Monthly Archives: March 2015

Sincerely

Stuart’s review sheet was waiting on his desk when he got back from lunch. He slit it raggedly with his finger and puffed air into his cheeks, blowing it out in a lazy exhale. Nothing exciting.

There was a bit of card beneath it.

Stuart flipped it, expecting the kind of inter-office memo such stock bespoke. ‘Meet me for lunch‘ or ‘your package came, it’s at my desk.’

Well, Stuart. Overall your performance has been good. Exemplary, even. But I would like to see you try harder. I believe you’re capable of more than you’ve been giving, and I think it’s only fair to the rest of us that you give it your all.

I know I’m just a co-worker and in no way your boss, but this is a personal request, from me to you.

Sincerely,

Phil Linkletter

Stuart dropped the card and shot it the finger. Jesus. That was the last thing he needed.

Work was done by four o’clock. Fifty games of minesweeper later, he was ready to leave.

Arlene, his immediate supervisor, was holding a hallway conversation with Dolores, the front desk girl. They spoke in the jittery whispers of office women. Stuart wanted to ask about the card, but by the time they turned to look at him he’d forgotten already. Instead he wished them a good night, and they did the same.

 

Tuesday there was a card in his lunch sack. Stuart considered it for a moment. Was it—-he turned it over—yes, it was the same prissy, neat script. The lines were thin, too. Probably kept his pencil razor-sharp.

Stuart

Sorry to be a bug about this, but you’ve been storing your lunch on the top shelf. It’s an unofficial rule, but I thought it was well-known that the top shelf is for sauces and relish only. If everyone starts storing their lunch on the top shelf, there won’t be any room left for the communal condiments.

I know you don’t mean it, so don’t sweat it.

Sincerely,

Phil Linkletter

Just for fun, Stuart made the arduous journey to the fridge and opened it up. There was no shortage of room on the top shelf, which held only a bottle of ketchup, Arlene’s thousand-island dressing, and a dried-out, half-eaten muffin. Stuart gave a contemptuous snort.

 

After a bathroom break he found another card, taped face-down to his door like a test with a bad grade. Stuart tore it off with no small amount of ire.

Your phone was ringing, but your door was shut. Please think of your coworkers in the future. I was unable to get to the phone, and the ringing was very disruptive. Please don’t let it happen again.

Sincerely,

Phil Linkletter

Stuart turned to Sophie, who was adding to the rubber-band ball in her cubicle.

“Did my phone ring?”

“Huh? Oh–” she shrugged. “Maybe. you have a machine, right?”

There was another card that had apparently been slid beneath the door. He stepped on it before he picked it up.

Stuart

I also noticed you give the wrong information in your answering machine message. You gave 1108, which is the code for the old office. Anyone calling to locate you would have a pretty time trying to find you. Please fix it.

Sincerely,

Phil Linkletter

Stuart cast an eye over the cubicles. Sophie’s cubicle was the only one near enough to the door that she could hear the phone clearly. He tried to look for suspicious heads, of someone bent too intently over their work. This being immediately post-lunch, he found no one.

Stuart knuckle-rapped Arlene’s doorjamb.

“Can I bug you for a minute?”

“Okay.” Arlene was squinting at a pile of forms, a repairman stood off to one side of the room.

“Can you ask Phil to lay off my back? He’s gotten the idea in his head that he’s my copilot.”

“Sure thing, where’s he sit?” she asked without looking up.

“I don’t know. I keep finding these—” he produced a little card from his pocket. Arlene took it and squinted, her glasses left dangling around her neck. She mouthed a little as she read the words.

“Wow, someone has a lot of love for you,” she said, handing it back.

“Can you do anything?”

“Sure, just bring him in the next time you see him.”

“That’s the problem,” Stuart said as patiently as he could, “I never see him. He keeps slipping these in my things.”

Arlene took the card again, studying it. Stuart could see her mouth the name.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. Poor guy’s probably been stressed lately.”

“Fantastic.”

Stuart hunted among the cubicles as he walked back. No suspicious industry.

 

The next card was on his chair seat. He didn’t see it and spent a blissfully ignorant morning thinking it had been dealt with. He stood to go to lunch with Katie and she pointed behind him.

“You dropped something.”

Stuart picked it up, and a little pebble of dread dropped into his stomach.

Stuart

That was very hurtful of you to go to management immediately. You could have talked to me, and we would have met a much more peaceable solution. I do not appreciate being treated like a problem.

I try to be a good coworker, and all I ask is that you do the same,

Sincerely,

Phil Linkletter

Katie looked it over at the sushi restaurant. She whistled low.

“Guy’s after your nuts, I guess.”

“I know. I’m trying not to let it get to me, but…” Stuart stabbed his boba pearls with his straw. ” You know any way I could find out who this guy is? I’m not going to get him fired. I just want it to stop.”

Katie chewed her unagi, cheek working as she looked the card over.

“Pete Hellstrom?” She took a swig of green tea. “He’s a stand-up guy, gave my car a jump last August when I got stuck in the lot. Also, he works in the mail room, so he probably knows where everyone is.”

Stuart treated her for that.

 

Pete squinted at the card. “You want me to find Bill—”

“Phil.”

“—Phil, here? He got something on you? I don’t want to be an accessory after the fact.”

“No, no.” Stuart coughed. “It’s not like that. The guy’s just leaving passive-aggressive notes without speaking to my face. It’s driving me nuts.”

Pete looked him over. “…that’s all?”

“That’s all, man.”

 

Pete dropped an envelope on his desk before end of day. Stuart was surprised by the promptness, but even more surprised by Pete’s suddenly gruff manner.

“Here it is. Didn’t have to dig too hard for it. but man—” he jabbed a finger in Stuart’s direction, “you better leave him alone, that’s all I’m saying.”

Stuart held his hands up. “Hey, I told you what this was. I promise, I swear.”

Pete gave a little head shake, like it was all too much, and got up from his seat. Stuart waited until he had left the room to open it up.

It was a collection of photocopied status reports and memos. Stuart had a feeling these were a little less-than-legal, and made a mental note to burn them.

Apparently the guy had been having bad year. Attendance sporadic, sudden departures in the middle of the day, arriving late and leaving early. His work quality had suffered in suit. Stuart turned the page and it dawned on him what an absolute asshole he was.

The sudden departures had been medically excused. Stuart had a precise timeline of all his tardy days, which lined up exactly with hospital visits. Apparently his wife, Gladys, had cancer. Stuart was already regretting this deeply when he turned to the last page and saw the request for extended grief leave. It was typed, not handwritten, and suspiciously dotted in some places. It asked time off to attend his wife’s funeral. The end was signed.

Stuart was so shaken it took him a few read-throughs to notice it. At first he excused the signature for being shaky, because the signer was obviously under stress. Poor, poor old Bill–

Wait.

Stuart reread the signature. It said Bill Linklater.

Bill. Linklater.

Stuart pulled out a card. Aside from the dramatic difference in writing quality, the card very clearly said Phil Linkletter. Stuart stared at both of the papers, not even knowing where to begin.

 

“I want to register a formal complaint of harassment,” he said.

He dumped every card he had gotten so far on Denise’s desk. The HR troll rolled her eyes just a bit as she slid a form forward. He slid an already-complete form back to her.

“Please,” he whispered urgently, “I don’t know what this is all about. These have been appearing everywhere. They were on my desk. They were in my office.”

Denise took a card, made a cursory examination, and then waddled to her filing cabinet.

She waddled back. “My records show that Mr. Linklater has not been in for two weeks.”

Stuart’s voice cracked a bit as he said, “Link-letter.” He nudged another card forward.

Denise looked over the card again. She waddled to the back. She was gone for quite a while. Stuart looked up and down the hall. Jerome from sales was describing a baseball game to Heather from the phone bank, who was looking desperately interested. The repair man was ratcheting something in the ac unit. Paranoid sweat itched his neck. God, let this be a practical joke.

Denise waddled back in a hurry. “I need you to fill out this form.”

Stuart looked at her until she dropped eye contact. “He doesn’t work here, does he?”

Denise held the form so hard it crinkled. “Do you have a time frame for these?”

Stuart described where each card had been found, and when.

Denise nodded feverishly, writing it all down.

“This might be a security matter,” she told him, “get an escort to your car tonight. We might need you to provide description for the person.”

“I’ve never seen him,” Stuart murmured with a sinking heart.

“Nevertheless, keep close to your phone.”

 

Stuart hit the third floor button. Pete would probably be a stand-up guy about it and escort Stuart to his car. Unless it was Pete. Godammit.

The repairman ran, waving. Stuart held the door for him.

The repairman dashed in, holding his sides as the doors swished shut behind him. He was dotted with perspiration.

“Thanks.”

“No prob.”

Stuart waited, humming tunelessly, rocking slightly back and forth on his heels. The repairman took out a flat carpenter’s pencil and proceeded to note something on a tiny white card. Then he took a key from the ring dangling at his waist and slid it into a matching keyhole beneath the elevator buttons. He turned it. The elevator stopped between floors.

“I asked you not to go to management,” the repairman said.

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Low Water

Midsummer day was drawing closer. Ann could see it in every bucket she dipped in the river. The water level was falling. Now she could pick out distinct shapes on the riverbed where before had only been murky silhouettes. The water was falling. It would not be safe.

“Midsummer day, midsummer day, yahoo!” Van chanted. He was splashing by the bent willow that served as their mooring point. To him the day held nothing but change, which meant excitement to him. He had never been off their little island, the place that squatted between the two riverbanks like a toad in dry weather.

“Van,” she called. The boy stopped. She never needed to say more.

She handed the boy her bucket. Van balanced it carefully as he brought it in to pour in the stockpot. The river water was clear and cold, but she boiled it all just to be safe.

The river had always been a faithful barrier to the land on either side of the island. But it had been too many dry summers, too many winters without enough rain. She hadn’t seen water this low since fleeing to the island.

There were snags, on the river’s shore and close to her little island. Ann made it her duty to clear them out every day, taking their little boat and sending the bigger sticks downstream with a flick of her wrist. Anything that could be used to cross, she broke. But even these little precautions would not save her.

Van was playing in the shade of the cottage. He traced his shadow with a chip of shale.

Ann had come to the island alone. Van had arrived nine months after the last time someone had managed to cross the river. Ann remembered that day in her sleep sometimes and woke up beating the covers.

Van smiled at his silhouette, white-gold hair dancing in the breeze.

Abruptly she said, “Van, house.”

The boy obeyed immediately.

There was not much to lock up. The island was just big enough for a vegetable patch, a single milch cow, and their little cottage. Before she dropped the latch, Ann kissed each of Van’s eyes.

“Stay indoors,” she ordered, and was confident it would be followed.

Marten lived upstream. He walked the top of the dam, looking for leaks and errant trees that might break the wall. When Ann ran low on supplies, she always stopped to call on him first. She thought them amiable enough, but when he heard her request Marten shook his head.

“Can’t do it,” he said. He poured tea out of a rusty iron kettle.

Ann wet her lips.

“Please don’t give me grief, lady. I would do it, if it were at all feasible. But I can’t let that much water out of the dam just to protect one woman and child. The water is low for everyone, not just you.”

“I know it,” Ann said, looking down at her cup.

Marten sighed. He was a strong man. His house sat atop a tower buttressed with thick sapling stakes. But he could no more protect her than anyone could. And she’d known that.

“Leave,” Marten said gently. “find another cove to settle in. Just until the weather cools off.”

“And leave my house to them?” Ann asked, “and eat what? I can barely take enough from the garden to feed us now. I can’t forage offshore. What do I do?”

Marten’s mouth worked in thought.

Ann finished her tea. “My thanks, Marten.”

They shook hands. Marten held on after she let go.

“Ann,” he said.

Ann began saving thick saplings instead of turning them loose to drift downstream. She trimmed away the slime and sharpened them with her mowing blade into rough points. She buried them point-up in the scree by the shore. Van watched, perched on a high branch with the ducks.

Ann’s fingers bled. She didn’t sleep well at night. Sometimes she saw the faces of her family. Sometimes the face of the man who sired Van. Sometimes she thought of laying down and giving up. But the day approached no matter what she did. So she worked.

The dawn of midsummer day was already hot. She felt she was arising from a bath, not her covers. Van slept on while she kindled fire. If all else failed, she could stoke it hot enough that it would eat the house, and them with it.

The day was deceptively peaceful. Ann toiled at her chores, ear to any little noise. Van was subdued. He played quietly, obediently staying within Ann’s sight. She had almost relaxed when she saw the first one.

The body was almost the same color as the underbrush around it, it snapped into focus so abruptly she nearly fell backwards. The distance between both shores seemed to retract and she saw the approaching figure with awful clarity.

Its eyes were milky blind, it had festering sores flooded with flies open on its face and neck. It walked with a numb shuffle. Any hope that it was alone sank when another stumbled from the thicket just behind it. And another. And another.

As Ann watched with fascination, the dead flooded the shores with their bodies.

Van stood, a stone held in each hand, gaping in fascination. He had only caught brief glimpses of them on the far shore in the whole of his life. Now he fled to her skirts as Ann watched them shuffle to the edge of the water and keep walking.

They came on other days, of course. Days when the current would drag them, unresisting, after only a few steps. But the water was too low. Ann could see white quartz wink at her from underwater. The current had lost its teeth.

Ann watched as the forerunners entered knee-deep water. Then waist deep.

She waited.

The water didn’t get any deeper. They were halfway.

Ann drew in a breath and took her splitting maul to hand. Van hefted his rocks as if he would strike them all down.

There was a sound from upstream. It was not the rush of water, as she’d hoped. It was the sound of something large pushing against the current. Ann pictured a raft of dead bodies and dreaded.

A thick, brown line appeared at the horizon. It grew bigger, gained a crown. When it drew into focus, Ann laughed. She laughed so hard she nearly sat down.

It was a tree, a massive oak, the king of all flotsam.

“Marten!” she cried.

The lead walker was three-quarters of the way across the river when the trunk swept by. It bowled over the leaders. The stragglers were unseated by the backwash, they swarmed off their feet and followed the trunk downstream. Ann laughed and put her arm around Van.

Those on the shore remained, scenting the wind. Some, through their unfathomable logic, left to walk along the treeline. Some tried the water again. A cottonwood trunk swept by, smaller, but with more branches to snag.

Ann and Van sat outside and watched all day as they attempted again and again to invade. At sunset they stopped, chasing the warmth back into the trees. One last trunk drifted by, a branch jutted out at a perpendicular angle as if raising a hand. She and Van waved back.

“Back to the house with you,” she said, shooing Van. “Shell the peas and douse the lights. I will start supper after I empty the privy bucket.”

Van skipped off, singing “privy bucket, privy bucket.” Ann chanted along under her breath as she lifted the heavy thing. The privy house was at the far end of the island, so that the waste would float away from them. The little shack stood just over a pocket of water. The privy was just a little wooden hole over the swift water. Ann sang the little tune Van had composed under her breath.

The dead man glared sightlessly up from the hole. Features he shared with Van were visible for only a moment before the bucket contents splattered them over again. The dead man let out a wheezing groan.

Ann checked the water level. Most of his body still lay above the surface. She reminded herself to keep careful watch of the levels, it might be time to shorten his chain again. She let the door clack shut behind her and walked into the wind, letting it carry the smell into the past.

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The Plague of Lost Objects

Jerome was being followed. He ducked out of Mrs. Tan’s fourth-grade class and cut across the baseball diamond to avoid the other children. He took a different route home every day, but still, he knew he was being followed. There were no footsteps to betray his stalker, no shadow suddenly darting away from the corner, but he could feel it. He knew he would see it almost before he spotted the bottle at the crosswalk before his house.

Jerome hunched low, looked either way across the street. No one. No cars, no other pedestrians. The lights were timed, so the red at his stop was just a formality. He turned and glared at the bottle.

It was fancy and aerodynamic, probably a sports drink or one of those new macrobiotic teas. It was plastic; otherwise Jerome would have derived great pleasure from throwing it high up in the air and seeing it shatter. Instead he crept over to where it lay innocently on the cement.

“Go away!” he hissed, and beat a retreat. The bottle did not move.

They never moved, nothing they did betrayed their special properties. Not every object was alive, but the objects that were alive looked like any other object.

Jerome hitched his collar up as he walked home, keeping careful watch. No one lived in the houses near him, but he knew to look out for anyone who might follow him home.

All his precautions were rendered null when uncle Odwin opened the door holding the bottle.

“Curious,” he said, “this one has come home to roost.”

Uncle Od was not mad. He was never mad that Jerome let things follow him home.

“After all,” he would say as he built a wall of old record sleeves, “if they were too smart for me in this house, how would you have hope?”

The plague of lost objects had struck the house long before Jerome was born. Uncle Od had lived most of his life in the house, but the plague had not begun until after Od’s parents died. First gramma from strep and then grampa from cirrhosis of the liver. Od had pictures of the house back when it had just been built. It was grand; parquet floors, embossed wallpaper and walnut trim. Now that Jerome lived in it, everything was the same dun color and anything of value was buried under the tide of objects.

The objects were insidious. They disguised themselves as trash, but Od would never let Jerome call them that.

“They’re too smart to be thrown away,” he’d say, “don’t they deserve their own title?”

They outsmarted Od, drowning the house in a tide of their bodies. Each day he’d try to stack them in some order, and when Jerome got home from school he would help too. But they kept coming, and it was only the two of them in the house.

Jerome had tried throwing them away by the time he was old enough to think of it. Od watched him with misty eyes. He didn’t stop Jerome.

The things were back in the house the next day.

“You see?” Od asked Jerome. “They are too smart to be thrown away.”

Jerome tried getting smart. He took bits and bobs in his backpack, to abandon in the school dumpster. But then the school put a padlock on it, and new objects replaced the old.

Od would just sigh, shrug, and go back about his work. Gramma and grampa had left enough money to live well on. Even so, Od and Jerome ate the same humble meals, slept on the same dingy sheets every day. Jerome did the shopping, since Od had to make sure the objects stayed in their right place. He tried to buy the same things every time, because whenever he bought something different, the boxes and bags that the food came in would wind up part of the plague.

Od cooked in the same saucepan every night, and they both ate with the same spoons to save on dishes. The third-floor parlor was packed with fancy china, but they never ate off it. Jerome never wanted to use a lost object. At sunset every night, Jerome would take the toilet bucket out to empty in the far corner of the yard, while Od cleaned out the old bedroom that served as the privy. Jerome had never seen the house’s proper bathroom, objects had eaten it all.

Od would tuck Jerome in bed every night and read him a story. They were all very old stories, Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers and all in a language Jerome could barely understand. But Od had read them when he was a boy, and Jerome liked hearing them.

The day they called him into the nurse’s office, Jerome knew that something horrible was coming. Change. The lost objects had found a new way to plague him: biting him in his sleep, leaving little red welts. He made sure to wear shirts and jeans that covered them up, but in PE he hadn’t been able to wear jeans, and coach Sam had seen. He’d made Jerome stick out his arm and sucked air over his teeth when he got a close-up look at the bumps. Even when Jerome told him they barely hurt anymore, Sam made him go to the office.

Jerome shut up like a mussel, ready to lie through his teeth to get them to leave him alone. But, unlike any other time Jerome had been in trouble, no one talked directly to him. The nurse whispered to the principle, the principle whispered to the phone. Jerome was given a headlice examination and asked if there were rats in his home. He bit his tongue to avoid saying, “no, I’ve got a plague of lost objects.”

No one told him to go home, but while the principle was out in the hall, Jerome slipped away. He left his jacket and bag and ran.

He could see litter everywhere, sneering from cracks in the sidewalk, overflowing from cans to him. He waved at them, ‘go away, go away,’ and breathlessly ran on.

 

Uncle Od was outside. That was new. There was another man with him.

The new man was dressed nice, in a suit and tie. He had uncle Od’s pudding nose and his dark eyebrows, but his cheeks were thin and cratered. He didn’t look as nice as uncle Od, though that may have been because he was very agitated.

“—can’t live like this,” he was saying, “you can’t keep a little boy in this! I don’t care—”

Uncle Od smiled patiently. “The boy was given to me. I’m the one that mommy and daddy gave the money to. You may not agree with that—”

“This has nothing to do with the money! I don’t care whether they loved you more or not, this isn’t—” the man spotted Jerome and swallowed.

“Hi Jerry,” he said. He did something surprising and knelt. “Hi there.” His voice was trembling. “you probably don’t remember me—”

“Jerome,” uncle Od said nice and crisp, “will you grace us with your presence? Your uncle Frank would like to measure you and find you wanting.”

Jerome edged past the other man and came to stand beside uncle Od. The man called Frank seemed slightly hurt.

“He looks just like her,” he whispered, “like Callie.” Now he spoke up to Od, and he sounded angry. “You should never have been considered for guardianship. You’re barely fit to care for yourself.”

“Says the man who only completed a secondary education,” Od said, squeezing Jerome’s shoulder with a pudgy hand. “if we need your assistance, we will call. Until then…” he waved loftily at the street.

Frank stood. “Od…you don’t get it. The authorities have been called.”

The color drained from Od’s face. “You told on me?”

Frank held his hands open. “The school called them, there was nothing I could do. Od, if you had come to me earlier…”

Od’s face was filling with red, it dripped down from his forehead to his cinnamon-roll cheeks and his protruding chin. He clenched his fists and made frothing noises.

“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” Frank said. He really did sound sorry. “Don’t you want help? You can’t be happy living this way.”

Od managed to get a word out. “Filthy,” he spat, and he made it sound like the other f-word Jerome was never allowed to say. “Filthy, filthy little beast.”

The words sounded ridiculous, almost silly. But Frank went white now, Frank’s face shifted between disgust and sorrow and he backed away.

Jerome tried to shake Od, tell him to stop it and run away. But Od would not look at him.

 

They came and picked apart the house. They made it look so easy, agents carrying away the doorposts of soup cans that had been there as long as Jerome could remember, tracking mud over the neat piles. Odwin withdrew into himself. He sat with his feet dangling from the hood of Frank’s car. Jerome watched, fascinated, ashamed with himself for feeling anything other than grief. They did not understand the plague, they thought Jerome wanted to live in a house like that!

A bored young man with a clipboard approached where they stood in a clump; Jerome, Od, and Frank.

“Sir, are you the boy’s guardian?”

Od clamped his mouth shut, calculating.

Frank sighed. “Yes he is.”

The young man checked a box and nodded. “Sir, are you aware that your living conditions are unsanitary?”

Od’s eyes went sly. He didn’t answer.

“This is your place of residence, yes?”

Jerome silently urged uncle Od on. Go ahead, tell them about the plague.

Od said, “It was the boy.”

Frank stared at Od. Jerome stared at Od.

Od nodded vigorously. He pointed a finger straight at Jerome’s heart. “He brings everything home with him. I try to keep it clean, but he just won’t stop.”

Frank looked sick. He circled Jerome’s shoulder with his arm.

The young man betrayed no emotion. “Sir, you’re saying your ward filled the house with trash?”

Od nodded emphatically.

“Yet you made no attempt to hire help to take it away?”

“I have no money—”

“Liar!” Frank shouted. He drew up to full height. “Liar! Liar!”

“Filthy!” Od screamed up into Frank’s face. Jerome saw the young man motion a few officers closer.

“And you have been living here without working facilities?”

Od went sly again. “We have a well.”

“Sir, you have no electricity, no waste removal, and your house is incredibly unsanitary.”

Od was red again. “It’s my house,” he insisted, “you can’t take my house.”

Frank shook his head. “Can I take the boy with me?” he asked, “he’s my nephew too.”

The young man nodded.

Frank picked Jerome up and walked to his car. Behind them, the officers were taping up the doorway with yellow tape that said “condemned.” Od was still arguing with the officer, and didn’t even look after them. Jerome looked down at the objects. Their flickering shadows in the light of the police cars seemed to be laughing.

 

Frank’s house was small.

“You have to share a room with Toby,” he said, “I hope that’s not too much. He’s five.”

Toby was asleep when Jerome arrived. His sister Tracy was slumbering in her cot in the next room. Tracy was three, and she stayed home with Jerome the next day while Toby went to kindergarten. Jerome would be going to a new school, with new clothes and new shoes. Frank had bought him new clothes and put the old ones in the incinerator.

Jerome had a little bed and a shelf next to it. He and Toby shared a night table between their beds. There was a box for toys and a table for crafts, and the house was tidy.

Frank watched him those first few weeks. Jerome wanted to tell him not to worry.

He taught Tracy and Toby all about the objects. He taught them that they were alive, and they all had a proper place where they lived. Tracy’s shoes lived under her cot, and Toby’s books lived on Toby’s shelf. Sometimes when the house was asleep, Jerome would rise from bed and tiptoe around. He would peek in on the objects and see them resting on their sides, not disobediently moving, but finally tame.

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The Maze and the Monster

“I am aware of your skill,” the king said, “so you and you alone have been tasked for this. It must be exactly to life. Exactly.”

Daedalus bowed low, averting his eyes as was proper. “But your majesty…I don’t quite understand. What does the queen need with an artificial cow?”

“You have heard the rumors?”

Daedalus chanced a look. The king was grand and impassive, more like a statue than the marble bust he had already commissioned. The crown omnipresent in every depiction of the man shone with the sun’s fire.

“I…suppose I have, your highness. Most defamatory and foul, unsuited for your divine spouse.”

“Pasiphaë has a most unusual taste,” the king commented without emotion, “and my love for her leaves her beyond reproach. If she wishes to share congress with a bull, so be it.”

There was no warmth in his words. Finally Daedalus nodded. He had his own child to feed, not much younger than the suckling princess.

“It will be done, your grace.”

 

The two men walked a great stone wall.

“The walls will be in excess of nine cubits?”

“They will, your grace. And even then, the labyrinth will be enclosed. There will be no hope of escape for anything inside, be it prisoner or…otherwise.”

The king nodded grimly. “The queen passed in birth to that monster. Pierced by its horns.I will not claim it as my own, merely sentence it to the life it has earned.”

“If you’ll forgive my forwardness, why not just kill it, your grace?”

The king grimaced. “Obviously, Zeus has cursed my family. What else would explain it? I cannot risk further fall from favor with the gods.”

Daedalus swallowed. He had been waiting to ask the question for some time.

“My king?”

The king was looking down at the maze with the air of a man hunting fish in a pool.

“The queen has only just given birth?”

The king smiled grimly. “Given life, and then breathed the last of her own.”

Daedalus licked his lips, which were drying too quickly. “Only—you commissioned me for the bull not four months ago.”

The king’s face was unreadable. “Yes, Daedalus?”

The inventor gave up. “A most unfortunate birth.”

 

The labyrinth’s doorway was the last thing to be finished. Wrought iron gates were lowered into place, amphorae filled with oil stood in place of lamps.

The inventor stood beside the king. His own son climbed the ramparts. The little princess watched from the ground, her skirts tucked around her legs.

“The maze is a thing of beauty, Daedalus.” The king made a gesture of benediction. Daedalus smiled, but looked beyond the king to his son. Icarus balanced along the outer structure. The palace guards watched him closely.

“This lock is most ingenious. Show me how it works?”

Daedalus stooped forward and showed the king the sliding cylindrical puzzle that locked the outer gate. It was as fine as anything he had ever built. For the first time since Daedalus had come to court, the king smiled.

“No beast could work that with their crippled paws?” he asked, and then laughed sharply. Even the guards winced at the sound. Daedalus saw Icarus descending from the roof and rushed to help him, eager for the excuse. In his hurry, his carelessness, he knocked the king. The king stumbled, and the crown that seemed eternally fixed to his head fell.

Daedalus gasped. Minos covered his scalp with his hands, red-faced and trembling with fury.

Daedalus earned a place in the labyrinth. Of course, they did not expect the designer of such an elegant prison to stay for long. Even after he escaped, Daedalus refused to talk about the court of Minos.

 

“So you see, I have been hungry for company ever since,” Phaedra said.

Theseus sprawled out on plush rugs, eating from a plate of figs. He was shining from the bath she had recently bade her handmaidens to give him.

“So you did not mind, even when you thought me a commoner?”

“Have you lived as a prince your whole life?” Theseus was silent. “Then it does not matter. You are who you are, and you are here to end suffering.”

Theseus scoffed.

“Was it not you who told me that?”

“It was.” Theseus swallowed a mouthful of fruit and washed it down with wine. “But I meant my people’s suffering.”

“All suffering is one suffering. We suffer too. Not only is my father hated and feared, but the whole kingdom. Our merchants are charged tariffs too steep to make a living, our sailors are pelted when they sail into port.”

“Yes, but my people’s portion of suffering far outstrips yours. Any relief besides theirs in my quest is incidental.”

Phaedra’s eyes sparkled in the dark. “But even so.”

She gave him thread and a kiss from lips as red as pomegranates. The fresco of the queen in the throne room was almost a mirror of the girl, though she had Minos’s chin and something diabolically clever hiding in her face.

 

The labyrinth stank. It stank of bones and old meat and fear. When the princess had played in it, it was smooth stone and exquisite carvings. Something had carved out a path of suffering through every hall. Lamps were broken or upset, any ornamentation was brutally scratched from the stone. The place was terrifying even before he got to the bodies.

The youths from the last year’s lottery. Theseus felt the skin on his back tighten. Most sprawled out where they had fallen, hands up to fend off some attacker, nude as Theseus himself. The sword he now carried had been wedged in a ventilation crack by the south wall, the sandals hanging from a torch. He took them, thinking of the youths who could have been spared with their blessing.

Theseus swallowed his fear and studied the bodies.

There were bite-marks, and flesh missing. But the flesh was only gone from a few select places, and not much was taken. Hardly the ravenous cannibal monster, a seabird would have pick the bones cleaner.

Theseus heard a shuffling of steps and stood. It was not weeping or wailing, so it could hardly be another youth.

Then the monster hove into view.

Theseus gagged.

The thing did not look like a bull. The horns growing from its head were strange, stunted things, beyond that the resemblance failed. The face was half-formed and twisted in agony. Its body seemed to have grown at different rates; one leg massive and the other still child-sized gave the creature its shuffling gait. Though the evidence lay before him, the creature did not look like an insatiable scourge. Its body was famine-thin, its cheeks and eyes hollow.

The creature put a hand out. Instead of a bellow, it gave a piteous mewl.

Theseus struck without thinking. Later, he could not tell the princess whether it was from fear or pity.

 

Phaedra watched him, dark eyes attentive. Her resemblances to her father seemed more pronounced in the half-light of sunset.

“So you have slain it. You know for certain?”

“Yes.” He did not tell her he struck it again and again, stabbing away the parts that looked human.

“Then I suppose I am yours?”

“Are you?” Theseus asked, “with so little courtship? With prince of a small kingdom who grew up as a commoner?”

“What else is there for me?” Phaedra asked lightly, “I am princess of a vainglorious kingdom, daughter of a slain tyrant.”

Theseus could not look at her. “So he really scalded to death in that bath?”

“Well,” Phaedra said, “he won’t be commissioning any more labyrinths.”

Her garnet jewelry sparkled like blood in the light of the sun. When they made love later that night, Theseus had to close his eyes, so unsettling was her appearance.

 

Something woke him. Something he could not place.

Years of training told him to breath naturally, ear out. No sound out of place, the boat gently creaked back to Athens.

His left hand cupped the princess’s head, his fingers dug into the thick waves of her hair. He flexed them, and felt it again. The thing that woke him.

Hardly daring to breathe, Theseus sat up. He parted the princess’s hair, finding two hard nubs crowning her scalp.

“It was quite obvious really,” Phaedra said.

Theseus started. Her eyes hadn’t opened. Had she been awake this whole time? Had she been expecting him to find them?

Phaedra sat up, sheet clutched to her breast. When he couldn’t see her body, Theseus couldn’t stop himself from imagining it twisted and horrible. In his mind, it looked like the creature’s body.

“I sent you in there to stop suffering,” Phaedra said softly, “do you still insist, even now, that you were the only one suffering?”

Theseus cleared his throat. “I told you. Any other cessation of suffering is incidental.”

Phaedra smiled. “And yet I thank you, prince.”

 

They did not moor in the island’s cove, but off the shore. Theseus and a few sailors launched a skiff, Phaedra’s couch loaded into the middle. Every swell shook Theseus’s heart, he watched Phaedra’s face, always. Even the shudder of landing was too much. He held his breath. Phaedra stirred, sighing prettily, but did not wake.

The sailors carried the couch to a small knoll, which would afford Phaedra all too clear a view of the departing ship.

Theseus kissed his ring and left it by her feet.

Phaedra opened her eyes just as the ship flew sails again. She smiled up from her pillows as the prince strode about on-deck, never looking back.

“And again,” she said, “I thank you.”

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