

The air between them was as familiar as the track worn in the carpet from their bedroom to the bathroom. Mitch stood up suddenly.

“Up to bed,” he said, “I want to show you something.”

From the second floor, Denise could get a good look at the corner of the coop. A large pinewood box, built for many chickens before factory farms put them out of business.

No, wait. Had it been before that? Something gone bad, left only Norma?

“I don’t know why it sticks me,” she admitted, “I just—”

He said, “hush,” and they did what many couples do when they are left to their own devices in the middle of a slow day.

 

Mitch’s shout brought her from the cellar the next evening. She set down a can of preserves and hiked to where Mitch had built his work bench. “Catch your finger?”

Mitch stuck his thumb in his mouth. “Damndest thing. Some little sucker stuck me. Look over there.”

Denise looked. On the windowsill lay a deflated hornworm. The corpse was wreathed by dozens of little cotton cocoons no bigger than its eyespots. Denise felt a little chill go down her spine.

“Tobacco worms.” Mitch nodded. “I remember now. The man who had this place before couldn’t make a go of it, too many of them. He imported these little cotton wasps as a last gasp, but I guess they didn’t do the job.”

“He just ordered them?” Denise frowned at the little fiber pills. There was something unwholesome about their dust-colored thread. “How’s a man do that?”

“You can order ladybirds to eat the aphids, can’t you? Don’t see why this’d be any different.” The spot on his thumb swelled, denting in the middle. “Hell, it really stuck me. Better get the baking soda.”

“Cider vinegar,” Denise called after her husband, not turning from the cocoons.

Norma had been huddled into herself that morning, not even opening her beak for an eyedropper of corn mush. The blue egg beneath her had been whole this time, but the grey behemoth retained its place of pride. Denise had taken the blue egg inside and cracked it into her enamel mixing bowl. The yolk was a black tangle and the white was brown. She’d dumped it before Mitch could see.

So Norma was going to die. Denise knew, and perhaps had known for a long time, but something about it wasn’t sitting right with her. She wanted someone else to witness it, to confirm the wrongess of it, but she didn’t have the words to make her husband understand.

“Denny, where’s the gauze?”

Denise went to make herself useful.

 

Denise had a nightmare. Like many of the nightmares she had, it involved her husband. They were sitting around the table like always, but everything was wrong. They were both just empty, slippery skins being manipulated by something within. It was truly terrible to see Mitch turn to her, that familiar face collapsed into a hollow mask, and drop the same wink he had honed over decades of their marriage.

There were other things, murky things she forgot the second she woke. Early pre-morning light leaked into their bedroom. Mitch lay half on his side and made a buzzing sound that wasn’t quite a snore. It reminded her so vaguely of her unpleasant dream that Denise got out of bed, bare feet cringing at every creak of the floor.

The coop was still dark. Denise shuffled inside, not knowing exactly why she’d come there, but unable to find a good enough reason to turn around and get back into bed. In what little light was available, Denise could see Norma’s silhouette as she shuddered with breath. She was close to the end.

Denise drew up close. In this meager light, Norma’s lids looked almost sunken. Her breath came erratically as if she were trying to breathe at a different speed with each lung.

Denise put her hands up to the chicken’s neck. Her stomach sank as the skin depressed without resistance, only the stiff cage of backbone held chicken’s neck upright. Her mouth ashen, her hands trembling, Denise lifted the bird.

Norma’s cloaca was gaping open and black, an evil smell drifted from within. The grey egg sat beneath her, as inscrutable as the day it had been laid. Denise put a fingertip out. The surface dented easily. The egg was not shell but a soft material, resilient enough to spring back once she removed her finger. When Denise turned the egg, she found a gaping hole at the other end of it where something had torn its way out.

The chicken still moved.

 

Mitch stretched as a beam of morning light roused him.

“Den?” He knew before he opened his eyes that the bed was empty.

The kitchen was cold, the fry-pans hung in their place by the stove. “Denny? Where you been, girl?”

The truck was still in the driveway. No quilted nightgown-wearing figure sat on the porch swing or reclined on the couch.

Mitch stood barefoot in the yard. He noticed the door of the coop hung open.

“Denise?” He stalked through wet grass, dismayed at the stillness within. “Denny? You ain’t still broken up about that hen, are ya?” He stood at the threshold of the door, peering into the dim interior of the coop. “Denise? Denise? Denise?

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All Things In Time

When they opened the time capsule, there was a body inside.

Simon dropped his shovel in the red clay and fell to his knees. Kate shrieked, muffling it with her hand. Beside her, Ryan let out the response they had all thought but been unable to voice.

“Goddamn,” he gasped, “who is that? Who the hell is that?”

The body was a milk-fair girl in her teens. Her skin was so clear and white it almost seemed like her irises were visible behind her lids. Her hair was white blonde. Simon struggled to place her with any of the faces he’d ever seen in highschool, but his mind was a panicked blank.

Terry shook his head as he backed away from the hole. “We need to call the cops.”

Becky grabbed his elbow. “Are you nuts? We’re not even supposed to be out here.”

“I think the little matter of trespassing is kind of insignificant now, Beck,” Ryan said, looping an arm around Kate. “She wasn’t there when we buried the time capsule, was she?”

“No,” Kate blurted, “and that means someone dug our capsule up and re-buried it with her in it.”

Terry rolled his eyes. “No they didn’t. Disturbing packed earth would leave too much of a mound.”

“Really? That sounds like bullshit.”

“It’s not.”

“Really? Then I’m looking it up.” Kate brought out her smartphone.

Terry hit it down. “No.”

“What the f—you fucking psycho!”

Ryan got physically in-between the two. “Look, it’s not important right now. We need to call the cops sooner rather than later, it’ll make it look worse if we don’t.”

“Oh, and who’s calling them? This asshole?” Kate thumbed at Terry. “He’ll probably get into an argument with the cops about whether they’re allowed to pat us down.”

“The constitution says—”

“Fuck it!” Ryan held up his hands. “I’m going to the school, find somebody. I’ll say we’re old friends, we wanted to meet somewhere nostalgic, we stumbled on a body.”

“Oh yeah, and how will you explain the shovels?” Becky asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ryan said smoothly. “Look, I want everybody to stay cool while I’m gone, okay?”

Simon shot him a feeble thumbs-up. The others mumbled vaguely agreeing noises. Ryan set off over the field to their old high school, dodging chattering sprinklers.

“Look at her,” Becky mumbled reverently, “she’s so young.”

Becky had filled out a bit since high school, her hair chopped to jaw-level and dyed a bright red. In her high school ID, which nestled just above the girl’s shoulder, Becky smiled awkwardly at the camera in glasses and a forest of dark brown hair that sprouted from her head like sargassum.

The girl wore a plain white dress that bore no recognizable style. It could easily have been made in the 1980’s or the 1880’s. Though she was a few feet from his face, Simon was having trouble believing she was actually real. He could touch her, that might prove things conclusively, but he felt like the oil from his fingertips would stain her.

“Notice anything?” Kate asked. “She doesn’t smell.”

Simon dared to lean forward and flare his nostrils. That was right. All he could smell was the astringent odor of packed earth.

Becky frowned. “That’s…weird. People who had been dead even a little while should smell.”

“Who says she’s dead?”

Both women looked at Terry silently and then back to the hole.

“Holy hell, the ground was packed when we started digging,” Kate said, getting in close to the hole, “she would have had to be in there for a while at least.”

“Well, hermetically sealed—”

Kate stuck her hand back at Terry and made a quacking motion with it. “The ground was hard when you dug into it, wasn’t it?”

Simon realized he was being put on the spot. “Um, yeah.”

Becky sidled away from the hole it was getting harder and harder not to call a grave, rubbing her upper arms as if she was cold. “This is all really weird.”

Terry crouched beside Becky. “How’d they fit her in there, anyway? Did they take stuff out?”

Kate frowned. “They better not have taken out my judo trophy, I will be majorly fucking pissed.”

“Your trophy? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Oh sorry, am I supposed to get gooshy over a letter my tenth grade boyfriend wrote me?” Kate snapped. “He was gay anyway.”

Becky arched her brows. “Does Ryan know you two slept together?”

Kate and Terry flushed. “Whatever. That was years ago! We don’t need to dig up the past.”

“Dig up the past,” Simon said, “ha.”

It was amazing how they could still fight over these things when they had the mystery of the century at their feet. But hadn’t that been the way, even from the beginning? The time capsule had no real significance, Kate had learned about the bicentennial capsule in the next town over and bent Ryan’s ear until he convinced the rest of them. Even now, in this heat that made everything seem slightly unreal, Simon could not even be sure of their friendship. Did he truly know these people? One of them could have been easily replaced by a stranger who had done their homework and he’d be none the wiser. None of them looked like they had in highschool, not really.

Simon looked down at the girl, puzzling. Yes he had known a truly pale blonde in high school, Becky had gone around calling her an albino until the girl crushed her in dodgeball. But she had been plumper and nearly six feet tall. This girl was a whisp, a perfectly formed doll that would have barely come up to Simon’s shoulder if she stood. The soles of her feet were perfect and clean, as they had never touched the ground.

Ryan legged it back over the  soccer field shimmering with heat.

“No one’s around,” he said, leaning on his knees. Kate got to her feet and hewed to his side, giving insistent little murmurs.

“Well, that’s not a shock.” Terry stood and dusted off his pants, not looking at Ryan. “We chose this day because no one would be here.”

“So what do we do?” Becky asked, “do we…do we just call them?”

Ryan held up his hands. “Look, I have an idea and it may not be the best thing…we re-bury it.”

Shoulders of the whole group relaxed.

“But the body,” Terry protested, not very hard.

Ryan shook his head. “It’s beyond us, guys.”

Kate hunched her shoulders. “But what about the time capsule? Can we take it out?”

Ryan threw an arm around her shoulders. “Can’t, babe. That would leave a cavity. We re-bury it as is and the groundskeeper thinks some dog was screwing around up here.”

“Or burying beer,” Becky joked. They were all resetting to the people they had been before the hole. Simon felt that he was the only one stuck. He could not wrench his mind from the girl in the hole, so he faked it like he always did.

“Guess I’ll go first,” he joked thinly, grabbing up the shovel.

The first shovel-load fell like blasphemy. Simon watched the earth rattle down on the girl’s white dress and wondered if it would stain. He looked back at the group and saw them eagerly looking at him.

He kept shoveling.

The girl’s face was the last to be covered, it shone out like the bone of some extinct creature exposed by the very elements that would wear it away. Simon winced as dirt fell on her eyes. Finally there was nothing for it, and he gently laid dirt across the last remaining piece of the girl. Kate sighed behind him. They were sliding back into place like building blocks, taking shapes that were familiar and easy. Could he have gone against it? Planted his feet and refused to let it lie?

No, Simon thought, this was his place. The gap left by the four of them fitting in with each other.

They took turns stepping on the soil, pressing it out flat. The tension brought on by the girl had evaporated in the sun.

Becky almost danced out to the cars, linking arms with Kate and trying to run in step. Terry joked with Ryan as if nothing had ever been amiss. And Simon reverted to his natural place at the back of the group.

Becky hopped into her Jeep without so much as a wave. Terry took his sweet time getting into his Miata, he even sat as if it was part of a ritual. Kate had already squeezed into the passenger side of the Escape and Ryan was standing at the open driver’s door. It was now or never.

“Tell me,” Simon murmured, bending close, “you didn’t look for anyone, did you?”

Ryan looked surprised for a minute, then laughed. His laugh was infectious.

“Ya got me. Sometimes you have to bend the truth for people’s own good, you know?”

Simon glanced past him at Kate, who was busy scrolling through her phone.

“I hear that,” he said. Ryan slapped him on the back.

“Going to Paddy’s later,” Ryan said as he eased himself in, “see you there?”

Simon smiled tightlipped.

“Got work,” he lied, “I have to go clean up now anyway.”

Ryan did not press him, just threw the car into reverse and sped away. Simon was left holding the shovel, gripping it tightly.

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Mulberry Leaves

There is a nameless shrine on a mountaintop somewhere in the Nanpo islands of japan. Maps do not list it, and the torii crowning the entrance has been buried. A single red lacquer horn is all that exists to show the way to this shrine, which lies up a difficult incline of 108 steps.

The body of the shrine itself was constructed of driftwood and fitted together without nails. The only adornment of the shrine is a hemp rope bearing two ragged rice paper shide.

In this shrine is a mulberry tree. No matter how many years pass, this tree remains exactly eight inches in diameter. Instead of fruit, the tree bears silk strands.

There is a village at the foot of this mountain. They have no record of any shrine, only that the village once produced fabrics of the finest caliber during the Tokugawa shogunate. Villagers will blithely say the silk was imported, that no mulberry has ever grown on island soil. Invite them to the mountain, they will decline. There is nothing up there, why bother?

The mulberry silk strands are unusually tough and course, many magnitudes thicker than that produced by Bombyx mori. Coring the trunk is inexact, for the wood had a plasticity not common in the mulberry family. The only factor restraining regular harvest is that the silk, once plucked, takes many weeks to grow back.

In the village of this island, there were five founding families. Five homes producing silk. This is evident in the tax records of the Edo merchant who imported the fabric. Then, suddenly, there were four families. Why? Where did they go? Modern villagers will shrug their shoulders. Lots of things happen in a few years. Battles are found or lost. Ships crash. Why bother digging up the past?

Examination of the tree roots will turn up another anomaly. At the end of each root is a peculiar oblong scale. Tests of these scales show that they are not wood but a protein structure unique to the tree. Attempted removal only results in an excess of sap flowing from the point of injury.

Tax records from mainland Honshu tell of a time of unrest on the island. A dip in both quality and quantity. A peculiar red, unique to the island, vanished from the shipment forever. A note of usury from the silk supplier, demanding to know the whereabouts of a third of the raw materials. And then…nothing. The next year shows a slight uptick in production, minus the red fabric. The village no longer produces silk, getting by on subsistence farming and fishing in the modern day.

There is a matsuri unique to the island, taking place at the end of spring. Thirteen square holes are dug, and straw dummies that have been beaten with farm implements are places in the holes and set alight “to salt the ground.” Minor excavation of the festival grounds have turned up roof tiles, indicating there was once a house on the land.

Every spring, as matsuri lanterns light up the village at night, the tree weeps sap.

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The End of the Hunt

The painting hung in his supervisor’s office above the desk. Milo would toe up to the edge of the carpet and stare at it when he was being reprimanded. A lot was crammed into the canvas. Medieval hounds, painted with little care given to proper anatomy, dominated the scene. Snarls distorted their snouts. They had the eyes of men. The unlucky goose hung like an afterthought from the muzzle of the lead dog. The artist hadn’t even bothered to fill in detail on the bird’s head, leaving only a thin cyan oval to suggest a skull. The meaning of the name had escaped him until the day he spied the hunters, dressed in the same earthen tones as the surrounding vegetation. Two of them held up a theater backdrop, a painted sky that had presumably lured the bird to its doom.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” Nealy looked over the rims of his glasses.

“Yes, sir.” Milo had long ago memorized a stock set of phrases designed to appease. “I hope I can live up to your expectations.”

Nealy sighed through his nose. “Well, I guess I do too, Milo.”

Milo nodded. There was a tension in him that did not ease until he closed the door behind him. He disliked scrutiny, even in the most harmless of forms. The secretary Janet’s once-over of his body rankled, her unfocused eyes woke a nameless hunger in him. The weekend could not come soon enough.

Milo wedged his body in an aisle of the warehouse. Nearby, the guys were huddled in a rough circle, talking over styofoam coffee cups and vending machine snacks.

“…Moscone county killer.”

Milo had developed a trick wherein he appeared very absorbed in a meaningless task, but was really focused intently on something nearby. He sorted order envelopes and listened.

“I mean, really? This guy broke into five houses?”

“Always comes from the place you suspect the least, am I right?”

“Yeah. I mean, the unabomber was literally the most unassuming guy in the world.”

“The guy in the sketch was.”

“I’m just saying, Caramina’s a rich county. Nothing but rent-a-cops. I wouldn’t trust ’em to arrest the Hamburglar.”

Janet walked up, pink receipt pages in her hand.

“They’re really treating you today, aren’t they?” she said, fanning herself. Her perfume was too sweet and sat like a blanket long after she left a room.

Milo mumbled a reply. The weather was hot and damp, neither condition was relieved by the swamp cooler running behind him. He actually preferred this weather, it made his skin feel tight. It was a secret kind of excitement, kept him going despite the people around him. They looked past him, unsuspecting. He had an urge, deep and pathological, to tell them what he really did when he wasn’t at work, to watch their faces change.

“We should really do something about it,” Janet said, tucking the paper into a folder on the top of a box. Milo did not reply. He had learned that people mostly talked at him and not to him. Replies broke the rhythym of office talk. Replies brought him to their attention. He didn’t want that.

Nealy walked up, arm around a younger, shorter man. “Milo, this is Bill.”

Milo gave him a damp handshake.

The three of them stood awkwardly.

“…you know, that thing I was talking about?” Nealy prompted.

Milo assumed a look of recognition. “Of course, sir. It’s just this heat…”

Nealy nodded. “I get ya. We really need a proper AC unit.” He turned and pushed the young man forward. “Just show Bill the ins and outs. Whip him if you need to.”

Bill stumbled in mock horror. Milo donned noncommital work smile #4 and gestured out to the warehouse floor. The quicker he accomplished the task, the sooner he could be left to his own devices.

Bill was good. Too good. He asked too many questions. About the office. About Milo.

Milo began to wonder. Was he training a replacement? He didn’t mind being fired, he had been fired from many jobs, but being replaced rankled.

“So what do you do for the big weekend?” Bill was never less than a step behind, always full of bright energy.

“Erm, biking.” Milo tossed an answer off the top of his brain.

“No shit. You train for the M.E.C.? Because I’ve been looking for a partner—”

“Not professionally.” Damn. He’d gone on autopilot and dropped an order form behind a shelf. Milo scrambled to retrieve it before Bill could see the other files he’d “lost” over the course of a few months.

“Whoa, nervous there big guy?” Bill smiled. Milo hated how white it was.

“No, I’m just—I’m off my routine.”

The radio in the loading dock was on as Milo showed Bill how to fill out order reports. Blue went to the supervisor, pink was logged in the order, white—

“—was captured earlier this morning. Martin David Howe was living in a secluded shelter just off the West Jefferson trail. He had a history of stalking behavior and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. Police say he was the main suspect in the Moscone county killings for some time, it was the nature of the terrain that made the investigation drag on so long.

Milo stopped, forgetting what he was doing. His eardrums grew taught, his whole body stiffening like a receiving antenna.

Earl, at his station, nudged the radio dial. Through static, the speaker changed to a twangy country ballad. Milo stood up, perspiration cascading from his face and neck. He felt like he was peeling, like his skin was coming off in layers. He had seen it happen to a frog he’d touched against the neighbor’s electric fence in third grade. He’d savored the animal’s tense flailing at the time. Now he was afraid he might do that, lose control of himself. And he must never, ever do that where people could see.

“You okay, big guy?” Bill had his hands in his pockets, still crisp and dry, still smiling. He probably was there to replace Milo. Why not? Nothing he did mattered.

Milo bent, hands to his knees. “Sorry, I think I need to go.”

The bathroom smelled like swamp. Everywhere smelled like swamp. Milo spit in the toilet and examined the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew he wasn’t the smartest or best looking. But a man had to have something.

When he came out, Bill was over at the office door. He was facing out at the windows, hands in his pockets as he spoke to Nealy. So casual after a single day. Milo wished for one savage second that he could quit. Throw the coffee pot in Nealy’s face, see the glass shatter and watch red mix in with the dark brown of the coffee.

Instead, he slithered over like a slug. Bill turned around before he got to them, smile flawless as always.

“There he is! Feel better?”

“Actually, sir,” Milo made a point of adressing Nealy, “I think I have food poisoning. You think I can go home?”

“Again? It’s been two days—” Nealy began, but Bill interrupted him.

“I saw him earlier, Ken, he was pretty white. I’d hate to get chunked on, my first day.”

First name basis already? Milo decided not to bother coming back after he went home. There were other jobs like this. There were always other jobs.

Nealy gave his weary nod. Bill grinned.

“Hey, it’s nearly lunch. I’ll take you.”

“Oh it’s really—”

“Milo, you can’t get on the bus with food poisoning, just let him take you,” Nealy snapped, taking a shop towel to his perspiring neck. He would not look at Milo. Milo gave a one-shoulder shrug.

“I really appreciate you showing me around like this,” Bill said as Milo buckled in, “real stand-up of you. Ken says you’ve been sick a lot lately.”

Milo sank into his seat and grunted. Bill made no motion to start the car.

“Boy, I tell you, it has to be this weather. Food won’t stay good a single minute in this air. I had a hoagie, turned around to grab the salt, I swear it was moldy when I turned back.”

Milo nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against the cool window glass. The AC wasn’t on. The air in the car was still and hot.

“Lemme, guess, you got sick around the 4th, am I right?”

Milo nodded again.

“Knew it, knew it. No one cooks their meat all the way that day, too busy looking at fireworks. Then you were sick on the 14th, right? Coming back from Caramina?”

Milo nodded, drifting away. If he only had to nod, this was a good conversation.

“Must’ve had the crawfish. I hate those things, but I love ’em, y’know? More than five and my guts come up. You must’ve puked on the way back, right? They said someone cleaned the truck bed with caustics.”

Milo nodded dreamily. The car still wasn’t moving. Maybe the guy was just delaying going back to work. He hadn’t asked where Milo lived yet.

“So that was you? Whew, must’ve been some big job. Stayed out three days. Slip said you were scheduled two. You see the promenade?”

Milo nodded.

“Stuck around, see the sights? Do a little tourism? Don’t blame you, the way you’ve been working. They say they can never figure out what you’ve been doing. Making yourself indispensable, smart move. This is a good job, flexible hours. Not a lot of questions.

Milo was descending into a blissful mire. The shock of loss was beginning to wear off, and he was already planning for the future. He could find another job, another low-effort slog where they looked past him.

“I can see you’re tired, big guy. Just one thing I have to tell you.”

A metallic click. Something cold on Milo’s wrist.

“You’re under arrest.”

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The Marshes of Time and Space

Mr. Wenjing stood at the edge of the cold, dark water.

“You have one hour,” he said in clipped, nearly accentless English, “you are authorized to use only the ammunition we have given you. Anything and everything can be hunted. The trees with yellow bands—” he turned to imitate a hemlock behind him bearing a canary-colored sash, “—indicate you are nearing the limits of our territory. They are your warning. If you see the trees with red bands you must turn back. We are absolved of all responsibility if you do not.”

The man standing next to Miriam clicked his tongue, doing a little dance with his eyebrows. He held a shotgun. Pink ammo lined his belt.

The man turned suddenly to Miriam and extended his hand. “Pike Walsh,” he said, “Australian.”

Miriam nodded but did not extend her own hand. Her arms were hidden beneath the grey shawl that swathed her whole torso, hair gathered beneath a dark brown beret.

Walsh smiled, showing a dimple high in his cheek. “Don’t see many Sheilas here, forgive me. This’ll be my third time, how about you?”

A rotund man who employed a young boy to carry his guns and ammo answered without looking up. “First time. I was recommended by an associate. I’m all safaried out, you see.”

Walsh nodded, slightly irked.

“Fifth time,” said a man to Walsh’s other side. He hefted a large gun with ease. An intricate design of swirls was shaved into the side of his head. “I collect for this really upscale restaurant. They don’t even take reservations. You have to know someone. I couldn’t even eat there.”

Walsh chuckled, digging in the soft peat with his toes. The dents he made filled up with brown water.

Mr. Wenjing raised his left arm. The gathered group spread out in a horizontal line. Aside from a frightening old biddy lugging an elephant gun, Miriam was the only woman.

“Pardon my asking,” Walsh murmured out the corner of his mouth, “but you do have a gun, don’t you?”

Miriam slid her pistol out from under her shawl.

“A bit small, isn’t it?”

“I only need one shot.”

“Thatta girl.” Walsh grinned.

Mr. Wenjing dropped his arm. Galoshes and hip boots churned the freezing water into mud. The rotund man got stuck and began wailing. The others pad no mind and pressed deeper.

Miriam focused on walking, lifting one foot and finding a good place to put it down again. Visions of snapping turtles kept plaguing her, no matter how she banished them.

Walsh turned suddenly. “There!” The pink cartridge made a flash and a lot of smoke. Walsh swore, “missed!” and turned to reload.

In the beam of the flashlight taped to his gun, the restaurant hunter found an ancient yellow eye with diamond pupils. Quick as a flash, the old woman’s gun went off. The men laughed.

“All right granny,” the large man crowed.

The old woman planted a neon orange flag by her kill.

Besides sporadic sightings, the animals fell away. Their only company was the sucking sound their feet made in the muck.

“So how’d you hear about this?” Walsh said, eyes up to the treetops.

Miriam could not get out of answering this time. “It was a present. I’m a biologist.”

“No kidding?” Walsh shot her a humored look. “You know they don’t accept specimens from this place?”

“It was more about seeing them. In the flesh.” Miriam pretended to look around, blinking away the tears that were rapidly accumulating. “He knew that much was important to me.” Damn, her voice was getting thick. She coughed to cover it up.

Walsh nodded. “I was—” This time he fired without preamble. Something yelped once in the dark. Walsh struggled with his light, flickering on and off, before he trained the beam on his kill.

A thylacine sat on a raft made of dead branches. The bullet hole at its shoulder was leaking red. It breathed erratically as Walsh sloshed closer. He looked at the dead animal reverently as he gently brushed the fur of its ears with his fingertips.

Miriam crept away while he was distracted, pressing deeper into the marsh. The pros were reaching their kill quota. The first-timers were running out of ammo.

A dragon-like lizard with a bright crest reared in front of her. The rotund man sloshed up beside her, yanking his gun from the boy at his side.

“Banzai,” he cried. His gun did not flash and smoke, there was a definite bang. The other hunters zeroed in on him.

The restaurant hunter marched over and grabbed the gun from his trembling hands. “Real shells. Quentin, you asshole.”

“I’m worth more money than your entire home country, don’t lecture me,” the rotund man yelped, digging out a handkerchief to blot his trembling forehead.

“Money don’t mean jack here. You broke the rules. You’re gone. I’ll make sure you’re banned from my place, too.”

“You can’t do that, I’m on the list for July!”

“I’ll make sure they know that, strike all of your guests from the registry too.”

“Know your place, you—tradesman!” Quentin’s rage grew faint as Miriam snuck away from the scuffle. “You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for people like me….”

The cold seeped into every crack, every exposed bit of flesh. Miriam’s teeth chattered as she pressed on. An old, dead cottonwood loomed before her, yellow band shining like an eye in the night. Miriam gave thanks under her breath and pressed on. Soon the red bands appeared. Theses were not tied high like the yellow bands, instead they were laced between trees to form a sort of fence. Miriam stepped over them and continued onward. Her ears felt pressure, like she was ascending up a mountain.

It was a long, cold, difficult slog. This side had water weeds that slowed her steps. Miriam’s breath steamed as she grew closer to turning back. The worst they could do was ban her. Out here—

Something disturbed the water to the north of her. Miriam clicked her tiny penlight on.

Miriam caught sight of a grey shawl and a hunched back before the person straightened, holding a hand over her eyes. Miriam was looking at herself.

The other Miriam looked puzzled, then broke into a smile. “Mir—”

Like a gunfighter, Miriam’s piece flashed from underneath her shawl and drilled a neat hole in the other Miriam’s chest. She gasped and fell face-forward into the water.

Heart pounding, Miriam made her way over. The other Miriam was wearing the same grey shawl and—dammit! Her hat was a bright burgundy. Miriam took her own hat off and sank it in the water. Too late to look at the boots, she could just say she lost hers and took a pair that she’d found abandoned.

Miriam drew a deep breath and walked forward.

The torchlight was the same as the place she’d left. The faces were different or rearranged. Wenjing had a t-shaped scar on his forehead. An old man who could have twinned for the old woman sat on a pile of his kills. And by the refreshment cart—

“Michael!” Miriam flung her arms out, nearly tripping in her eagerness to get to shore.

Michael met her on the way, warm blanket in hand. The smell that enveloped her with his hug was the same. His touch, the same. His warm eyes were still brown when he pulled away to examine her for wounds.

“I only shot once,” Miriam confessed, “I nearly—I nearly—”

Michael hugged her again. “I understand. Did you have fun?”

Miriam dug her nose into his shoulder. “No. Better than that.”

Wenjing gave her a once-over. Miriam could feel it through her shawl. She drew away from Michael.

“I’m frozen half to death,” she said, “can we continue this in the lodge?”

Michael grinned and the air around her grew a few degrees warmer. “Of course.”

The fireplace was big enough to hold a dining table and hosted a fire made of whole trees. Above the mantel were a collection of tusks from various elephant antecessors. The floor was a cave bear skin rug. Michael fetched her a hot toddy and took her boots off, easing her feet into a bucket of hot water. The other hunters trickled in, comparing kills, slapping each other on the back. Wenjing was the last to enter, face inscrutable as always.

Miriam’s heart beat faster as he approached. He wouldn’t. He didn’t.

“I believe you mislaid this,” he said politely, and dropped a mud-crusted red beret into her foot bath.

Miriam whitened.

Wenjing gave her a long look before turning and walking away.

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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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