Author Archives: rahkshasarani

About rahkshasarani

A woman writes horror. Film at 11.

The Devil Whale

In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.

The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.

—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic

The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.

…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.

—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus

With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.

I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.

—anonymous Kayaker

The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the  recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.

…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.

—James la Pierre, yachtsman.

The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.

My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.

—Mary Bedard

The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.

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The Oolio

This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.

Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.

There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.

Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.

Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.

“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.

Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”

Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.

“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”

Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.

“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”

Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.

“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”

Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.

“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”

Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.

Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”

By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.

Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.

“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”

Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”

He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.

“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”

Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.

“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”

Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”

Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.

That’s where I come in.

I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.

They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.

“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.

They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.

After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.

I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?

It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.

Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.

They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?

Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.

I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?

I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.

The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.

“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.

“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.

Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again.  After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.

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Decisions

The double-wide trailer had vinyl siding that buckled and lifted away from the walls at odd points, allowing a joint of Bermuda grass to poke triumphantly out the top. Beside the trailer was the flatbed of an old ford, divorced from the cab and shored up with chicken wire to make a coop. Save for a mess of bleached feathers, the coop was empty.

James took a moment to peer beneath the coop, a space hardly big enough to squeeze a hand through. Only a few fence lizards escaping the heat.

The trailer door hung wide like a broken jaw, displaying the mess of a quick struggle. Someone had put their fist through the paneling a few times. Fixtures were missing, plundered in the time the trailer had sat vulnerable and open. Dishes in the sink grew a thick crop of mold. The trailer clearly had not been lived in for some time.

James rotated in place. The grass along one side of the trailer was flat, pointing towards the lattice that enclosed the trailer bottom elevated by cinderblocks.

James had drawn his sidearm on the walk up to the trailer, now he holstered it. He walked away, deliberately crunching gravel with his steps until he reached the sandy stretch just before the road. He doubled back through the grass, creeping so that the sound of his steps blended into the other incidental noises of the day. Crouching down by the far fender of the coop, James drew his piece again and waited.

Three minutes, not enough time to even boil an egg, there was movement. The lattice pried away from the trailer side and someone came wiggling out of the space. Leonard, his brother Leonard with a camo jacket thrown on over his work shirt, crawled out from under the trailer.

James waited until he was nearly out before rising, training his sights on Leonard’s back. “Hup.”

Leonard thrust his hands up, dropping his stomach to the dirt, before recognizing James. His face relaxed into a comfortable leer.

“Jimmy. Holy hell.”

“Leon. What’re you doing?”

Leonard squinted up at him, sweating on his belly in the dirt. He lowered his hands and pushed up to his knees.

“Sprayin’ for bugs. The hell’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Jessica’s worried.”

“Jess can goddamn well worry, I told her to sit on it until next Monday.” Leonard held out a hand, waiting to be helped up. When no help came, he stood on his own muster. “She whine to the cops?”

“No. Just me.”

“Good.” Leonard swung his hands at his sides, looking at the ground. “S’pose it didn’t take much to find me.”

“Few hours. I asked around: this trailer’s rented out to Ed Brinkley. Ed’s down at his folk’s place for the summer, so I came to poke around and found signs of habitation.”

“Ah.”

James drew in breath. “Leon, if I can find you, the cartel’s men can damn well find you.”

“This is just a stopgap, I’ve got a plan.” Leonard studied his brother’s face, attacking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Don’t s’pose I can convince you to give me a lift?”

James holstered the pistol. He ran his hand over his hair. “Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“‘Course you do. You always do.” Leonard beat him to the car, opening the passenger side door.

“No. Backseat, there’s a blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Backseat. I’m not taking chances.”

“Tou-chy,” Leonard said, but obeyed. James made sure to arrange the blanket over him, tucking it in around his ankles.

James piloted the jeep back over the gravel lane to the paved road. A car with two hispanic men, one old and one young, sat on the shoulder of the turn off. James sat, turn signal clicking, sweat plastering his shirt to his neck. He looked. The men in the car looked back. James turned onto the road and drove south. The other car grew small in his rearview mirror. It streaked off just before disappearing from his sight, peeling off in the direction he had just come from.

After a while Leonard said, “pull over.”

“We’ve got a half hour to go.”

“We’re out of the danger zone and I got a cramp. Pull over.”

James turned into a rest stop. Leonard got out and stretched his legs at leisure before getting into the passenger seat.

“Get the blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Not enough. Get the blanket.”

Leonard retrieved the blanket, folding it neatly before sitting on it with a grin. James stared at him for a good long second before starting the car.

James took the back roads, adding ten minutes on to the journey. Leonard did not even bother sitting low in his seat, pressing his face to the window and squinting.

“We’re going to the train yard, right?”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Leonard dug in a pocket of his camo jacket, peeling the foil off a strip of nicotine gum.

“That’s where you put the money.”

“I can spring for gas, if that’s pressin’ on your bladder.”

James said nothing, clicking on his turn signal.

“S’pose I ask why you needed to scratch a cartel man for cash,” he said at length. “You could have come to me if you had money troubles.”

Leonard laughed. “You, baby brother? I make two more decimals than you, and I’m supposed to drop by, hat in hand?” He stretched out. “It’s not about ‘need’ anyway. You’ll understand someday. I grew that money. That money’s going to keep paying dividends—”

“While the cartel’s shaking down your family?”

Silence in the car.

“They’ll leave Jess alone. She had nothing to do with anything.”

“They won’t care. The wives never know anything. But they’ll do things to her, Leon. They’ll do things to her and Janey.”

Leonard laughed again. “What, you her new daddy or somethin’? You have my blessing, if that’s what you’re angling for.”

James navigated a stretch of broken pavement, wheeling out to the opposite lane and pulling back in just as a truck came by. Leonard didn’t bother to turn his face away from the other driver.

“S’pose you might want to visit Jess after I’m gone. Don’t blame you. You got my blessing. I could never make her happy, she wanted some nine-to-five goon. It ain’t me, babe.” Leonard rooted around in the glove box. James pretended to adjust a mirror and watched him slip a registration card into his pocket. He would probably call in the plates to the cops to create a diversion.

“Train yard’s coming up,” James said, “you’ll have to tell me where to go.”

Leonard peered at him from half-lidded eyes. “Just hit the end of the lane and keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The asphalt ended suddenly, turning into rutted clay and jimpson grass. James guided the jeep over the ruts, worn shocks screeching in protest at every new bump.

“There.” Leonard pointed suddenly to a gap between disused boxcars. James braked, too late.

“Go back around.”

James engaged the parking brake and got out, matching stares with Leonard. He got out of the passenger’s side, breaking into a brisk walk and shooting a glance behind him every other step. James followed at a distance.

“I can pay for your troubles, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. How you getting out of here?”

“You need to run the bills by Benny, he’ll swap ‘em out for you.”

“I got a plan. How you getting out of here?”

Leonard chewed his bottom lip a bit. “…I got a boat down at the marina. Got a little place south of Mazatlán to go to.”

“Fleeing south o’ the border to escape a cartel? Must be the dumbest gringo around.” James smiled at Leonard. The uneasy laugh they shared was like a breeze in a stagnant room, gone altogether too quickly to be true relief.

A square hole had been dug between the rotted slats of a bit of old railway, into this space had been flung a canvas bag. Nothing, not even a branch to disguise the shape. Leonard jumped into the hole, deliberately keeping the bag beneath him as he counted out bills.

“You know it’s not too late.” James mopped at the sweat on his neck. The gun hung heavy at his belt.

Leonard did not react, coming up with a small wad of bills and pressing it forward. James pushed it back, shaking his head. Leonard smiled sickly. He did not press it, but stashed the bills in a front pocket.

“Can’t thank you enough, lI’l bro.” Leonard turned back to the hole.

“Don’t thank me, we ain’t got out yet.” James paused to listen. Was that the sound of an idling engine? “It’s not too late,” he said again.

This time Leonard really did laugh, a nice deep chortle that was infectious as an itch.

“I can’t worry about that right now.” Leonard rummaged around in a bag. “I got shit on my mind. You can drop me behind the feed store, I’ll leg it from there.”

“You’ll be seen.” James wiped his cheek on his sleeve. “What about pops?”

“Look, just drop me a quarter mile from there, then. Pops is old, they won’t press an old gummer like that.”

“They will after they run through Jess. They won’t stop until they get a body. You have a choice, Leon.”

Leonard was scooping something into the bag. “No anymore, Jimmy. I made it already.”

James sighed. He unholstered the pistol, wiping his hands before doing so. He sighted his brother’s back.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

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A Case of Grey

While standing on a shore of the lake near my home, I caught the grey. It blew in on the night breeze like a fog, curling its tendrils into my hair and fingers, sinking down into the fibers of my coat. I could have run. I didn’t. Perhaps that was why it came for me.

I thought nothing of it at first. If you are walking at night, in the solitude of your own thoughts, there is nothing that can tell you what state you’re really in. It took the dawn breaking in like an irate lover to show the color had drained out of me. The grey had sunk in and I was insubstantial as a piece of smoke.

At first I panicked. As much panic was allowed me, at least. It was a terrible thought that I might go through life like this. My priorities were still very much skewed. I imagined going to parties, attempting to shake people’s hands with my insubstantial self. How would I avoid social embarrassment? Perhaps a wide-brimmed hat and a scarf to muffle my grey face?

Too long it took me to realize: there would be no parties, no shaking hands. I was already halfway nothing. Not invisible, but not “there” enough to be bothered with. Friends did not avoid me, they simply did not see me.

Food had no taste. All the things I took joy in were now bland as chewed paper. I thought idly of suicide, but ruled it too much effort. My body was done trying. My grey shoulders and chest could lift nothing heavier than a match. My grey eyes were so dulled that I no longer braved full daylight, choosing instead to lurk in the times when the sun hovered just above the horizon.

For a while I took a sort of perverse pleasure in it. I would act in a way that would get me noticed in any other state, pushing as much as I dared. A fruit seller didn’t look up from his paper as I took a lime in my hand and let the grey chase away its green. Cars did not stop for me, so I began jaywalking. I ignored hours of business, coming and going as I pleased. Well, wished. It brought me no pleasure. Nothing did anymore.

It became effort to simply exist. I would find myself in a chair, wondering how long I had been conscious, trying to piece together a simple chain of events. It was as monumental as scaling a mountain, too often I gave up and sank back into oblivion.

What would be the end of my state? I could not see myself dying, not from such a strange condition. Would I dissipate like smoke? Perhaps I would flatten into a wall and become an ownerless shadow, or a patch of dust to be swept away.

I must have taken up walking, for I would find myself sometimes on that lake shore where I had first fallen grey. Now the fog really did creep in, embracing me like a long-lost child. My footsteps made no sound nor shape.

I found an unexpected sight in my perambulations, a man sitting on a rotten cypress log. He had a hand-rolled cigarette pinched in his lips, though I could not tell whether it was lit or not. With a jolt almost pleasurable, I noticed that he too was grey. I opened my mouth and made effort to speak.

“Salutations, brother,” I managed.

He spared me no glance. “Why call me brother? Do I know you?”

I gestured at us, our ash clothing, our smoke pallor. “We are afflicted with the same malady. Surely that makes us something.

He looked at me with filmed eyes. Taking the cigarette from his lips, he shrugged.

“I see nothing in common between us.”

“We are grey, my friend. Can you not see this with your own eyes?”

He rolled his gaze over me, shallowly ticking it up and down across my body. “Friend, everything is grey out here.”

He was not wrong. The fog silvered the sand, bleached the wood a dark charcoal. I felt irritation at this rejection of kinship. If I was not grey, I was not anything.

“Well, if everything is grey here, perhaps I should remove myself and shed this condition.”

The man shrugged with barely a whisper of his shoulders. He put the cigarette back. “As you will. I can’t force you one way or the other.”

My steps were short and agitated as I retreated from the shore. I had just one thing left to me and to have it passed over—

My hand in the yellow streetlight as I grasped the rail of the stairs that led away from the shore was a pale peach. I stepped further into that light and found my color returned. I was not grey now, merely numb. A condition curable by a hot drink and a footbath.

I spared one glance back the way I came, where the fog walled off the sight, the smell, even the sound of the lake water teething on the sand. Too timid to look a gift miracle in the mouth, I fled homeward.

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The Stone Knife

The chip had come from a large rock, smooth and slightly pitted on one side, rough on the other. It was quartz or limestone or some other light mineral. Grandpa would have known what kind. David only knew enough to recognize that the yellow sparkle on the chipped side was pyrite, not real gold.

“I bet it’s a knife,” he said, feeling its weight rest in his palm, “maybe a ritual knife, it’s so pretty.”

Drew scoffed. “That’s no injun knife. It’s not obsidian.”

David put up token resistance. “Naw, look at how it’s chipped—”

Drew dismissed it without even looking. “My dad said the injuns made obsidian knives. Said they could slice slice a man right clean down to the bone.”

Rory did an impression of a man being gutted, making wet sounds with his mouth and clutching his chest. Cheeks burning, David pocketed the rock chip. The three of them spread out over a dry creek bed, sifting through silt and rocks for pieces to graft on report boards. Rory already had three slender tule reeds in one sweaty hand. Drew (Andrew but not Andy, never Andy) claimed to have a bit of scalp he refused to show either of them. Only David was left wanting.

“Man I wish we were doing a report on someone interesting, like the Az-tecs.” Drew tossed a pebble at a bird, frightening it away. “What kind of crappy tribes did we have around here again?”

David had known the two of them long enough to know the question was not really a question, supplying information would be met with ridicule.

“Basket weavers,” Rory said, kicking a branch in their path. “That’s what my paper has to be. Also they made reed boats.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “My dad said the Az-tecs were real nutbusters. Killed people on top of huge pyramids. I’d pay to see that.”

The air around them was so hot David felt like he was wading through it, not walking. Far away, the river growled as if to remind them that they were in someone else’s territory. The boys ascended heaps of slag rock, leftovers from strip mining. Drew, the product of divorce and used to ruling two households, naturally fell to the front of their arrowhead formation. They passed no one out on these paths, everyone with a brain had stayed home or gone to the water to cool off.

“Hang on, I got an itch.” Grinning, Rory snagged some leaves off a nearby bush and shoved them down the back of his pants, making a wiping motion.

“Rory, that was probably poison oak.”

Rory’s grin disappeared.

“Naw,” Drew said with casual authority, “poison oak’s on the other coast. It’s poison ivy.”

“I thought it was the other way around.”

“Guys? Am I gonna die?”

“Actually it’s poison oak. Remember, ‘leaves of three, let it be—’”

“Lots of things have three leaves, are you telling me they’re all poison oak? Anyway, my dad says—”

“Seriously, am I gonna die? I don’t wanna die of a poisoned ass.”

“You’re not gonna die, shipdit,” Drew snapped at Rory, “just get some menthol shaving cream and put that on it. You’ll be fine.”

David was pretty sure that wouldn’t work, but knew he’d be automatically shot down. Maybe he could wait until he and Rory were alone. Rory wasn’t a bad sort when on his own. He just tended to take on the disposition of whoever he was with. David wished he could be like that. Just blend in and make friends in the little time he was here.

They climbed over a felled tree, lizards scattering in their wake. Rory made like he was going to step on one, but they were too fast. Good. David didn’t know what he’d do if they caught a lizard and did something cruel to it.

“You know, the Az-tecs weren’t that great,” Drew contemplated. He was leading them down a meandering route that took them away from the places marked on their xeroxed map and deeper into the slag piles. He claimed to know exactly where they were going, but remained vague when pressed. “Yeah, they were pretty bad-ass, but in the end they got their ass kicked by us.”

“Spain,” David said before he could catch himself.

“Yeah, but people from Spain are almost white. My dad said so. So it counts.” Drew flung his arms out, as if conducting the surrounding wildlife. “He said they cut out people’s hearts and painted pyramids with blood so the sun wouldn’t die. Isn’t that fucking stupid? Like the sun’s gonna go away. And what the hell made them think hearts would work? Why not the brain? That’s where all the good stuff happens.”

“Actually, it makes sense.” David withered internally from Drew’s apathetic gaze. “You want to give something to a god, you give it your most valuable thing. People used to think the heart did everything, not the brain. It makes sense,” he insisted.

Drew let out a noncommittal “hmm” and it fell like the weight of a hammer. Rory squinted, his blonde lashes glowing white in the afternoon light.

“So why did they think the sun would go away?”

“Eclipses. Night.” David realized he knew more about this than he realized, and despaired that it did him no good. Drew was looking the other way, intentionally bored of the conversation. “Think about it: you live when the only light you have is fire or the sun. Night is fucking scary, especially when you live with Jaguars and shit.”

Rory fell into an awed silence.

“My dad saw a puma once when they were hunting in Florida,” Drew said, apropos of nothing. He still wouldn’t look at David. “They scream like a woman. Imagine that.”

“Whoa.” Now Rory looked at Drew, eyes shining with awe. David bit his tongue, mashing the soft muscle with his incisors.

Rocks clattered as they wandered without path or bearing. The river was a quiet hush now, the loudest sound was birdsong.

“Whoa, look at this.” Drew threw his hand out, halting the other two.

A snake lay right in their path. David’s eyes wandered from the diamond head down the fat, sandy middle of it, to the tail crowned with hollow spheres.

“A rattler,” he breathed.

Drew smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Wanna see something? Dave, where’s that knife?”

David felt the sharp weight of it in his back pocket. “Tossed it away. Sorry.”

“Ah.” Drew was already rooting in the slag beside them. He came up with a sharp rock the size of his head. Drew looked them in the eye as he hefted it. David tried to tamp down his horror. He wouldn’t—

In what was either a calculated death blow or an extremely lucky shot, the rock landed on the snake’s head as it tried to escape. The body writhed as if being electrocuted, in its death throws it formed a series of angry loops, tail buzzing dryly.

David felt poisoned. “You killed it.”

“Yup.” Drew nodded. He rolled the rock off the head, leaving the body to flip and twist in a bizarre pantomime.

David flushed. “He wasn’t doing anything.”

“Snakes’re assholes, everyone knows that.” Drew nudged the body with his foot. Already it was running out of steam, its acrobatics coming slower and slower.

Drew laughed, turned on his heel, and started walking. Rory trotted after, casting a glance at the snake. David followed eventually.

The afternoon turned hotter, turned stifling. It was too hot to think. Rory took off his shirt, then put it back on once Drew started laughing about ticks. David could feel the stone digging into skin through the denim of his jeans, as if thirsty for something. He wanted to ask about going back, but knew that it would forever be a black mark in his social ledger even though they all clearly wanted to leave.

“Ah, I’m tired.” Drew flung himself over a large, flat boulder and rested a forearm over his eyes. Rory went limp as an unstrung marionette, perching on a nearby log.

David stood, the heat beating in his veins. Times like these, he felt like he could understand people who came before. People who couldn’t protect themselves with electric lights and air conditioning and automatic rifles. No one could hear them or see them, no one was around to care. Far above their heads, a hawk traveled on an invisible corkscrew of air until it was just a thin shadow on the unforgivingly blue sky.

“Drew? It’s hot. Man, I wanna go home.” Rory wiped his forehead, squinting miserably. Drew said nothing. David suspected he had never known the way, now silence was the only way he could keep up the illusion of confidence.

David felt a tickle in his throat. The air now felt too thick to breathe properly, he swam through it like a fish to Rory.

“We’re lost,” he whispered. “I don’t how we’ll get out of here.”

Rory let out a whimper. His face was beet red and none of them had brought along water.

“Man, my ass itches. It hurts, actually. I think it was poison oak. Am I gonna die Dave? I don’t wanna die here.” Rory cast a paranoid glance at their leader.

Drew was still silent, asleep or pretending to be. He sprawled on the rock like a lazy calf on an altar. What did you do when your leader refused to lead? What did you do when you had no human answers?

“I don’t care if you laugh at me man, I want my mom,” Rory whimpered. “How the hell are we getting out of here?”

David took the knife out of his back pocket and gripped it. His hand throbbed where the rough edges pressed into his skin. Drew’s head was thrown back, David saw or imagined he could see the artery in his neck pulse with rich blood.

“I have an idea,” David said.

And, as if on cue, the sun rolled behind a cloud.

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Another Night in Paradise

Their key slid to the left of the lock, leading to Nick fumbling both with his wife, flung bridal-style over his arms, and the knob. The door gave too easily and the pair nearly fell into the darkened room. Bonnie slid, laughing, down and around his side like she was descending a firefighter’s pole.

“Welcome to paradise,” Nick said sarcastically.

“Hey, at least it’s got a door,” Bonnie said, kicking the scrunched floor-rug with her sandals. “And…a view?”

The porthole that sat just below a decorative coconut-fibre mat was nearly opaque with smeared grease and scratches. Bonnie stepped closer to peer through the muddied glass and yelped, jumping back. Moisture pooled at her feet, seeping from a point roughly at waist-height. “Nick, it’s wet.”

Nick nodded. “Health hazard. Hello, first class.” He peered around the cabin. “None of the outlets are at floor level, though. They’ll probably just send someone to seal it, move us and throw us coupons for the buffet.”

‘Oh, Nick.” The statement had no follow up. Bonnie hung listlessly to her husband’s side as he hung a waterproof coat on the cabin door’s hook. The hook immediately came away, startling laughter from the both of them.

“Remind me,” Nick said, “didn’t we say no more cruises, ever, after the last time?”

Bonnie clicked her tongue. “We also said no pizza after Atkins and no more road trips to your brother’s.”

“Yeah, but last time should have been the capper. Remember that disaster?”

“I try not to,” she said blithely, picking up the coat and hanging it on a drawer knob, “anyway, you don’t know. It could be fun.”

 

The upper deck smelled faintly of feces and spoiled food. Posted signs warned guests about consuming water directly from the boat’s taps and reminded that bottled water was available plentifully and for a modest price in any of the restaurants. Nick wadded up a gum wrapper and flung it at a sign, which unstuck from the wall and slid awkwardly to the ground. Nick grunted and shook his head, using his free arm to gather Bonnie to his side.

“Come on, vacations are supposed to be relaxing.” Bonnie was pushing the last of her stray hairs underneath the bathing cap she insisted on wearing to protect her dye job. “So relax.”

“Sure.” Nick leaned casually on a railing and his hand came away sticky. Bonnie laughed.

“”What gets me is how new this place looks. What possessed me to book a cruise on an untested ship? Nothing ever goes right in a new tourist trap.”

“So? I bet the first people into Disney World don’t regret it.” Bonnie paced to the edge of the non-slip tile surrounding the deck pool, shedding her towel like a cape. “Coming in?”

Nick shook his head. “Stinks too much like chlorine. I’ll sit this one out.” He scooped up her towel and went to claim an empty chaise lounge.

Bonnie set off into the pool to prove him wrong. The chlorine did sting her eyes a bit, no, a lot. Four minutes into her swim, she spotted a lone turd floating past.

“Too cold?” Nick asked airily, towel already out. Bonnie dried herself hastily, trying not to retch.

“Remind me to bring more hand sanitizer to the next cruise.”

“I don’t think there will be a next cruise.”

Someone’s boisterous child ran past, kicking over Nick’s thermal coffee cup and splattering their feet with milky coffee. The couple exchanged looks.

 

It seemed like every other light installed in the ship’s hallways was set to permanent flicker. Nick could feel a headache welling up deep in his skull. Bonnie’s attempt to purchase painkiller from the drug store only turned up a bland generic which did not dent the pain. As they strolled past yet another out-of-order elevator, Nick squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“What even is the point,” he said, “why do we do this? We’ve turned all our control over to this company, all our money, and for what? So we can be in a bubble everywhere we go? Why can’t we just travel like normal people?”

“So we can take part in the class-action suit,” Bonnie joked without conviction. Her corns were beginning to throb.

“But that’s the thing, people never win those. The companies settle out of court, nothing changes. We’re under marine law out here, they could kill us and we wouldn’t have any recourse.”

Bonnie stopped. “Don’t say that. Don’t joke about that.”

“I’m not joking, I’m—” Nick stopped to rub his eyes against the strobing onslaught of an overhead bulb. “God. Can we just go back to our room?”

Maintenance had been by and left a placard on their door, apologizing for not having the proper tools to fix the problem until the next port. Management left another, smaller, finer-print card apologizing for the inability to move them as the ship was booked full and invited them to partake in the complimentary fruit basket left for them.

Nick threw it at the wall. Kiwis and pluots, fruits that they were both allergic to, rained down on the wet floor. The cabin smelled like mold.

 

“First thing when we get to port,” Nick said, struggling on with his shirt in the damp air of the cabin, “first thing we’re doing is catching a plane back. This is ridiculous.”

Bonnie was squinting through the porthole, hands paused in the act of knotting her sarong. “Are you sure we didn’t port last night?”

“Yeah. Why?” Nick looked over at her.

“I just…remember waking and the boat was very still for a few hours in the middle of the night last night.” Bonnie looked over at the full-length mirror hanging beside the bed, petting her collarbone.

“That’s crazy. Why make port in the middle of the night, when no one’s awake?”

Bonnie looked into his eyes, just looked and looked. The question hung in the air between them.

They made their way up to the third deck, where the fire show was supposed to be taking place. Nick sucked air over his teeth when he saw the line. He put a hand on Bonnie’s arm. She huddled over and assumed a look of martyrdom.

“Sorry folks,” Nick called to the queue as they walked past, “MS flare up. I just need to get her sat down.”

They scored a table right up near the stage. Ten minutes passed as the other guests filed in. Twenty minutes. Nick sipped water out of a glass covered with fingerprints. It tasted how the air smelled. Half an hour. Finally a cruise employee came out and apologized for the cancellation of the show, passing out vouchers for the buffet. Nick shot an ‘I-told-you-so’ look to his wife.

The pool was crowded with unruly children. Bonnie watched one launch a snot rocket directly into the water and decided against entering. Nick spotted the blue stripe of an island vanishing into the boat’s wake and hunted down a docking schedule. Yes, they had made port in the middle of the night. The attendant who provided the chart promised to inform him of any future stops, scribbling their surname and cabin number in an illegible hand.

The couple killed a few hours wandering hand in hand, marveling at the various cracks in the cruise’s facade of pefection. Doors stuck. Surfaces were unsanitary. The mixed odor of everything unpleasant had only gotten stronger since the first day. They decided to brave the buffet, splitting their menu to sweeten the odds. Nick went with the chicken tandoori, reasoning that it would have been scorched to a temperature reasonable enough that would kill any hitchhiking E.coli. Bonnie stuck with fruit and the vegetables no one took, heaping her plate with raw broccoli and cauliflower.

As it happened, Nick lost the draw. He spent the rest of the night alternately hunched over or sitting on the toilet, which stopped flushing after the third visit. The card on their cabin door apologized yet again for the lack of repair, but they had attempted to stem the leak and broken the light in their efforts. The door stuck when they went to bed down, Bonnie’s hand slipping and cracking her customized vacation nail tips right through the palm trees.

Stomach subsiding into grumbles, Nick lay beside his wife in total darkness.

“…I mean,” Bonnie said, “if this is all this bad, imagine what the lifeboat are like.”

Nick sat up. Bonnie had put her finger on something that had been bothering him, niggling at the back of his head like a spawning migraine.

“You remember the last cruise,” he said slowly, “remember how we said we’d never go on another one…”

Bonnie laughed in the dark. “Yup. I said ‘if we ever get out of here—’”

“—‘if we ever survive,’” Nick interjected.

Bonnie was silent.

“They were calling us out to the lifeboats. We were listing to port and they were evacuating,” Nick said, worrying the memory like a splinter.

Bonnie gasped. “And we said I had muscular dystrophy, got us on one of the early boats. I remember. The sea was so choppy, there was this old woman wailing every time we went over a wave. Why would we book another cruise after that?”

Nick said grimly, “we wouldn’t.”

The air in the cabin was thick and wet.

“Why doesn’t anything work here?” Nick turned to her, unable though he was to actually look at his wife. “Not a single thing has gone right for us, why is that?”

“Nick,” Bonnie said in a hushed, urgent tone. She sat up and grasped his lapels. “I remember the lifeboat. I remember the water was so cold, we fell off but we kept getting back on. When did they rescue us, Nick? Why don’t I remember being rescued?

There was the groan of thousands of pounds of steel being overtaxed. The cabin, and the couple in it, tilted to one side.

“Nick,” Bonnie said, “Nick. Nick!

 

The door kicked open, and the couple behind it nearly fell into the room.

“Welcome to paradise.”

“Hey, at least it’s got a door. And…a view?” A yelp. “Nick, it’s wet.”

“Health hazard. Hello, first class…”

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The Echo Pipe

The echo pipe stuck straight out of solid bedrock. 3 ¾ inches of rusted iron, it was Hawley’s biggest mystery. Mrs. Strickland’s spontaneous combustion and the meteor shower that made the town smell like spent matches lagged behind in the dust. Those were one-time things. The pipe was ongoing.

The bit of road that curved before it went into a tunnel leading out of town, that was where you found the echo pipe. On the hottest day, you could still feel a cool underground breeze wafting out of the mouth of the pipe. That’s how folk knew it was real, not just a bit of leftover sewer pipe stuck in the mountain by some joker. Maybe once the pipe had been capped, or maybe it continued into the ground and that section had broken off, but now the end was a jagged mess. The legend went, if you put your ear (carefully, those shards were sharp) to the hole, you could hear an echo back before you even said anything.

Hawley kids have been using the pipe as entertainment for decades. It’s a telephone, planchette, almanac, and confessional all in one. Early days, the pipe would only give an echo out after you said something into it. Nowadays, all one has to do is wait and something will come out. Girls will have listening parties, collapsing into giggles the second they hear a man’s voice. Boys will ascribe terrible crimes to the sounds they hear, labeling every conversation as some sort of code. Once in awhile some loner will pretend the echoes coming from that rusted hole are part of a conversation being held with them and only them. They usually give it up after the strain of belief becomes too much, usually two-three days camping out by the pipe. It was one of these loners that was the unwitting instigator of the end, boy by the name of Ethan Madden.

As he described it to the rest of the town, Ethan’s experience went like this: he set up a camping chair by the pipe, intending hours of listening. He caught faint snatches of conversation. Nothing important, some couple arguing about who was to take a mysterious “her” up to the city. There was a flat silence for all of six seconds, and then the scream.

The scream was so loud that Notch Evans, the man with the house closest to the road, could hear it. Ethan swears he’s still deaf in the ear that was facing the pipe. The scream went on for hours. 3 hours 25 minutes to be exact. In the wake of such a noise, the silence seemed to ring. The whole town camped around that thing, even 93-year-old Mrs. Van der Waals struggled up the hill. All eyes trained on that pipe, waiting for the next sound.

What came next was a cacophony, decipherable to no one. Occasionally there were snatches of quiet, leaving orphan phrases to be interpreted. A man called Mark shouted for Melissa to bring the kids. Ten-year-old Mark Drisson blushed and looked at the ground, not at Melissa Eckhart. Men called to each other to patch the hole where Notch’s place stood with parts of the roof. Notch drained of all color. On and on it went like that. Some terrible catastrophe was befalling the town, one they could only partially discern. Was it a flood? Earthquake? On they listened, eager for any information that might help avoid the end.

At 2:14 pm on June 6th, amidst the roar of a crowd in turmoil, the pipe went silent. And silent it has remained ever since.

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Islands

“Take deep, calm breaths. Push your self down into a knot, gather its ends until it is a uniform sphere.”

Sturgess complied. In his mind’s eye a lens developed and grew with an ease borne from months practice. Like the people occupying the folding chairs all around him in the E street Protestant church basement, Sturgess was creating a peace. An oasis of cool thought in the roaring inferno of his reality.

Purefoy paced the aisles, adjusting limbs and closing eyes when necessary. Sturgess snuck a look through lashes, closing his lids swiftly as the other man turned around.

Purefoy paced to the front of the room. Standing beside a chalkboard written with a set of phrases designed to loosen the psyche, he called on random people throughout the room. He snapped his fingers and spoke a name, needing no more instruction than that.

“Linsky?”

“Atoll in the south pacific. Coconuts and fig trees. Lagoon big enough to swim in. Maybe a blonde or two.”

“Ito?”

“Tiny city. Buildings on buildings on buildings. Enough room for me and everyone I know.”

“Roberts?”

“Big enough for a house, no more. Brick walls, gabled roofs. A flock of geese in residence.”

“Sturgess?”

Sturgess replied naturally, having weighed and measured his words long before being called on.

“A tree,” he said, “that fills the whole island. No treehouses, branches big as the arms of Gaia to cradle me every night. The birds for company.”

There was more, so very much more. Sturgess had created hummock grass, berry canes, a shore of glass shards that had been turned smooth by the tide. His mind’s eye moved like a documentarian’s camera through his inner landscape. His island had progressed so much that he was comparing soil PH when Purefoy called an end to the session.

Purefoy cocked a single foot up on a folding chair and rested an elbow on it.

“You are closer with every waking breath,” he told the group, “solidifying your longing into something tangible. It isn’t enough to want. You’ve got to need. You’ve got to split yourself wide open and go diving.” Purefoy smiled. “Continue the exercises over this next week. Peace, my friends.”

The group (officially dubbed the “Mindfulness Meditation Hour” on the church schedule board) scattered at his dismissal. They bumped shoulders, made niceties at one another, but remained isolate even when speaking. They were islands, all of them to the last. Sturgess preferred it that way. If it was up to him, it would remain so up until the next meeting. Like a dragonfly skimming a pond.

But the contradiction jarred his shoulder roughly as he walked home through the capitol park.

“Croft,” Sturgess said icily.

Croft latched onto his upper arm, grip unpleasantly moist. “Sturgess.”

“I have no wish to justify myself to you, Croft.” Sturgess attempted to walk forward, but the smaller man’s grip was surprisingly strong.

“Still following that old fraud, then?” Croft laughed humorlessly, making his throat wattles jiggle. “I can’t help but feel sorry for you. I’ve made my own path, Jeffrey. You might join me?”

Sturgess twisted his arm out of the other man’s grasp. “I’ve heard everything you’ve had to say, Croft, don’t repeat yourself ad nauseum. Purefoy may not have spoken for everyone in group, but he spoke for me.”

Croft colored indignantly, trotting to keep up with the pace Sturgess set. “You have not, to your embarrassment, heard everything I have to say. I won’t take back what I said to him. You’re all dreaming your potential away. I’ve struck oil, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

And Sturgess could have very well kept on walking, leaving Croft and his delusions there beside a donated bench and the drinking fountain…but for the inflection in that last word.

“Am I supposed to know what this it is?” Sturgess said lightly.

Croft took a step forward. His collar had come undone and sweat shined his cheeks. “The mirror, Sturgess. I’ve found it.”

 

Sturgess looked at his reflection in the silvered glass. Streaks of tarnish distorted his image, making it seem like he stood in the midst of a web. The looking-glass had a bronze frame embellished with a greek meander, stopping only at a flat plaque that sat at the bottom of its oval shape.

Orbis Tertius, Sturgess read.

“You don’t know what I had to do to lay hands on this.” Croft sloshed down another whiskey, ice clinking in the glass. “I spread my web thinly across near the entire globe. The problem with out-of-place artifacts is that oftentimes they conveniently resemble an errant bit of cultural detritus. An amphora in the Yucatan. A shipman’s nail entombed with a mummy. The charlatan who sold this to me said it was part of a noble Roman family’s collection. Ha! The pittance I paid for it should be punishment enough for his ignorance.”

“So you’ve bought a mirror,” Sturgess said slowly.

“Not just any mirror. The mirror. The seeing-glass. That which allows man to view what he wishes.”

“You realize the mirror our founder spoke of was a metaphor?”

“No, it wasn’t.” Croft waddled up impatiently. “Only short-sighted philistines like Purefoy would think it so. This mirror sat in the lounge of the Club Jaune, Crowley himself had many a glass of absinthe beneath it and was never the wiser.”

“And the founder?”

“Oh he knew. Not much, but he knew. He was gazing into it when he first thought of his meditation scheme. You remember?”

Of course he did. Sturgess had committed the passage to memory: on settling myself upon a lake of dream-silver, I see my self reflected in the glass and a diminishing series of my dream-selves.

Orbis tertius. Sturgess traced the engraving with his finger.

“So this is the mirror he described. What’s the significance?”

Croft smiled. It was the question he’d been baiting Sturgess into.

“Forget your islands,” he said, “imagine a world. An entire planet of thought. A dream so strong it drowns out all else. Look.

Sturgess looked. And was held captive.

The mirror was no longer a mirror but blank glass, and it moved much the way his mind’s eye did over his own mental garden. Rising up from a lavender sea, Sturgess was confronted by a city of packed earth. The residents dressed in shockingly blue robes, save for a select few men who roamed the streets in red loincloths and golden body paint The view shifted to an Islamamorphic country, whose residents wore not taqiyah but a spiraling headdress that seemed to mimic organic structures that coiled high above their heads. Again, a shift in vision. A species of aquatic horses gamboled by the shoal as preteen boys made a game of leaping off the rocks onto their backs. A temple built to honor a four-tusked elephant made entirely out of a porous yellow stone. A city that hung from a cliffside like a swallow’s nest. A lone shepherd who looked over a field of buffalo so massive it swallowed an entire plain.

Sturgess started when Croft shoved a tumbler of icewater into his hand. He gulped it greedily. Fifteen minutes had elapsed  while he’d been swimming in the well of the mirror.

“You see what I mean by limited? Purefoy keeps you tethered because he knows the power of pure thought. But I—” Croft tapped his breastbone with a finger, “—have slipped that tether.”

Sturgess forced himself to think, to breathe, to be calm. Again and again, his gaze wandered back to the mirror. How wicked! What was the saying; copulation and mirrors are abominable, for they multiply and disseminate the universe? Sturgess could feel himself thinning in the presence of the mirror, and simultaneously felt a longing to be thinned.

Croft had a longing too. Sturgess had seen it from the first, his pathological need to be considered, deferred to.

“And what?” he said as drily as he could, hands trembling, “you’ve made your own island. A bigger island, to be sure, for isn’t every planet an island in the vacuum?”

Croft’s color rose again. He jabbed his finger sharp as knife at Sturgess, emphasizing each beat of his speech. “I haven’t just thought up an island, Sturgess. I’ve willed it. And mine is the will that supercedes all else.”

Sturgess felt his stomach fall away. “You mean…”

“I will make it real, rather, I will make it real to all beside me. It will start with the artifacts. Zippering into history, we will rediscover a long tradition of a sister planet running back to antiquity. Languages will alter, etymology will skew towards the new-old world. Soon we will have guests, residents of my world here on gold-stamped passports. Tell me, do you think it too forward to refer to this world as Croft?”

Sturgess made himself a blank, a human mirror that cast only Croft’s reflection.

“And tell me,” he said carefully, “would there…perhaps be room for a continent…or an island, not to be greedy…called Sturgess?”

Croft smiled. They were finally speaking the same language.

“That’s why I’ve brought you here,” he said eagerly, setting his tumbler down. “I have some papers you need to see.”

How terrible that the thinker of the century was easily vulnerable to the old cliche of a bookend to the temple. Sturgess winced at the meaty sound of the hit, pausing between strikes. He stopped when Croft ceased movement.

The mirror sat on the wall, blank eye echoing the whole ordeal. The right thing would be to smash it. That it existed at all was a deep perversion of some natural order.

Sturgess found the cold surface with his fingertips. The mirror demurely faded into a seascape, a blank blue canvas. As he watched, a dot on the horizon grew in detail as his vision loomed nearer. He could see branches, a beach, and a multitude of birds.

One island. Why be greedy?

Sturgess smiled.

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That Time of the Month

“Sure is good of you to come to dinner like this.”

Amanda, hunched over her aching belly, smiled. She’d had misgivings, of course, but Kieran was good. They understood each other.

Her older sister Eliza had never gotten that part. She’d had plenty of boyfriends, men tended to be attracted to women who raged like fires, but in Amanda’s world it was quality, not quantity that set the standard.

Not like that had mattered to her. Lizzie, recipient of a little genetic…problem, had never put much truck in social niceties. Each time her father related a new emergency from Lizzie’s end, he’d point at Amanda and say, “don’t you ever be like that.”

And Amanda wasn’t. She starved and preened and bent herself into the good girl shape society left for her. That’s what it took. Even when the genetic curse struck her too, she kept to the wall. She was on her way to meet Kieran’s family, wearing a dress and a bow in her hair (a bow!) and even a hint of makeup. She could do this. Yes.

The waxing moon followed the car, puffing out its pale cheeks at her.

Kieran’s mother opened the door. She brushed kisses to either side of Amanda’s face and pronounced her the prettied thing under the sun. Amanda smiled back and willed herself not to scratch the spot where she’d waxed the unibrow away.

Kieran’s older brother and wife were there, and Kieran’s uncle, and Kieran’s father. Amanda’s smile went to all the right places in her face. She was properly demure. She laughed at off-color jokes. She let Kieran’s sister-in-law admire her nails, which always grew long and straight.

The first rumble of trouble was very much disguised as a well-meaning jest.

Kieran’s mother, a plump woman who didn’t look like she’d skipped a meal in her life, asked, “so when are you and Kieran going to give us kids?”

Amanda stopped and flushed. She hadn’t expected this so soon.

Kieran came to the rescue. “Mom it’s too early to be thinking about this.”

“Sure, sure, but when,” the old bitch prodded.

Amanda realized she was drooling and dabbed daintily at her mouth with her napkin.

“Actually,” her voice broke. She cleared her throat. “I have a genetic condition. I just as soon wouldn’t pass that down to anyone.”

The family blinked as if she’d spoken in a different language.

“You know, they do wonders with IVF these days,” Kieran’s uncle put in, “I bet you could season your turkey and cook it in another pot.”

“Oh, Bill,” Kieran’s mother said.

Amanda was on edge now. The questions picked at her like biting ants. She went to school where? Her family was from where? She was getting a job when? All the while a tingle and burn in her abdomen. She could do this. She could do this. Normal people did this all the time.

She was salivating excessively now. She thought to excuse herself from the table, but Kieran’s mother misunderstood it as a gesture to help clean. She ordered Amanda back down.

“Mom, it’s not that,” Kieran said, picking up on her body language. God bless that boy. “She’s got real intense monthlies, you know?”

“Oh dear.” His mother smiled widely at Amanda. “You know, a girlfirend of mine switched to soy? Never had cramps again.”

Amanda smiled tightly as she got up from the table. The bathroom was alarmingly neat, like no one had ever used it for its intended purpose. She went to rub her eye and—too late!—remembered her eyeshadow. Then she wasted clumps of wet toilet paper trying to scrub it off.

Someone knocked at the door. “Sweetie, are you almost done in there?”

She hadn’t been in here that long, had she? Amanda looked at her face in the mirror. God, she had really botched the removal job. And, yes, when she leaned in for a better look, she could see the unibrow was already trying to re-assert itself.

Kieran’s sister-in-law looked surprised when Amanda finally opened the door. She rallied, but Amanda had seen it.

Her skin was flush and felt prickly. God.

Kieran was conversing in the dining room over beers with the men in his family. He was just so good-looking and sweet it made her ache for a minute.

Kieran caught her gaze. He came to her, free and easy.

“I’m sorry sweetie,” she whispered as her stomach constricted, “but I’m going to have to go. Tell your family I’m sorry, okay?”

Kieran shook his head. “No.”

Amanda gulped down panic. No, not you. You were so good. “Sweetheart, I mean it. You agreed to let me go when I said go.”

But now Kieran was blocking her way, shaking his head and setting his beer aside to take her hand.

“You don’t get to walk out,” he said gently, “it’s family time. You’re always telling me on how you’ve run from family your whole life. Well it’s time to stop running.”

Amanda bent double with a twinge. “Not my family,” she managed through a constricted throat.

“Well they will be. So take an ibuprofen or two and lay on my mom’s bed, but you’re staying,” he lovingly ordered.

A thin drool ran from her mouth. No keeping it in any more.

Amanda lashed out with her free hand, slashing Kieran’s throat clean through.

Kieran was more surprised than anything. He put his hand to the blood at his throat and then looked at it, as if unsure what had just transpired.

Kieran’s mother happened to look down the hall at precisely the wrong moment. She dropped a dish. Her face was round and plump, her cheeks fat white moons that mocked Amanda.

Amanda threw back her head and howled.

 

Lizzie shut the door on her truck. “Jeeziz, smells like my bachelorette party.”

Amanda was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette. “It’s not funny. I thought it would be okay.”

“Ah, everyone thinks that. One more shot of whisky, one more hit, I’ll be okay.” Lizzie had embraced her monthly hirsuteness, scratching one hairy forearm with long nails. “You can’t get with someone normal and expect it to fix you. S’what I learned with Andrew.”

“Is he the guy dad liked?”

“No, that guy was actually a coke dealer.” Lizzie snorted through her nose as she surveyed the carnage within the house. “What have you done, Mandy Jane, Mandy Jane?”

“Lizzie Ann, Lizzie Anne, I done a shame,” Amanda said back.

Lizzie scrubbed her eyes with a sleeve. “That’s my girl. Now up and at ‘em, it’s gotta look like a wild dog let loose in there.”

“You won’t tell dad?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

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Weird, Strange, and Wonderful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

665

667

669—

She stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey shrugged. “Half day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey drifted to the front of the crowd.

“—derelict, fit only for squatters—”

Casey raised her hand.

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

“Excuse me,” Casey said loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Her father was texting furiously.

“Seriously. Leave me alone forever.”

“Mmm. In a bit.”

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

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

Casey pocketed the brick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey smiled.

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