Tag Archives: apocalyptic log

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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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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Fungisland Part 2

Entry 5

I have reached the far end of the island. It is far less welcoming than my home encampment, though this may just be due to the melancholy that dogs my steps. I have not yet laid eyes on my neighbors, though I suppose it is inevitable. For now I have been seeking out new varieties of fungi that aren’t present on my half. One slime mold I have named Felicitus atramenti, for its tannin-rich blood provided me with the ink in which I pen these words (my inkwell ran dry despite my thrifty efforts.) That there are animals present on this side of the island should be no surprise, for I have often heard the call of seabirds with no visible source. That they should be in some way burdened with infection should come as even lesser shock. One mighty specimen I have dubbed the webbed albatross, for mycelia coats it so. The bird’s eyes are blind and white, how they navigate I can only guess. I see them kiting higher and higher on air drafts like a hawk, gaining altitude enough that they can fly out to sea. They never make it to the horizon. I was unable to see the means of their extinction until I fashioned a clear jelly-like slime mold and a dry hollow stipe into a spyglass.

Far off shore there is a scattering of shoal, and on that shoal other seabirds nest. Once a webbed albatross crosses their threshold, the birds attack the intruder and send it into the sea. While I am overjoyed to find a potential source of food (the nutritious value of those eggs might well make the perilous journey worthwhile) I am alarmed at the scope of the island’s infection. I had heard of fungi affecting behavior, certainly, but only in already mindless insects. If the spores are strong enough to infect the braid of an avian, how does that bode for greater animals?

I must show more caution in what I eat and drink from now on.

Entry 6

I have found my neighbors. My worries of the fungal spores were too slight, it seems. For they have already found humanity.

I must wonder after the people on this island. What were they, Polynesian, Oceanian, some southern form of Esquimaux? Were they here before the fungi dominated? Alas, they put forth no answer.

The people infected by the fungi are covered with webs of mycelium. Like the birds, their eyes are sightless. They operate by touch, and by some internal compass they navigate the terrain. This place and all that live in it are like the clockwork wonders I saw in Munich as a boy, each piece appearing to operate independently while driven by the same infernal internal engine. I have made a grave miscalculation. I am leaving the far side of the island.

Entry 7

After stopping to gather enough atramenti to fill my inkwell several times over, I am home. In such a short time most of the markers of my presence had been absorbed into the jungle. My trunk remains untouched (thank god) and I yearned for a drop or two of manmade chemicals. I have doubts even a shipful of carbolic acid could clear this jungle, though.

I cannot banish the implications of the far side of the island from my mind. Everything in my home camp that brought me joy is recast in a sinister light. Perhaps it was only appealing to me in the first place because the fungus willed it so. No, Phineas. Down that path lies madness and despair.

Now that I am quit of it, I feel more comfortable describing the far end and its inhabitants. Whereas the “trees” near my base are like that of a small copse, the growth on the far end is outsize, with a canopy that blocks out the sunlight. All molds grow to a greater size in those environs; I found a slime mold that normally grew to six centimeters that I could barely span with both arms wide open. Also present in that jungle are membranes throttling the gaps between fungal trees which serve a purpose unclear to me. They dilate only to let the poor fungi-people pass.

My neighbors…I cannot imagine their passage a painless one, yet they look out at the world with placid faces. I cannot ascribe their facial features to any one ethnic group, and their skin is so powdered with spore-dust that skin tone is impossible to place. Perhaps they are not a native tribe but other castaways like myself, trapped here by the fungus I will not give myself over to idle speculation. I must weather these conditions and then when I have reached my apex, I will bind this journal in oilskins and set it adrift. Even if I do not live on, my knowledge will.

Entry 8

I found a slime mold that tastes like chocolate pudding the other day. While in my early days it might have brought me cheer, I am only sickened now. It was like a port Molly painting herself up in an approximation of your own mother’s face to entice you.

Whether I was always the subject of visits and only noticed now or that the fungus has been made aware of me I see the fungi-people on my side of the island with increasing frequency. They are completely silent, communicating in some nonverbal manner that leaves me out in the cold. No different than normal society, then. Their errands are as murky as their vision. Sometimes I see them move a fruiting mold a few feet, only to move it back a short time later. It is my pet theory that their actions are a cover, and they act only to observe me. I will begin caching the journal in a seaside cave, since the saltwater gives them pause.

Entry 9

It cannot be. Yet it is.

I have found the Bosun’s red cap. The crew are among the fungi-people.

I will begin constructing a raft. I must get off this island.

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Fungisland Part 1

Entry 1

The Molly Haggard has crashed, all hands down to the deep save for me. I, Phineas Elmer Rutland, am alive. More importantly, I am free. FREE. No more petty decrees to gather bird feathers and droppings, no more deckhands roughing up my scientific equipment, no more jabs about my sea-sickness, I AM FREE. I have destroyed the preceding journal pages as a symbol of my emancipation, so let me mark down a summary of how and when this came to be, lest I forget:

It was three days prior; the ship was on glass-calm waters when suddenly we hove to port (or starboard, I can never remember.) The ship was caught in a tumult as if a maelstrom was upon us, yet the sky and surrounding sea remained clear. I admit I remember little of this; the boat pitched and yawed so, I spent most of my time emptying the contents of my stomach overboard. I remember one confused soul screamed the dreaded “iceberg” but knew we were too close to the equator for such a thing to be.

I looked up and feared the man right: there was a large, white specter to the fore of the ship, nearly as tall as the mizzenmast. The crew flew into motion to turn us, all too late, when the looming white thing burst like a pig’s bladder. All that was left was a cloud of white dust and confusion among the men. This turned into chaos as those close to the dust cloud began choking and clawing at their faces. All the while we still churned in place, caught by some unseen menace.

I’ll remember the crack of the ship breaking as long as I live. Men fell into the sea without life-vest or buoy. I ran to grab the chest of my instruments. Thank god I waterproofed it by impregnating the wood with bitumen; the chest made a handy floating device when I fell through the burst hull. All night I could hear the other men calling each other, trying to keep within range. Folly, if you ask me. By lumping together, they probably damned themselves. I could have tried to share my floatation device and probably would have wound up back in the sea. But by excluding myself, I was saved. I was so comfortable I even dozed off, only to awake when the reef of this island jarred my chest.

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I made landfall. I had not grabbed any tack or fresh water, I had no idea the condition of my instruments, and I had a mild case of windburn. But all this melted away when I spotted a small brown protrusion at the end of the beach. I took it for some kind of root runner and tried to follow it back to the source, accidentally striking it with my foot in passing. The “root” sent up a brown cloud, and instantly I knew I was home.

I was not the captain’s first choice to man the ship’s science offices. He wanted to replicate the blasted Beagle’s tour of the tropics, wanted some jack-of-all trades with a chest of coarse hair who no doubt guzzled rum as he took specimens. Specializing in fungi was folly, he said. Well, here I am, whole and hale and surrounded by my area of expertise. Who is the fool, I ask?

Entry 2

It has been some weeks since I washed ashore. My early melancholy was tempered by the discovery of my first fungi, now I miss humanity less than I miss trough water in January. I have named that first specimen Phinea elmeri after myself, more of a sentimental gesture than anything. I have discovered dozens of fungi since then, and every day brings new specimens.

I have made steps to map out the island, though some areas remain impassable for the time being. The island is no coral atoll, as I thought when I first arrived, but a volcanic isle dominated by a cinder cone at the extreme end of the island. It has a source of fresh water, which I have yet to locate due to the nature of the jungle.

Ah, the jungle. If I could wax poetic for a moment, such a marvel has until now existed only in my dreams. What I took for tropical hardwood became the stipe of yet another fungal variety. Yes, my new home had mushrooms larger than anything recorded elsewhere. I must admit to hugging one in my fervor. The stipe gave off a slightly malty smell I found delightful. The “vines” that I’ve seen hanging from the canopy are simply above-ground mycelia, strong enough to be made into rope (a property I’ve used to my advantage in attempting more difficult areas)

I will not be so brash as to say all aspects of fungal life are so joyful. The fish that swim in the freshets are covered with a mold that makes them appear furred. While the mold makes them sluggish and easier to catch, it gives them a most unpleasant taste. I take my risks fishing off the reef, though I find more success prying bivalves from the rocks as the sea life prefers to give the island a healthy berth. I assume the fungi itself is stopped by the barrier of the seawater, hence why you don’t see giant mushrooms anywhere else.

Entry 3

Had some interesting run-ins with the local fungi in the preceding weeks. The first was a batch of what I took for ripe fruit on the sole plant on the island: a bush situated ⅓ the height of a seaside cliff. I thought the height and the surrounding stone gave it separation enough that it would be safe from fungal interference, forgetting of course that spores rise. I plucked the fruit while hanging from a woven mycelia cradle and performed the tests for vetting edibility. I found them not only edible, but quite alluring. After consuming three or so, I found my balance off and my temper uneven. What happened is something I have only been able to surmise after the fact: the ripe fruit were in fact infected by fungi that fermented the juices within the fruit. A benign enough lesson, with a steep cost the next morning (such a headache I have never had.) A regrettable loss, for although I enjoy the flesh of a roasted tree-stipe, I do miss the taste of fresh fruit(to say nothing of the dangers of scurvy.)

I observed a faction of the local fauna who makes use of the fungi as well as I do: a small violet octopus who reached out of the water to grasp a patch of mushrooms that hung over the water. They gave off not spore dust but an inky liquid that hit the water and quickly dissipated. Within moments the nearby shellfish yawned open, leaving a feast for the conniving cephalopod. How it avoids the effects of the liquid itself is a mystery, but one I have all the time in the world to solve.

It was near the seashore that I also found the solution to another mystery. There was a circular formation of globular fungi that abutted the shore. They did not burst but simply swelled larger and larger until the wind unseated them from the ground. I had the good luck to be there on an occasion when one flew out to sea: the bulb hit the seawater and swelled many times its size while remaining buoyant. Here, finally, was the “iceberg” that the crew so desperately fought to avoid. I suppose this is the manner which the fungus attempts to spread, yet it is stymied by the saltwater that hems it in at all quarters. No other island is close enough, I suppose. Then my thoughts turned to the wreck of the Molly Haggard, and whether its flotsam was impregnated with the spores.

….I do not know that I care for the notion.

Entry 4

I have found footprints. Blast! I only wanted for a single year alone in this place before humanity invaded. Why can’t a man be left to his own devices?!

They start at one of the freshets and lead inland. The jungle is impenetrable that way, not even fire will thin their fungal ranks.

I have made up my mind. I will form a canoe from a tree-stipe and go around seaways.

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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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Tender Resignation

Dear Michael,

I am writing to tell you I’ve decided to cease being your copywriter. Our relationship has spanned four years and three continents, but with this last batch of writing I must say enough is enough. I truly regret this step, but feel it necessary in light of your recent personal changes. Please do not take this resignation as an end to our friendship or a cessation of my warm feelings for you. I very much do care for your well being still. It is this concern that leads me to end our professional relationship.

I feel I must explain the change in my disposition, because it must seem very abrupt and frivolous from your end. Certainly, it is abrupt. Abrupt as the recent change in your writings, Michael. I was never given very much work in the way of simple errors. You have minded your grammar like a Latin scholar, and for that I was always grateful. But the sudden downturn in your language is quite frightening, Michael. It feels as though your mind has begun fraying at the seams. You must tell me, in all confidence as your friend, whether this is related to some foreign substance you’re abusing. When you go from writing phrases like this:

Purple grow the lilacs on the sweet down-wind of the river banks.

To

Yattering madly like a spindle(?) piercing the chattering brook[…] ripped, ripped apart from time and surface and all knowledge accrued by man…

You understand my concern, don’t you? It’s barely a sentence, much less a coherent thought. You did not detail your adventures in full, but I fear you may have run afoul of some less-than-savory types in your travels.

My concern lies also with your personal safety. I know it sounds ridiculous coming from a homebody such as myself, but trawling the Arabian desert for a nameless city that may never have existed seems too much risk for too little gain. You tell me of Iram of the pillars and lost Sarnath, but what I see is baseless superstition. Star charts and scraps of myth are no replacement for sturdy boots and a good company of men. I have no wish to scold you like a mother, but you do give me reason for grief. I believe your risk also bleeds over to me. You were the one who had me fetch that blasted Din of Cicadas or whatever they call it from the academic library. You had me translate passages and send them out to you. You were the one who got me removed from the dean’s list at the school library after decades of loyal service. You had to have known, Michael, the dreadful reputation of that book even if I did not.

And on the subject of dreadful, I must say my stomach can no longer take any of your bloody descriptions. The sacrifice and befoulment of a dog, the fate of your camel, the pilloried thief, all these are just too much. Your readers are interested in the grit and dust of the trail, do you think they need to hear how your guide’s feet split open with black cankers after walking unshod on the “parched ground”? Do you think men at their gentlemen’s clubs want to hear the bloodcurdling history of reptilian ur-men over their morning coffee? Why such focus on the ailment of your friend Mahmoud, who swole and split like a puff-ball in punishment for showing you a certain trail? They are truly terrible events, and my heart bleeds for you, but they are entirely inappropriate for your usual format and far more suited to the pulps.

And on that note, I must ask whether there is any truth to what you write. You tell me:

The blasted thing curled above Price’s men, yawning through so many wretched mouths like an abomination dredged up from the deepest depths of the sea. The men slept on unaware as the monster unfurled in the night wind, sending so many tendrils to tap and sup from their unconscious bodies until the men were drained into sacklike ruins. Oh but the true terror comes not from that night, but the next morning when Price returned to see his men and one by one the husks called out to him by name

Michael, I must ask this as your friend and editor—how do you know this if you were not there? You claim Price destroyed by the wraiths of his own men, how did you learn of this scene, then? And how can you so clearly envision the activity of the nameless city-dwellers, those reptilian beasts of such unkind intellect, how can you see them crawling about the city when they have been dead for eons? I worry for your health, my friend. Either you have become a prodigious liar in your travels or the heat has addled your brain. I do not believe a facetless ruby can show you such visions, that mystic humbug is something a fakir would sell for the price of a watch.

I really request that you entertain my concerns, Michael, even if only for a moment. Your mental state worries me, when you produce such scenes as this:

Corpse-down, gathered through many wretched midnight excursions, padded the altar made of brass feathers and noxious amber ornaments. The priest passed the lamp flame over his hand once, twice, and it was then I realized that his flesh was not bandaged but that his very flesh was swaddled. Nimbly as a factory girl, he reached out and plucked Burrows’ eyes from their sockets, replacing them with a shiny serpentine stone each.

And this:

The moonlight took on an infections quality. I could feel my skin roil beneath it, as if the very touch of the light itself were changing me. The hole in the sky seemed to laugh at my eye’s feeble attempts to make sense of the where and how of it. Now that the priest had shed his robes I could see his true form was that of the hideous things that crawled endlessly from low doorways and stairs at impossible angles. From my bound position I could only watch as Price’s life fluid formed a river that flowed upwards from the basin, up into the Stygian depths of that hole which was no longer a hole but a kind of un-moon…

I worry as your friend and as a fellow professional. Such graphic scenes flow from only the most perverse of imagination. You, from a good family and solid education, should not be penning these scenes. I do not need to hear about the flensing of your left foot, the removal of your ears, nor the grueling attempt at tattooing your back. I do not appreciate being told you are at death’s door, saying you leave these pages as your last will and testament as you are too weak to hike back to the nearest outpost. It is a cruel fiction to spin, Michael, as you must have survived long enough to post these pages to me. A note is all I ask, an inclusion in your thoughts however dark they may be, telling me you are well.

I must close with a complaint that seems minor in the face of other worries, and it is this: the figure you had shipped to me is disturbing. I set it on the piano and now the cat refuses to go near it. I have looked the figure up in Makepiece’s Guide to Egyptology, and no such creature exists in their pantheon. The green stone it is fashioned from must be some lead derivative, for being too near it gives me dreadful headaches.

Please return, Michael, to civilization and me. Cease these fancies and collect your artifact. I will no longer entertain your follies, but I will provide a bed and a hot cup of tea should you ever be in my city.

Yrs,

Terrence Q. Chase

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A Series of Museum Samples, Labeled Accordingly

Box #: 2376

Contains: Homo interstella

Description:  Species adapted to life in the vacuum of space.

Distinguishing features: Relatively fragile skeleton. Expanded ribcage for increased lung capacity. Skull capacity of 1600cc. Abdominal implants to aid in the voiding of waste.

Added notes: Only intact specimen, the rest lost after orbit decay.

 

Box #: 8446

Contains: Homo proelius

Description: Species specifically engineered to serve as soldiers of war. Possessing an unusually dense skeleton, fast-twitch muscles, and a metabolism 4.8X higher that of Homo erectus.

Distinguishing features: Abnormally enlarged canines. Rapid maturation rate. Sagittal crest, indicating jaw strength equal to a common Pan troglodytes. Vestigial genitalia.

Added notes: Average lifespan of 6-8 years.

 

Box #: 5610000

Contains: Homo radiensis

Description: The skeleton of a species that chose to inhabit the surface contaminated with nuclear fallout.

Distinguishing features: Degraded skeletal structure due to the metabolism of radioactive agents. Jawbone has dissolved from  body processing Strontium-90 as calcium. Skin covered with carcinomas and sunless “Chernobyl” tan.

Added notes: Specimen emits 2.6 Sv of radiation at all times, box must be lead-lined.

 

Box#: 100078684

Contains: Homo cardifferi

Description: Specimen taken from a failed colony at Cardiff.

Distinguishing features: Due to a genetic bottleneck, specimen is possessed of several recessive genetic traits as well as an enlarged heart and other physical ailments. Skeletal structure indicates the specimen was unable to walk or sit upright due to crippling arthritis.

Added notes: Specimen was four years of age.

 

Box #: 42X1034

Contains: Homo bovinus

Description: Species specifically designed to serve as supplemental food source.

Distinguishing features: Shortened limb growth. Abundance of fatty glands and outsize sexual organs. Implanted rumen to aid in the digestion of a vegetation-heavy diet. C-curve of the spine, indicating the specimen was quadrupedal.

Added notes: Brain shows signs of heavy protein starvation, limiting neural activity.

 

Box #: 86X1090

Contains: Homo kelvinus

Description: an attempt by scientist Homer Kelvin to repopulate the earth through genetic manipulation.

Distinguishing features: none.

Added notes: All specimens genetically identical to Dr. Kelvin.

 

Box #: [number is scratched out]

Contains: Homo aeturnus

Description: The last, the ultimate human being. Man, so warped by his own hand, sought to engineer the architect of the end. A specimen that would live a span of indeterminate longevity, created for the sole task of categorizing his fallen brethren.

Distinguishing features: Lack of genital structure. Cells infinitely capable of producing telomerase, escaping the Hayflick limit. A skull capacity of 2800cc.

Added notes: The box is empty.

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Scenes from an Unaired TV Show

The reality television show Roughin’ It was meant to follow a typical fish-out-of-water format, as various c-list celebrities attempted to live on a ranch according to frontier restrictions. 1200 hours of raw footage, roughly equating to 10 episodes, was shot before the network pulled the plug. Due to the near-total death of the cast, the footage was shelved indefinitely following criminal proceedings. Repeated viewing of the footage has allowed investigators to construct a rough timeline from the inciting incident to the final episode.

 

Incident #1

[exterior. The cast had gathered for the day’s challenge: assemble an ancient wash-mangle and do laundry. Celebrity chef A_____ and actress J_____ are conversing as they sort through machine parts. P_____, contestant from a previous year’s reality show, is sitting on an overturned trough attempting to roll his own cigarette.]

A:—and I mean, it’s not that I, like, hate it—

J: —no, you don’t really know enough to hate it—

A: —right. It’s just that I haven’t had a good experience so far and I need, like, a manual or something—

[P_____ drops his rolling papers and swears.]

A: *laughs* gonna have to bleep that one.

J: *joins in the laughter.

[K___, a transplant from a reality show about vintage cars, approaches the two women]

K: Okay, so we’ve got, like, thirteen moving parts, and then we’ve got this gizmo—

J: Oh. Hey. [She is looking somewhere off camera.]

[K stands up and follows her line of vision. He appears to follow the approach of another person with his gaze. K nods affably.]

K: Oh, hey [inaudible].

 

This footage is notable as containing the first appearance of what is most likely a shared delusion of another contestant. The cast would continually refer to a figure that did not appear on camera as if it had been part of the cast from the beginning. No microphone, whether it be worn by a cast member or fixed to a tripod, was able to pick up a name. The figure’s appearance marked a dramatic and ultimately violent turn to events, as cast members began acting upon orders not issued by the network but by said figure.

 

Incident #2

[The “cow pie toss.” Actors were encouraged to toss “cow pies” fashioned from wet clay as far as they could. The winner, predetermined by the network, would win a phone call home and a sports drink. Y___, a runner-up in a national singing contest, was the predesignated winner. The event director was coaching her on her performance in the contest.]

Director: Okay, now I really want you to play up the smell of these things, okay?

[Y___ makes a noncommittal noise and tosses some hair behind her shoulder.]

Director: Like, really—pretend it’s doggy doo.

Y: So are cow pies, like, poop? I never knew *director speaks, rendering the rest of her sentence inaudible.*

Director: Look, honey, I just want a lot of “yucks” from you, okay?

Y: Should I take off my heels?

Director: No, leave ‘em on. It’s better—it’s good for the show, okay?

[the director turns to instruct P_____ on something. Y___ relaxes slightly, shifting in her stance. Y___ stays in neutral position for 23 seconds before appearing to notice the approach of an unseen figure. She mouths “hi” and holds an inaudible conversation with her back turned to the camera. The Director calls for all cast to take up their positions. Y___ appears to finish her conversation, smiling and nodding. As soon as “action” is called, Y___ trips P_____ and presses his head into the mud.]

Director: Stop! Stop! Are you crazy?

Y: I know what I’m doing, jeez.

Director: Let him up, he’s—man are you okay?

P: *coughing* What the fuck, Y___?

[Y___ shrugs.]

Director: Look, sweetie, improv is not your strong suit. So just stick to the outline, okay?

[Y___ shrugs again.]

Director: okay, are we all on the same page? Action!

[Y___ promptly repeats her previous actions, this time crawling on P_____’s back to press his face into the mud.]

Director: Cut! Cut!

 

The cast began to deviate from studio-issued orders on events. Due to the hectic nature of the shooting season, the bulk of the footage was shot by stationary cameras hidden in various points around the ranch while live crews were called in only for supervised events. Behaviors that might have called for an early end to the show went undetected, perhaps facilitating the breakdown of order within the group.

 

Incident #4

[“Campfire” segments were shot as a sort of break between scripted activities. Cast were allowed to set up the camera as long as they made sure they were all visible in-frame. Cast members T___ and R__ were seen to have a budding relationship spark and encouraged to play it up during shooting hours. During this campfire segment, T___ and R__ sat off to one side, sharing a blanket.]

P: *holding a stick and digging into the fire* …and I just wonder if it’s all worth it, sometimes.

K: You can’t think that, man. Like, if everyone thought like that, like, no one would get anything done, ever, you know?

[T___ and R__  simultaneously look to a point off camera. They hold their gazes for ten seconds. The couple then turn back to one another, blank of all expression. They hold a rapid-fire conversation that does not slow or stop once for the entire segment. Their body microphones pick up no audio.]

A: So, what, I have to just keep chugging along, just because I need to?

K: Well, yeah. You have to think of it like—

[K___ suddenly undergoes what appears to be a seizure. He drops his ams to his sides and makes a buzzing intonation in his throat. Drool can be seen escaping his open mouth. His face is tilted roughly up to the night sky. During this period, A_____ and P_____ behave as if nothing remarkable is happening. The entire event lasts three minutes.]

K:—holistically, like, we’re all connected, you know?

[Conversation resumes as if the pause did not happen. In the background, T___ and R__ sit facing one another, mouths hung open, for the rest of the footage.]

 

Incident #5

[The cast was instructed to milk a cow. Instead, after conferring with the unseen figure, they slaughtered the cow and skinned the body. The cast continued to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary, assuming the playful nature they used for scripted events. J_____ picked up a femur and pretended to play it like a flute. T___ and R__  began a splash fight with cow viscera. Once the cowhide was completely removed and put into a barrel to tan, the cast stood still and faced the open doorway of the barn, uttering the same low intonation. This went on for an hour.]

 

The cast’s behavior became increasingly erratic. However, because they did not shed their on-camera personas, they largely escaped detection by the live crews. One noticeable shift was that P_____ became a whipping boy of sorts. Everything that went wrong was jokingly blamed on him. Other cast members would frequently point to him and make a throat-slashing gesture, which he would return with a thumbs-up. The filming crew did not think this odd. P_____ had been set up as a martyr from the planning stage: his departure in the mid-season finale was meant to be a ratings boost. However, crew found the cast’s increasingly sadistic treatment of P_____ disturbing.

 

Incident #6

[A simple relay race, played with lumps of coal. Y___ can be seen horsing around with T___ as  R__, confined to another team, looks on with a slight frown. P_____, back to them, turns around and accidentally knocks a piece of coal out of Y___’s hand.]

P: Whoops! *chuckles*

Y: Boy, looks like you better eat what you spill, P_____!

[P_____ laughs as he gets to his hands and knees. The director can be heard shouting as P_____ cracks the lump of coal with his teeth. The cameraman zooms in long enough to catch a small amount of blood trickling from his mouth before the director calls cut.]

 

Incident #7

[The cast’s assignment is to draw a map of the surrounding area. Instead, they gather at a granite formation and hold an extended conversation with the unseen figure. Having discarded their body microphones, the only evidence of this occurrence is a camera set up on the barn roof to capture establishing shots. The cast returns after three hours. The paper that was suppose to be marked with the map instead holds a 27-point star. The cast insists that it is a map of the area.]

 

Incident #8

[A gaffer is setting up for a scene. K___ is lounging off to the side, holding an idle conversation. The gaffer is apparently only half-listening during this exchange.]

K: …and it’s just like, it’s always been there, you know?

Gaffer: Mmm.

K: Like, east and west, those are just human determinations, you know? The only real direction is inside.

[The gaffer puts a length of tape down and scatters straw over it.]

K: I could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t really be dead. Just shed another layer. I want to eat the dead skin from the outside of me, give me life for my new rebirth.

[The gaffer checks off points from a clipboard.]

K: P_____’s the one. He will open the way for the rest of us. I’d like to sup his misery and call it wine. The only way out is inside. The only way inside is through. Like [inaudible] said. Got to cut, cut, cut away the fat.

Gaffer: *finally appears to tune back into the conversation* Wait, what?I

 

The cast’s erratic behavior finally began garnering attention. The director called a meeting and informed the cast that they must behave in line with the contracts they signed with the studio. The cast greeted this with puzzlement, claiming they had been. P_____, despite having to get medical attention for injuries sustained during the coal-eating incident, denied any wrongdoing.

 

Incident #9

[R__ and J_____ are preparing a dinner of shoo-fly pie and boiled potatoes. R__ is kneading dough. J_____ peels potatoes while speaking at great length in a monotone.]

J: They lived here 12,000 years ago, when man was still sucking at the teat of summer. Slipped their skins every solstice and made wild. Descartes was wrong. There is no sun, there is only the illusion of light reflected in the moon. Man is a peach in the eye of god. God is a leaf in the eye of [inaudible]. 12,000 years is nothing to the stone. Man is carved from his own excrement. Life is a face laughing at the mirror. When I die it shall be to plant my own future. I will slip my own skin and slither into eternity. *she drops her peeler into the boiling pot and reaches in to grab it without hesitating or flinching. After retrieving it, she shows no sign of pain despite her skin visibly reddening on camera.*

R: I want to be sliced like a pear. My blood a gown. My entrails the crown.

J: *puts a hand on her shoulder* Time is the flight of a dead sparrow.

[the two women finish dinner without further comment.]

 

Due to increasing disquiet with the cast, network handlers were dispatched to supervise the remainder of the shoot. They arrived to find the ranch empty.

 

Investigating the surrounding area, they found the cast at the nearby granite formation. The cow hide they had tanned had been cut into a single strip of rawhide, which was then used to mark a 27-point star over the whole formaton. After setting up a stationary camera, the cast then ritualistically sacrificed P_____, who continued to smile and laugh during the entire process. The footage past the point where they began flensing his torso distorts almost irretrievably, repeated viewings have only been able to pick out several images. R__ stabbing J_____. K___and T___ painting an intricate symbol on the granite in blood. Y___, bare breasted and seizing in what appears to be religious ecstasy. P_____’s skin, hung up on a crude framework, flapping in a sudden breeze.The entirety of the cast staring at a single spot in the camera lens.

 

The cast was found dead, having attempted to flense their own skin off. The only survivor, oddly enough, was  P_____. The actor was flown to a nearby hospital where he was put into a medically-induced coma. His body lingers on, despite repeated rejection of tissue donations. His family is currently fighting a legal battle to withdraw life support.

 

This footage was compiled as evidence and promptly shelved after the trial. Do not reproduce.

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The Plutonian Shell

It was a shell. She got one for every birthday. It was a bit of a family joke at this point, “Michelle loves shells.” Truthfully, at this point she did not love shells any more than the next person did. It had simply become so entrenched in their family that she didn’t know how to stop it without kicking up too much of a fuss.

The shell was oddly shaped, looking more like a bit of volcanic glass than the regular calcium structure she’d become used to. When she found the opening, instead of being blush pink on the inside like most other shells in her collection, it was a cobalt hue.

“What do we say to aunt Maria?” Michelle’s mother said.

Maria looked over her cup of punch. “I didn’t bring that.”

“Oh. Well then, uncle Hubie?”

Her father’s brother was too far across the room to confirm or deny, so Michelle shouted thanks and he waved deferentially.

Long after the other presents found homes, the shell fascinated her. It did not look like something that came from any normal beach. She turned it over in her hands, thumbing the jet black exterior, wiping her finger across the jagged blue lip of it. They said you were supposed to hear the ocean inside a shell. Michelle put her present up to her ear and listened. Rationally, she knew what she was hearing wasn’t really the ocean but some internal sound she couldn’t detect unless she blocked out everything else. But it was still one of her favorite things to do.

With the shape cupped snugly over her ear, she heard nothing at first. Then, as if from a distance, she could hear the cries of some creature. Michelle cocked her head. Was it really…yes, she could hear the buzz of life.

Michelle took the shell away from her ear and curved her finger through the opening as much as it would allow. She felt nothing, not even some hitchhiking crab. She put the shell up to her ear again.

Silence. Then, again, the cries of something. They were almost metallic, and she could not place them to bird or beast. The whispering sweep of something scuttling over sand. Then—

Michelle pulled her ear away from the shell as the crash of a wave almost deafened her. She dropped the shell in her lap and stared at it, ready to throw it from her at the first sign of movement.

Eventually her mother poked her head in through the door. “Lights out, sweetie.”

Michelle looked up the shell everywhere, even the book encyclopedia her father doggedly insisted on retaining. Nothing. It wasn’t a cone, it wasn’t a cowrie, it wasn’t even a crab shell.

Michelle turned it over and over in her hands. The shell did not look like it had come from a regular beach. No, it looked like it had come from a Plutonian shore. That was something she’d read in an Edgar Allen Poe story and had troubled her ever since. What did a Plutonian shore look like? Well, Pluto was cold and dark. So the beach was probably black sand. So black it shone blue under the light of the moon. No sun, not ever. Just a moon, maybe even two, providing cold light to an even colder shore.

“Where did this come from?” Michelle asked her mother, “could I call them and ask them something?”

Her mother was eyeing the flour heaped in a measuring cup. “It was uncle Hubie, we settled that.”

Michelle didn’t think it settled, not at all, but she said, “so can I call him?”

“About your present? Don’t be rude.”

“I’m not being rude. I want to thank him,” Michelle lied.

Her mother rolled her eyes and dialed the phone. Michelle knew he answered when mom’s fake hospitality smile contorted her face.

“Hubie? Hi, it’s Lonnie. Listen, Michelle just loves your present and—” she started pacing. “Yes. She’s already got it up in her window. And the shell—” she stopped, nodding. “Yes, the shell you got her. Really? Well then, I guess we were wrong.” She took the receiver away from her face and mouthed, ‘it wasn’t him’ at Michelle. Michelle nodded, though she’d long guessed that. She dutifully received the phone and thanked her uncle for his present.

“Now can we call the person who gave this to me?” she asked, holding the shell aloft.

Her mother frowned, first down at the shell, then at the batter half-formed in the bowl.

“That will take a while, sweetie.”

It took one and a half hours. Nana had been away from her house on a walk, Michelle had to play musical phones until she found her. Aunt Trisha was away at lunch with her cell turned off. Her father’s friend Josh worked at an office with at least two other Joshes. As Michelle made calls, her mother stirred her batter and a tiny frown line formed between her brows.

“Sweetie, why are you so concerned about the shell?” she asked.

“I just can’t figure out what kind it is,” Michelle said, “I can’t find it anywhere online.”

Michelle’s mother said, “oh, sweetie,” like she’d done something wrong.

Michelle looked over her present in the privacy of her own room. The shell stuck out like a sore thumb in her collection, dwarfing the tiger cowrie that sat beside it. Only the conch beat it for size, as well as weight. Michelle hefted it in her hand and realized how light it was for a shell that size. Maybe it wasn’t a real shell at all, but some kind of sculpture?

Hesitating, she lifted the shell up to her ear again. Yes, the sounds of a beach were present. The metallic cries of a bird or beast. The dry scrape of something heaving itself across sand. A thousand and one unidentifiable noises. She tried to imagine the shore that generated those sounds, a dark beach full of squirming, writhing life. Sea birds with dinosaur eyes that lived on sheer cliffsides. Crabs the size of a man, venomous blue and foaming at the mandible. Large, white worms that bored into rocks, waiting for the unsuspecting to pass by so they could strike.

On a whim, Michelle put the shell up to her eye. She knew that it was just a shell, a cast-off home for an invertebrate. She’d done her fifth grade science report on them, after all.

Peering into the blue depths of the shell, something moved.

Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, she clicked off her desk lamp and plunged the room into darkness.

Yes, she could see movement. She could see dark waves licking an even darker shore. Birds flying out from a cliffside home and kiting higher and higher on sea drafts. The sickly fingernail of a moon illuminating something churning the sea just beyond her range of vision.

“…it’s not like it came with a card,” her mother was saying as Michelle crept to her parent’s room. “No note, no wrapping paper, it was just there.”

Good, they were talking about the shell.

Her father sighed. “She’s alone too much. Too much time to obsess over that damn thing.”

Ire sparked in her chest.

“She didn’t even have school friends over for her party. What kind of girl has a birthday without any kids her age?”

Michelle wanted to scream, ‘you’re the ones who invited all your friends!’ But no. That would net her a punishment for eavesdropping.

Michelle crept back down the hall as her father started in on her supposed antisocial nature.

The shell was where she’d left it, sitting between a sand dollar and a turban snail. Michelle picked it up and cradled it in her hands. Reluctantly, she brought it back up to her eye.

The beach was very vivid. It was like she was peering through a window, not a shell. If she stretched out far enough, she could touch the bronze dune grass that grew nearest to her.

Michelle found she was reaching out her hand and stopped herself. The shell remained glued to her eye.

The dance of life on the beach was revolting as it was entrancing. A lopsided crab fed on some kind of carcass until one of the birds descended, hammering at the shell until it broke. Some creature she couldn’t see clearly dragged itself along the sand until a worm slithered out from the rocks and speared it with a set of tusk-like bristles. A seabird dove to the water, overtaken at the last second by something that lunged up and swallowed it.

It was coldly fascinating. Michelle found goosebumps raised on her arms and legs. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t. What was this shell, really? Maybe it wasn’t the shell of anything at all. Maybe it was the container for this beach, this cold world lit only by moonlight. Maybe it was a key she’d inadvertently turned, and now the doorway was swinging wider and wider. The line of thought was like a stretch of freezing water she couldn’t stop herself from wading deeper and deeper into. The seabirds screamed their metallic din and the waves crashes deafeningly and she was turned like a piece of driftwood or sea glass and made smaller and smaller and smaller…

 

Her mother knocked on her open door. “Michelle? Baby, it’s morning.”

The bed was empty, rumpled sheets cast haphazardly over the mattress. Michelle’s mother frowned and pulled the sheets back.

“Todd?” she called.

Michelle’s father, tie half-knotted, came trotting up.

Michelle’s mother gestured to the bed. “Look at this! She left black sand everywhere! Where is she? You go find that girl and tell her this is not how we leave our beds in the morning. Where is she?  Don’t tell me she’s off with that stupid shell again.”

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The Automatic Writings of Lydia Hai Huang

I have only ever known one automatic writer, and that was Lydia Hai Huang. She was a public servant for thirty-six years before a stroke downed her, three more took her speech and mobility. I can still see her clearly if I think hard: lying in bed with her immaculate blue cardigan, hair trimmed into a pageboy bob, skin wrinkled as ancient parchment.

Lydia resided in the same hospice where my great-aunt came to rest after a car accident. The stroke had left Lydia with limited mobility. The thing she could move the most was her left hand, and boy could she use that hand. I would watch her write, no pauses, no hesitations, while her dead left eye drifted mindlessly in its socket.

Lydia’s convoy to the material world was the executor of her will, a woman named Helen Mears. Lydia had no children, and her siblings were either dead or back in China. I don’t know if they were lovers or acquaintances, but Helen doted on her like a sibyl at a temple. Helen was the one who introduced me to the writing. She had overheard me speaking Polish to my aunt and assumed I could read Cyrillic characters. My curiosity turned to fascination when I examined page after page of dense scribble, all coming from a woman who could not lift her own head.

Lydia had not received much in the way of education. Struggling with the language barrier, she barely managed an associate degree in accounting. Yet foreign languages would pour from her pen without cease. Helen said that Lydia always wrote. When she took the writing utensil away for the day, Lydia’s hand would remain twitching and jerking on the covers, inscribing invisible characters on the air itself.

Yes, Lydia was in an article or two. Fortean Times. Nexus. Small publications of dubious reputation. All these articles helped to do was further push away the skeptics who accused Lydia of faking the severity of her disability. I heard it all. Lydia was a closeted eidetic learner who absorbed books when supposedly on her own. Helen was the one who really did all the writing. The supposed writing was just gibberish.

I will tell you(and you don’t have to believe me) that I watched her carefully inscribe line after line of Greek letters and then took those pages to a linguist, who dated them as mid-sixteenth century.

I don’t know how Lydia felt about her gift. She was non-verbal, due to the stoma in her windpipe. Half her face was perpetually slack. Sometimes I wondered if Lydia was even present in her body, if she wasn’t just a conduit, a hollow tube for spirits to whisper through.

I don’t know what was on a few of the papers. Most were translated as best we could manage. I was a poor college student at the time. Helen had only a little money from the estate, as well as a small stipend from caring for Lydia. Some papers must still be moldering in Helen’s storage, awaiting a knowing eye.

I do remember one of the rare English writings. It was a woman from Maine on her way to an arranged marriage. It was a babble of her day-to-day thoughts, musing on her life and her future husband and the world around her. It ended abruptly when her ship crashed, the writing turned into a panic loop about the rocks—the boat—the rocks—the boat. It’s my understanding that most of the writings were like that: simple, stream-of-consciousness narratives.

Not the last ones.

I came in one day, bearing my customary tupperware of soup for Helen. By this time we had formed a sort of team with a few others: a linguist from the college, an old acquaintance of Lydia who was an amateur polyglot, a semi-professional historian. Lydia was wearing a thick mohair sweater and three blankets. I remember she was breathing erratically, and sweat was spotting her face. I remember asking if she wasn’t uncomfortable under so many heavy layers. As a response, Helen put the back of my hand against Lydia’s cheek. It was clammy.

Lydia wrote in a sharp, angular alphabet that looked like viking runes. Almost as soon as her writing neared the bottom of the page, Helen would swap that paper out for a fresh one. She had been writing nonstop for three hours, they told me, in a flurry that they had never seen before. Her temperature was slowly dropping with every letter.

I took the few pages they gave me to the university, in what had become routine for me. I learned it was in old Turkic script long before I even knew what was on the paper. While I was waiting for translation, Lydia died.

The pages I handed over were from the point of view of a fisherman on the shores of the Aral sea. He spoke of men who had arisen from the sea, lead by a golden madman, of a new religion that spread like a sickness among his fellows. His increasingly frantic words described the clouds boiling, hot rain that smelled of dead fish filling the lake. He pled the end of the world on the very last page.

When I went to retrieve the other pages, that was when I learned of Lydia’s death. Helen was investigated by APS for her role in the demise, how she waited until the bitter end before fetching a doctor.

Was she culpable? She cared for Lydia much, in her own way. I, like everyone else, can’t speak much for Lydia’s quality of life. Perhaps she wanted this, wished for this every day she was stuck inside tabulating other people’s finances. Perhaps she begged for something mystical and special to strike her, even if it came in her last days. Perhaps the skeptics were right, and death was merely an end to Helen’s manipulations. All that we have is on those pages, that question that is her parting gift to the world.

The last few pages were almost nonsense. They were like the beginnings of hieroglyphics, pictographic symbols whose context had long since become extinct. When Helen went to trial, the papers disappeared forever. Maybe they are in a safe. Maybe they have been destroyed by something ignorant.

Lydia was pronounced dead at 6:08pm. Her lungs were full of salt water.

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