Category Archives: fiction

The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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Ascension

“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”

“Abso-tutely.”

“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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The Little Stranger

With the way things ended up, you might have expected Lucy Sullivan to kill her mother on the way out. They thought her a stillbirth initially, shocked by the sudden resurgence of heartbeat at 28 weeks. But no, Lucy was born at 6am on a Thursday, 8 pounds 5 ounces, to Dolores and Danny Sullivan. Ghost pale, even then, with hair that turned invisible in strong light. Dolores wanted to name her Angelica for obvious reasons, but Danny put his foot down for the first and last time in his marriage and the baby was named after his mother. After that there were no arguments, no disagreements. The house belonged to Lucy, and everything  and everyone in it. One look from her melted even the most contrary heart. The other girls in school would secretly snip locks from her blonde-white head to keep as lucky charms, snipping more and more as the hair from their own heads began thinning mysteriously. The Sullivans had no end of babysitters, which turned out lucky because they were prone to frequent bouts of colic that left them bedridden. With a townful of attention, their daughter thrived.

It was a mystery. On paper, Lucy was an unremarkable student. She never quite learned her times tables, grammar continually eluded her. Yet Lucy was provided enough to pass every exam by sympathetic hands, some belonging to the school staff. Lucy was not stupid, they could see it in the blinding brightness of her smile and the inquisitive tilt of her head. She simply needed more help, fragile creature that she was.

The Sullivans lasted until her sixth year, and then they died in a house fire. As the story went, Dolores had fallen prey to a wasting sickness and, in her weakness, had failed to right a fallen lantern. The townsfolk could see the sorrow behind Lucy’s smile, the cornflower blue of her eyes. Fostering was a fierce competition, it was only by pulling rank that the town pastor won. His own children had long since grown, he and his wife’s house sat empty and neat as a museum. Lucy made it live again, if not with the melodic sound of her laughter then her constant stream of visitors. Everyone in town found excuses to come visit the orphan in her new roost. The pastor’s only visitors were his children, who noted more and more grey in their father’s hair as months went by. Their concern went unvoiced. Who cared if the old man walked with a stoop now, or that his wife was too weak to manage anything but peas-and-barley porridge? They took care of Lucy with the fervor of a saint, and that was all that really mattered.

The pastor keeled over mid-sermon one Sunday. Visitors to his house found Lucy weeping at the foot of his wife’s bed, the hearth and the woman both stone cold. Edward Murray, the richest man in the county, swooped in. His only son needed a wife, and so he paid for Lucy’s boarding school. Four years tuition wasted on a girl who came out knowing no more than when she came in. That was enough for Murray. His son, John Davis Murray, was joined in holy matrimony to Lucy when he was twenty-seven and she the tender age of sixteen. The marriage lasted a year.

John Murray, on his deathbed, swore his wife the sole heritor of everything he owned in the world. His chest collapsed from coughing and his striking auburn hair went grey, but it only made stark contrast to the pale beauty of Lucy, sat at the foot of his bed, embroidering. Inherit she did, but only a token sum once Edward Murray’s lawyers got hold of his will. Edward became ill shortly after his only son’s passing, ranting about his son’s widow and turning himself into a pariah among the townsfolk. In the scourge and scandal, Lucy remained unblemished as a rose petal.

Care of the girl became a civic concern. Let it never be said that the townsfolk left such a tragic orphan to the poorhouse. Lucy moved from home to home, borne up by many hands. The town paid into a pension for her care as she turned nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. That year a blight struck the crops, a grey mold that shivered with the wind until the fields looked full of smoke. With the last of the town’s coffers they sent Lucy to the city, to a convent of some repute. She never reached it. A rich stranger’s eye caught on her white-gold hair and suddenly she was in society, where her lack of education mattered as little as dandelion fluff. She was engaged to a playboy who raced cars in his leisure time, widowed again when he fell asleep behind the wheel. She became a companion to a factory heiress, inheriting some of her nicer jewelry when a social disease the girl contracted turned septic. Lucy rose up the ranks buoyed by tragedy. There was always room in the heart for such a victim of circumstance, you see. Her smile was unweathered by despair, her eyes clear and blue and free from messy tears.

When something really, truly happened to Lucy, it came as quite the shock. She had spent years teetering on the edge of illness, but now she fell well and truly sick for the first time in her life. The prognosis was grim.

“You’re pregnant,” a doctor told her.

Lucy’s face was flat as a tombstone. “That can’t be.”

“I’m afraid so.” The man’s handsome face smiled at her, for her. “I’m sure you and the father must be delighted.”

“You don’t understand, this can’t happen. This mustn’t happen.” What color remained in Lucy’s face drained. “Not to me.”

The doctor held her as she fell into hysterics, called for laudanum to calm her when he couldn’t. Lucy spent the last months of her pregnancy in a hospital bed, alternating between fear and denial. Her white-blonde hair thinned and her veins showed dark under her skin. Nurses pulled double shifts at her bedside, fearing for their pretty young charge. Straps were installed after the poor girl clawed at her stomach in a bout of hysteria. Despite every reassurance that her child was healthy and in fact thriving in the womb, Lucy’s fear could not be assuaged.

On the day of the birth, Lucy made one last plea to the doctor before she was wheeled to the operating room.

“Please,” she said. Her gums had retreated from her teeth and her eyes threaded with veins, her white hair nearly gone from her head. “I’m not meant for this.”

The doctor, who had fallen deeply in love with her despite her fading appearance, clasped her hand tightly. “Don’t worry, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the baby survives.”

Lucy died on the operating table. Cardiac arrest from the strain, they said. The babe was delivered; ten pounds, seven ounces. Hale and healthy. So healthy, in fact, that it was the sole survivor of the influenza outbreak that leveled the infant ward the next day. The baby was given the name Victor, and he cooed charmingly as he was introduced to his new adoptive family. His mother, a barren woman past her prime, openly wept at the story of his circumstance.

“I promise you a long and full life,” she told the little one.

Victor smiled.

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The Serpent’s Smile

Long ago, when the land was young and strange, a tribe of people lived in rough huts in the foothills of this place. They lived in the hills because of the great water serpent.

The great water serpent was a fearsome beast many times larger than a man. It spoke as men did but had a cruel and cunning intellect. Worse than its intellect, though, were its eggs. The serpent had laid eight of the things. When the first one hatched, it produced waters that drowned everyone living below the flat plains. Each subsequent egg hatching sent the waters higher and higher until only the hill people were left. They knew the last egg would drown them as well, so they pleaded with the strongest man to do something about it.

The strongest man was only that, a man. He knew he could not best the great water serpent in combat, its hide was too tough for even the sharpest spears. But perhaps the snake’s cunning had rubbed off on this last tribe of men because he came up with a sly plan to steal the egg. After luring the beast from its lair and swapping the egg out with a mound of packed ash and animal dung, the man and his companions rolled the egg to the village. The serpent noticed the deception after returning to its lair, however, and set off across the hills fast as a whip crack. The serpent reached the village just as they closed their sacred gates, carved from the only wood to survive the past floods. It stood outside the gates and lashed its wicked black tongue but could do nothing.

“You must think yourselves very cunning,” the serpent said, “but how do you plan to keep the egg?”

The tribe’s strongest man knew the snake’s cunning and shook his head. “We will not tell you. Go to your lair, you great beast. This is the age of men now, and there is no room for monsters like you anymore.”

The serpent pressed a great golden eye to a gap in the fence. “You think you have tamed the whole world with this one action? Mark my words, I will be back for your people.”

The serpent slithered back underground. The people buried the egg in a sacred spot, and a small lake formed in the depression.

In the people’s minds, the story ended there. But it didn’t, not really.

Many generations later, that man’s descendant was the headman of the tribe. The land had changed drastically since those days. People came from far and wide to live in the hills and valley, people who had never seen a serpent as long and dark as a river. The hill people lived in homes that had not changed much over the many generations, while their new neighbors had air conditioning and lawns like little patches of green on a quilt. Though the headman lived in the largest house in the village, it was still a house as poor as his neighbors.

Change came in a long, black car that wound through the dusty hills like a trickle of water. A man from the city stepped out, suit black as fireplace soot. This city man wanted to build a dam at the mouth of the forbidden lake. He brought plans and photo mockups and written testimonials and spoke for hours to the people. But the village headman turned him away, saying the people had no need for a dam.

The man came back the next year. He brought gift baskets full of trinkets and a toy for the headman’s son. He spoke of social growth and small town die out. The headman turned him away.

The third time, the man brought an engineer with him and spoke of hydroelectricity and improvement. The headman saw some of his people swayed to the idea, but still banished the city man.

In his fourth visit, the city man asked, “why are you so dead set against building at that particular spot?”

The headman chose his words carefully. “That is a place mapped out by our people in long ago times. It is a place of misfortune. Calamity would befall our people if you dug there.”

The city man visited the site with the engineer and came back all smiles.

“Well no wonder you don’t want me to build there,” he crowed, “there’s a large underground gap right about here—” he tapped the map right at the spot the egg was buried “—where limestone eroded away over centuries. I’ve spoken to my engineer, and we have several workarounds.”

The headman declined and sent him on his way.

A drought built among the hills, each year hotter and drier than the last. Dust became such a menace the people walked with cloths over their nose and mouth. Crops withered despite their best efforts. And every time, the city man sounded a little more persuasive.

“You’ll forgive me for this,” he said, producing a water bottle frosted with moisture, “but it’s so darn hot out there.” And he drank it loudly, glug glug.

“Your people are in a time of need,” the city man said between frosty sips, “your irrigation techniques aren’t enough.” glug glug. “But this new dam would fix all that. You could have water whenever you want, and a whole slew of other things too.” glug glug. “With the money you get from the city for use of the hydroelectricity produced by the dam, you could send every one of your children to college.” glug glug. “This place is so dry. Don’t you think it deserves a drink?”

And the headman sat in his home where the only air conditioning was the occasional breeze, and he looked at his wife with a scarlet cloth tied around her mouth and nose, and he looked at his children who were small with famine. He watched the city man’s adam’s apple bob with every gulp, glug glug, and he felt thirst parch his body as if he and the village were one and the same, glug glug, and suddenly the waters were a welcome thought.

The headman agreed. Perhaps not right in that moment, but he agreed.

Plans were drawn up and materials hauled from far around until the dam stood tall and sturdy-looking in the sun. The sacred trees that had survived the floods so long ago were uprooted for construction. The people smiled as they irrigated their crops and walked around without face cloths. The headman sent his children away to a school with a good reputation with the money they received for electricity generated by the churning turbines within the dam. The people prospered as they one had.

Then one day, something shifted underground. Something cracked and broke. Half the dam stayed sturdy, the other sank fifty feet. Water spewed from the fissure until the bricks were sent flying out like comets.

The dam broke.

Water deluged the hills. It drowned the people living in the bright modern city below, the farmers that lived in the land just above that, but most of all it churned under the people of the hill tribe, who had been first in line for the water’s path of destruction.

And somewhere, a man in a serpent-black suit smiled.

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The Diabolical Book

The bookmaker sat on a blanket in the open air market. His front teeth were worn to nubs from gnawing at linen thread. His hands were deeply callused from generations of papercuts. He alone merited the shade of the market’s lone tree, for he could not afford a canopy.

His ears picked up the tap of shoes arriving at his blanket. The old man wiped patiently at a book. Nine times out of ten, footsteps approaching meant merely he was an oddity being observed.

The stranger spoke: “you are Prindl, yes?”

“That is what most call me.” Prindl’s face tracked the root of the voice, tilting like a sunseeking flower.

“You are blind?” The stranger sounded oddly delighted. The mild scent of tobacco hit the bookmaker’s nose. Nothing else. How odd.

“Too many nights working over tallow candles.” Prindl straightened his charges, running his hand over covers as if caressing sleeping children. “My output is not what it once was, but please take your pick.”

The stranger did not hesitate a moment before saying, “you have nothing that strikes my fancy here, my good man. I have a special order in mind.”

Prindl grimaced. “I only make custom books on rare occasions now. Please, I’m sure what you want must be here.” He proffered a red leather-bound Octavo volume.

“In truth, nothing of what I want exists in tangible form.” The stranger squatted on his heels. His shoes creaked oddly, as if his feet did not fill the soles. “I have need of a book to write in. I have many things to write.”

“Suna near the entrance is a journal-maker.” Prindl was irritated now. “Complete with pens. Her wife makes the pretty marbled endpaper. Those should suit you.”

“Now now, not every record is a journal. This would be massive.” The strangers voice had a kind of charm that picked at one’s head. “May I at least tell you of the book I want?”

Prindl said nothing.

“It must be a volume of nearly infinite capacity. Therefore the spine would have to be a core of 360 degrees. Each page must be as thin as you could get it, and fold out to another, even thinner page. No cover would be needed, of course.”

Even in the daylight, Prindl grew cold. “No such book can exist. Here—” he pushed a maroon volume forward. “A birds-nest binding, very popular with lovers back in my youth. The pages are good rag linen.”

“That won’t do, I’m afraid.” The stranger was mildly amused.

“Well then here—” Prindl picked more books up. “A ladder binding. The cover is dolphin leather. Gurt the embosser did the interior before he died. Anything you’d see on the market now is his son. Or how about this?” He held up a small, sleek quarto. “Tuck-fold binding. The cover itself could be a writing surface.”

“My man, no other book will do. No other artist will do. I’ve asked around, and only you seem to possess the skill I need.”

Prindl frowned. “A circular volume is…blasphemy.”

“I didn’t take you for a believer.”

“And I’m not…save for a few select areas. This is one.”

The stranger clasped his hands together. They were covered in kid leather gloves that squeaked oddly. Prindl had to wonder at the shape of the man, like a profane volume bound in plain leather. What did the other bookmakers see, he wondered?

“It goes without saying your reward would be handsome.”

“And it goes without saying that I am old and earned my right to be contrarian. Goodbye, sir.”

Prindl stood and limped to the refreshment stall, not waiting on his potential customer.

 

The next week’s market. Prindl sat on his blanket. His hands were puffy with the sting of errant pinpricks. His sightless eyes wept with exhaustion. His hunched back ached as he sat on a cushion he’d brought from home.

There was the lopsided creak of a familiar set of shoes approaching.

“God damn you,” Prindl said without preamble.

The stranger, at least, had the good manners not to laugh. “I told you I chose you well.”

“You knew my curiosity would not let me rest.” Prindl stifled a yawn. “You didn’t ask around, did you? I was your first and only choice.”

“Curiosity is about the only reliable thing with people, I find.” The stranger’s body now carried the scent of lit tobacco. Nothing else. No meat, no eau de cologne, not even a hint of body odor.

“I have not even begun work on the signatures, I cannot find satisfactory material for the spine.” Prindl held up his shaking hands. “I know I am not up to the task. No mortal hand is. But I cannot stop.”

“Your reward will be handsome.”

“What good will handsome rewards do me in my grave? This book will be the end of me before I end it.”

“Ah, well put.” The stranger’s smile was evident in his voice. “Most folk don’t even get to that level of reasoning. They can only calculate the measure of wealth offered them. Do you know, my man, that for every ounce of surplus there is a slightly larger amount of deficit offered? One of the unsung rules of the world, I’m afraid.”

Prindl sweated. He had come late to the fair, and some beggar had taken his spot in the shade. “You won’t be back.”

“I will not need to collect the goods in person, no.”

“Neither will I.”

“Well, ask yourself this.” The stranger squatted before Prindl. With his fingertips, Prindl could pick out the leather tip of a shoe, collapsed and empty as a glove. “Were you fulfilled sitting here, hawking books as all your talent fled your fingers? Perhaps not a dozen men in the history of the world have had your skill.”

Prindl retracted his fingers. “It wasn’t fulfillment I was chasing here.”

The stranger laughed. It was a merry laugh that beckoned you to join in. “You have it by the right end. Goodbye.”

 

After no one had seen his blanket at the market for weeks, the other book sellers and binders and printers began to worry. They had always looked out for Prindl, of course.

Prindl, being a taciturn man, kept his home secret, but it did not take the world’s best minds to figure out the small shack leaning up on the fore side of the derelict paper mill was his.

Prindl lay on the floor, posed as if he still intended to fetch just one more thing from the workbench. His tools were scattered around, along with the skeletons of half-formed books he had abandoned.

On his bench was a strangely ellipsoid globe that rustled with the passing breeze. It was a circular book bearing hundreds, no, thousands of pages from a spine that sat like an apple core in the middle. If it was one or two signatures shy of completion, they were unable to see before a stray elbow knocked the globe from the bench and it plummeted right through the floor. Such weight, they said, was unheard of for a book, and a few uncouth figures joked that the book probably punched a hole right down to hell.

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In a Dark House

It was the age-old story: one girl stuck in bed over winter break in an ancient sorority house. Sandra curled liked a shrimp under her layers of quilts and granny-square blankets and listened to the house creak with a sort of fascinated terror. Despite the coiled heater that split the room between her and Cindy’s beds, despite the layers of fabric and polyester batting and goose-down she could feel the cold leak in from every corner of the room. Snow pattered against the windows with every new gust. She had to wonder whether it was very much colder outside than it was in.

Cindy’s side of the room was as empty and neat as a magazine spread, her David Cassidy poster lined up perfectly to the edge of her nightstand. Cindy was a snowbird. Unlike other girls she hadn’t fled south of the equator for the break, she was in the Poconos. Imagining her skiing down a white mountainside sent Sandra into a coughing fit. It was, she reflected, pretty unfair to blame the other girls for being rich enough to afford getaways. Or having somewhere nice enough to go back to. It was all bad luck. Bad luck that she caught this from Brent, who was probably agonizing alone in his studio apartment across town. Bad luck that the blizzard blowing in made any potential trip to the store a trek like the Scott expedition. Just a series of random happenstance piling one upon the other until it weighted her chest like mucus.

Sandra hocked a little.

The house groaned like it was tired of the wind. Sandra didn’t trust a house this old. It talked too much. It sang when they descended the staircase for breakfast, it shrieked in the pipes in resentment of their hot showers, it hissed when they tried to start fires in the ancient chimney.

It would prove an unhelpful ally if she ever had to sneak away from anything…

Sandra sat on that thought and smothered it. She’d already had to endure countless jokes from the others as they packed and left, like she had any choice in the matter. She wasn’t becoming a cliche, she wasn’t—

There was a squeak and hiss as a faucet came on downstairs.

Sandra tried to force herself to breathe normally, because hyperventilating brought on a coughing fit. It was winter. Probably someone forgot to leave the tap on just a bit and the pipe burst. She would have a mess in the morning, but that was it.

The faucet turned off.

Okay. It was probably something that sounded very much like water flowing. Perhaps the scrape of a tree against a frozen windowpane, followed by the cool rush of wind. She wasn’t used to old houses. The sound she heard could just as easily be the crack of joists settling as someone creeping one by one up the stairs—

“Sandy?” The voice was young and female. “Sand? You still up?”

Sandra tried not to let her voice crack as she answered: “yeah.”

Miranda opened the door, poking her head in. Her long, blonde hair tumbled in like an afterthought.

“Man, you look like death warmed over.”

“Well, I feel fan-tucking-fastic, Randy.”

The girls laughed over an in joke.

Sandra spoke quickly to cover her relief. “Thought you’d gone already.”

“I was. I did. Came back because I forgot some things.” Randy looked over at Cindy’s side of the room. “Man, what a pigsty.”

“I wish she’d mess my side up sometimes.”

Randy clicked her tongue. “You should talk. The dud I got stuck with hasn’t said two words to me since she got here.”

“Oh right, you got the foreign girl, Svil…Svet…Svetlana?”

“Yeah, Svet-head only told me her grandma was coming over after the house mom left.”

“Grandma?” Sandra entertained visions of some old babushka creeping up the snow-crusted sidewalk.

“Yup. But get this, just a month ago she got out of classes because she said her grandma was dead.” Randy picked up one of Cindy’s magazines, thumbed through a bit, then tossed it untidily down again.

“That…that doesn’t sound right.” With effort, Sandra sat up. “Does she mean the same grandmother? Where is she, anyway?”

Randy shrugged. “Be honest, I thought she’d be bunking over break, like you. But I woke up one morning and she just…” Randy shrugged again. “Who even knows. Anyway, who invites their grandma over and then leaves?”

“Something I’d do if I could get away with it.” Despite the brevity, Sandra felt miserable. There was something here, something she couldn’t quite untangle in the flu-fogged depths of her brain.

Randy sat on the end of Sandra’s bed. “Anyway, kid, I’m checking out of here in a minute. You sure you’re okay? Got tissues? Water?” 

Sandra held up the ancient delft pitcher that was probably original to the house.

“Puke bucket?”

Sandra held up a mesh wastebasket. Randy laughed, giving her hair that little flip that drove the boys wild. “Far out. Well, don’t invite anyone inside and you’ll be set.”

As Randy stalked out into the hall again, Sandra called out, “wait, invite?”

“Vampires, baby.” Randy was shouting from the bathroom. “If granny’s up and around after her own funeral, it’s the only logical explanation. You think Tara will notice I swiped her toothpaste?”

There. That was the irreconcilable thing. Sandra tried to picture Svetlana. It was hard, the girl was shy and barely even spoke to the house mother. Had she ever spoken of her family? All Sandra could picture was the girl studying at breakfast while they chatted, white-blonde hair sheltering her face like an iced-over waterfall.

“Also, I think she ordered something for her granny. Some kinda food. Wark—Were—Wurdulak? She said ‘the wurdulak is on its way.’

“When did she say this?”

“Tuesday, I think. Right after she asked when I was leaving. I think she didn’t want to be alone when it came here.”  

“Weird.” Sandra frowned.

“Anyway, if someone buzzes the intercom, just ignore it. No one’s supposed to be here, right?”

Randy sang a Dolly Parton song as she rooted through the bathroom. Sandra took a drink of water, which had gained an unpleasant earthy tang from the pitcher. The pained half-consciousness that passed for sleep was setting in. She wanted nothing more than to take a dose of medicine and knock herself out, but couldn’t bear the thought of being unconscious if someone visited the house.

“Randy?” Did her voice carry very far at all? Randy still sang. Maybe she’d try again in a minute. She just needed to lie there and rest, just for a minute.

Like any good thief, Sandra didn’t know sleep had robbed her of time until it was over.

The house temperature had plummeted even more than normal. Utter black filled every window. Sandra woke with her whole body aching and her mouth dried from breathing in her sleep, nose firmly stoppered by mucus. She spluttered and coughed and tried to budge the obstruction, finally managing to gain one nostril’s partial function.

The boards between their rag rugs were icy. The space heater might as well have been off. Had a window broken?

“Rand—” Sandra coughed at the thinness of her voice. Something cracked downstairs.

Even sitting up took too much effort. The room swam and her back ached as Sandra threw off the covers and set one unprotected foot on the floor. Maybe Randy had turned the heat off before leaving, following force of habit. Dumb, but understandable. All Sandra had to do now was travel the cold distance to the thermostat and give it a bump.

Sandra stood and found herself falling backwards quickly. She grabbed on her bed and half-slid to the floor, where she sat in an untidy heap. She could not walk.

Hands numb with cold, knees aching in protest, Sandra crawled.

The distance from bed to door was the worst, until she had to cross the hallway. That was the worst, until she came to the head of the stairs. Gathering herself like a child going down a slide, Sandra bumped her way down to the first bend in the steps, where she could get a clear view of the front of the house.

The front door was wide open.

Panic overtook Sandra and she half-slid, half-tumbled to the first floor. Snow had blown in to dust the front hall, it crunched and squeaked as Sandra pushed her body against the door to close it. By steadying herself on the doorknob, she could just get up enough strength to throw the medieval-sized deadbolt that crowned the door.

How could Randy have left the door open? Turn the heater off, sure, a momentary oversight bred by weeks of routine. But to leave the door swinging wide open like that…and how long had she been gone?

Sandra peered at the den clock, which had stopped at 10:20. Great.

Well, at the very least, the door had hung wide open for hours. Anyone walking along the sidewalk could have seen it and come right in.

What kind of a person would be out walking in the middle of the night during a snowstorm?

Sandra tried to picture that and then quickly tried not to.

Get upstairs. Brace the bedroom door (the ceramic knob had no lock) and pray for the morning to come.

The tinkle of something falling in the kitchen startled Sandra. She crawled up the stairs two at a time, fear giving her a speed boost. There was someone in the house. No there wasn’t. But then what made that noise? Had Svetlana lied about going away, and just hid out until the others were gone? But if it was Svetlana, why hadn’t she revealed herself yet?

A metallic crackle made her hands slip on the last step. Sandra fell, chest-first, onto the old oak stairs. She was too winded to scream when the crackle sounded again.

“Hello?” The female voice drifted through buzzing interference. Sandra crawled elbow-and-knee up to the second-story hall, where the house’s doorbell intercom lay. “Hello?” The voice had a slight slavic tinge to it.

Sandra crawled to the intercom and hit the button. “Svetlana?”

There was a long, empty static as if the winter wind blew through the wires. “…yes.”

“Crap, I just locked the front door.” Relief flooded her. “I’ll be down to open it in a sec. You have to come up to my room, chick, it’s too damn spooky out here.”

Sandra was halfway down the stairs when she heard the low groan of a deadbolt bending out of shape, and a creak as if a massive amount of pressure were being applied to the thick oak door. She wondered, in her terror-scattered brain, how long the door would hold against the inhuman strength of whoever was outside. But in the long run, it didn’t really matter, did it? It would be weeks and weeks before anyone came back to the house.

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Spores in the Wind

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

These are the words that came to Fabrizi Bello on a balmy day in May, roughly 1567, as he sat at his writing table. He produced almanacs for farmers and the like. Halfway through a paragraph on rye, Fabrizi had put his pen down and stood up. Stretching a little, he walked but a short ways from the table when he paused. Returning to his papers, he penned that sentence and the deluge of others that followed. He did not stop for another 15 hours. His wife Rina discovered him on her way to build the morning cooking fire. Vellum sheets bearing his minute cursive littered the table and surrounding floor. Fabrizi’s ink had run dry at some point and, rather than get up and walk the few steps to the supply cabinet, he elected to stab into his palm instead and use his own vital fluids. Attempts to drag him away ended only in Rina Bello’s head striking the table edge until she moved no longer. Fabrizi wrote until blood loss stilled his hand as well. The Bello household lay dormant until a cousin of Rina’s dropped by to borrow thread. By the time the city guard stumbled upon the scene, Rina’s cousin had absconded with the manuscript beneath her skirt.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Pietro D’abo was sorting through a lot his firm had made a winning bid upon. He was looking for sturdy, little-used paper that would be bleached and made into palimpsests. Beneath two contracts and a recipe for cinnabar, he found Bello’s manuscript.  Pietro’s limited Italian carried him through the first paragraph, fascination through the rest. Only a third of the total piece had survived to grace Pietro’s hands, and he dedicated the remainder of his life looking for the rest. Over the next thirty years he would bargain, steal, barter, and trade for any information on the remainder. Once the Catholic authorities of the day caught up with him, the manuscript (minus a few pages) was burned beneath his nose. When given opportunity to renounce his ways just steps from the executioner, Pietro said only: “I am but a spot on the back of a jungle cat. Who the hell are all of you?”

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Konrad Dehmel worked as a typesetter for a print press. His eldest son worked as a punch-cutter, his wife as a woodcut artist when not caring for their younger children. All lived in a single room above the print workshop. Among a single month’s orders and contracts, he found a small sheaf of paper. He knew no Italian, he could barely read his own language. And yet, when his wife came into the workshop to fetch a chisel, she found him in a pile of discarded work orders with the papers in hand. He would say nothing but that he must be the one to set type for the book, fixating his whole attention on the pages. He forewent sleep, bathing, even food. The thing that finally stopped him was the sleeting bullets of melted lead type when the town grew paranoid about his leanings and set torch to the workshop.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A single page turned up in London. The artist who found it painted a massive mural incorporating the words “jaguar”, “spots”, “stars”, and “beyond”. The mural languished in a country that had yet to even embrace the Art Nouveau movement, and the artist died of a laudanum overdose some weeks later.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A newsboy to a Manhattan office found a photograph taken of the ill-fated mural, along with a single piece of paper bearing a single sentence in archaic Italian. Both were in his pocket when he leapt from the empire state building later that year. Examination of his apartment found endless stacks of paper, a vast treatise on jaguars, astronomy, pareidolia, and language.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Victor Aguilar rose in the early hours of the morning, making himself a french press coffee. His flat overlooked the Plaza de Mayo, which served as a continual source of inspiration for him. Victor had been struggling with an idea, a short story of a man going through his late father’s belongings for auction. A chance glimpse at the muddy blue sky with its few remaining stars made the story sputter and die. Now he thought as he looked over the the plaza, a peculiar twisting thought that came to him as complete as if it had been written into his genes at conception.

He sat at his table and clicked his mechanical pencil until the lead came.

There is a jaguar, he wrote, in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky. Like spores borne unto the wind, no idea is truly dead when one finds its echo across the universe.

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But Anyway

—like I said, I’m never going back there again. But anyway, did you hear about Claire? Mmm-hmm, keeled over in the middle of a manicure. Just like that, they said. Popped her brassiere in the process, couldn’t you just die? Janine says she said she stopped drinking, but Alice says she saw Claire sneaking one of those mini-bottles out of her purse. Can you imagine? Janine swears it wasn’t the booze, Claire just up and died with the most horrified look on her face, but Janine also swears Frank stopped sleeping around when she caught him five years ago so you know how much weight her word carries. Claire just started flopping around and frothing at the mouth, kind of like your mother that one time on St. Paddy’s’ day, but anyway—

Poor Claire just hasn’t been right since that thing at our old highschool, mmm-hmm. Dean humiliating her like that and all, I mean, couldn’t you just die? Where’s a woman her age going to find another man? And the scandal! Was anyone surprised when she started drinking again? Janine said it was something else, of course. Mmm-hmm. Said she went out to that old supply shed on the other side of the baseball diamond, came out shaking like someone just passed a death sentence on her head. Place is gone now, but Janine says she said there was something written on the wall in there, something that killed her in the end. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Like a cootie-curse, at her age! Alice was too polite to say it, but Claire had been going downhill all week and this was just the capper. Who cares if Dean jumped in front of that car, her social life was murdered right then and there (kind of like your mother on St. Paddy’s day, but anyway—)

Alice says there was someone living in that shed, mmm-hmm, some kinda bum who went around with their face all bandaged up. Whole neighborhood’s gone downhill since we were kids. Disgusting. They say the thing written on the wall wasn’t even english. Some whatsit—called it a wormword? So silly, have you ever heard of a word you can catch like a cold? But that’s what they said it was, written all nasty on the wall like that. And then right after that she finds Dean who jumps in front of the car like he’s chasing a leaf that looks like a $50 bill (again, like your mother.) Too neat if you ask me. I’ll bet their marriage has been on the rocks for ages and Dean just got tired of keeping up appearances—no I am not jealous! Can you imagine me next to that has-been in his little power tie? My Brett might have his ‘gentleman’s weekends” but he’s never humiliated me in public. And even if he did, you wouldn’t see me sneaking Shandies in a sunblock bottle. I mean, the scandal! Couldn’t you just die? ‘Head cheerleader marries quarterback, falls into the bottle.’ It’s worse than your mother with a snoutful, but anyway—

Claire had the sweats and shakes. Delirium tremens, just like my uncle Pete. He thought he had bugs crawling under his skin, used a chisel to try and get them out. Claire said her words burned her mouth, said it hurt her not to say the thing that made Dean jump in front of that car. Mmm-hmm, so terribly sad. When Sherryl started on menopause and kept screaming that the kids were leaving threatening chalk drawings on her sidewalk, that was the saddest old thing. But Claire was worse. The way she kept dribbling all over people just trying to help her, screaming that she was cursed. I know she said something nasty to Harold, that’s why he keeled over and had that stroke. Poor deluded Claire just thought it meant it was all real. It’s a scream, couldn’t you just die? She actually begged us to find the bum from the shed! Like we’d stomp through shantytown for her imaginary problems. I’m sure Janine felt very sorry for her, but if you ask me Claire just basked in the attention. First her husband dies, then she claims magic powers? Please. Next you’ll be telling me the scratch on that war monument isn’t from the night your mother went spinning down the main drag with a pickax she stole from the mining display, but anyway—

Shame about her. Mmm-hmm. Of course I’m sad, don’t I look sad? …damn botox. Anyway, it was a long time coming. She really started to lose her noodle towards the end. Said the wormword infected something, a phrase we use all the time. Called it her killing word. But when Alice asked her what it was, she wouldn’t answer. Clear schizocotic break, if you ask me.

Bitter? Of course I’m not. Claire lived her life however she lived. If she chose to end it as an embarrassment, that’s up to her.

…of course I don’t mind getting lunch. Again. Unlike Claire and all, we aren’t having money problems. Say, you two were close, weren’t you? Did she hint at anything? Some little hint that might let you know what she was talking about? No? All right, just dotting my i’s and j’s. She was clearly beyond help, but you never know…

Of course I didn’t visit her before the salon, when have I ever visited in the morning? And if I had, why would she tell me anything? Your imagination is running away with you. No, I’m wincing because of my sciatica, that’s always been a problem. I don’t have some wicked little wormwood burning a hole in my tongue. Imagine, me with magic powers. I mean, couldn’t you just die? Couldn’t you just die?

Couldn’t you just die?

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We Have Always Been The Smiths

Amelia opened the curtains. Bert, still in bed, squinted at his crossword.

“Come on,” he said, making a sophomoric grab for her waist as she passed by, “coffee can wait.”

“If the coffee waits, breakfast waits,” Amelia said, cinching her robe, “if breakfast waits, I wait. If I wait, Adam waits. If Adam waits, he’s late.”

Bert laughed at her impromptu poem. “Being late isn’t going to kill him.”

Amelia addressed him over her shoulder before she shut the bedroom door and left him to the crossword: “a man doesn’t understand these things.”

Amelia turned the phrase over in her mind as she passed down the hall, pausing to rest her fingertips on the doorframe of the spare room in a sort of caressing motion as she did every morning. Bert, when you got down to it, didn’t understand the intricate system put in place to keep life ticking just so. For all his good-natured affection, he really didn’t get it and by extension her. Yet somehow, as her mother would say, it all works.

She knocked on Adam’s door. A formality. The nine-going-on-ten-year old was awake and making his bed.

“Breakfast in 25,” she said, and took off for the kitchen.

Coffee for her and Bert. Fruit cereal for Adam. Multigrain toast for her. Microwaved turkey bacon and two eggs, post, for Bert. Their dining room adjoined the kitchen, a nook big enough only to hold a 5X5 wooden table and a wine rack.

Amelia set four places. Then she shook her head and picked the fourth setting back up.

Bert was up and doing his morning business, she could hear the water heater kick on as his shower drained the tank. The coffee’s digital clock read 7:37, 28 minutes past her prediction to Adam. He was being a drag-foot this morning, something he indulged in only every so often. Ascribe it to some shift in temper, some temporary caprice of a normally punctual boy.

7:38. She peeked in Adam’s door. The boy was still in PJs, bed unmade as he sat on the end. He did not look up at his mother, but at his cupped palm.

“Adam? Is something wrong?”

The look on his face startled her. It was a very worldly mask of despair for such a young boy.

“Mom,” he said, “I found these by my bed.”

She could see where he’d moved the mattress away from the wall, perhaps chasing a sock. The gap was filled with legos and bookmarks and a motley assortment of crumbs.

Adam opened his hand like a flower. A bolt of terror shot through Amelia, sourceless and directionless, left her feeling weak-kneed.

In her son’s palm were plastic earrings, the kind that were made to clamp painlessly on a young girl’s earlobes. Fake pink gems glittered from the loops.

“What were those doing by your bed?” she asked with a carefully constructed calm.

Adam just looked at her.

The sound of the shower door sliding open startled them both. As one, mother and son moved to scoot the mattress back to the wall, hiding the earrings once more in their secret cache.

 

Bert chewed with his mouth open. Mother and son ate in a tense silence, each trying not to let on that something was wrong.

Bert washed his bacon down with coffee. “Summer’s coming. What should the project be this year, hmm? Boat? Treehouse?” He set the mug down. “I got it. We should finally do something with that empty room.”

“Actually.” Amelia covered his hand with her own. “I was thinking, maybe we try for another child. I’ve always wanted a little girl.”

Bert snorted and tugged his hand away. “We’ve already got a boy, what more do we need? You don’t want to share your whole life with a boring old girl, do you sport?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a brother or sister,” Adam said quietly. He didn’t look up from his plate. “It gets lonely being by myself.”

Bert looked between them, incredulity spreading across his face. “Man, I just don’t get you two. What we’ve got here, it’s perfect. Three is the perfect number for a family. You’ve got the head of the house, the mother, and the heir. Enough cash to go around.” He shook his head as he took another sip from his mug. “Anyway, sport, I think I hear the school bus idlin’ out there.”

Amelia spoke quickly, silencing her son with a kick under the table. “Actually, I’m driving him to school today.”

“What? Why?”

“What did I say? If Amelia is late, then Adam is late…” she shot him a coy look.

Bert laughed and plunged a scrap of her toast into his eggs.

“Send him to school half-dressed. That’ll teach him.”

“A man just doesn’t understand these things.”

Amelia waited, motor idling in the station wagon, as Bert got into his sportier chili-red coup. Mother and son were bundled up against the lingering chill in the air.

Bert shut his driver’s side door and gave them a little wave. Amelia smiled wanly and blew a kiss. She put the car in reverse, foot on the brake, as Bert backed the car out of the driveway and rumbled away. Then she put it back in park, and they both got out.

Amelia wasn’t even sure what she was looking for. The closest thing she had to concrete evidence was the sick feeling in her stomach. She tore apart the mantel photos, looking for figures hidden by the frame, secret messages written on the back, anything. No. Just her and Bert doing a series of mundane things, eventually joined by Adam. Amelia stood looking at the ugly jade lamp Bert insisted on bringing into the marriage, fingers throbbing from prying picture frames apart.

What was missing?

What was wrong?

Her whole life semed ajar, as if something had been crudely subtracted and the hole left half-patched. Why did the thought of a girl-child awaken such a sick, sad feeling in her chest?

As her mother said, somehow it all works out.

How? How did it work? Sifting through the pages of her life, Amelia could recall no stirring declaration of her heart for Bert. She remembered his proposal. A vague joy, distant and unremarkable. Nothing more.

Amelia retrieved her bug-out box from the bottom of her clothes hamper (the one place Bert was guaranteed to never go) and flipped through it. Dirty love letters, a recipe for bloody mojitos (a drink invented with her sorority sisters) and jewelry she was no longer bold enough to wear. Beneath all that, pictures of old lovers. Men, with full heads of dark hair and kind eyes and sure hands. Men who looked almost nothing like Bert, with his balding pate and watery gaze( and neither did Adam, now that she really had time to think about it.) What had led her to chose him? Vaguely, she felt that she’d met him and fallen head over heels, but why? What enduring quality led her to marry an ambitionless man ten years her senior?

In the stack of photos, there was a snap of her on a picnic blanket with her college beau, David. The timer he’d used had malfunctioned, there was motion blur obscuring his face as he dashed to the blanket. The wind whipped Amelia’s hair as she laughed.

Amelia knew that picture. She had its sibling on the mantel.

Retrieving the snap, it was easy to see how closely they matched up. Her hair, now tamed by a scarf, was in the same style. The lighting was the same. The duck meandering in the background now stopped to nibble on bread.

But it was Bert at her side, not David.

Amelia clutched the photo as she mounted the stairs. The door of her son’s room was half-open. The boy himself was sitting on the floor, legs and arms wrapped around something she couldn’t quite see.

“Adam?”

He unfolded, still holding the object protectively. It was a vinyl bouncing ball, bearing a small pink horse in the middle of a star.

“Mom,” he said, “this ball.”

Amelia nodded. “I’ve seen it. It wasn’t hidden.”

“Mom, look at this ball. Does this look like something I’d want for myself?”

The realization brought a fresh wave of horror. She handed the photographs to her son. He studied them with a severity she had never before seen in him. He looked up. “What do we do?”

“We turn the house upside-down.”

 

The rumble of Bert’s coup died down in the driveway. His keys clattered against the door as he wrenched it open. “Hey family? I’m home.”

The rest of the house was dim. The only light he found was the den, where his wife and child waited for him. The floor was a collage of photos and small objects. Bert gingerly tiptoed through the mess.

“Whoa, did a tornado rip through here?” His chuckle died away when he saw the stony faces of his family. “What?”

“Bert, how long have we been married?”

Bert furrowed his brow. “…is this about the boat idea?”

“Answer me.”

Bert swallowed.

“Have we ever argued?”

“We don’t fight.”

“Let me rephrase that: have we ever had dissenting opinions? Have I ever been allowed that?”

Bert looked from her to Adam, who held his gaze without flinching. Bert looked away.

“What did I forget this time?” he asked jokingly.

“You didn’t forget. You just don’t think about these things.”

“Baby—” he stepped on something with a plastic crunch. He lifted his foot to reveal a girl’s play earring. He whitened slightly.

“I wanted a girl,” Amelia said flatly, “I’ve always wanted a girl.”

“We can have one.”

Amelia gave him a withering look. Bert was sweating heavily, tie doffed and wrung between his hands.

“I love you,” he said abruptly, “don’t you know how much I love you? My life was so much worse before I got you. And Adam.” He shot a wan smile at the boy, who had not shifted even slightly. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to me. And what we have, it’s good. Can’t you just be thankful for that?”

He began shuffling backwards, towards the mantelpiece. There the jade lamp clashed with every single piece of decor in the house. Amelia did not stop him.

“I can fix this,” he said slowly, “I can fix anything. Just let me—”

A toy ball bearing a horse inside a star, the kind a mother would buy for a small girl, flew across the room and hit the jade lamp. The lamp wobbled and fell to the floor, shattering into pieces. Adam sat back, empty handed, with a satisfied nod.

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Fungisland Part 3

Entry 10

It has been some weeks since I’ve written. I thought I laid my supply of ink-mold in a safe place, yet it vanished perhaps creeping away under its own steam while laughing at me. I was forced to harvest several specimens of Bêche-de-mer to make this entry, hence the change in color.

Where to begin:

I began my raft-making process. While the jungle had tolerated my attempts to fell stipes for firewood, when I moved on to clear-cutting it struck back. A powerful mist of some unpleasant liquid stung and blinded me for hours. I was finally able to navigate my way to a freshet and wash my face with the aid of some nearby sponge-caps, only to find my rescuers to be my spore-riddled neighbors, gathering the caps and placing them within arm’s reach. The message is clear, I shall be a well-treated guest so long as I do not try to escape I reconcentrated my efforts in material-gathering, felling only one tree a day and using the ends for firewood, stashing the rest in a sheltered cove. I found a mold that produced a thick, oily salve that I used for waterproofing. Finally, I was forced to use some of my own scientific equipment for an anchor, for there was nothing so sturdy on the island. It took a passage of time too humiliating to tell to construct that raft. Perhaps one of the sailors might have been able to do so more quickly, but more than likely he would have fallen under the influence of the fungus before he could make use of it.

I remember the day I cast off, using a stipe to pole myself out to the reef. Once, I looked back to shore. The fungal people stood abreast and watched me silently from the beach. I kept my eyes to the horizon after that.

I was barely able to moor myself at the seabird’s rocks without crashing, but rather than safety they simply present another host of problems. The birds have long been hostile to any sign of fungi; they dive-bomb my deck if I drop my guard for a second. By gathering their eggs I might have enough for a month’s journey, but I have no means to bring fresh water with me and no compass to navigate by. I am simply choosing the method of my death at this point, and neither seems preferable.

The cinder cone glows at night. I fear an eruption.

Entry 11

This is not a happy update. I was able to rough it for a week offshore, then a storm blew up. Perhaps it is lucky I’ve survived. Perhaps it isn’t luck at all but the will of some malign presence. I give nothing over to chance now.

I washed up on the far shore of the island, after being beaten black and blue by the rocks. Thankfully I had already learned of a mold with curative properties and was able to tend my wounds. I made landfall in a small, barren cove with no way around to the jungle. I decided to attempt the cinder cone and made probably my most alarming yet in retrospect least surprising discovery upon setting foot on the surface.

The rock was soft.

The thing I have taken for a volcanic formation is another fungus, larger than anything else on the island! What’s more, I think it perhaps may be a genius loci, the one that compels the other fungi and fauna to do its bidding.

I was able to mount the monolith, even with my injuries, and upon summiting I found another shock: the “village” of the poor souls I call my neighbors. The indentation that would be the caldera in a volcano was instead a cottony nest of mycelia. As I watched, gatherers returned from the jungle and stood stationary as the mycelium grew up to cover their bodies. There they rested, or perhaps exchanged chemical information. I have resigned myself to never knowing. Among the gathered people I could spot several members of the crew I had been on speaking terms with. McKinnon. Bradley. Phillips, who had made a big to-do about giving me the lower berth owing to my seasickness. All once boorish examples of manhood. All mindless shells. What I feel is no victory. I feel a great gaping rift in my soul. Irrationally, the thought comes to me that my wish for solitude did this. I know logically that it can’t be true, yet…

I have found a ravine that bears small fruiting fungi and a trickle of fresh water. I have holed up here for the time being. I don’t know that I can trust anything set before me anymore, but it is either this or starvation.

I will not send the journal yet. I feel a great plan set in forward motion, but I have not seen all the cogs.

Entry 12

The fungal cone glows at night like a signal-fire. It wants more ships. It sends its blasted scouts to all corners of the compass, hoping to lure in more ships.

I see the crew of the Molly Haggard and hide from them. They are not men, they are corpse-puppets. I must remember the loss of their humanity for I ache to talk to something, anything sometimes.

My chest burns, every breath is a labor. It is almost time.

Entree numburrr 13

hurts to writ. focuss. i am finnees elmyr rutlend. i am mycolojist.

i am on top of mushroom. i can see ships in the distence. the fungus wanted it all along. the iceburg wasn’t tryng to escape. it was trying to bring us hear. every breath i took full of spores.

thout i was safe. food and water. woke up and myc mic fungus threads stuck me to the ground. peeple found me. fillips not fillips. pickd me up. brot me here.

focus.

it’s all the same. it’s all the fungus. i can feel my body dying as it replaces me. thinking geting hard. they brot me up to the top of the mountain. everyone here. spores make look like fire-signal smoke. they wave their hands. the ships turn. i don’t wave my hands but it’s hard. urge burns. i write this jurnal and then i throw it out to see. mayby find it in time.

it funny. all i ever think is i hate being with other, want alone with mushroom. and now with mushroom less alone than ever.

ships com goodby

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