Chrononaut

Binder closed the door to his block room and made his way towards the stairs. The stairwell held a fresh new poster depicting a street-sweeper chugging down a filthy road with its cargo hatch open. On the road before it was the blocky silhouette of a human body. The poster bore the legend REMEMBER: IF YOU REALLY MUST KILL YOURSELF, WE DO HOME VISITS. NO NEED TO DELAY PUBLIC SERVICES.

Binder checked his inner pocket to make sure his ticket was still in place. It was.

Binder passed a woman on the stairs who collapsed in a corner sobbing dryly as if she had no more moisture for tears. She passed him, screaming, two flights down and falling rapidly. He caught up with her again on the way down to third, where the cargo net had just been installed. He closed the street door on the sound of her weeping.

Binder slid his mask over his face. The charcoal cartridges had long ticked over to red but it was better than nothing. He stepped over refuse, a few bodies and discarded waste that had been picked over for every usable nutrient. One of the gleaners actually approached Binder, twitchy and agitated. They wore a face mask but no cartridges. Their skin was so dull with grime he could barely see the sores around their mouth. Binder twisted away as they pawed his sleeve.

“Go ‘way.”

“Gotn’y carts?”

“No. Go ‘way.”

“Gotn’y  food vouchers?”

“Nah.” He walked at a brisk pace. The gleaner’s malnourished body couldn’t keep up.

“Gotn’y thing else?”

Binder surreptitiously fingered his ticket. “No. Go ‘way.”

The gleaner was left behind. Binder walked twenty blocks through the cool sunshine that managed to filter through the buildings of the city. Above him the sky boiled over with angry, dim colors, dissipating a fine dust-rain that evaporated long before it reached street level.

The facility was guarded by a brick arch whose builder had chosen to pick out the phrase MEMENTO MORI  in stones. Someone had taken a hammer to the latter half of the phrase, so now the place was known only as the MEMENTO building. Binder’s pace quickened.

He submitted his ticket to a slot in the otherwise featureless door. The door hissed open like an airlock. Binder discarded his breather, his outer layer of clothes, and the small stun prod he carried for self defense into a bin. One cavity search later, he was finally allowed entrance to the inner lab.

The building had been a crematorium once, back when fuel prices had been much lower. The lab tech wore violet goggles and thick rubber gloves that squeaked as he guided Binder to a chair. Binder couldn’t stop fidgeting as they presented him with his tray of pills. One large and violet, two small and white like orbiting moons. He swallowed them dry and closed his eyes as they tapped his cranial port and…

…he opened his eyes in his old apartment. The tear-away calendar read July 23rd. Binder blinked slowly, squeezing tears from his eyes. The room was exact: every poster, every piece of furniture. There was his snake fern, the only plant he could keep alive. There was his stove, the range light offered the only illumination in the open-floor apartment.  He could see the mound of young Binder beneath the coverlet that he’d bought with an ex-girlfriend.

Binder spent the first half hour just watching himself sleep. Marveling at the sense-memory of all those sheets and the pillow made with real goose feathers, not the recycled material masquerading as down he had in his own pillow. There he was, twenty-seven years of age, sleeping gently and quietly, without interruption. Binder marveled at the health of his taut, unblemished skin. He wanted to run a hand through his own hair and ruffle it. He wanted to call his own name to wake himself from slumber.

“Binder,” he murmured, “do you know how lucky you are?”

Young Binder stirred, murmuring slightly.

“Do you know how good that bed really feels? Do you appreciate what it’s like to eat so much you can feel full?”

Binder turned over in bed.

“Do you remember what full-blast sunshine feels like, Binder? You should spend all day tomorrow soaking up every particle you can. Don’t bother about work, because in the long run—”

The Binder in bed sat up.

Old Binder jumped from his chair. “That’s…that’s not supposed to happen.”

Young Binder held the covers halfway up his chest, drawing his knees up protectively. He looked the intruder up and down.

“Who are you?”

“That’s not supposed to happen.”

“What the hell are you doing in my room?”

“Why are you awake?”

Young Binder looked him up and down, blinking owlishly. “Are we…related? I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“I’m you,” old Binder said flatly, “and this wasn’t supposed to happen. The paradox engine—” he stopped short at the look on young Binder’s face. “Anyway, I’m not really here. This is…like a dream. It shouldn’t change from one visit to the next.”

“The next? Have you been spying on me?” Young Binder drew further away.

“And? This is my life, I own it.” Old Binder stepped closer to the bed. “I know exactly how this night is going to go. Now lay back down and go to sleep.”

Young Binder shook. “No.”

“Get back in bed. You have work tomorrow, and for lunch you’re going to have a sandwich with mortadella that you paid an arm and a leg for. You’re going to sit by the fountain and enjoy every bite, so help me god.” He was sweating now, as if hiking uphill.

Young Binder clutched his knees, looking violated. “So what if I don’t want it now?”

“You’d better goddamn eat it. Do you have any idea what your life is going to be like? Eat the good food and sleep your good sleep because it all gets worse.” Old Binder was breathing hard. “You’re going to live well and I’m going to watch you every chance I can. I entered a job lottery for this ticket. Do you know what I had to do? Reactor clean up. The job before that I had to scrape bodies off the railway because there were so many it made the trains late.”

A look of horror slowly crept over young Binder’s face.

“And do you know the best part? There’s nothing you can do about it,” old Binder slurred, poking a finger at the other’s face, “nothing. Nothing you do now will have any effect on all that. So consume life like a goddamn glutton before—” he broke off, gasping. His left eye drifted.

“A-are you alright?” young Binder sat up.

Old Binder put his hands on his knees. “Do me a favor,” he rasped. Saliva dripped from his mouth. “After work, go to the store, get some of that rich mousse, the kind with—”

And old Binder wasn’t there anymore.

Young Binder lowered his knees and stared at the spot where his doppelganger had been. Nothing, not so much as a sweat drop. He swallowed.

“It was like a dream,” he told himself, pulling up the covers. “It was all like a dream.”

He did not sleep that night.

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The Fossil Sea

My uncle Sam is missing. They say he’s dead. I know better.

Sam was my favorite relative. Most people ignore me because I’m in my bed all the time. But Sam always told me I was the best thinker he knew. He said because I didn’t have the distractions of  regular kids, I could focus on bigger things. He would bring me books, no matter how advanced mom said they were for a kid my age, and then we’d talk about them on his next visit.

I miss him.

Sam is mom’s little brother, but he stands a head above her. Little doesn’t mean smaller in this case. It means she still treats him like a kid, which is something we have in common. She’d roll her eyes at his stories about all the adventures he’s been on, cluck her tongue when he’d bring me another book. She shut herself in her room and cried all day when they reported him missing from his last dig, something she didn’t even do when dad left her. I think she really loved Sam too, she’s just not good at showing emotions. Sam said that. Like when she’d get mad and yell at me, Sam said she was really worried and sad. Said she was afraid I’d leave her someday like dad did. I don’t know why she’d be afraid. I can’t get out of bed.

I’m still reading the book Sam left with me. It’s not too thick, but it uses a lot of words I don’t know. Some of them aren’t even in the dictionary. Some are words that haven’t been used in a long time, like “squamous” or “rugose.” Sam says the best words are ones that have been forgotten, because using a word too much wears it out. He says the most powerful words are the ones that have hardly been used at all.

Sam is an archaeologist,  a word that got me double points on my last spelling test. He knows a lot about lost, secret things. He says being an archaeologist is like having a map of how the world used to be. He showed me once, on a map, how this whole state used to be underwater. We were under the ocean, he said, and that’s why there are no dinosaur fossils here like there are at grandpa Wayne’s place up in Colorado. Maybe we’d find some shells at the very most, but that’s about it. That’s why this newest dig was so important. They said he’d found the skeleton of something big, something that shouldn’t be there.

Mom didn’t like when he talked about fossils, because he talked about them like they were still alive. She said all those prehistoric monsters would give me nightmares. She was wrong, they only gave me dreams. I dream our house is underwater, that giant trilobites and nautiloids swim through our rooms. Sometimes the shadow of something big passes overhead, but I can never make out a shape in the dim light. I imagine that’s the skeleton Sam was looking for.

Sam said there are no impossible things. There is only what you see and feel with your eyes and hands. I miss him.

Sam’s dig was in the middle of the desert. The crew said they last saw him after lunch, looking out to the dunes and sipping water. He’d become really thirsty lately, and wasn’t sleeping too good. The bags under his eyes were almost as big as mine. He wasn’t doing too great. On his last visit he rolled up his pant leg and showed me a big, jagged cut on his ankle. He joked that’s where a sand-shark bit him and laughed. Mom scolded him for trying to scare me. But I knew he wasn’t. He always said something about how some things never really die…no, I’m getting that wrong. Anyway, that night I dreamed of sand-sharks, and lots of other things. I dreamed the fossil sea was still a sea, with everything moving and crawling and squirming around inside it. The waves were sand that lapped up against the rocks, and all the trilobites and nautiloids and everything else that had turned to stone lived beneath them. And something big swimming across it all, leaving a wake of sand that stood up high as the foothills…

That was when I woke up. My sheets were soaked with sweat.

Sam couldn’t get over the fossil. On the imaging software, he said the shape made no sense. It had bilateral symmetry, but the head was cephalopodal. Mom just nodded along. I don’t think she knew what those words meant. But I do. It had a squid-head on the body of something else. And nothing in all my nature books look like that.

That night Sam sat on my bed and we talked about things that swam in the prehistoric sea and I could tell something was really bothering him. I told him he could tell me, because no one listened to me anyway so I wouldn’t blab. He laughed. He told me I was the best student he’s ever had, and he almost wished he could take me to the dig. I asked him if he found a new species, would he name it after me? He looked haunted. He said it probably already has a name, it just hasn’t been used in a long time. I asked if words could go extinct too. This surprised him. He asked if I’d been reading my book. I said I’ve been trying. He smiled, and ruffled my hair. My reading lamp made the bags under his eyes look black. He said he thought words could go extinct, yes, but he thought certain words made fossils because they were too powerful to just die. And perhaps someone could excavate them and rebuild them, just like restructuring a fossil. I asked him how he found a fossil in a place he always said they couldn’t be. He just smiled and said he’d have the answer for me next time, then he kissed the top of my head and turned off my reading lamp.

Only there was no next time.

The rest of the archaeologists finished the dig. They never found what they saw on the imaging equipment. Instead they found a shelf of crinoid skeletons, which are plant-like animals and common as garden snails. They say that’s all it ever really was, the thing they saw was just a software error, but I know better. They say the knowledge that his great find wasn’t real broke Sam, but I know better. They say the mark on the upper left side of the fossil plate is just a coincidental shape, but I know better.

It’s a sneaker print. Right foot, size thirteen. The kind Sam wore.

Sam used to quote the book I’m reading now. It’s the quote that got him into archaeology in the first place. It says:

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.

I believe it. I miss Sam. I miss him so much it hurts sometimes. But I know he’s not coming back. I know it like I know the fossil plate they dug up wasn’t empty, the thing in it just swam off through the waves of sand and all the stone trilobites and nautiloids and crinoids. I don’t know exactly what it was, maybe I’ll never know, but I know what it took with it when it left.

My uncle Sam is missing. They say he’s dead. I know better.

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Bogleech Creepypasta Cook-off 2018

It’s that time of year again, boils and ghouls! Here is my lone entry for this year’s cook-off:

In the Dark

And the whole blessed archive:

Cook-off 2018

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Fixer-Upper

Jonelle shut her eyes. Beside her office window was a poster of a waterfall. In large, sans-serif font, the word “calm” was stamped over the sky.

Jonelle took deep breaths.

“Today,” she said on the exhale, “today.”

Driving up to Brentwood, she retrieved the picket-bottomed signs from her trunk and stuck them at main thoroughfares and crosswalks. She left off once she got within a few blocks of the house.

9274 Brentwood drive was clean and neat when she drove up. The lawn was dead. The siding on the east wall separated slightly. Turning off the ignition to her car, Jonelle clasped her hands and made a mental list. The house was close to three schools, two elementary and one middle school. The shopping center at Sunridge was ten minutes away. Convenience. Equity. Think, think.

The front door stuck slightly. She popped a can of 3-in-1 oil from her purse and took care of the hinges. The house had a smell that never quite went away. She opened windows and sprayed Citrus Lavender liquid potpourri liberally, three cans full. She checked light switches, faucets and sinks.

And ten am sharp, she took a deep breath and pasted a smile on her face.

“The front entryway has the original wallpaper. There is some slight wear and tear around the front door, but a few rugs down will make a world of difference.”

Couple, mid-fifties. Claimed to own three houses in the area already. The woman wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?”

Jonelle didn’t hesitate. “It’s my experience when houses stand empty for a while, they lose a lot of their familiar homey scents. In here is the den.”

She paced them into a white-carpeted room, footsteps echoing against the baseboard.

“The last owner had this room wired for satellite,” she said, hands out like signboards. “and this wall would comfortably fit any entertainment center.”

The woman scrunched up her nose. The man of the couple took a few experimental kicks at the floor.

“What’s under here?”

“Hardwood. Slight water damage, so if you pull up the carpets expect a bit of work.”

He was frowning down at the rug. “Is that…is that a wet stain?”

“Probably dust,” Jonelle said quickly, “shall we look at the kitchen?”

Despite her earlier tests, the bulb in the kitchen range did not come on. The woman clicked her tongue. Jonelle soldiered on through it, pointing out the brand-new gas range and refrigerator, all included with the house. The couple clicked switches, pulled out drawers, and frowned to themselves.

“How’s the water out here?”

Jonelle flicked on a faucet. “It’s got a little bit of a taste to it, so a filter is recommended. Some soft water tablets would be divine, but you didn’t hear it…” she trailed off.

They were looking past her hand to the sink, where the water ran red.

 

Jonelle shut the front door firmly but silently.

“Today, she chanted to herself, “I will sell this house today.”

The mysterious stain had disappeared from the living room carpet. The water from the faucet ran traitorously clear. Jonelle frowned at it.

11 am’s showing was a single man, casually dressed and alone. Jonelle brushed off her misgivings and showed him through.

“Three bedrooms that easily convert into a guest or game room,” she said, leading her way through the upstairs hall. Nothing she said changed the placid, bored expression on his face. “The yard was actually zoned for a swimming pool that never got built, so if you are into above-ground models, you’d be free and clear.”

“Yeah, ah.” He snorted. “So is this where it happened?”

Jonelle grew very still. “I’m sorry? Where what happened?”

“You know, it. The whole thing.”

Jonelle was firm. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“For what? I’m not done.” he sneered. “I wanna buy a house.”

“Please,” she said, “you can leave or I can have the authorities escort you out.”

They stared at each other, in stalemate. Jonelle did not crack.

Finally he snorted and rolled his eyes, shoving both hands into his hoodie pocket.

As she slammed the door after him, Jonelle took a deep breath.

“Today,” she promised.

 

12:30’s client was a pastor whose natural charm put her in much better spirits. He ate up the house’s quaint colonial features and fell in love with the old walnut tree out back (“I could put a rope swing for the grandkids out here.”) She felt very sure she had closed the sale when he asked to see the attic.

“Why?” She asked before she could stop herself.

He smiled. “Never had a place with a real attic before. Maybe I’ll use it as a rec room.”

Jonelle forced a smile on her face. Ever the gentleman, he refused to let her jump for the trapdoor handle, fetching down the folding stairs himself. Jonelle walked through a cold spot and frowned, but forced herself to climb upwards.

The attic was a blank, bare box. It smelled like heat, even though it was no warmer than any other room in the house. Jonelle held out a hand as the pastor pulled himself up. He took two steps into the room and the smiled dropped from his face.

“No, he said quietly.

“No?” She hated how desperate her voice sounded.

“No.” He shook his head and that was that.

She watched as he pulled away from the house, refusing any of her business cards. On her way back she tripped on an uneven bit of sidewalk and put a run in her nylons. She fished them off, glaring at the front step.

 

She gave herself two hours for lunch, running around trying to nip little disturbances in the bud. To her chagrin, the front door stuck hard when she ushered the next couple in.

The wife, a plumpish woman in her thirties, gave Jonelle a look of bottomless fatigue. Beside her and her husband were three children and a baby, all boys, all screaming.

“Sitter canceled,” she said.

Jonelle rolled with it. “Well I’m sure your boys will love the space in here…”

She took them out to the yard first. She talked sports and waxed poetic about the yard length. The husband rested his chin on top of the baby’s head as the child burbled away in his front pack. “I dunno, where we are right now has more—”

“Sam, I am not living with your mother anymore,” his wife snapped.

Jonelle felt her heart beat faster. “We’re very close to two elementary schools,” she put in, “one is Fall Creek, a new charter school, all my other clients swear by it.”

“Where’s the high school?” the wife asked.

“Twenty minutes away. But the bus stop is actually right on the corner.”

They gave a grunt, seeming impressed. Jonelle smiled.

The bulb failed on the basement steps, but she had a magnetic light bar ready to go. Sam whistled low, sighting down the length of the concrete room.

“I could put the gaming rig down here, maybe even get a pool table.”

“And get that shit out of the sewing room? God, don’t get my hopes up.” The wife turned to her middle son, who stood in the middle of the room. “Keiran, what are you doing?”

The boy flared his nostrils. “It smells…funny.”

Jonelle hurried them upstairs. “The water heater was just replaced,” she said in the bathroom. The lights were dim, so they didn’t see the rusty stream of water run clear. “40 gallons, which should be enough for any household.”

“Yeah,” Sam said drily, “should.”

A faint screaming noise kicked up in the walls. Jonelle hastily cranked the faucet, the shriek of worn metal threading covering the sound. “Shall I show you the bedrooms?”

The light in the master bedroom did not refuse to turn on, but remained flickering ominously. Jonelle stepped right into another cold spot but clenched herself so it didn’t show on her face. “…And this east wall would just be perfect for the bed. Morning light, outlets on either side—”

“This is a nice place,” the wife said, raking furrows into her oldest son’s hair, “the price is really cheap for how nice it is. Did something happen here?”

Jonelle’s face was a benign mask. “Something?”

“Like, was this a grow house or a meth lab?”

Jonelle laughed a little too loud in her relief. “Goodness no, this neighborhood is very safe. You’re actually kitty-corner from a retired police officer, Bob Albright. He holds 4th of July cookouts.”

Sam made an approving grumble.

Bit by bit, she seduced them with the house. The boys fell in love with the stairs, scooting down them as if on sleds. The wife (Brynne, Jonelle learned it and then used it to excess) loved the proximity to the community center, she wanted to join a craft group. Sam nearly bounced with excitement at the prospect of having the basement all to himself. Jonelle ended the tour in the den, waxing at length about a potential satellite hook-up.

“…and I’m sure any surround-sound set up could easily be retrofitted in.”

“You hear that, hon? Surround sound.” Sam jostled his wife’s elbow. “We could watch Real Housewives in surround sound.”

“Oh, stop.” Brynne smiled, taking years from her face.

Jonelle felt a small glow of satisfaction. “Well, I’m sure you would be a fantastic fit for this place. I do have other offers on the table, but I’m sure Mr. Wellington wouldn’t mind if…I delay…”

Gradually, it dawned on her that the family were no longer looking around the room, but at a fixed point just behind her. Jonelle turned.

On the white carpet was the damp outline of a human body, curled on its side like a shrimp. There was no head.

Sam mumbled a thanks and shepherded his family back out to the car. Jonelle remained, turning off lights and shutting shades. She almost stopped herself from locking the door, but pushed herself to.

On the front lawn, someone had left one of her signs lying on the dead grass. They’d painted “MURDER HOUSE” on the cardboard in red, drippy letters. Jonelle snagged it on the way to her car, numb. She tossed the sign on the passenger seat and then reclined the driver’s side. Jonelle crossed her arms on her stomach and breathed, trying to think of serenity and peace and other nice, soft words. She looked up to the hamsa necklace hanging from her rearview mirror and just barely caught a glimpse of a gauzy, not-quite-there figure pressed up to the house’s front window before it was gone again.

“Tomorrow,” she promised herself, starting the engine. “tomorrow.”

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Devereux’s Last Sleight

Devereux sat at a small table, nursing a glass of neon green liqueur. The table held a tealight and a single white carnation, there was not room for much else. Devereux perspired, occasionally blotting his face with a handkerchief the hue of eggplants. He waited.

The bar was poorly lit, but even by tealight he could see the only other patron, sitting skittish in a table close to the door. The occasional entrance and exit of the waitstaff threw unwanted light onto the subject, who shrank back to the refuge of his cloak, but even then Devereux could pick out the shape of a silk hat with a blinding white band. He waited.

The drink had left him four coins in change. He produced the largest and made it dance across his fingertips, disappearing and reappearing as easily as blinking. He tried the fountain and the coin obediently rushed to the top. He threw in the second-largest coin as a handicap. The trick took an extra fraction of a second, too little for anyone but him to notice. Soon all four coins were in his fist, dancing if pulled by magnet. He did the farmer’s poor daughters, three wise men, Endicott’s sleight, Caprisi’s fold, and by the time the other patron joined him at the table he was running quite low on tricks.

The other magician doffed his cloak but kept his hat on in defiance of every social nicety. Devereux greeted him with a nod.

“Joshua.”

The younger man colored unflatteringly. “It’s Blanc.”

“Ah. So you’re going by a single name.”

“Of course. It’s what all the greats do.”

Devereux noted the inclusive language. “What can I do for you, my young friend?”

Blanc fidgeted. “You know Vincelli is dead?”

“Enzo? Of course. I was at his bedside when he passed.”

Blanc snorted. “And you made off with some choice bits of his act, I’ll expect.”

Devereux leveled a long, thin gaze at him. The young man looked away. “It’s custom to sit vigil at a fellow magician’s side, no matter your prior relationship. Even putting all that aside, Enzo willed them to me.”

“Ha!” Blanc spat.

“You may not think—”

“Ha!”

“—but we were quite close, once upon a time.”

Blanc pointed a finger like a dagger. “What did he leave you?”

Devereux pretended to consider deeply. He knew the itemized list front to back, but appearances were important. “Oh…some cards, I think one pack was from the surviving Fratelli brother, the scarf he inherited from Leonard Chew, his plates—”

“The wooden guillotine.”

Devereux paused. “Yes. The wooden guillotine from the Spanish princess.”

“Ha!”

“Which I plan to retire,” Devereux pressed on. “I’ve cleared out a corner of the workshop, it’ll sit against the wall—”

“—and you’ll kill it,” the young man sneered.

Devereux squinted. “What?”

‘You’ll let it sit against the wall for whatever amount of time you have left and maybe it’ll go to another old timer and sit against the wall for however long he has left, never being used, and the trick will die and you’ll get to keep your old boy’s club sacred and secret.”

Devereaux blinked slow at the young man. “…is this about Pulver’s bullet?”

“I revived that trick. I rescued it from the graveyard, polished it, and I sent it back—”

“—that trick died with William Pulver and you had no right—”

“—I sent it back to audiences, and they ate it right up.” Blanc slapped the tabletop. “You old bastards, just sitting on a goldmine and chipping off a pebble every once in a while so that you don’t give up your wealth.”

Devereux sighed. He had put his glass up to his lips, but now he set it down. “It’s not avarice, Blanc. It’s respect.”

“Ha!”

“You should see someone about that cough.”

Blanc’s eyes were like needles, scalpels. He dissected the older magician with his gaze. “You,” he snorted, “you and your precious little boy’s club think you own this town, when you’re just afraid of redundancy. I played the amphitheatre, old man.”

Devereux gave the air of a polite audience. “Oh yes? Did you do well?”

Blanc was thrown for a second, but recovered nicely. “1200, old man.”

“Ah, very well. I myself only did 900, well, perhaps a bit over that, it’s so hard to tell with open seating.”

“Yes—”

“—and Franco, he said he pulled 1100 once but he was prone to inflation, when he died he would have sworn there were fifty swords in that coffin but it couldn’t have been more than fifteen—”

“—my point being,” Blanc said, dropping each word heavy as a brick, “I am blazing hotter than any of you back in the day.”

“Are you? Well good on you, young man.”

“And I deserve my birthright.”

Devereux rubbed the rim of the glass against his lips. “Do you now?”

“And I want you out. Or it’ll have to be a magician’s duel.”

Devereux set the glass down and laughed.

Blanc flushed again and shrank back into the safety of his cloak and hat.

“A big duel, before the whole city? For the whole city?” Devereux wiped his eyes. “Do the emperor’s bones, right here, right now.”

Blanc fidgeted. “I haven’t got cards—”

“—you call yourself a magician and you don’t—never mind, here, I’ve a spare pack.”

Blanc took the stack of cards as if handling a live mortar round. He began perfectly, pulling the king, the queen, and the jack before fumbling and dropping half the deck.

“That was your fault, you did something to the cards!”

Devereux flicked his thumb at the seal on the box, torn only seconds ago by a fingernail.

“Well I’m not a card man!”

“Ah.” Devereux prodded him. “You want to be the city’s biggest magician, but you’re not a card man?”

“Cards are for street corner hustlers.”

“Cards are the medium of gentlemen. Pulver was an excellent card man, it’s how he got Cynthia to marry him.” Devereux sighed and worked his fingertips over his eyes. “Blanc, you don’t get it. Magic isn’t a zero sum game. You need other magicians, can’t you see that?”

Blanc bristled. Then, smugly, he lifted the green liqueur and took a sip. Devereux didn’t stop him.

“I self-matriculated, old man. I came to the more senior magicians, hat in hand, but none of you would have me. I know about street corner hustlers because I was there, every cold morning, blowing into my hands.”

“Yes, as was I,” Devereux said gravely, “as were we all. Magic is a craft, not an art. Got to put in your steps, work the grind. We told you that.”

“It doesn’t have to be. The only reason you make the younger ones work those street corners is because you think it’ll humble us.”

Devereux smiled, just barely. “Evidently it doesn’t work on everyone.”

“No. I have no reason to be humble. I rose up under my own power, the power in these hands.” Blanc held his palms out to Devereux, so that he could see the nicks and divots of the journeyman’s trade. He nodded.

“You’ve got ambition, I’ll give you that,” Devereux sighed. “But ambition isn’t all. You need other magicians, Blanc, you need peers.”

“I have no peers.” the young man’s eyes were zealot-glazed.

“Then I guess we are at odds,” Devereux said, “because I can’t just let you go unchecked, careening into the night.”

Blanc’s face was defiant. “Try me old man. I’ll put you in the ground. Even with all the tricks you’ve squirreled away.”

Devereux hid a smile beneath his glass, polishing off half the liqueur. It tasted of melons and citrus, with a note hidden deep within the fruit that you would have to know by name to even taste it was there.

“You’ll take me?” he asked, spreading his hands, “go ahead then. Name your weapon.”

Blanc had been waiting for this. He stood up and doffed his cloak. “I demand you do Ali’s last step.”

“But it’s never been successfully bought off,” Devereux said, smile still barely playing around his lips.

“So you can’t then?”

Devereux stood up with a worldly sigh. He blew in each hand, swept imaginary dust from his lapels, then finally took the cloak.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “when the great court magician Ali was commanded to disappear—”

“—skip the patter, you’re not playing to the cheap seats now.”

Devereux nodded. He took one, two steps back from the table, throwing the cloak up in the air and letting it sink under its own weight. He did not flinch as it overtook him. It hung on the shape of him for a moment before sinking to the floor and laying flat as a puddle. Blanc laughed and downed the rest of Devereux’s drink. Then he picked the cloak up and tied it once more around his neck.

He walked from the bar to the mayor’s office, where he was only slightly fashionably late for his appointment.

The mayor leaned forward. “So you have Devereux’s blessing?”

Blanc shrugged. “He abdicated.”

The mayor let out a long breath. “Then you are the best magician left in this city.”

“In the country,” Blanc said, slight edge to his voice.

“Did he say anything?”

“Hmm?”

“Devereux. I remember him as a young man, such intelligent hands. Did he show you—could I see the emperor’s bones?”

Blanc’s hands produced a pack of cards before he could politely back out of the request. He shuffled them, smooth as butter, and produced the royal suite ending in an ace without stuttering once.

The mayor clapped his hands. “Wonderful! I always said the next big magician had to be a card man, and here you are.”

Blanc stared at his hands like they were strangers to him. He could still taste melons and citrus and a note of something he couldn’t place.

“Yes,” he murmured, “here I am.”

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Drowning Lessons

I was very small when my mother began them, my drowning lessons. So small I took it on faith that what she was doing was for my benefit.

To this day I have a perfect, full sense-memory of them: her pulling me out to the center of the pool cradled in her arms, treading water, the only solid thing I had to hold onto. Me gripping her and screaming in terror as she submerged us both. I can feel the pressure of liquid on my body that started out almost pleasant and then became hateful as it pressed the air from my lungs. I remember the air burning in my chest as my body mined it of all available oxygen. I remember the restriction of her arms around me that I had once seen as protective but now manacled me underwater.

When I nearly had enough, when I inhaled water in a reflexive bid to prolong my life, she would let me surface.

She called them “swimming lessons” but I knew better. We both know better.

I don’t remember having a father. My mother was closed off, what little affection she had was doled out rarely. Some months my drowning lessons constituted the only embrace I would receive from her. When she was caught and sent away, I can remember the utter stillness of her face. No sorrow, no rage, no regret. I stood shivering from the pool as the neighbor who called the cops wrapped a towel around me.

“It’s all right,” she said, “it’s going to be all right.”

Not the first lie I’ve ever been told, and certainly not the last.

I was sent to my grandparents, my mother’s parents. Since my mother had left them long before my birth, they had no idea how to treat me. How was I going to act like their friend’s grandchildren, me who had been born to a cold, murderous cipher of a mother? They kept me at arm’s length, mistaking my silence for reluctance. In truth I would have very much liked to have been held closer, but I knew no way to seek that out.

I left home the day I turned 18, and kept them at a comfortable distance. No fuss, no fury. I went from a child who didn’t need them to an adult who didn’t need them. But just because I didn’t know how to ask for affection didn’t mean it didn’t seek me out.

I found Stan, who blamed me for things his ex-girlfriend had done, and Mike, who blamed me for things he did. I found Keith who told me my coldness was the reason for his wandering eye. I found Jose, who took my silence as permission. I found Will and Brad and Brett, or should I say they found me? They all heard the void inside me, knew the shape of it by sense alone.

Then I met Elliott. I thought Elliott was different. Tall and austere and fiercely straightedge. I won’t lie and say I didn’t see shades of my mother in him, I did. His coldness, his ability to hold me close and at arm’s length simultaneously. My will to live drained each day I spent with him. His abuse took a very different form, one that looked to everyone like caring. Elliott was “saving” me from myself, the things he subtracted from my life were harmful in his eyes. My work (unfruitful) my friends (interfering) and my hobbies (time wasters). The more I shut up and went still, the better I became, but it wasn’t enough. He would send me to make tea, then reprimand me for wasting water. If I moved in bed, I was repellent. If I didn’t move, I was criticizing his technique. He stranded me in a trap of his own making and each day pulled the noose a little tighter.

The pool didn’t come as a surprise at all. I had made it clear to him my liquid phobia, and like every vulnerability I had ever given him he sharpened it and sent it right back at me.

Step into the pool, he bid, if I loved him at all, I needed to prove it.

He didn’t wait for me to undress, shoved me right in as I was lifting my sweater over my head. I landed in the shallow end and surfaced just in time to see him step in after me. He placed a hand on my head as if to pet me and grabbed my wrist with the other.

It’ll be okay, he said, not the first time I’d heard that lie but probably the last.

He pulled my head underwater and kicked my legs out from under me.

I sank into that pool and back into my childhood. I was helpless and the person I trusted most was trying to kill me. I looked up at the underside of that water, mirrored so I couldn’t even get a last look at the sky…and I realized something.

I wasn’t going to die.

It was all so familiar to me, the burning in my lungs, the pain of chlorine in my sinuses, all exactly like it had been under my mother. I knew this road, I was familiar with it.

Unlike Elliott.

He had never drowned someone before in his life. He held me under long enough that I stopped struggling, but not nearly as long as my mother had. He let go of me too soon and let me float, face down, on the water.

The splash of his feet finding the pool ladder disguised the sound of my head lifting. He didn’t look back at the pool, perhaps thinking he had beaten me so firmly in my head that the weight of my despair would sink me like a rock.

But that’s not what happened.

Because I had lessons in this sort of thing, so many years ago. And when I held him under water, it was for a very long time indeed.

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In a Lunar Cycle

August 10, 1957

No, Pete did not pick graveyard flowers for Beth. If you really wanted to split hairs, he got them from the hillside just above the cemetery, where probably no one was buried. There were other fields he could have hunted for flowers, sure, but these were unlike any flower he’d ever seen. Sweet little translucent bells, so delicate the petal disintegrated if you touched them. Lovely. Off-putting scent, though. Oddly sweetish and cloying, like meat just about to turn. The perfume only got stronger as he carried them down that hill tucked in one sweaty hand.

It didn’t matter, anyway. Beth didn’t want the flowers. Beth didn’t want him. She stood there in that yellow checkered dress with her hair up in a daffodil-colored scarf, looking like sunshine incarnate, as she told him that her and Billy Voss had been going steady for weeks now, didn’t he know that?

At some point on the walk home, Pete looked down to find the flowers had wilted in his grip, so he let them fall on the ground. Their scent lingered, gave him a headache that bloomed into a migraine that spread to his body. At home Ma sat in her easy chair, watching her soaps, didn’t even look up when Pete came in pouring sweat and stumbling. He got himself upstairs somehow, and his clothes made it to the floor. After that it was all a blur of aches and fever and night sweat. His dreams were restless things where he ran endlessly, the elastics of his leg chewing onward without input from him. At one point he glanced in a window and saw the ghost of a devil-face grinning back at him.

Pete woke in farmer Lubbock’s sorghum field, quite nude. It was before dawn, thank God, so he only had to dodge Dan Lubbock on his way home naked as a jaybird. At home he could see the window to his second-story bedroom wide open, curtains blowing out of the frame. Was that how he’d gotten out? The back door was still locked, so it seemed like that. But he didn’t feel like he’d fallen off the roof. Pete just shook his head and shimmied up the lattice leaning against the side of the house. Crazy fever. Nothing to worry about.

September 9, 1957

Pete’s errand took him past the drug store. He detoured behind some parked cars because in the window he could see Beth and Billy sharing a malt. Disgusting how they had to flaunt it around town.

Not looking where he was going, Pete stumbled into Doc Nelson. Doc’s Airedale went rigid and started growling, every curly hair standing at attention.

“Sorry about that.” Pete could feel red spread across his face.

“Shucks, Petey, Rider’s small but he ain’t invisible,” Doc teased. He knelt down and began rubbing his dog’s shoulders. “Hush now, boy. You know it’s just Petey.” Other people paused to rubberneck at the scuffle.

Pete’s face flushed deeper. He snuck a peek across the street and yes, Beth and Billy had their heads craned out the drugstore window.

“Doc I-I’m late, I gotta run these things for my ma,” he blurted, trying to edge around them.

Rider jumped, teeth showing. He tented his back and turned so he faced Pete no matter where he moved.

“Hell, Petey, you got a sausage in your pocket?” someone crowed.

Pete turned and ran, the dog catching the end of his pant-cuff and tearing it off. The sounds of laughter and doc admonishing his dog faded as he ran down the sidewalk, errand forgotten. He kept up the pace until he reached the scrub outside the town’s pumpkin patch. Pete grasped his chest, sinking to the ground. His skin felt hot and prickly as the sweat evaporated. His bones burned.

Christ. No point in going back to town for a while. Beth had seen, and Billy was probably already laughing about it. Pete walked around the far side of the patch, to the weathered wood shed that seemed to belong to nobody in particular. It wasn’t empty.

“Oh,” Pete blurted, making to close the door.

“Don’t mind, young man.” The bum sat on an old axle gestured him in. “plenty of room.”

The man smelled of stale piss, but it was the most welcome Pete had felt all day, so he sat. A bottle of whisky with the label peeled off passed back and forth between them and the day grew hazy. It was probably close to sundown when Pete stood up.

“I have to go water the plants,’ he said. His conversation partner just waved him away.

Pete remembered opening the door. Yes, clear as a bell, he opened the door and…just felt pierced. Just pierced through. Like someone had shoved a white-hot brand through his whole body. He might have screamed, he might have fallen to the ground. The world seemed to wobble and bend like aspic.

And then suddenly…

Suddenly he woke outside. Naked, and comfortably full. As he opened his eyes, he saw the letters R-I-D-E-R just before his face. Pete sat up. Before him, white with red letters, was the doctor’s doghouse. The interior stank like blood and deep claw marks rent the white paint.

Snatching a shirt and pants from the clothesline, Pete ran home.

October 18th, 1957

It had taken a while, but the buzz about Rider was dying down. As far as people figured, a passing tramp with a vicious dog had stopped in the Doc’s yard to steal some clothes. Rider had died a hero protecting his master’s dress shirt. Pete had burned the clothes in the incinerator as soon as he’d gotten home. Ma had chided him for making the house stink, but she didn’t ask what he was doing the night before. Hell, he could’ve come in with a mortar round sticking from his gut and she wouldn’t have asked. She never had.

For the first week he’d walked around jumpy at the prospect of being fingered. That someone would magically sense what he’d done and call him to the floor. But no, all that happened was Beth and Billy walking through town, holding hands, in sickening proximity.

Pete began testing himself. He snuck portions of ma’s gin, making sure to keep it topped off with water, and when that didn’t bring out the result he would purchase bottles “for” her at the store. It didn’t work. No matter how drunk he got, he never felt the liquid rage of that night. Perhaps the bum had slipped him something in the whiskey. But then he himself had drunk from the same bottle. Had he felt the same thing? Pete went back to the shed the next day, but only found a torn-open bindle. Three yards from the shed, a discarded shoe. He had run away in a hurry, but from what?

Pete finally left the mystery in a jumble. No point in straining himself too much. He sank back into his normal routine of avoiding everyone he could whenever he could. Beth and Billy were regular fixtures around town, so he tried to avoid it. He took long walks around the farmlands that bordered town, which was how he ran into Clint Willoughby and his goons.

Pete had already been feeling under the weather. The air had that sort of wobbly quality that made him think he was getting the flu. He stood on the old stone bridge that had been a carriage-way but now was just a footpath littered with orange maple leaves that crunched under his feet.

Oh, she’s a beaut. Hand her over here, will ya?

The nasal tone floated up to Pete like a mosquito, piercing his peace. Clint had never gotten over middle school, where he’d grown hard and fast like a weed and towered over everyone else at twelve. Pete had always been a favorite target of his. Maybe he could sneak away in the other direction.

No such luck.

“Hey Petey’s here,” Clint crowed. In one hand he had a girlie mag, glossy black and white pictures of Betty Page and some other blonde in bondage gear. In the other he had a flick-knife. Behind him were Nate and Gary and Rob, the mouth-breather’s club from Franklin High.

Pete teetered. It felt like he was wading deeper into warm water, his limbs uncoordinated and his balance gone.

“Please,” he mumbled, “please not right now.”

Rob and Nate grabbed his arms, Gary got his head by the scalp and brought him under the bridge. They flicked matches on him and then they made him drink out of the tin can they’d used for chewing tobacco and after a while they got bored and simply kicked him.

The sun was sinking behind Clint’s shoulders as he hefted a big rock.

“My dad told me about this tradition in darkest Africa,” he said, “they got this warrior test where they take a man out to the desert and pile rocks on him. The more rocks, the braver the man.”

“Clint, when your dad ever been to Africa?”

“Shut up,” Clint said without looking away from Pete. “You want to show me how brave you are?”

Pete was splitting, just splitting in half. Like a maggot in a peach pit, he was ripping right in half and something was coming out.

“Please,” he said.

And then he woke up.

It was still night, or early enough morning it looked like night. It would have been very easy to write it all off as a fever dream, only he was so clear-headed now it hurt. He knew he was naked. His foot hit a wet sharp chunk of something and he shut his eyes and felt his way back up to the road. Whatever was under that bridge, he didn’t want to see.

November 7th, 1957

The town was abuzz about the wolf attacks. That’s what they called it. Wolves or wild dogs. The gun shop had a special on shotgun shells. Farmers doubled up their fences. The lover’s lane was cordoned off indefinitely, leading to a lot of rushed gropings behind barns and outhouses.

Some were forced out into the open. Beth wore Billy’s school pin like a crucifix; they kissed between classes and on lunch breaks and any time the sun was up. Pete had developed a sort of low-grade heartburn that was present at all times.

Clint’s mother had shown up to school assembly the first Monday after the his death with his bloody shirt, tearfully reminding everyone to stay where there were people. Pete kept his head down not out of respect but of fear. He suspected eyes on him at all times.

What had happened that night? Anything he’d done was almost certainly in the act of self defence.  Yet he knew instinctively he could not confess his presence at the scene to anyone, because it would be taken the wrong way. So what if he was sick? That didn’t mean he was a murderer.

Pete watched Bill Voss tilt his girl’s head up and kiss her like Cary Grant in the movies. He wrung his sweaty hands, one against the other. The last thing he needed was another thing to draw attention to him. It wasn’t his fault, whatever it was.

He walked down the sidewalk after school, head down. His forehead met the steady surface of a chest. Looking up he found it was Doc Nelson, his face held no trace of his former joviality.

“Oh, Petey,” he said, “how’s your ma holding up? It’s been a good while since our last visit. She needs her scrip filled, don’t she?”

Pete mumbled something, looking down at the sidewalk. He’d become so sweaty lately, nervousness oozing out of his pores.

“You might come in for a check up yourself, looking a little green around the gills.”

His hand moved to feel Pete’s neck, and Pete instinctively slapped him away. Doc stepped back, startled.

“Or don’t,” he said, “you’re old enough to know when you need to go.”

Pete ducked into his collar and hustled down the sidewalk. Everyone was staring at him. God damn this town. God damn Billy Voss and Beth Palmer. God damn the people who pointed their eyes at him like he’d done something wrong. God damn it all.

Ma was in the easy chair, watching her soaps. She sat too close to the TV and smiled witlessly at the actors pretending to live.

“Ma,” Pete choked out. He knew it was coming on, he could feel it rushing down the track like a burning boxcar. He fell to his knees.

Ma flapped her hand. “Keep quiet, child. Got no time for your nonsense.”

Pete grasped sweatily for her hand. “Ma, please. I gotta tell you something. I think…I done something bad.”

For the first time in what felt like years, his mother’s eyes drifted from their nine-inch television screen and to his face, floating like goldfish behind her thick rimless glasses.

‘Whatchu say?” she scowled. “Whatchu say to me?”

“Something’s wrong with me, ma. I’m sick. I think I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what.”

She stared at him.

“Ma…it hurts.” A pain was parked at the base of his spine. “It all hurts. I don’t know what to do, ma. Please help me.”

Ma reached out, slowly, to touch his cheek.

And slapped it.

“You,” she hissed, “you—you—dirty boy! Wicked boy!” She rained weak blows down on his head and bent back. “You’re filthy, do you hear me? Dis-gust-ting!”

Pete hurt, the pain came from within and without. “Ma,” he sobbed, “don’t, please don’t.”

“Get away! Nasty thing!” She spat on him. “You should die!”

The fluid transition from now to then was oddly comforting. Pete closed his eyes as if in sleep and when he woke he was lying in the patch of violets under Beth Palmer’s window with an erection. His breath misted the glass as he looked down on her sleeping form, the charming twist of her cupid’s bow mouth. How hatefully calm she looked, never had a problem once in her life.

Pete walked home starkers, completely calm. As he drew close to home, he debated hiding from the men lingering in front of his splintered front door. But then Leo Palmer saw him and ran, shotgun balanced on his forearm.

“Petey,” he said, “oh damn, you too?”

Pete’s naked body was scratched and bruised from a dash through the undergrowth. Someone threw a horsehair blanket over him while they shielded him from the view of his living room.

“It’s a mess, son,” Leo said, “how’d you get away?”

“Guess I ran,” Pete said truthfully, “don’t remember much.”

His eyes were dry.

December 7, 1957

It was generally agreed that Pete should finish up the winter semester. His uncle that lived in the city was paged to take him on, at least for a few months. After all, he was nearly the age of majority, he could be responsible for himself.

Leo Palmer put him up. Pete slept on an army cot in a room with Beth’s little brother Ted and saw Beth Palmer at breakfast and supper. She made a study of not looking at him. At other times, her displeasure might have needled him, but Pete took a strange satisfaction from it now. She couldn’t escape into Billy’s lips, not at home. Pete relished in buying her mother fresh daffodils from the town florist and sticking them in a vase on the piano as Beth practiced her scales. Beth walked to the end of the driveway to meet Billy now, hair tucked under a scarf like a philandering housewife. It didn’t sting anymore. He would be gone soon. Nothing much mattered anyway.

Pete took to long walks around the fields. He was not fleeing anymore, he was etching their shape in memory. He felt he would miss them in the city.

In a dell that was blown over with snow, he found Beth and Billy locking lips.

“Supposed to stay close to town,” he said, savoring their startle as they pulled apart.

“Awjeez,” Billy exclaimed, dabbing Beth’s lipstick from his lips.

Beth stared at Pete, cold fury behind her eyes. “You’re a peeping tom, Pete Patton.”

“S’not peeping if you’re putting it out there for all to see,” Pete said. He wore no jacket, flush with his odd warmth.

“Well I wouldn’t have to, if you’d give me a moment’s peace,” Beth snapped.

“Calm down, sugar. He’s just lost his ma, he’s bound to be a little…” Billy gestured vaguely.

“Oh not even. Petey, you were a creep before and you’re a creep now,” she hissed, “and I don’t believe you’re sorry at all that your mama died.

The sunset was setting in a shade pink as Beth’s winter coat. Pete let the light fill up his eyes and drank it all in. The crisp snow, the dead gray stalks in the field, the couple shivering in their winter wear.

“Believe what you want,” he said, back prickling pleasantly. “makes no nevermind to me.”

Billy was glancing beyond his shoulder, puzzled. “What you lookin’ at?”

Pete smiled. “Wanna see something?”

December 8, 1957

Pete moved on.

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Scutt’s Palsy

Records place the first outbreak of Scutt’s island-bound illness at around 1875. Scutt lies just off the coast of Washington and boasted a population of around 300 at the time, not counting the cattle that suddenly displayed Scrapie-like symptoms. Though advised to cull the herd, there was no evidence of the islanders even moving to quarantine the sick cattle, due to the belief of the time that Scrapie was not transmittable to human beings. Instead, we see the outbreak of what came to be called Scutt’s palsy in the spring of of 1881. Victims displayed loss of motor control and speech, trembling, drooling, spasms, and finally death. One surviving brain sample taken from an autopsy (labeled H. Raglin, 24) shows spongiform encephalopathy similar to that of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. While the study of infection and disease was only in its infancy at the time, the similarities between human sufferers and the diseased cattle could not be overlooked. Islanders resisted the ordered extermination of their native livestock to the point that the national guard was dispatched to oversee the cattle’s liquidation. Losing the herd struck a blow to the islander’s pride in their self-sufficiency; too poor to import more cattle, they now had to make do with pricier imported meat or go without.

The Scutt’s palsy sufferers were exported to mainland sanitariums where they lived out the brief remainder of their lives. Scutt’s palsy passed out of vogue; with no cure or cause forthcoming the study was halted and the manpower rerouted elsewhere. Life settled down to something much like it had before the cattle’s illness.

Then, in 1907, it returned.

The fact that the resurgence even made it out to public eyes is owed to one woman: Bess Finch. Bess’s correspondence with her Scutt-dwelling sister, one Hedda Martin, ceased suddenly and unceremoniously. Bess became concerned with her wellbeing, doubly so when Hedda’s husband Edmund sent word that her sister had suddenly passed and the funeral had been held already. Despite repeated missives, Edmund refused to clarify whether Hedda had been cremated or buried, or if she had willed anything to her sister. This reticence had become common on Scutt since since the cattle cull. One anonymous source noted their funerals: “...mean and sparse, even for poor folk. The casket is always closed, the service brief to the point of blasphemy.”

Bess Finch refused to accept the widower’s explanation and created such agitation that mainland officers were dispatched to the island to investigate foul play. They found a number of doors closed tightly to their inquiry, and a grave for Hedda Martin that held an empty coffin. The island’s resident doctor had died in 1895 without replacement, so they had only the widower’s word that Hedda had died from illness alone. What seemed to lend credence to his story were the state of the islanders, many of whom displayed symptoms of Scutt’s mysterious disease.  While the initial outbreak had an infection index of around 15%, now the palsy struck closer to 45% of the population. While in 1881 it had plagued mostly the elderly and sick, now it spread equally across generations and genders.

More manpower was issued from the mainland. What had begun as a murder investigation turned into a mass arrest as newer and stranger evidence came to light. Investigators found Scutt’s slaughterhouse was in good repair despite the deficit of red meat on the island. It was only when they dismantled the building and its equipment that they found evidence of Scutt’s replacement protein wedged beneath a bin in the hide storage room.

It was a human femur.

The bin itself sat upon a trap door, once opened they found the door serviced a massive pit of bones bearing cut marks and “pot polish.” Scutt’s graveyard was subject to a mass exhumation, where they found that only one in five caskets held a body. The island’s priest who presided over the brief funerals was found to be a lay preacher unaffiliated with any church.

How, when, and why the islanders turned to cannibalism is a mystery lost to time. Perhaps a combination of bruised pride, medical ignorance, and lack of spiritual leadership worked together with the isolation of the island.  Scutt dwellers remained tight-lipped, even as they were brought to trial on the mainland. Physical evidence tells us that all funerals, barring virulent illnesses such as cholera, stood as a source of nutrition. Marrow and brains were highly prized, all but ensuring the spread of the encephalopathy.

By the time he stood trial for his part in his wife’s death, Edmund Martin already showed signs of the disease that would kill him and many others in prison. The last islander died in 1910 at 13 years of age, taking with him perhaps the last of the encephalopathy. Scutt island was evacuated after the trial and remains uninhabited to this day.

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The Magic Paintbrush

Gil read about the magic paintbrush at school. It was a story for an assignment, and he had the choice of either that or a story about a girl who loved horses. Of course he chose the paintbrush. The protagonist(which was one of seven words he had to use when writing the assignment) was a poor but virtuous boy, who only wanted to help his family. Halfway through the paintbrush was stolen by an evil emperor, who only used it for selfish reasons and ended up drowning in gold coins. The paintbrush went back to the boy, who only made humble, charitable wishes to help his family from then on.

Gil wished for that brush so hard. He knew the fairytale rules. He could make it work. He knew exactly who he would use it for. Miss Kelly down at the diner, who sometimes let him sneak food off of unbussed tables, she needed a man who wouldn’t leave bruises on her upper arms so she had to wear long sleeves in the summer. Mrs. Harvey, who used to babysit for him when he was little, her cat had died and she needed a new one. He thought, just a flash, about using it for himself. Only a flash, and it was gone just as quickly. Best to work up to the magic with some good deeds, so the paintbrush knew he was serious.

Of course, how could you tell a paintbrush was magic? In the stories they were usually old and shabby, and most folks didn’t give them a second look. Well, that would apply to most of the brushes in the art classroom, most of them barely had any bristles left. Gil slipped in to try them out, but none felt magical to him. He knew he would feel the magic as soon as the brush hit his fingertips. He had a sudden idea. Vic’s pawn shop, over by the payday loan place, probably carried brushes. And magical things always came from old trinket stores, didn’t they?

Gil had a ten left over from the last time he’d raided Pop’s wallet (the only way he got anything to eat) and so he skipped lunch and held onto the bill. He’d become so practiced he barely felt hunger pangs. Instead he stayed inside the library, doing homework.

He left the back way when school was out, running right to the shop. Old man Vic gave him a puzzled look when he asked to see the art supplies, but obliged. There was a broken easel and something called a mahl stick, along with an assortment of brushes. Most were old boar-bristle horrors or refugees from sumi-e sets, but there was one, a handsome specimen with a dark wood handle, that Gil just knew had to be the one. Vic gave him an odd look when he asked just to hold it. The brush fit his hand like it’d been made for it.

Vic looked over his specs. “That there’s a Sable round. Sable’s an antelope, son, and I hear they’re nigh-on extinct.”

That cinched it. Magic things were usually made of rare stuff. He had to have it.

“Now that there’s a nice one, son, I’ll have to ask how much you’ve got.”

Gil held up his crumpled bill. Vic frowned.

“I can tell that’s a lot to you, but…well, maybe when you get your birthday money.”

Gil felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. “I don’t get birthday money.”

“Not even from your granny?”

“She’s dead.”

“What about your Pop?”

“Gave me a scratch ticket once. He’d already scratched it.” Gil’s heart was hammering in his ears. He had to have the brush. He could always take…no. Stealing would turn the magic against him.

Vic gave a pitying look at his ripped jeans, his shirt with with so many puckered mends. “Now, that brush has been there a long while, as far as they go. I might consider letting you have it on condition, you understand? If you come by after school every once in a while and straighten up in here, you’ve got a deal.”

Gil clutched the brush and nodded so fast he thought his head would fall off. He signed an X to a contract the old man gave him and left, hand curled tight around the brush in his pocket.

The first stop was Miss Kelly, who was coming off her shift. He called, “Miss Kelly, come see what I got for you.”

Miss Kelly pushed open the back door of the diner, threw her hand over her mouth, and laughed. Gil had painted her a man on the concrete opposite the door. He didn’t know what her ideal man looked like, so he went off those romance novels he always saw her reading. Thick muscles, hair trailing in the wind, that kind of thing.

“Ain’t you just precious?” she gave him a sloppy kiss just above his eyebrow. “I gotta go now, Nate’s waiting for me and Nate don’t like to wait.”

The door slammed shut and Gil was left alone in the alleyway.

Mrs. Harvey was watching her soaps when Gil came in.

“Joseph, that you? Did your mama tell you to bring those smokes?”

“Nah, Mrs. H, it’s Gil.”

She turned her watery eyes to him. “Dill?”

“No, Gil.” He gave up. “I made something for you. Remember Mr. Muffin?”

“Muffin? He’s up on the shelf.” The old woman gestured to a bookshelf that held the jars of the cremains of her various pets.

“I made a cat for you. There.” He pointed to the wall above her dining table. He’d done the cat in marmalade-orange, poised as if he were just about to spring down.

Mrs. Harvey squinted. “Muffin? Why’d you let him up there? Git down, cat!”

Gil felt his smile slip away. “It’s a painting, Mrs. H. I made it for you, so you wouldn’t be so sad.”

The old woman grunted, flicking her attention back to the television as if Gil were a fly she’d shooed away. “Rick’s just found out Kaylee slept with his twin brother,” she said conspiratorially to no one in particular, “he’s going to duel him to the death now, you just see.”

Gil nodded dutifully. “Bye, Mrs. H.” He kissed her fuzzy cheek.

The sun was sinking as he walked, the sky turning dark as wine with blazing orange highlights. He imagined painting the sky, a new canvas every night. If only he’d been given a life where he could do nothing but paint. He squeezed the brush in his pocket and felt the solid wood. Please, he thought. As he neared the trailer where he lived, Gil’s stomach dropped again. His father’s truck was in the car port, hours early. He’d been counting on getting home before Pop was done at the bar and stashing the brush somewhere, but that hope was now gone.

Gil’s father was slung sideways on the couch, beer in hand, watching wrestling. He grunted as he heard the screen door open. By way of greeting he said, “turn out your pockets.”

If only Gil had been thinking clearly, he might have tucked the brush somewhere like the band of his underwear, or turned out everything in his pockets but the brush, but instead he fumbled awkwardly, which just made it obvious he was hiding something. Pop heaved himself off the couch and yanked Gil’s pockets out. The brush clattered to the floor. Pop picked it up and eyed it like it was a switchblade. “The hell is this?”

Gil’s mouth was dry. “On loan from school. If I lose it we have to pay damages.”

Pop squinted one eye. “Who told you you could just bring this shit home, hmm? You think I have the money to pay every time your dumb ass breaks something?” His other hand gripped his studded leather belt. “Well?”

Gil had two options. He could stay silent, take the beating, and just hope that his father didn’t break the brush out of spite. Or he could dash out the door again, making his father forget the brush in sheer rage at his defiance and earning him an even worse beating.

Gil did neither. Instead he kicked out and nailed his father between the legs. Pop gasped and doubled over, dropping the brush. Gil grabbed it up and ran.

There were several places around the trailer park Gil liked to hide when his father was in a mood. None of them seemed adequate at this point. Despite every instinct in his body screaming at him to run, instead Gil dropped to his hands and knees and squeezed beneath the trailer. He felt the screen door slam open so hard it bounced, and his father’s footsteps pound the trailer porch like an executioner’s drum. Pop bellowed Gil’s name and took off into the dark. Gil waited a good long while before creeping back into the trailer. There was a poster in his room that covered a hole his father had punched in the wall, this was where he kept his paint stash. Gripping the bottles and pots and the magic brush, Gil ran. While he ran, he pleaded. Not with his father, not with God, but the brush.

“Please,” he said as the breath shuddered in his chest, “please, I know it’s selfish to ask, but could you use your magic for me? Just this once?”

He ran until he had no breath left. The night was cold and made his sweat even colder. His skinny, malnourished frame somehow reached the old auto factory before he collapsed. How he managed to sleep at all was a wonder, but he woke up with the sun bearing down on him and his father calling his name. Gil rolled over and looked down from his perch near some old chimney stacks on the roof. Pop stood in the middle of the factory yard.

“There you are, boy.” He smiled. It was a mean smile. “A man should not have to chase his own son up and down half the town. Where’s your respect?”

He did not have his studded leather belt in hand. No, Pop carried a ball peen hammer from work, which he slapped into his palm.

“I always told you,” he drawled as he stepped closer, “you have to give respect to get respect. How’s about you show me some respect right now and git down here without me having to chase you no more?”

Gil stayed silent, watching from his perch.

“No? All right then.” Pop scratched the gravel with his foot like a bull ready to charge. “I’ll huff. And I’ll puff. And I’ll blow your house in.”

Pop set off at top speed from halfway across the yard. He’d been a fit man in his youth, and he could still go fast when he wanted to. He was going very fast when ran headfirst into the brick wall Gil had painted to look like an open door.

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Millie Turpin’s Haunted Brownstone

Millie Turpin’s brownstone was haunted. We knew that as well as we knew the sky was blue or that the ground beef at Kemp’s market was always bad. Day in, day out, she’d be rattling around the junk piled to the walls in her home like a round, pale fish. It’s a wonder she found enough room to thrash around at night, but she did. Moaning and wailing and crashing through furniture. Millie would scream at “them” to get out in her steam whistle shrieks. The people neighboring her invested in earplugs. Millie invested in the local paper. Folks say her entryway was shoulder-deep in back issues of that fishwrapper.

Millie was as old as the neighborhood, just about. Her grandparents had bought the brownstone and raised her father there. Millie herself grew up on those steps, went to school at the local Grover Cleveland elementary, she even worked for a little while out of high school. She split her time between the library and her parents, who lay at death’s door for the better part of twenty years. The Turpins. If we blame anyone for the shrieking, hoarding spectacle of our years, we blame them. They ruined Millie. Our parents always said her decline started right around the time Ruby and Joseph Turpin took to their beds and never got out again. Millie became a full-time nurse before she was old enough to vote. Any grandparent on the street could tell you exactly what the Turpins were like; Ruby, shrill and demanding and demeaning, and Joseph, so paranoid he refused to even deal with the doctors at hospital visits. Between the two of them they broke Millie.

Our parents can remember the day they found the Turpins. Completely incidental, of course. The meter-reader came by when Millie happened to be out, otherwise he never would have gotten in. A helpful citizen (Millie would wail and accuse, but no one ever fessed up to the deed) pointed out that the lock was one of the old-fashioned ones and with a little jarring, the door popped wide open. The meter-man stepped into 2305 Alcott street and clapped his hand to his nose. Inside was the most unholy air freshener-fog, mingling with something else. Something foul. The meter was in the kitchen, and the only way to the kitchen was through the den that had served as the elder Turpin’s sick room.

As far as they could figure, Ruby went first. She’d cut her leg and it had gone septic. Joseph would have prevented Millie from calling an ambulance for her mother, right up until the stroke felled him. They figured that happened while Millie was out, and without her care he fell and hit his head. They lay where they had fallen for six weeks, the coroner said, with Millie carrying on as she had around them.

Poor Millie. Naturally they had to put her someplace, and you know the hospitals were bad back then so she probably came out in worse shape than when she’d gone in. The brownstone was held in a trust, so at least she had a home to come back to. But she didn’t have a whole lot to come back with. No friends, no relatives (none that we knew of) not even a church. No, Millie went into that brownstone by herself and stayed.

The ghosts showed up shortly after.

Naturally, you’d have night terrors after such a thing. But night terrors were nothing to call the police over. The cops finally got sick of coming to our neighborhood after too many phantom burglars who vanished when they got there. That was Millie. She wore on you. After a time you learned to ignore the screams, close your curtains when she opened hers.

Millie started getting really bad around the time the makeup of the neighborhood changed. Brownstones turned into high-rise apartments, grocery carts became bodegas, and the kids spoke Spanish or Gullah. Her paranoia got worse and she got more aggressive. We all still remember the day she turned a fire extinguisher on girls double-dutching in front of her steps. The kids in the neighborhood knew Millie. They hated her.

No one’s really sure how the rumor started that she had a fortune in her place. It had weight, of course. Her secrecy, her paranoia, her thrifty ways. Buster Gutiérrez, before he quit the neighborhood one August night, used to say her folks didn’t trust banks after the Wall Street crash and started storing their money in floorboards. There was gold in that rat’s nest, provided you could shift past the mess that was already accumulating.

It was amazing. You never saw Millie out and about, but somehow the junk began to pile up in her place. Most of it was throwaway furniture people left on street corners. Of this Millie spoke only once, mentioning offhandedly that it kept “them” at bay.

“Them” of course being the ghosts she collected like fleas.

Her parents had only been the first few drops before the cloudburst. Suddenly Millie was chased from one end of her home to the other by specters every night. Somehow, and she never explained how, the hoard slowed them down. So she accumulated piece after piece until you couldn’t see properly through the windows, until the front door could barely be opened. The secret wealth rumor grew like a rash, because why go to all this trouble unless she was hiding something? It didn’t matter, of course. No one went for the money, not really. Usually the ballsy punks who wanted to go after Millie really just wanted out. After a while “Millie Turpin’s money” became a metaphor for skipping town. Punks came and went, going from leather jackets to buckskin fringe to black hoodies, and Millie stayed the same.

No one can name the exact day she died. No one knew. Going months, maybe even years without seeing Millie Turpin had become common. The smell drifting off the place had always been awful, probably down to decade’s worth of garbage never curbed, so the death-smell hadn’t tipped anyone off. No, what pushed the first domino was some anonymous punk and an act of petty vandalism. Some faceless hellraiser send a brick through Millie’s kitchen window just to savor the crash. Through the broken glass, he spied Millie, face down and pale as a beached manatee.

The coroner ruled Millie’s death as a misadventure. That’s a polite way of saying “accidentally tripped her own booby trap and died five feet from the door.” A snare cobbled from piano wire and a mattress spring that lay waiting by the table to cripple the legs of the unlucky. Millie died as she lived, mere feet from help and too proud to call for it.

Of course the whole neighborhood turned out for the clearing-out. In a way, we’d all been ready for it long before she’d died. The day they finally cracked that nut and told us more about the woman than we’d ever learn in life. Oh, we got exactly what we asked for.

We got Buster Gutiérrez.

He’d been waiting three feet from the stairs for all these years, face down beneath a bookcase full of old bricks, dried to the floor. She’d left him there. She’d left Jim Delacroix, the boy who had lit out after a argument with his father, by the old water heater. Downstairs Patrice Gibson, who had always sworn he would quit this town for something better. Well, he’d been half right.

It was like peeling a maggoty onion, each layer holding more bodies. Some people who had gone unmissed, some who had. The spinster who played organ for church found a letter jacket and sobbed into it. Now, they said, it made sense. Poor Millie was out of her wits, didn’t know the difference between the living and the dead. All these years trying to defend herself against phantoms that hadn’t been phantoms, and her poor addled brains hadn’t been able to ask for help.

….except.

Except that’s a little too neat. It would be easy to blame it on the hospital and call it a day. But think of Millie alone in that brownstone for weeks, living around her parents. Think of the quiet, the peace as first one and then the other dropped away. Think of the kind of rage built after a life of service for other people, the kind of rage that grows from being pinned to one place day after day after day. Everyone knows ghosts aren’t solid, you can’t trap them or barricade them in. And so many calls to the police for nothing, so many calls that they stopped coming out or cared about the noise coming from Millicent Turpin’s old place…

Maybe we weren’t wrong that Millie’s brownstone was haunted.

Maybe we were just wrong about what was haunting it.

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