Monthly Archives: October 2014

Trick or Treat

The door opened on a boy of about eight or nine in a dinosaur costume.

“Trick or treat.”

The teenager manning the door gave an unimpressed once-over to the boy and dumped a snickers into his felt pumpkin bag.

“What do we say, Jamie?” a male voice prompted from somewhere on the sidewalk.

The boy looked down and scuffed the cement with his shoe. “Thank you.”

“No.” The voice flattened out. “What do you say?”

The boy hesitated, looking around the porch with wet eyes.

“Can I have one extra?” he asked, “for Sarah?”

The teenager blinked, shrugged, and surrendered a single gumball.

“Thank you,” Jamie said. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but the teen unceremoniously shut the door.

“You say that at every house,” his father said as they walked down the block, “every house. ‘Can I have one for Sarah?’ Say it.”

“Dad–”

“Say it.”

“…for Sarah.”

“Good.” The father took a swig off his mug. The other hand remained curiously stationary in his coat pocket.

The next house had a plump, motherly woman answering the door. She beamed—“how cute!”—and dropped a handful of jawbreakers into his pumpkin. The door began to swing shut again.

“Jaime,” his father warned from the front walk.

“ExcusemepleasecanIhaveoneforSarah?” Jamie exhaled in one breath, leaning against the door to prevent its closure.

The woman blinked, taking a moment to process it. “You want…more.”

“For my sister,” Jamie begged, “my little sister.”

The woman’s plump face arranged itself into a smile. She winked at Jamie’s father.

“Oh sure,” she said, “for your sister. I bet she’s too little to trick or treat, huh?”

“Actually—”

Jamie.”

The woman smiled on, unaware or uncaring about the note of warning in the father’s tone.

“Well, if she’s too young to trick or treat, I’m sure she’s too young for candy,” she said, and closed the door.

On the sidewalk, Jamie shuffled reluctantly forward. His father took quick, angry strides, yanking his son by the shoulder.

“What do you say? The first thing you say when they open the door.”

“Dad–”

“The first thing? Please can I have some candy for my sister. It’s the least you can do.”

“She didn’t believe me,” Jamie pleaded.

“And you tried so hard,” his father said dryly. Jamie bowed his head.

The next house was an old man with a fishing hat. He cracked a toothless grin at Jamie’s costume, exhaling moist, smelly air and spittle when he said, “you’re that Godziller, aren’tcha young man?”

“Please sir can I have some candy for my sister?” Jamie said automatically.

The old man didn’t even hesitate, dumping another handful of individually wrapped caramels in the pumpkin.

“There you go, son.” The ‘son’ came out ‘schon.’ “Anything else?”

Jamie leaned forward. “No,” he said significantly, “my dad won’t let me go home yet.”

The old man nodded obliviously and shut the door. The cardboard jack-o-lantern on the outside swayed gently with the backdraft.

“You took too long,” his father said, “there’s no reason it has to take that long at every single door. You say ‘trick or treat’ ask for something for Sarah, and leave.”

“I did, dad.”

“You didn’t do it right, goddamn it. Ask faster. We’re going around the goddamn block, get. It. Right.”

The next house was dark.

“Maybe they’re on vacation?”

Jamie’s father chewed, working his jaw angrily so that his masseter bulged from his skin.

“I’m sure the next house will be there.

“Ask me if I give a fuck.”

The next house was a young woman who opened the door, distractedly shoved things into Jamie’s pumpkin, and closed it again, all in the space of one second.

“You let her give you a sesame log. You know Sarah can’t eat that.”

Jamie’s eyes were wet. Cringing, he said: “but she can’t eat any of it anyway.”

Jamie’s father stopped walking. Then he threw the contents of his mug in Jamie’s eyes. Jamie bawled, more out of shock than anything else. He felt, rather than saw, his father close his forearm in an iron grip. The man dragged the boy down the sidewalk, speaking over his yelps of pain and surprise.

“You are going to stop at every house until I say you can stop. You are going to get candy until I say you have enough. You are going to get the candy I tell you to. And you. Are going. To listen.” He gave a particularly hard wrench on the boy’s forearm with his last word. The boy stumbled, lips glued together mutely, eyes wet.

The lady at the next door was wearing a Christmas sweater.

“Happy hallow—” she began in a smoker’s rasp. She stopped and bent forward, peering at Jamie. “You cryin’, hunny?”

Jamie bit his lip. Jamie’s father stepped in abruptly. He patted his son’s arm with more force than the sound would suggest.

“That’s okay, ma’am,” he said, “I just told the little guy that this is the last house. He’s been making a little piggy out of himself.”

The woman looked askance at the boy, frosty green manicure poised above the pyrex dish of candy corn.

“He’s got to split his loot with his sister,” Jamie’s father prompted.

The woman gave a strange hooting snort. “Well, since this’s the last house,” she said.

She dumped half the bowl in Jamie’s pumpkin.

Jamie’s father used the “last house” line down the rest of the block. Jamie’s pumpkin overran several times, so his father stored it in a large pillowcase.

“Dad, please.” Jamie’s voice broke. His father cuffed him without breaking stride.

They walked. The houses grew fewer and father in-between.

“Dad, where are we going?”

“Shut up.” His father slurred his words slightly.

“Dad I’m—”

“Shut up.”

“—sorry.”

“Sorry?” Jamie’s father rounded on him. “You’re sorry? Are you fucking joking?”

“I am, I am.”

“You’re sorry you left Sarah? Cause I don’t think you were too sorry at the time.”

“I just—”

“Shh.” His father held up an unsteady finger. “We’re here.”

“Where?”

The house was old and what paint was left had faded into a dun color. Instead of a garage, there was a tented canopy that slumped off one of the corner poles. There was a fence all around it, made of rails split in a better year.

As they drew closer, shadows on the porch resolved into a man sitting on a swinging bench, sipping out of a steaming mug. He had a walking stick beside him, aluminum piping that terminated in four rubber-capped legs. He looked at the arrival of Jamie and his father as something unpleasant, but not unexpected.

“Hullo, Myers,” he said politely.

Jamie’s father came to an unsteady stop on the path just before the house.

“How’s it going, killer?” He tittered a little. He kept a death-grip on the back of Jamie’s arm. Jamie peered wonderingly out the mouth of his dinosaur costume.

“Mr. Avery?” he asked.

The man looked stricken when Jamie said his name, but nodded.

“You’re her brother aren’t you,” he said, “name escapes me son, sorry.”

Jamie’s father blocked his reply bodily. “You don’t get to learn his name you asshole, you didn’t even mention hers.”

Avery’s gaze was steely. “Sarah. Abigail. Myers.” He looked to Jamie. “Never forget it, not a day in my life.”

Jamie wet his lips. The man’s gaze was not unkind.

“Jamie,” he said. Avery seemed to soften.

“Jamie,” he said, “fine name. Had an uncle by that moniker. Your given James?”

“His given is ‘none of your fucking business’,” Jamie’s father spat.

Avery rocked gently, creaking. “S’pose I was to ask why you’re here.”

“I think you know why I’m here.”

“S’pose I don’t. S’pose I’m dumb.”

Jamie’s father gave his shoulder a violent shove. “Do it.”

Jamie was not expecting the action and sprawled out on the walk. His pumpkin hit the ground at an angle and vomited up a trail of chocolate, malt balls, gum, caramel apples, popcorn balls, and assorted tooth breakers. Jamie’s father upended the pillowcase, growing the pile.

Jamie’s father stood, straddling the candy and his son. “This is all the candy she might have collected. You know, if you hadn’t killed her.”

Avery winced. He took in the fallen boy, the father, and the sweets.

“I don’t think you wanna be doing this, Myers.”

“The hell I don’t.”

With considerable effort, Avery hefted himself up. He leaned heavily on the porch railing to stand.

“I don’t see how this is helping anything. And I don’t see how dragging the boy into it—”

“No, you wouldn’t fucking see.”

Avery’s winced again. “I know you’ve been hurtin’, Myers. I know you’ve lost.”

“You don’t know jack shit.”

“But I suffered too. Don’t think for a single second I wouldn’t take it all back.”

Jamie’s father laughed, a harsh, barking sound.

Suffered. You’ve suffered? You?”

Avery said nothing.

“I can tell you, you haven’t suffered nearly as much as I have.”

Avery nodded. “And him?”

Jamie’s father looked puzzledly at the road behind them, squinting. Jamie lay in the gravel at his feet.

“He lost a sister. Any reason you got to drag him into this?”

Jamie’s father pointed a trembling finger at him. “He’s just as culpable as you.”

“No he ain’t. Nowhere near.” Avery’s voice softened. “How’re you doing, kid?”

Jamie made a barely-audible croaking noise. His father shifted to bar him from view.

“How he’s doing is none of your business. Get out here.”

Avery didn’t move. Jamie’s father brought out the hand in his pocket. He had a gun.

“Get. Out here.”

Avery stared. Working hand over hand, he used the railing to help him reach the porch steps. Grabbing up his cane from the bench, he mounted the top step. A thick plastic brace prevented him from bending his knee. Stiff-legged, he descended.

When he hit the gravel, Avery leaned heavily on his cane so that the rubber feet disappeared into the gravel with every step. Jamie’s father shrank back a little at his approach. Avery was taller and, though loose skin showed on his neck and arms, at least twenty pounds heavier.

Avery stopped.

“Well, here I am.” He sounded tired. “How d’you want me?”

Jamie’s father snorted wetly. “Dead.”

“And him?”

Jamie had curled against his father’s leg, away from the approaching man. Jamie’s father gave him a sudden kick.

“That’s my business.”

“Don’t hurt him.”

“I’m his father.”

“You were her father too. Shouldn’t you have been there? Who leaves a kid to watch a kid?”

Now Jamie’s father winced, now he snarled, now he held the gun to the left quarter of Avery’s chest and pulled the trigger.

It clicked, because he had neglected to take the safety off.

Jamie’s father stared dumbly at his hand.

“Simple mistake,” Avery told him, “could’ve happened to anybody.”

With a hollow pinging noise that echoed up the aluminum tubing, Avery struck Jamie’s father down. He landed hard, his leg flung a dead weight over Jamie. The boy struggled out from under his father’s body.

Avery, surveying the scene, shook his head. He caught Jamie’s eye. He held out a hand.

“Why don’t you come on in, have some cider?”

On shaking legs, Jamie stood, and followed Avery inside.

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A Closed Play in a Single Act

[curtain up]

[the stage is not dressed, consisting only of a bare wooden floor and the wall behind it. There is no furniture, drapery, nor objects to impede the eye’s view]

[the FOOL capers out. The player is dressed in a cap and bells over a plain gray leotard. The FOOL dances madly, wearing a rictus grin, in a series of balletic movements. The FOOL stops abruptly and stares out into the theatre, making as if to speak, grinning madly all the while]

FOOL: hello?

[the FOOL does a pirouette on one toe and looks out into the audience]

FOOL: oh God, please tell me someone’s out there!

FOOL: my name is Joseph Calvin, 3110 West Arbor Street, Seattle Washington. Anyone?

[The FOOL is joined onstage by other players, robed and masked.]

FOOL: Joseph J-O-S-E-P-H, Calvin C-A-L-V-I-N. I’m 43 years old, married twelve. My wife—

[the FOOL begins dancing, twisting wildly around the other dancers, treating them like props]

FOOL: come on, someone, anyone? I know you’re there!

[the FOOL comes to a halt, face assuming a mocking expression of sorrow]

FOOL: please help me. I’m so, so scared.

FOOL: I was investigating this theatre company for insurance fraud. Gould, Gold, and Godot? I’m sorry, could you speak up, if you’re there? I can’t see you.

[the MASKS cluster at the rear of the stage ominously, turning their backs to the center stage]

FOOL: I went to the theatre on Ostrich lane, but there was no one there. It looked abandoned. Listen–

[the FOOL begins wringing imaginary prison bars]

FOOL: no such company ever existed! There were no tax records or anything like that! I only meant to look around, I swear!

FOOL: someone? Anyone!

[the MASKS begin to sway back and forth, heaving seamlessly as one mass]

FOOL: they grabbed me! They grabbed me and—and—I don’t remember!

FOOL: I don’t remember how I got here! This is one long nightmare, please, anyone?

FOOL: if you can hear me, I’m not a player! I’m Joseph Calvin!

[the FOOL doubles up in mock laughter, grabbing their belly]

FOOL: I-I can’t move! I can’t feel my body! I can’t see any of you! Please help me, I know you’re there! If this is being performed, there must be an audience, right?

FOOL: right?

[the FOOL stops and the smile melts from their face. They begin walking backwards]

FOOL: you have to help me. It’s not a joke. I don’t know what I did wrong. I don’t know what they did to me.

[the FOOL reaches the mass of the other players and rests against it, leaning back]

FOOL: I can’t see. Are you there? I can’t see. I can’t move. Where am I?

[the FOOL begins to move backwards, absorbing into the mass of the MASKS]

FOOL: someone in the audience, call the police. Even if you think this is a prank, call them. Joseph J-O-S-E-P-H, Calvin C-A-L-V-I-N. I live at 3110 West Arbor Street, Seattle Washington.

FOOL: call the cops. Call my wife. Please call my wife, tell her what happened.

[the FOOL is submerged halfway, only the head and legs sticking out. Their face assumes a sneering snarl]

FOOL: they’ve got me here as a prisoner, I can’t get out. If you can see me, hear me, get help!

FOOL: PLEASE?

[lifting an arm in farewell, the FOOL disappears completely into the writhing mass of masked players.

FOOL: Nora? Oh God, Nora? Nora, Nora, Nora, hello? Hello? Hell—

[the players slowly untangle themselves. The masks, cap and bells, and all other markers have disappeared. Completely undifferentiated, the identical players march somberly offstage.]

[curtain down]

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Coop’s Hole

Jim Cooper called it the Hell Hole and kept it covered with tarps. Our issue with it wasn’t necessarily that it was a beeline right to the domain of the hornéd one, but that it was a big goddamn hole with no railing or nothing to keep a body from tripping right into the whole mess.

Coop was a contrary soul, dating back even before he was the lone holdout to the government’s land grab for the freeway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I taught the town’s one-room schoolhouse, a holdover from the days of the Molly Maguires. Never needed more, this town ain’t exactly a bustling urban center. I think the biggest class was third grade, five kids including Matthew Brody’s little girl, but I’ll get to all that.

What happened was Coop left the tarp off his hole. Said he liked doing that when it rained, the steam it made amused him. But this time it filled the damn hole. We teased him no end about it: ‘how’s a bottomless pit get full,’ ‘Satan’s swimming to work, eh’ and soforth, but beneath that was worry.  It wasn’t right, nothing about that hole was, but this was some new shade of weird. Coop didn’t think too much of it, only Bel, his old Bluetick, drank from it. Jim, we said, ‘Jim, what you want us to do? If your hound’s fool enough to go drinking bad water, nothing to do.’

Well, Bel wandered up that exact minute, and we noticed he was leaking. Blue.

It dripped out his mouth like a waterfall of slobber. He had sores and scabs like any old hound, and these leaked too. We all just likened to gape at it, so of course the second Coop goes for the dog the damn thing skitters away. We went, fourteen strong, with Dan Herlihey’s sump pump to empty the damn hole. Coop just kept up frettin’ about his damn dog, until I told him that if that hound bit anyone, he’d be sued, blued, and tattooed six ways to Sunday. Once he shut up we had a chance to really study that thing. Coops swore that the shaft had been bare dirt as far as he could recollect, but as it drained we found this weed had taken up the wall so thick you couldn’t even see dirt. It had these tough, wide leaves that were a little see-through like seaweed. That place was so thick with it, we told Coop, there’s no way it could’ve grown in a day.

There were two implications behind that, and we didn’t like either of them.

We lowered Scutt on a step-rope, to see what he could see, but he didn’t get very far before he told us to haul him back out again. We didn’t fun him for it, either.

That day in class I told the kids that if any of them found a friendly blue doggy not to pet him. They looked at me like I had corn growing out my ears.

Right in the middle of lunch, Coop called me, on account of me bein’ an educated man. The plants were all dead, he said, crisped right up like they’d been under a heat lamp. I asked him why the hell he needed an education to see that, he said now there were flowers, but not any kind of flowers he’d ever seen. I went cold all at once and told him to cover the damned thing again until we could get a proper look at it, but when I went there after school I could see that he hadn’t listened.

He was trying to press this cottony white bud on Mabel Dornan. I hollered at him to drop it quick and Mabel lit a shuck back to her place. Coop looked mighty resentful, he said they were pretty and smelt nice, and I called him a damn fool for handling hazardous materials without a suit. That shut him up.

True enough, the plants were dead. But every one of ‘em had a bunch of those cottony blossoms on bright violet stems. They smelled like pretty poison, and I could see white motes riding the updraft from the mouth of the hole. Without waiting, I got my jerrycan and set those mothers alight. Flame shot five foot from the hole, I made Coop get back before he lost even more hair.

We all thought we were shut of it. Should’ve made Coop board it up. Should’ve capped it with cement. But Linda Herlihey thought she saw Bel making off with one of her rabbits, so we piled on and went after him. Never did catch that dog.

The wind, when it blew over the hole now, made a flute sound. Birds got drawn to it. Once they hit the updraft they would just fold up and drop into it. You couldn’t have a beer on Coop’s porch without the soft pitter-patter of sparrows committing suicide. Coop tried to set up a sign charging two bits to look into the hole, but we shut him down smart quick.

We should’ve seen it coming when Coop got all secretive. We should’ve known a long time before the lamb.

Mabel Dornan collects those fancy liquor bottles, the ones with crinkly glass and French names, and she has them all along her fence posts. One morning she called me in a whisper, said that there was a long-skinny dog eating them, I said eating them, and would I please come over. Normally I’d say Mabel had just emptied a few bottles herself, but this was right near the hole so I shut up and came quick.

Mabel was in her driveway, nursing her leg. Nasty scratch, looked like a cougar had been at her. Only, she tells me, it was a sheep. Not a dog. I ask her how the hell she knew that and she says it made sheep-sounds and had those flat eyes like a sheep. But no fur. Looked like clean pink muscle it was so hairless. She had come after it with a broom, trying to scare it away from the fence, and it had turned on her. While I was trying to get sense out of her I heard Coop’s screen door slam, and it came over me all clear what this was about.

Once I settle Mabel at the doc’s, I got the others and made to knock on Coop’s door. Coop opened it all innocent, but he was nursing a big icepack on the side of his neck. Me, I forgot the question I was gonna open with and asked him what happened. He said Bel had been all clumsy and knocked him into the wall, and we asked, Bel? Didn’t he run away? We saw from his face right away that he didn’t think that one through, so we skipped the talk and pushed right past him.

Coop didn’t dig the hole, let’s be clear. He said it was already there when he bought the place and there’s no one who can say otherwise.

I don’t know what we were expecting. I had hope that Coop wasn’t as stupid as we all thought, but then I saw the harnesses. He’d made quite a few, all different sizes. The biggest one looked just about right for a full-grown man. Coop got maybe half a word out before Scutt hit him in the stomach, and the rest of us dismantled the operation. We cut the harnesses and burned ‘em for good measure, then we found the rope and burned that too. We gave Coop a few more licks and thought our lesson learned. We thought the lamb was the only thing he’d put in there.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The last day I taught school I rolled in late because I was washing blood off my knuckles. I tried to smile easy at the kids, but something had them scairt. I tried to settle them some as I called roll, seeing as the boys were already out hunting that creature with everything they had. I got two names down the list.

Brody, Eileen.

“Here I am.”

The voice was a harsh whisper, made me think of eels for some reason. I turned around slow, because I didn’t want to look at all. It was tall as Eileen, but that was where the similarities ended. The face was a wrinkled old ruin. The eyes were purple-black like a cow’s. Aside from the withered white hands and the face, I couldn’t see any skin. From what I could make out through the sheet it gripped around itself, there was more than should be there, all coiled up like a spring.

“You ain’t Eileen,” I said, and damn if I couldn’t keep my voice from shaking. Had it been there this whole time? Why had the kids been so quiet? They all looked at me through big eyes, even the older ones.

It moved. Blinked. It swallowed and I could see the jaw bifurcate under the skin, like a snake’s.

“Yes I am.” I hadn’t seen it talk before and I wish I hadn’t now. The movements it made…it didn’t seem like it should have made sound. I picked up the big dictionary to defend myself and motioned the other kids out. They shuffled, neater than any fire drill we’ve ever had. I circled it when I left, I didn’t want to show my back to it for any reason, but the thing didn’t move. Just sat facing the same way it had. Didn’t even jump when I locked the door.

When the boys came back in to poke around, there wasn’t hide nor hair of the thing in there, only a wet black stain on the wall in the shape of a shadow. We never saw Eileen again, but we found her little ribbon.

By the hole.

Well, it doesn’t end neatly. We were still looking for that damn dog the day city folks came to usher us off the land so they could get to pouring cement. Now there’s an overpass and a parking lot and a Hardee’s where the school was. I guess that was the best thing for it, cement over all the bad memories. Eileen’s mama went to pieces, Matt moved her out of here otherwise she’d probably leave flowers on the median strip or something like that. Not the thing to do when people are trying to forget.

The hole’s gone too. They paved over it. Asked us if it was a well, seemed simplest to just say ‘yes.’ We haven’t heard anything funny.

…only, there’s this wet stain in the carpool lane that never goes away.

And they say there’s a homeless gent living in the overpass now. Shouts gibberish and spits on passing cars, smells like wet garbage. The whole shebang. They say it looks like Coop if Coop grew a big matted beard and stuck leaves in his hair. But that can’t be, couldn’t possibly be, since we hit him upside the head and threw him in his own hole twenty year ago.

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Morpheus

“…the very first thing you must learn is to beware of dreams,” the speaker said, “detailed dreams. Dreams that seem indistinguishable from waking life. Yes, especially those.”

Across the aisle, Julia crinkled her nose. Gray had been the recipient of similar admonishments these past weeks, so he didn’t blame her.

“It can and will reach out to you through all available channels.”

Gray wrote ‘eggs’ on his notepad, and then drew a square around it three times so it would look like he was taking notes. Artificial sunlight filtered through the picture windows. They were many feet underground, but the windows were dressed with suburban scenes for their benefit.

“Remember, you were not selected at random. We chose you not only for your expertise, but for your resistance to lucid stimuli. Please, if you notice anything at all, tell someone. There is no shame in seeking help.”

Gray applauded politely when the others did, but was off by a beat. Julia caught him at the door.

“You know a wandering mind is a sign of mental unrest?” she asked. He pretended to hit her with the clipboard.

The housing chamber turned out to be significantly smaller than the practice chamber. Their study subject, codename Morpheus, took up half the wall. Gray sat in the observation seating, little more than a group of folding chairs before the tube that bathed the chamber with a pulsing lavender light. The others were restless, he could see it in their nerving smiles and shifting seats. Once seated, the door hissed shut and hydraulic valves ensured it would not open again in a hurry. Gray clicked his pen and began writing.

The thing hummed with a throbbing, soothing rhythm. It was soporific. The others made endless trips to the coke machine, but Gray abstained. Soon enough, they were both jittery and jaded. Gray resorted to calisthenics.

Ten minutes before shift end, Gray went to click his mechanic pencil and it flipped spectacularly out of his hand. Gray got on hands and knees, but couldn’t see where the pencil landed.

“Does anybody have—” there was a black Bic on his seat already. He didn’t know who to thank, so he thanked the fellow sitting closest to him. The thanks went unacknowledged. Gray got back to writing, the pen moving with a fluidity he was unused to. Someone called, and Gray looked up to find the door open. Shift had ended. Gathering up his papers, he looked down at the last thing he’d written. He stopped dead.

The series of numbers was approximately half a number string he knew well. In an emergency, this could override the lock system and free him from the chamber. With numb fingers, he gathered his things.

“I mean, it could be something,” Julia said. They carpooled because her husband needed the car for his job. She snacked while Gray drove, little Japanese crackers that were individually wrapped. “But it could also just be nothing. They told us to memorize those things and tear them up, remember? I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.”

“Yes but the man said—“ Gray changed lanes. “I just want to be sure. If there’s a hole in the wall I don’t want it to be me.”

Julia laughed throatily. “Alles klar, comrade.” she toed off her shoes and rolled down her window.

“I’m serious,” Gray said, “if it can get to us through our sleep that easily, make us forget what reality’s like—you know dream shorthand?”

Julia rolled her head, hand propped against her window.

“Your mind makes shortcuts. I didn’t even see my neighbor’s face because I didn’t pay attention to it in real life. You know you can’t dream anything entirely new?”

Julia rolled her eyes. “I remember that. If you see something unfamiliar it may just be peripheral data. Or you might just be awake, who knows?”

Traffic merged into one lane ahead of him. The black vinyl of the steering wheel was hot in the setting sun. He steered with his elbows while he dug out the sheet and handed it to her. She hummed high in her nose and turned the paper over when she was done with it, as if looking for a secret message.

“It’s all right there. One minute I was recording just fine and the next—”

“Recording what?”

He licked his lips. “Readings. You know. What they told us to do.”

“Readings?” Julia’s voice echoed back at him oddly.

Gray looked down. Instead of a steering wheel, his hands were on a black plastic panel of buttons where he idly tapped out numbers.

 

“—I’m telling you it happened,” Gray said, holding the door for Julia. “I dreamed I was taking you home—”

“Whoa,” Julia said, and laughed.

Gray reddened. “Your car was…I think your husband was using it.”

“All the way in Milwaukee?” She stopped before the next set of doors and peered at him, concerned. “Did you report it?”

“I’m about to,” he said. He bid her adieu in the next hall, she went on to the atrium while he went down to security. There was a single black-uniformed guard on duty, looking bored as he clicked through the security feeds. Gray hesitated, but forced himself to march up to the desk.

“I want to report an irregularity.”

The guard shrugged. Gray looked down incredulously.

“Did you hear what I said?”

The guard nodded curtly, not looking up from the screen bank.

“I have a problem,” Gray said, trying to keep the tremor from his voice, “I think it’s reaching me in my sleep already.”

“You and everybody else, pal.”

Gray stared open mouthed for a second.

“Are you serious?” he said. The guard sighed long and thin through his nose and plonked a clipboard in front of Gray.

“I’m sorry Gary,”

“—Gray—”

“Sir, if you could fill this out with your employee ID number and complaint, I’ll get right on it,” he said in a monotone. Gray snatched the clipboard and scribbled furiously.

“I’m having a hard time believing this,” he said, “is your department supervisor around?”

The guard, still looking at the monitors, shook his head. Gray felt heat gather in his cheeks.

“Well, the next time I see him, I’m going to tell him—”

The guard wore no name tag. His uniform was in perfect order, but there was no photo id, no nameplate, nothing.

Gray stammered. “Wait.”

“Sir, please finish filling out the form.”

Gray looked down at the clipboard. In a series of boxes too long to fit his employee ID number, he had been writing the number string.

 

Julia ran into him in the hall.

“Pinch me,” he said. Julia giggled. “Just do it.”

She did. It hurt, but not enough. He smiled.

“This is a dream.”

She slapped him. It hurt too, but it was more of an echo of pain, he realized, a memory where it was supposed to be currently occurring.

Julia was watching him. “If you want something stronger, I’m afraid we’ll need assistance.”

“I don’t remember going home last night,” he said. She steered him down the hall.

“I mean it. I don’t have a distinct marker between days. When did we start this?”

“You need something to eat,” Julia said patiently, “and then a buttload of caffeine.”

“See? You can’t answer me because I don’t know!”

She smiled pity at him while she punched buttons. A tiny cup fell in the receptacle of the coffee machine and filled.

“You want creamer?”

“I’m not thirsty. Or hungry,” he said.

Julia leaned against the machine, elbow cupped in her other hand. “I’m officially concerned about you.”

Gray pinched himself. It hurt. It hurt right then and there.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t think I’m taking this assignment well.”

Julia as still watching him. “Three weeks,” she said.

“What?”

“You asked how long we’ve been working.” Her smile dimpled her chin. “Three weeks of pen jockeying, writing down random strings of fuck-all. Do you think they even feed us real readings?”

He had to smile back. “That’s not what I was hired to do.”

Her smile disappeared.

“I mean, I want to avoid going down that lane. If there’s room for questions, room for doubt, it might be able to pick at that crack, widen it.”

The fluorescent lighting made hollows of Julia’s cheeks. “Do you think it’s that strong?”

“Who knows?” he asked, “either it’s been getting me outside the facility, or it’s been fooling me into dreaming that it has. Either way, I don’t like the implications.”

Her smile came back. “Listen to you. Analyze everything that happens, even to the death.”

Gray got up. “I should. It was practically beaten into me.”

The vending machine hummed like a black obelisk in the corner, bags and boxes double-bright against the darkness. Did he feel like cool ranch or nacho cheese?

“Maybe you should get off the assignment,” Julia said behind him, “just a hunch.”

He chose potato over corn and input his choice. “Believe me, I plan to. I’m going to quit like it’s raining money.”

“Today must be your day.”

Gray stopped. He found he had not been entering the coordinates of the chip bag, but a number string. He snatched his hand away.

 

Gray set his alarm clock for six-thirty and rolled over. He was not tired, not even a little bit. Late-night television beckoned, and with a sigh he gave up and groped for the remote.

Something was wrong. The batteries were dead or dying, he kept pressing buttons and the light would come on but the television stayed off.

Gray stopped, and looked down at the black universal remote in his hand.

“No,” he said.

 

There was a line to get in today. Gray stood still as the people around him fidgeted, muttering about the holdup. Someone had abandoned a carton of Chinese food in the testing area, now the whole building was on lockdown. All Gray wanted to do was get inside and work.

He stopped short of the security door, his face reflected in the onyx glass, finger hovering over the security pad.

“No,” he said.

 

He was typing on a report. His hands moved almost independently from his brain. Gray looked only at the screen as he hit the keys, never misspelled. He made himself look down.

The keyboard didn’t match the words. There were no letter-keys, only numbers.

“No,” he said.

 

He was sitting at his desk. It was ten minutes to shift end and all his work was in the bag. He tapped his fingers rhythmically, eyes on the second hand as it crept around the clock face.

He stopped tapping. He made his hands into fists.

“No,” he said.

 

He was in the chamber. Julia was there. She stared with—was it passion? Intensity, certainly.

“Gray,” she gasped, “I love you. I love you. Please love me.”

He looked at the tank behind her. It was empty.

“You know, I never got a good look at you,” he said. Julia was silent.

Gray sat down. “I can always just stop doing things with my hands,” he said conversationally, “but you can make me forget, can’t you?”

It was back in its tank. With the shield up, the lavender pulsed into a rapid violet, almost pretty. It rotated gentle in some unseen current, deaf and blind and unborn.

“Has this whole thing been a dream from start to finish?” The thing pulsed with sympathetic radiation.

“You can dilate time, but this can’t last forever. And what then? They find me keeled over in my seat, you find another one? How many? Or am I really the only one? Is there something about me, specifically?”

Morpheus gave no answers, just floated in its liquid half-life.

Gray made fists of his hands, and then put them in his pockets for good measure.

“Well, I guess we’ll see,” he said, “we’ll just see…”

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Papers Found in a Burnt-out Jeep

The first few pages of this entry come from a personal journal from Colonel [name redacted at descendant’s request] the journal was in poor condition, owing to the humidity of the tropical environment.

–so far South we practically had to swim for cover. What’s more, the ruddy natives around here are worse than the Poonjabs. Every attempt to communicate ends with a shower of spears. I’ve never met a people so intolerant of outside influence, almost as if they know why we’re here. If Eddington has been and gone before us I shall never hear the end of it.

Jan 1, 184(5? 7?)

We’ve managed to settle in, though lord only knows when they’ll discover us and flush us out again, like bloody partridges. We’ve tried every language in the book, even the valley tongue that Pelgrom picked up as a curiosity, but these people have no interest in talk. As soon as you open your mouth, they set to such a wailing as I have never heard before, like they’re trying to drown us out. Twist suggested creeping to their huts and setting fire in the middle of the night. Serve the mongrels right.

Jan 7, [years obscure]

I was right. They’ve been trying to keep us from the far shore. The little blighters even sabotaged the longboats, though they didn’t have the courage to do it in daylight this time. Thank God for Mssrs. Smith and Wesson. Upon closer viewing, yes, the farther shore does have dwellings on it, along with people. They already seem a friendlier bunch, waving to us from shore, almost entreating. They even wear clothes, like civilized men, though I’ll leave that conclusion to our first meeting.

January [numbers blotted out by a different ink than the body of text was written with]

Eddington may have been here, but he had only whet the native’s appetites. We were greeted as royalty when we landed, the few English words they had learned parroted back at us without thought to proper structure. They touched our guns and books and made a great show of friendliness, gave us a proper welcome. I may be able to unseat that redoubtable cad in their hearts, though they are a hungry bunch. They signed the contracts, no questions, only entreated us to speak and speak more. They took the bits and baubles we gave them, then, curiously, handed them back after only a day’s enjoyment. Twist unraveled the mystery when he dropped a trinket–lac! The clever little beasts had copied and cast their own. We took it all in good humour, the poor beasts seemed embarrassed on being found out.

The big man is called something that he casually translates to Flatwater. A fine gent, in his own way. He was very insistent on speaking only English, though when he heard Pelgrom possessed knowledge of the Dutch language he added that to the table. Eddington had a Dutchman, come to think of it. I will usurp that shiftless company man if it’s the last thing I do!

February[further date obscured]

[this entry is almost completely illegible, due to ink smear and what is certainly a questionable mental state by its writer]

Stood right over me. Yes. Likable fellow. Smiles all the time. Phibs(?) gone. Pelgrom gone. No more speaking in Dutch, my knowledge isn’t enough to keep up with Flatwater. He seems to be taking it well, and speaks English better than any given Yorkshireman. Good fellow, smiling(?) fellow. The other night I saw Janos by the fire, speaking rapidly as if under duress, while one of the Yaris tribesman roasted over coals. Flatwater woke me from that dream and told me the fever had taken my mind to a strange place. Bless him, likable fellow.

I know that the rest have all gone, probably killed by those Yaris bastards. Flatwater tells me their knowledge will live on. Small comfort, bringing civilization to these mountains. Yesterday, caught him taking a peek at my books. Cheeky fellow. Good man. Perhaps I will endeavor to teach him to read, when I feel more like myself.

[the next entry has been heavily obscured by ink. Radiographic imaging shows the entry to be one word: “FUCK”. Manufacture of the ink dates it at 1970, most likely from an American India ink producer]

7/12/1973

Well, we’ve made it here, and save for a little censorship I have left Colonel [name redacted]’s journal intact. The jingoistic rhetoric present in his text serves as a pretty good depth maker for our progress here.

The Yaris are now much fewer in number than when the expedition made contact, European-bound tuberculosis is the main culprit. How sad that the first people responsible for discovery were also the downfall of these peaceful people?

Despite an initial hostility, we have made contact with the Yaris remnants. They agreed to assist in our study for a small stipend of food.

7/13/1973

How odd. There is another, more advanced settlement not too far from our location, probably the Yaro described by the colonel. But when we pressed the Yaris to explain why they did not call upon their more prosperous neighbors for help, they went quiet. Our communication is not perfect, but I think the idiom they used closely translates to “tongue eaters.” We tried to convey that we have dealt with cannibal tribes in the past, but the chief used the chopping sign I have come to understand as “wrong.” Well, whatever the tribe’s personal prejudices, we have decided to initiate contact with the tribe across the lake.

7/15/1973

Finally. After a period of coy courtship, the Yaro greeted us with open arms(not forks!) The Yaro chieftain, who asked us to call him Flatwater, said that a land dispute some generations ago fueled this feud. He expressed regret for the Yaris people but then again, one cannot offer help where none is wanted.

They are a friendly people, showed us around every inch of the village. It is very similar to the Yaris village, minus the squalor, and so clean. It’s almost a resort. The chief expressed great regret that we were leaving at the end of the day, and made us promise to return. In a cheap pulp novel, this would have been an ominous irony, but there was nothing but good cheer as we pushed away from the shore.

7/20/1973

I have told the Yaris chief of our contact with the other tribe. His reaction was odd, but not unexpected. His warriors fell silent, while he himself turned to the wall and said a phrase which more or less translates to ‘you are death.’ I am unsure of the noun context, whether “death” and “dead” are interchangeable. But the message behind it is clear: we are no longer welcome. On leaving the chief’s hut, everyone, man, woman, and child, turned their heads away. After some deliberation, we have decided to cohabitate with the Yaro, as they have been much more accommodating.

7/22/1973

Contact going swimmingly with the Yaro. The people are much more open to experience and share their own.

Something strange I noticed the other day. The Yaro have a common pattern that appears on clothing, baskets, even the walls of houses. It is almost exactly a duplicate of a similar pattern the Yaris use to label dangerous things, such as a patch of quicksand, or the mating path of a bear.

7/24/1973

The Yaro speak English! I was eavesdropping on a farmer and his friend while tilling yams, and found a few English phrases mixed in here and there. When pressed the chief admitted that yes, they had had some previous European contact and was afraid that it would prejudice us towards them. I assured him that we already knew, and communication has picked up accordingly.

7/29/1973

He’s dead. A young man from the Yaris village snuck over here, a guardsman mistook him for an enemy and left him dead from a throat wound. I told the chief we would return the body to the Yaris as a gesture of goodwill, despite his protests.

7/30/1973

The Yaris did not seem surprised to see us. The chief assured us the victim was a headstrong young man, who thought he could reason us into leaving. He remained stone-faced as I regaled him of our exploits with the Yaro. He spoke only when I asked him about the pattern.

He said: long ago, there was a brilliantly-colored beetle that would lie in wait on the forest floor for a toad to come along. The toad would immediately eat the beetle on sight, but the beetle had a strange poison in its body that allowed it to survive being consumed. The beetle would eat the toad from the inside, working for days until the toad was only a skin-shell. Then it would crawl away and repeat the process.

When I remarked that we had seen no such beetle, the chief did not comment.

8/9/1973

They’re picking up more English at an astonishing rate. American colloquialisms have worked their way in, no doubt to the lament of English explorers past. They have also constructed duplicates of some of our equipment through some kind of tree resin casting, how fun!

8/13/1973

Phillips came to me this morning. He was waiting by my pillow as I slept.

He said he’d talked to the Yaris man when he came to the village. He’d actually been shot as he was leaving, according to Phillips. I was half asleep, so bear with my faulty recollection: the Yaris man warned Phillips that this was an impostor village, and that the Yaro had been waging a campaign of terror on his people for generations for they refused to speak in Yaro presence. He said the Yaro were not men, but low things that had not even looked like men in the time of his ancestors. They had been echo creatures, mimicking wildlife cries and the shouts of hunters, leading to the Yaris tradition of remaining silent during the hunt. He said the Europeans “fed” them, so that they matured into the people we see today.

Phillips wandered off as I tried to talk sense into him. I may speak with the chief my concern.

8/21/1973

Philips is dead. He’d been gone for days, but they only just pulled his body from the water. The chief thinks he set out in a canoe for the other side and hit an eddy he couldn’t handle. The chief gave his condolences, but refused to let us leave until he could assure our safe passage.

8/26/1973

The Yaris village is gone. Looks like it was razed to the ground. All of us got sick from last night’s dinner. I don’t feel safe here anymore.

9/5/1974

well, THe dEcision to staY turned out to be Correct. Under The circumstances, Our Failing equipment Forcast ManY hardships LEGitimately Subsidizing our efforts to leave. HowEver, Lately oPinion has shifted My viEwpoints and i feel it safest to remain here.

english lessons have continued as normal. they still grasp idiomatic speech but have trouble with the written word. the tribe did not have a glyphic system, so this is not surprising. they grasp relatively well the expressions in written speech, but subtleties such as punctuation and capitalization ESCAPE them.

[There are impressions on the following pages, but the pages bearing further writing have been removed. Pencils rubbings reveal only gibberish.]

 

And there you have it. Written proof that European explorers have been to this remote area. We found no evidence of either tribe, the jungle has reclaimed the clearing that we estimate as the most likely site of the Yaris tribe. The coordinates of the Yaro tribe site match that of the government encampment, but Senior Officer Tasik assures us that this is coincidental and that no native displacement took place.

As soon as we are restored to wifi(something they assure us is forthcoming) I will upload these accounts to the internet, where it will be available at [school anonymity protected]’s database. In the meantime I will secure this and the documents before it in our camera case. The government workers offered the use of a briefcase, but what appeared to be metal turned out to be some kind of resin covered with metallic leaf.

As we wait for civilization, I practice my mother tongue with Tasik. Proost!

Per Thorson,

March 2011

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