Tag Archives: just-cause stories

Weird, Strange, and Wonderful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

665

667

669—

She stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey shrugged. “Half day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey drifted to the front of the crowd.

“—derelict, fit only for squatters—”

Casey raised her hand.

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

“Excuse me,” Casey said loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Her father was texting furiously.

“Seriously. Leave me alone forever.”

“Mmm. In a bit.”

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

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

Casey pocketed the brick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casey smiled.

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The Parable of Two Cities

Daghles was a city of merchants and artisans that suddenly developed a taste for war. Nihzy had been a city-state of proud military tradition, but was hundreds of years past its prime. The Daghles strike was swift and precise. They were able to craft innovative armor and weapons while Nihzy struggled along with leftovers from its last military campaign. The battle, which took place in the land between the cities, became known in Daghles as the 3-day war. It was not really so brief, but in the end the effect the same: Nihzy was routed and its forces sent fleeing back to the city. Daghles soldiers followed and laid siege. What citizens were left alive after 30 days of famine died when Daghles soldiers lost patience and set fire to the barricaded city.

After the embers cooled, they picked over the ashes. It became vogue to posses objects from the fallen city. Jewelry was dismantled and the beads repurposed into familiar designs. Cornices were scavenged from buildings and cut into mantelpieces. A color called Nihzy purple came into fashion when a group of looters broke into a dye workshop hidden under layers of slag so its recipes had escaped the flames.

The Daghles people came to pity their enemies, lamenting that they had been a noble, if ultimately wrongheaded folk.

After enough time had passed, a new religion emerged with Nihzyan flavors. It revolved around the worship of a god called Erzeniz, which meant “dragon from Nihzy.” As it happens, the religion spread like a healthy rash. It started with corner proselytizers and graduated to outdoor gatherings quickly. Worshipers were encouraged to cast away material possessions. The uniform was, of course, Nihzy purple.

Soon, churches were built. Statesmen began worshiping in secret. Self-flagellation became commonplace.

The Daghles autocrat looked at the lavender cast of the streets, his prefects flogging one another, and bowed to the winds of change.

Erzenihz was declared the official deity. Supplicants celebrated with a bonfire of household furnishings. Now that the religion gained foothold, it grew austere. Citizens went around with open wounds displayed like flags. The staple grain of the city was deemed wicked, replaced by a leafy green that did poorly in Daghles’ dry climate. Salt was forbidden on food. If a man had in his house an object too big to be carried by a single mule, he was stripped and shamed.

The city no longer produced works of art. Trade was forgotten. Now all labor was dedicated to processing the hemp that made their robes. The city wore down to almost nothing.

It was one tired day among many others that the edict came down: the children of Daghles must be sacrificed.

The ripple it created was not as large as it once might have been, for they were led to it in steps. Once the outrage died down, the dutiful stepped to the fore.

The first wave loosened the knot. The second untied it completely. Soon whole families fell under the sword without flinching. There were not enough hands to replace the ones being taken, so food production slowed and finally stopped.

The day arrived when the few Daghlites left were past the age of producing children. They wound down their days scrabbling through the remains of their once-thriving city, waiting for the inevitable day when the last Daghleite would die of old age.

And it was in this way that silent Nihzy avenged itself.

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The Old Man

The Old Man was a tree that sat like a bad tooth in the middle of nowhere. It was bigger than any tree had a right to be, alone in a place bare of other trees. Little dogwood saplings struggled at the edge of his territory, but the Old Man sat kingly in the middle of everything.

No one knew why it was called the Old Man, only that the name stuck. It was like an artifact left over from another time. A forest so tall and deep it sent man’s progenitors screaming for the open country. It only had green leaves way high up in the crown. It didn’t have proper climbing branches, just a bunch of knots from where limbs had broken off boiling over the surface. No one would want to climb this tree, anyway. No telling what lived in the hollows.

The town grew up near the tree, not the other way around. There wasn’t enough of anything to make much of a town. Not enough land to farm. No metals, no minerals, not even a salt flat. The only reason you lived in the town was because you had been born there, and the only reason you had been born there was that you were going to die there.

There was a saying in the town: “go tell it to the Old Man.” The implication being that no-one cared. No one actually told the Old Man anything. No one stuffed screwed-up pieces of paper in his knotholes to wish or ward away bad things. The Old Man didn’t care.

As these things do, something rankled enough that some of the men got a mind to pull the Old Man down. They would stay up long nights in the town’s only alehouse, drawing diagrams in the dirt so as not to waste paper. No one told them off because everyone knew that they would never do anything about it. It was only when the men lined up at the edge of town with chains and hooks that the panic started.

Everyone in the town had an unspoken belief that the Old Man was alive. Not in the dim way of animals, or even the blind way of other plants. The Old Man knew and tolerated the town only so much as they left him alone. Now this would be breaking the rules, which lay unwritten in their simple hearts.

The men were young and strong, otherwise they might have been pulled into the swamp and had their mouths filled with peat by their fearful neighbors. Instead, the townsfolk watched as they went whistling on their way.

They had laid out a careful plan, priding themselves on hours of thought. The ground was too swampy to be a proper foundation for anything. They decided to scoop out a trench next to the tree and pull from the safety of a far bank. In a show of fun, one of the younger men decided to shimmy up to the top of the tree with the help of a hook and chain. He came back quickly and altogether sombre, reporting the green at the top was not leaves but a hearty moss. This made the men feel they were intruding on something beyond them, so they set to quickly making it recognizable with work.

When their shovel-holes began to fill with water, when the sun showed red on the lip of the valley, the men knew they were done. They looped long, thick chains around the trunk and relayed them to the closest, firmest bank they could. They had a coal cart and a team of oxen besides. They hitched the chains to the cart and whipped the beasts, who strained and pulled as hard as the loam beneath their hooves would let them.

The cart pulled in half.

They hitched the chains to the yoke and whipped the animals again.

The yoke broke in half.

By braiding the chains, the men were able to make a makeshift harness for the beasts. They also pulled with their own sinewy limbs. Their curses could be heard from the town, where many an obediently fearful man would rush for the safety of his hovel. Every little superstition they had ever invented swelled in a tide of abstention. They broke straws, turned cats out-of-doors, made foul concoctions to set out in bowls so the evil would hover around it rather than enter homes.

As the last sunlight died, something finally happened. The crack could be heard as far away as the next town.

Seeing as it was dark, folk were reluctant to investigate. But the few remaining able-bodied men in town gathered lanterns and set out, shaking, into the swamp.

None of them knew what to expect in the dark. They imagined the Old Man moving, writhing like an angry polyp, a thousand devils churning out of a broken stump.

They came upon the bank and the men and the chains and the oxen, all laid out in a state of disrepair. There was no sign of the Old Man. He was not in his roost on the opposite bank, nor was his waterlogged trunk in the swamp.

The oxen were dead. The chains pulled apart by mighty stress. Some men lay floating the dark water, some sprawled out where they had fallen. All dead, all with a terrible strain on their faces.

All but one.

Like the wind sawing through a broken plank, one man was breathing his last half-in, half-out of the water. They fished him out and held the lantern close to his face as if that might revive him.

His eyes rolled in his head, his mouth babbled inconsistently. They could only extract a little from his ranting before he expired as well.

The tree—” he gasped, “hateful—it ain’t a tree, you hear me? Whatever’s beneath the ground—that thing is the root!”

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No Better Fate

Falada, Falada, thou art dead, and all the joy in my life has fled.”

Elisa woke on a plump goose-down bed, as she had for many mornings now. She stretched, enjoying the feel of not having to get up at dawn.

The wedding was in a day. She was so happy she felt she might float.

The ladies-in-waiting came in to dress her. Elisa was always careful to be cordial, but not too friendly with them. No point in getting familiar, as if they had anything in common.

They dresses her in heavy linen and fixed her hair and tied her slippers elaborately. Elisa tried not to look too pleased.

There was not much for a princess to do, so Elisa strolled about the castle. It always did her good to look out over the lands that would soon be hers.

Something was off. The servants would whisper and suddenly fall silent when she drew near. And was it just her, or were they giving her sidelong glances?

Elisa put on her haughtiest look and strolled right past them. As if they had the right. As if she were anything like them.

She wasn’t, really.

Fairy tales were full of girls like her, who struggled to make their own fate. Who fought with cleverness and skill and won happiness for themselves. They didn’t sit weeping on the ground for their mother.

Elisa made herself look at the courtyard. She had to, every morning.

That simpering idiot was nowhere in sight, but that nag’s head hung like a bad omen above the gate.

Elisa shuddered. Such an ungodly thing. Speech in an animal, especially after death, was a heresy.

Still, she was wary of pressing the matter too much. The goose girl held too fond a place in everyone’s hearts.

Elisa turned away from the sight. Best to ask to have it taken down after the wedding. She would be granted everything and anything, she reckoned.

It was really too easy, pretending to be noble. She had lived among them her whole life, hadn’t she? If a roughness was betrayed in some manner, speech or gesture, she could laugh it off as hailing from a small kingdom.

A pageboy tittered behind his hand. Elisa shot him a look of such venom he started back a little. Such impudence! She really must have a word with her betrothed, right away.

 

She paced to the throne room, where she found the old king and the chamberlain, engrossed in some private joke.

“My dear,” the king cried, almost sardonically, “what is your royal desire this morning?”

She remembered to smile gracefully, though she was very confused. Was it some country tradition she was unaware of? Damn! She should have asked the wretch that question before taking her clothes.

“Your majesty, where might my affianced be this morning?”

The old king took a long look at her. Elisa smiled, though her face was really becoming quite tired.

“Out in the stables,” the old king said finally, eyes glittering, “near the old iron stove.”

Elisa thanked him gratefully and left.

“Mind the hem of your lovely robes in that stableyard mud!” the king called after her.

Elisa had to stop and examine the hem of her dress. Spotless. Had she missed some etiquette? Should she hold her own skirts, or should she solicit a maidservant to do so?

Elisa settled for sneaking quickfooted out a side door.

The beast’s head was dripping from the lips. Elisa shuddered as she passed beneath, wary of being hit by stray drops.

 

The prince was indeed by an old iron stove. He was posed as if in mid-dance, one leg slightly bent, arms out as of entreating an invisible partner. He appeared to be listening.

Elisa tried her brightest smile. “Hullo, sweetheart!”

The prince turned to her, and through some trick of the light he looked suddenly unfriendly.

“Darling, it’s me!” she yelped without meaning to.

His face slowly sank into a neutral expression. “Elisa,” he said softly.

Elisa tried to bat her eyes coquettishly. “Yes, it is I. You haven’t become betrothed to someone else while I was asleep, have you?”

The prince let the silence drag on for too long before replying, “No. I have not been promised to anyone new.”

Elisa fanned herself. “Oh darling, it is so foul in this place, I need some fresh air.”

She held out her arm. The prince took a calculating look before accepting it.

Elisa babbled as they walked, trying to break him from his mood. “The whole castle has been so strange today. They look as if they see a complete stranger! You must make them behave, dearest, or there shall be no peace for me.”

The prince was silent.

Then, he asked, “will your mother be attending the wedding?”

Elisa had a sudden sting of panic she covered well.

“It nearly broke her heart to bid me farewell,” she said, “it might break completely to see me given away.”

“Ah.”

The prince’s face was strong, but not unkind. A hardness had crept in somewhere, some worm had gnawed him, made him less favorable to her.

“Darling,” she said, “it may be a whole day until we next see each other, might I have a touch of your lips before we must part?”

The prince was looking over the fields, to where the geese were.

“If we are so soon to be joined, I don’t think the wait warrants a kiss.”

Elisa felt a pang of indignation, but reminded herself not to show it. The whole day was as if she was being tested for some invisible flaw.

“Well then, until we next meet.”

Elisa dropped into a curtsy. The prince bowed sharply at the waist, and Elisa could admire the fit of his uniform. Ah, well. Tomorrow.

 

The servants were talking about her. She could overhear snips of gossip—but they were always careful to fall silent at just the right moment, look busy. She knew all the tricks, but couldn’t denounce them without revealing herself. Even the waiting girls exchanged looks as they dressed her for dinner, pulling laces too tight and nearly throttling her with ropes of pearls. Elisa gasped and slapped their hands, but the girls proclaimed innocence and clumsiness. She shooed them away and finished the dressing herself, too incensed to care what they thought.

The room had a looking-glass that was long enough for Elisa to see herself in total. She examined her fastenings, making sure everything was in place. Did the bodice droop? Were her sleeves uneven?

She caught her own eye in the mirror.

Maybe it wasn’t the dress. Maybe it was her. Maybe she was too crude, too plain for even the finest silks to elevate. And they could see it all. She could see in their eyes, they knew. They mocked and chortled because they knew. And the prince…

“No,” Elisa said firmly to her reflection.

Her hair was not golden. And she did not have charms or enchanted animals. But she had grabbed tightly to her own fate and would not let go. Will was a virtue, to be rewarded as any other.

“I will be queen,” she whispered. “I will be queen…”

 

The tables were all abuzz with talking and feasting, all died down when she walked in the room. Elisa straightened her spine and walked to the raised table as if it all didn’t matter. Because it really didn’t.

The old king ate, son on his right side and a strange noblewoman on his left. Probably some distant cousin come to witness the wedding. The king spoke fondly to her and she laughed, hair brighter than the circlet she wore.

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

The prince rose, smiling handsomely. It did seem a staged smile, but at least it was something.

“My dear lady,” he said, offering his hand, “now that you are here, we can begin.”

 

The old king asked the chambermaid as a riddle, what punishment a person deserved who had deceived her master in such and such a manner, then told the whole story, asking finally, “What sentence does such a person deserve?”

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The Castle in the Forest

There was a boy and he was the son of a miller, not a king. He was not the first or last child but somewhere in the middle of ten, and he had no more noble intent on his mind than gathering firewood. He had no sword, only a small hatchet used for splitting logs. He was neither outstandingly kind or cruel, and no cleverer than he should be.

So, when he heard a voice as he stooped to gather a birch branch, it came as a complete shock.

It said “help me.”

It was a girl’s voice.

The boy looked around. He was in the woods that encircled their town, woods too thickly planted to even hold wolves. No game was plentiful enough to support a hunter’s cabin. Where had the voice come from?

The voice had been fine and cultured. It had been despaired.

The boy took two steps into the deeper wood and then looked back where he had come from.

The voice drifted on the breeze like a perfume: “please help me.”

A voice with manners, then.

The boy neatly stacked his wood against a boulder and walked into the woods. Because though he was not especially kind or cruel, not especially noble, he would not turn a deaf ear to a cry of help.

He tread with caution, using his hatchet to lift branches rather than hack his way through. There were no tales of mischevous forest spirits, no witches or warlocks to lead children astray in his home. Perhaps, then, it was something more mundane. Some city soul had trekked into the forest and gotten lost.

The boy began to leave nicks in the stumps he passed.

So what were they doing out here? Besides a cluster of huts too small to call a village, there was nothing around of worth. No, perhaps not a traveler, then. Perhaps a child of the village who had run away and gotten turned around. He tried matching a memory of the voice to the short list of faces in his head. It had been hard to tell the age of the voice, so thin it was, but he was sure he had never heard it before. A stranger? A forest spirit?

Of all the things he had been expecting, the castle had been the least.

The boy gaped at the largeness of it. He had never been to the city. There weren’t even mountains around, so he had no precedent for it. Spires and gables and stonework that looked like it had flown into place, so fine was the craftsmanship. And the whole thing was being eaten by the mother of all brambles.

“Help me,” begged the wind.

He searched for an in.

there were tales for this, he knew. He had heard the word castle, but had never been able to place it. Castle. Now he could see how one could get lost in a single building, and now he saw where he lay in the scheme of things. Someone calling for help in a castle like this could only be a trapped princess. And he could only be…

The boy regarded vines and weighed his own virtue. He had not been given an enchanted sword to hack the curling thorns back. He was not blessed with an abundance of persistence. Could he really rescue anyone?

The boy pitched back and squinted up at the tallest, cruelest tower. It only had arrow-slits up its impossible length, but there was a glint at the top. Windows? Or perhaps someone signaling with a mirror.

There was a path before him, a crawl scarcely big enough for a fox. He scuffled on his elbows and stomach and found a door. It was not locked.

No, he was not the son of a king or blessed by luck, but he would try.

The interior was pitch black. He felt around for a door, which let him onto a hall so dim it was like being underwater. But light was light. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the moldering pennants and woodwork falling to mites. Even in its disintegration, it was finer than anything he’d ever seen. He wondered, as he paced the long hall, how long it had stood here. How long had it rotted in the forest, unseen by human eyes?

He had never heard of a castle. No one had even alluded to something like this squatting in the trees. How long ago had there been a king? Had these woods been farms, then, and had there been more than just the handful he knew now?

He studied a decorative seal. Not one he recognized.

Not in living memory had they been independent; they bowed to some distant power that manifested itself yearly through tax collectors. They were no longer a kingdom. They were the little toe of a large empire.

The thought made him slightly sad as he knocked the latch from a door with the blunt end of his hatchet. Had a curse undone it all? Trapped the princess, choked her country with vines until nothing remained to tell? He did not mourn for self-governance, for he had never known it. But the unjustness of such a loss stung him.

When his foot went through the floor, he was in such deep thought he could barely throw out an arm to save himself. The hatchet slid away. He hung by his elbows, heart hammering. The rotten board bounced down to some horrendous depth. The boy eyed a long, conveniently close pennant, but decided to try his luck on his own instead. The stonework for the floor was uneven, it did not have to be flush because it would be covered with rugs. Now he found cracks big enough to wedge his fingers into and worked himself out inch by inch. He simply lay flat, embracing the stones. The pennant shredded in his curious fingers, he could imagine himself grabbing for it only to slip back into the darkness.

Plaintively, “help me, please,” whispered past his ear.

The boy gritted his teeth and got up.

Through a door at the end of the hall(he hugged the wall now, mindful of loose spots) was a great room with windows that spanned the height of its walls. The glass had been sunbursts of color, now vines choked the light into murky pondwater.

In the time it took for his eyes to adjust, he realized that something was moving in the room. He flung himself behind an overturned chair, trying not to choke on the dust.

They were the height of a man and evil to the eye. Some wicked hand had set an animal’s head backwards on a man’s shoulders, so the beasts walked one way and spied the other. In his hiding spot, the boy had to wonder how they subsisted. Did magic sustain them for however long it had taken to forget a kingdom? Or did they feed on something even less savory?

There was a sudden perfume, a scent of something that did not blossom in this part of the world. The boy could no more deny it than the ache in his bones. The smell seemed to beckon him to a door behind the great golden chairs that stood on a dais, made of strawberry wood and metal curlicues.

The beasts lay in the way. He watched them tread tirelessly back and forth, back and forth as if it were all they were made to do. And he saw the long runner that licked up the center of the room, its gilt rotting and flaking away. And as the beasts passed, he pulled.

The trumpet of their alarm was deafening. He had never heard such a sound, and it almost petrified him.

“Help,” whimpered the air.

He ran.

He was so sure, so sure the door would swing open to his touch that he crashed headlong into the wood. The latch refused to move. He pawed in with increasing franticness as the beasts began to right themselves. In desperation, he battered the door with kicks. On the third it sprung open. Sobbing, the boy fell inside and crammed his body against the frame. It was pitch dark again, so he could not see anything to build a barricade. Stupid, stupid. He slid to a sitting position and felt around for something, anything. His hand came upon a long rod that, as he felt it to the tip, had a candle at the end. He could hear them coming.

The boy stood up and nearly fell over the steps before him. Steps! He wedged one end of the stick in a corner of the steps, the other against the door. But the wood was old and the metal thin. The boy practically crawled up the steps in his haste to escape.

There was another door at the top that he did not have to kick open. He found light in the new room, enough to see by, and a bolt on the door. He slid it home and then held his body against the door, calming his heart. The hatchet, tucked into his waistband, had given him a pattern of bruises on his side. His knees ached from the sharp corners of the steps. And as he looked up, he saw a long helix of stairs still waiting for him, to climb up and up in his agonized body.

Something big hit the door from the other side. The boy made himself move.

What had been the impetus behind this, he wondered as he eased over a fallen lamp. What slight had called for this reckoning? The only history available to him had been young as a sapling compared to this oak of a place. Was it a witch or a wizard or just an evil spirit?

What did it do to the princess?

He wondered.

Was she fair and light with hair of gold? Was she dark as ebon wood or rosy as copper? Was she musical or did she sew? Did she slumber through this misery or had she been trapped to watch her kingdom fall?

That gave him pause.

How long had it been? Surely the curse could have been broken a thousand times over by now. And yet here she stayed. Was she impatient? Was she grieved that she alone remained of her people? The voice had certainly been plaintive.

And yet…

The boy looked up. He tried to imagine a thousand years of waiting, a thousand years of being thwarted, a thousand years of scanning the treeline, waiting…

“Help me,” prodded him to his feet. He climbed.

Surely there had been others. Not lately, but when the curse was new. Even a dumpy princess would have had at least one man trying after her hand. Maybe not the son of a king, but a lord or a duke or even a miller’s son, like him. What had happened to them? He hadn’t seen any bodies up until this point. Not even bones.

He slowed again.

“Help me.”

He looked down.

“Help me.”

He took a step.

“Help me.”

The next stair crumbled beneath his foot. He was ready for it. He tried the next one with his toe and when it held firm he swung his weight up.

There were more long candlesticks along the wall, one he took to test the steps before him.

There was a landing that he eyed before setting a foot down. There was a door that was so ornately decorated that it had to lead somewhere important. And there was another beast, waiting before it.

Perhaps if he had been the youngest or oldest son, perhaps if he had been a prince with a blessed sword he might have leapt ahead to bury it in the beast. But he was only the middling son of a miller with a hatchet to defend himself, and he stepped back as the monster came forward and the landing crackled to nothing beneath its feet. He heard it scream all the way down, watched it flip from stair to wall and finally land with a crunch. He looked at the place he might have been only a moment earlier.

How long, he wondered, how long watching and waiting and…what?

He was a simple boy. A decade was an unthinkable span for him. Fifty, almost impossible. What would a thousand years of waiting do to a person, watching everything they loved crumble away, watch every attempt at rescue end in failure…or come too late.

He turned around.

Help me” shrieked at his back.

He took a step.

Help me.” The voice sounded young, yes, but there was something about it that was too hungry, too accusing.

He felt all the steps before him. Some crumbled away. Some stayed firm.

“Help me,” became a ceaseless gale, became a furied wind that tore at his ears. There was no please anymore.

A chunk of stair broke away, too big to step over. The boy watched it fall and shatter near the glassy-eyed beast.

There was a sunburst window next to him, and a vine that had pushed through. He broke the rest of the panes with his hatchet.

The voice screamed.

The boy stepped out, clinging to the vine. It had iron strength it had taken from the castle, and thorns too big to prick him that served as ladder steps. Hand over, hand, he made his way down.

No, he decided, it was not one of those stories. And as he set his feet on firm earth and kissed it for its solidity, he knew what he would tell.

He followed the knick-marks back to the clearing, and he gathered up his wood and limped home. And after that, people avoided the forest entirely. For the castle finally had a story.

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Bluebeard Takes a Wife

He returned from his contrived hunting engagement—

to find his betrothed sitting in the drawing room, quite unafraid, piecing together a puzzle. She produced her key without hesitation and when he saw its surface bore no bloodstain, he knew he had found a wife.

He had not expected such a turn of events, not at all. This left him slightly off-balance. She took it for bashfulness and eagerly accepted his proposal.

Of course, he watched with a hunter’s eye for any sign of suspicion. She sent for her trousseau and rearranged the house to her liking. She talked at length of domestic matters, of sending for more servants, furniture, and possibly expanding the stable, but the closest she came to suspicion was when she suggested they expand the upper floors(“we can even enlarge your private room, my darling!”)

After a week of this he realized that his new bride had not passed his test through heavenly virtue, but by an inhuman lack of curiosity. Lord knows that women had no talent for deception. He had only to look at his previous prospective bride’s faces to see immediately their guilt.

He could not overcome a sudden bilious surge whenever he rounded a corner and found his living bride. It puzzled him: had she not fulfilled his qualifications to the letter? Had he been guilty of pricing his life too low?

No, he concluded. What he had truly fallen in love with was the chase. The stream of ever-young, ever-demure young women flowing through his life, his tests of mettle, the final judgment. He had come to depend on disappointment so that he did not know what to do now that the divine creature before him wanted every ounce of his attention.

Bless her obsequious little heart, she even spoke to the servants, though he had removed their tongues long ago as measure against betrayal. They were, thankfully, as illiterate as any of the peasant classes as well, so he held no worry that they would burst her sphere of blissful ignorance.

She changed the drapery to something gossamer. The furniture was, of course, too masculine, she would have to send for more. Their dinners were no longer rich local fare but such nonsense that had been popular in the capital, presumably where all were tasteless as she.

He could not be cross with her. He could never be cross with her, for the second clouds threatened to dim the sunlight pouring into her empty head, she would burst into tears. Then he would spend the day consoling her, assuring her that his love would never wane as he grimaced up at the walls.

He began fantasizing about luring her into the private room on some pretense, merely to do away with her. When presented again with the key, she merely laughed and asked for more fitting jewelry. He fumed to himself as she held fabric swatches against the settee. Truly, she was too ignorant to be tricked. His intellect, in comparison, was that of a wolf ploughing into the unmoving backside of an elephant.

He imagined being married to this, introducing her to other aristocrats and hearing her glassine titter as she trampled over good manners. His reputation distilling down to this.

A gloom haunted his steps until he hit upon his ultimate piece of brilliance.

He suggested that, as newlyweds, they take holiday on the continent. Of course the blithe creature was ecstatic, but nowhere in comparison to he. For he had decided that he would dispose of her in some convenient early stop, and then continue the tour in recently-widowed grief. Not only would he rid himself of a problem, he would find new hunting grounds as well.

What little tack he needed was packed in one bag. He would eat the cost of her extensive attempts at redecoration, as well as the wardrobe she rushed to cram into one set of luggage. The carriage was summoned and the servants dismissed.

And, as he watched them lope away from the grounds, he had another bolt of inspiration.

She was wittering over a collection of lightweight silk dresses, unable or unwilling to part with even a few. He called her to come. She came readily, as obedient as a wife should.

He had something to show her.

Oh, but the carriage was due, would they not miss their boat? She tread reluctant on the stairs, looking behind them.

He had not been a good husband, for were they not expected to share everything? He would be remiss if he did not show her one last thing before they began their lives together.

Oh yes, whatever he wanted, if course. Her attention was over her shoulder, no doubt at those silly dresses.

He guided them to the secret room. Did she remember when he forbid her from entering? It had merely been a test of character, and now that he had proof of her love, all rooms in the house were open to her.

He fiddled with the lock, waiting until the last possible moment to open the door, unless the wafting stench would give it away.

He began, “I would have you be completely sure of my character before our marriage—”

A short, sharp shove in the small of his back, and he fell forward into the darkness. The door closed behind him.

“That I am, sweetheart,” she called through the keyhole, “through and through.”

A click as she turned her immaculate key in its lock.

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Instructions

There was a fountain in the middle of the town square, and in the fountain swam a fish. It was a large white carp that swam in circles and sometimes ate the bread that the town’s children crumbled into the water.

A young man approached the fountain. He wore fine clothes, but they fit oddly, and his sword was hung from the wrong side. The young man looked around and bent close to the water.

“Magic fish, magic fish,” he said.

The fish swum closer to the surface. “Hullo, little prince-to-be. Did you reach into the woodpile without showing fear?”

“Yes.” the young man seemed nervous. He clasped the extra cloth at his waist.

“And did the princess wear flowers in her hair?”

“Yes, fish, yes.” He bent lower, his lips nearly to the water. “I picked her out of ninety maidens. The king could set no more tasks before me. We are to be wed, and it is all thanks to you, fish.”

“Well,” the fish said, “that is tremendous.” It mouthed the algae growing in a corner.

“They have made me into a prince.”

“Fabulous.”

“One day I shall be king.”

“My congratulations to you.”

“Fish,” the young man said urgently, “what if I do something wrong?”

The fish swam lazily to the other end of the basin and back again. “are the servants at all animous to you?”

“No. They scoffed at the tale of bandits taking my clothes, but now they reassure me I will never have to dress myself again.”

“And the princess, how does she find you?”

“She told me she wore flowers in her hair because she knew what I would be about. She almost didn’t. But she was tired of seeing young men die for her hand.”

“Well, it seems you are well off.”

“Well off? I won because she pitied me.”

“It meant she wanted you to win.” the fish snapped at a mayfly. “I am a fish, but I can see it’s very simple: don’t beat her, speak to her kindly, and she will be willfully blind to your faults. They all want to see a prince, and so they will. The only way you could fumble it is if you do something terribly out of character.”

“And what if I do,” he gasped, “what if I do something terribly out of character? How do I know what this prince wants, what his taste are? I’m a farmer’s son, I don’t know finery.”

“You made him, little prince-to-be. I’m sure you will be able to help them in their self-deception.”

“That’s it,” the young man said, “I’m not clever. I’ve only gotten this far because of you.”

The fish found an eddy that held its interest for a moment. The young man stared into the water, his hands curled into claws.

“Listen,” he said suddenly, “what do you most desperately want, more than anything in the world?”

“Want? I am a fish. I have no real wants.”

“You mean you’re not just an enchanted sorcerer or something like that?”

The fish swung its pectoral fins wide in a gesture much like a shrug. “I was born this way. I am a fish who can speak and have always been.”

“Do you come from a magic land?”

“I don’t remember. All I have ever really known is this fountain and the people in this village. Occasionally they drop coins and wish, but you were the first to strike up a conversation with me.”

The young man gripped the basin with white-knuckled hands. His sleeves had fallen in the water; they were cut wide and long in the current fashion, now their silk was drawing water up into itself.

“But if you could want anything?”

The fish nuzzled a surface bubble. “If I wanted something? I suppose I wouldn’t mind being put in the ocean. It would not be my home, not really, but there would be more room to swim around.”

“That is your wish?”

“Not a wish. It might be nice, that’s all.”

The young man nodded. He dipped his fingertips into the water.

“And in return,” he said excitedly, “you will advise me in my first year as king?”

The fish backed away until its fins grazed the bottom of the basin. “No.”

“Why? Why? I’ve done everything you asked.”

“Princeling, that was not for me, that was for you. Has palace life affected your ears? I have not been adverse to helping you, but either leave me to my peace or let me go.”

The young man stood. “You won’t give me even one little piece of advice?”

“I already have, in case you haven’t been listening. You will do fine. Now go enjoy your spoils. In a while the schoolchildren will come this way and drop their leftovers in the fountain—hark!”

The young man looked around. The square was empty of people.

“I will be back,” he promised. The fish made no reply.

 

That night, moon spilled into the square, making the fish nearly vanish against the white of the basin. It dozed with one eye open, one fin twitching ceaselessly.

A metallic clank against the wall of the fountain. The fish opened its other eye and swam to the surface.

The young man was there, dressed in a peasant tunic and trousers. The outfit he’d worn when they had first met, to be precise. He held a silver bucket.

“Hurry,” he said, “I have slipped away, but they will miss me soon.”

The fish gently gravitated in place. “You are going to set me free?”

“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain. Here—” he dipped the bucket into the water. It rocked buoyantly, he thrust it down with both hands so that it violently filled, a small geyser splattered his brow and clothing.

The fish paused, looking from the boy to the bucket rim.

It swam into the bucket. The young man lifted it, water slopped over the sides but he gingerly heaved it over the edge and to the ground. He carried it carefully for a long ways. The fish could only tell travel from the pass of light and shadow. It dozed.

The jolt of the bucket being set down woke the fish. It was too dark to tell what lay above it. It heard scraping that echoed metallically. Suddenly the bucket lifted again and the fish rushed out in the torrent of the bucket being upturned.

It landed in a porcelain bowl painted with scenes of the kingdom’s founding. The fish darted around, examining its surroundings. The young man looked down at it. Whether he was wet from sweat or water was uncertain.

“You promised,” the fish said.

“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain,” the young man said, “I was telling the truth. I just need you help for a little longer.”

“How much longer?” said the fish, “how long will I have to swim in a bowl one-tenth the size of my home?”

“I have to keep you here,” the young man said urgently, “if they found you, it would mean disaster. Besides, for one who has lived as long as you, it will seem as no time at all.”

The fish looked around the room. It took in the heavy drapes, the single chair, the only door. The young man followed its gaze.

“I have the only key,” he said, “so you won’t have to worry about being bothered.”

A bubble escaped the fish’s mouth, sitting on the surface for an instant before it burst.

“I don’t understand. When I told you to take only the plain walnuts, did you?”

“Yes, but—”

“When I told you how to creep into the king’s garden and eavesdrop on his barber, did you follow it to the letter?”

“Of course, but I—”

“Why, then, should you choose to disobey me now?” Another bubble escaped, this one sat like a pearl on the water.

“…you’re being very selfish,” the young man said finally, “what’s the use of getting me this far if I only fail? Look, I’ll steal some scraps from the kitchens, you have some time to think about it.”

He turned to go.

“Wait,” the fish said.

The young man stopped.

“Do you still trust me?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Then you must put me on a marble plinth by the light of the moon.”

The young man turned. “I thought you said you weren’t magic?”

“I’m not cursed, if that’s what you mean. Magic is what I am. Are you willing to obey me one last time?”

The young man hesitated a long time. Finally, he approached the bowl and dipped his fingers in. the fish mouthed them.

“Marble?” he asked.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find some around here.”

 

Just before dawn, the young man stole up to the king’s astronomy tower, which would someday be his astronomy tower. He mounted the steps silently until he came to the observatory.

The plinth he had taken from beneath a likeness of the queen, his betrothed’s late mother. The fish lay on it, white and motionless as the marble beneath it.

The young man approached slowly.

“Fish,” he said, “it’s almost dawn. The castle will wake soon.”

The fish was still. Silent and still.

“If you are done, I must get you back to my rooms before they begin to suspect.”

The fish said nothing. The slick was gone from its scales, it looked tacky to the touch. The young man tread on heavy feet, but the fish did not stir.

“Fish?” he asked, “I will bring you breakfast. Fish? When does the magic happen? Fish? ….fish?”

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A Strange Day in July

Mysteries-of-Harris-Burdick_02

written from #3 of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
with thanks to wgosline

Jessalyn was climbing on the big rocks.

“You aren’t worried you’ll spoil your dress?” Stephen asked.

“Naw. well—” Arms out, she navigated the spine of a granite boulder. “Dad started to say something, and then Rajni said it was fine.”

“So they’re just getting married at your house? This afternoon, no church, no nothing?”

“Yup. Just the man from city hall and us.”

Stephen considered the rocks at his feet. “Are you even going out to dinner?”

“Nope. We’re just having a thing and then we’re cooking chicken vindaloop. Raj is just wearing pants but she said I could wear the dress since it was so pretty.”

Stephen found a chip of rose quartz and pocketed it. “So… they don’t have any guests?”

“Her parents are still in Boston. I tried to tell them about you but they said it was just family.”

Stephen let his shoulder lift and drop. Boston. Boston. Boston would take Jessalyn, and there would be no more afternoons on the rocks. He blew on a twig until it grew wings and darted away.

Jessalyn stood, hands linked at her front, looking out over the water.

“You wanna make a log fly?”

Stephen shook his head.

C’mon.”

“I don’t feel it.”

This morning he had woke before the dawn and rolled over to look out the window. He could see a corner of Jessalyn’s house, the white clapboard and the blue shingles, and the elm where her tire swing swung from. He felt if he looked hard enough, he could melt the walls see-through, and then she could look back. But she was probably asleep, everyone was asleep but him.

Jessalyn’s mouth worked, turning down a little at the corners. She was thinking.

Excitedly, she turned to him. “How about you make two of me! Then one of me can go to Boston, and one of me can stay here with you!”

But even as he thought what a wonderful idea it was, Stephen realized he wouldn’t be able to do it.

Gramma had said it best: “Stephen, you’ve got the hands of a wizard but the heart of a 73-year-old tax lawyer.”

Stephen had magic in his fingers but he was too practical to implement things on his own. How could you levitate the bed when you knew very well that solid objects obeyed gravity?

Jessalyn ground her heel into the rock.

“You know my uncle told me something,” she said. She picked up a smooth, flat rock and held it out to him. “if you can skip a rock all the way out to the end of the world, you’ll never be separated from the people you love.”

He studied her. “Is that really true?”

“Sure it is. C’mon—” she dumped the rock in his hand.

Stephen stood at the edge of the water and hefted the rock. Feeling the weight, the balance, finding the right place to grip it. He sighted along the horizon, where the water became a dark blue line, and took a shot.

The rock took three skips and sank.

“Darn.” Jessalyn shaded her eyes with her hands. “I guess you need practice.”

Stephen stared at his empty hand.

“Nevermind, here’s a better one.”

She dropped a bit of limestone with a white line of quartz cutting through the center into his waiting hand.

Stephen took his time making the shot. Conditions had to be perfect.

Fifteen great skips. Gramma had taught him how to skip, and she was the best around. But then a bass breached the water, mouth open for a mosquito, and swallowed the rock.

“Mulligan,” Jessalyn said faithfully.

Stephen asked, “how many rocks do I have to skip? If I skip a thousand and only one gets through, does it count?”

“You just need three rocks.” Jessalyn sounded so solemn and calm that he really did believe it. “even if just one gets through, you’ll get your wish.”

“I thought it was about not being separated.”

“If that’s your wish.” Jessalyn looked behind them, at the houses. “it’s getting close. I wish I could stay out here all day.”

Stephen didn’t dare hope. “Can you?”

“No. first they have to get married and then we have to eat.” Jessalyn’s tone plumped with excitement. “Then she’s gonna show me how to do my hair!”

“Wow,” Stephen said, “neat.”

He stared out to the river, she at their houses.

“When I’m gone, I’m sure you’ll do lots of cool things. Maybe you’ll make the mountain into a sleeping dragon. Or…” she craned her head to look at the sand. Ants were making a tidy black line by her feet.

“Maybe,” Stephen said.

She didn’t get it. No one did. Stephen was blessed with everything except imagination. He needed other people to make it work, because his head was too firmly lodged in reality.

A brown silhouette detached from the white house. Her call did not carry all the way to them, but they could both unmistakably see the figure waving.

“I gotta go,” Jessalyn said mournfully. She looked to Stephen, as if awaiting a cue. Stephen lifted a hand, didn’t quite wave, and dropped it. Jessalyn skipped back up the rocks, climbing like an experienced mountaineer. Stephen waited for the last one, and then struck. Jessalyn leapt down and drifted, ankles together, skirt billowing out like a dandelion puff. She looked back and laughed. Her hair blew like brown snakes around her face. Stephen left it a few seconds more, smiling broadly, before he returned her feet to earth. Jessalyn walked just as fast as before, racing to throw herself into a new life.

Stephen combed the shore. There were too many that were almost right, but unbalanced, or smooth except for one point. It had to be perfect.

There was a shiny black one, black and round like a UFO. Stephen looked at it in his hand, wished magic into it.

Please, he thought, please, for me. Just this once.

He sighted along the horizon. The rock felt good on his palm.

He turned his ammo over and over in his hand. Planted his feet, squared his hips, and sighted.

Jessa, Jessa, Jessa, please.

He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.

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Good Samaritan

They called him Ned, and all Ned wanted to do was make the world a happier place. Ned did everything he could to further that end. He was always smiling because when someone saw him smile, they smiled back. He was always doing favors for people. Even if they didn’t know it.

This morning he stopped to let a car make a turn against the green. There was nobody around but him, so he waved the driver through. The driver waved back, and Ned waved and waved until the car went out of sight.

A bee landed on his arm. He though the bee would like to sting him and so he let it. As the bee wrenched its abdomen from the stinger still embedded in his arm and flew away, Ned waved to it.

Up the sidewalk a short ways was Jack Kelly and a few other boys from Ned’s high school. Ned smiled and nodded to each in turn, which they repeated sardonically back at him, upper teeth exposed to jut over bottom lips in yokel fashion.

“Where you goin’, dogmeat?” Jack said.

“Oh, everywhere,” Ned said, “and nowhere.”

The fellas laughed. Ned was tickled. He loved talking to Jack and his friends, because they always smiled and joked around him.

Everywhere,” Jack repeated in a nasal whine. “bet you don’t have anything special planned for tonight.”

“I don’t know,” Ned said, “movies?”

Jack cackled and dug an elbow into his neighbor’s ribs. “Movies, huh? Your parents mind if we come along?”

“Oh no, not at all.”

Jack seemed taken aback. “Really? Your folks got that much money?”

Ned nodded. “Yes. Come to the movies tonight, my treat.”

Jack cocked his head sceptically. “Alright if we bring dates?”

“Oh yeah, bring everyone,” Ned said, grin never leaving his face, “there’s room for all.”

Jack actually seemed to soften a bit. “Wow…thanks, dogmeat.”

“No problem,” Ned said, giving a little bow, “no problem at all.”

They were discussing candidates when Ned walked away. He thought of how wonderful it would be to have parents who could afford to pay for their son’s friends and their dates at the movies. It was a nice thought. He hoped they had fun thinking about it.

A mail carrier stood in his path, mouthing words, trying to match labels to addresses. He flagged Ned down.

“Hey, you!” he called, “do you know where 9013 Maple Terrace is?”

“Yes I do,” Ned told him confidently.

The carrier breathed a sigh of relief. “Great. Could you give this to them? I’m running late already and I just spent ten minutes trying to find this place.”

“I’d be glad to.” Ned took the envelopes and waved the carrier down the sidewalk. Then he kept on walking. At one point he found a dirty old woman sitting on the sidewalk, with a cup marked change. He gave the mail to her. She probably needed something to read.

Next he saw a golden spaniel straining at the leash. The owner had tied it to a stake, and every time a car sped by the dog was stopped short at nine feet, barking arthritically. Ned unhooked the leash from the stake. The little dog licked his fingers. Ned walked a little ways until he found a truck stopped at a red light. Covertly, Ned looped the leash around the bumper. The light changed and the truck took off, the dog already scurrying frantically, lead tugging at its neck, barking and waving its tail as the truck disappeared over the next rise.

He walked around town and flattered people. He told a lady that a scarf matched her eyes. He told a man that he had the biggest gut Ned had ever seen. And everywhere he went, he smiled.

A girl with long auburn hair and glasses jogged up to him. He recognized her.

“You’re Beth,” he said, “from class?”

She bit her lip and shifted in her tennis shoes, as if undecided on whether she should be seen talking to him.

“And you’re Ned,” she said.

“Yep,” he said, “that’s me.” And smiled.

“Could I, um…” she darted her gaze back and forth, gripping her right arm with her left hand, “do you mind if I…can I talk to your parents about something?”

“Oh sure!” he said.

A few cars whizzed past.

“So?” she said.

Ned cocked his head.

“Are you going to…” she took a nerving breath. “can we go to your house?”

Ned nodded and set off at a brisk pace. Beth trotted beside him, still looking around them.

“Are your parents disabled?” she asked.

“Oh, yes.”

“Because we never see them at homecoming or things like that. Do they have MS or something?”

“Yep!” he laughed. Beth frowned slightly.

“That’s got to be hard. How do they get groceries, do they order online or do they send you out to shop?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Uh-huh, what?”

“What?”

“Which one?”

He paused to consider. “How about both?” he asked. Beth altered her path slightly, putting an inch more of room between their bodies.

“So…I guess they help you with your homework a lot, huh?” she continued.

“Another one knocked out of the park, Beth, you are so smart!”

That seemed to be the wrong answer. Beth furrowed her brow at him, mouth depressing into a thin pink line.

“I really like your glasses, Beth,” he said. This did not make her smile either.

“Thank you,” she said absently, still studying him.

It was a long walk. Ned lived quite a ways from the school, in a house that was the only finished house in a planned development park. He tried pointing out nice things to Beth, but the more he talked, the more she seemed to withdraw from him. It was that way sometimes with people. He never really understood why.

Beth crinkled her nose as they got close. “Is there a sewer line broken or something?”

“Yes,” Ned said, guiding her to the front door. Beth clapped a hand to her nose as they walked in the front door. She retched a little, then looked at Ned and forced her hand away from her face.

“Sorry,” she said, “I’m sure you can’t help it.”

“I can’t,” he agreed, “can I get you some water?”

“Sure,” she said absently, scanning the living room. The house was dark, as no one had paid the power bill for some time now. Ned grabbed a glass and turned the faucet. Nothing came out. He waited the space of a few heartbeats and turned the faucet into the ‘off’ position again. He left the glass on the counter and went back into the living room.

Beth had her shirt over her nose, she pulled it off when Ned came in. She looked quizzically at his empty hands, then at the kitchen doorway.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

Beth shook her head. “No, actually…I really want to talk to your parents.”

“Sure! They’re right up here.”

Ned took Beth by the hand and led her to the den, where it was even darker because there were no windows. Beth took a moment in the doorway for her eyes to adjust while Ned went forward into the darkness.

“Beth,meet the parents.”

Beth started screaming.

“I thought they would be happy if their son came back,” Ned called over the sound, “so I put on his skin and said hi. And then they were so happy they started screaming. They screamed and screamed until they died of happiness.”

Beth vomited.

“Good job!” Ned said approvingly.

Beth held her stomach and gasped. “School…said…household…unresponsive.”

Ned nodded. “I saw from the mail that Ned was going to start school soon, so I thought I’d make them happy by showing up.”

Beth gaped at him, a string of drool dangling from the edge of her mouth. “You’re not Ned?” she whispered.

“No,” Ned laughed, “do you want to see my real face?” and he pulled and pulled and Ned’s skin stretched and tore and Beth screamed and ran out the living room and out the front door.

Ned stopped stretching, but the skin was too loose now, and floppy, so he stepped out of it and walked out the front door, locking it behind him. The police would be very happy with the mystery he left behind, they would have to work years at solving it. And now that Beth had a story to tell, people would stop ignoring her at school.

Ned walked. Around midnight in the park, a mugger mistook him for someone in a black leather hoodie and held a knife to his abdomen. Ned thought the mugger would be happy if he died and let himself be stabbed, falling to the pavement while the mugger ran.

Then he got back up.

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One

He was the first being ever created. Therefore he was called One.

There wasn’t much amusement to be had, so One passed the time by immolating himself. He did not know death, and so would incarnate again immediately. He would then laugh a short, proud laugh and do it again.

Everything changed when One found another being. It looked much like him, only slower and duller.

One asked of him, “what are you?”

The other said, “I am man.”

One said, “I shall call you Second, for that is all you are.”

One watched Second with unease. He had grown so used to being the only being in creation, he wasn’t sure what to make of the man. Second wasn’t sure what to make of One, either. He suffered from strange maladies called hunger, thirst, and fatigue, while One remained ever-energetic and alert. To One it meant his companion got slower and stupider the longer he spent with it. He grew bored and cruel.

“I have a game,” he announced, and proceeded to bash his own head in with a rock. His death was met with alarm from Second, and a strange wailing. One had never heard an uglier sound.

He waved away Second’s bleating. “Peace, peace, I’m up.”

Second squalled and pushed him away. “But you were still! How is it you were able to get up again?”

“Oh,” One said breezily, “I can do that without even thinking about it. It must seem a little trick to you.”

With some hesitation, Second picked up the same rock One had bludgeoned himself with. With a single crack, Second lay dead at One’s feet, and One was beside himself with mirth. This lasted until the next day, when he met another other.

“What are you?” he cried.

The other said, “I am the son of man.”

One said, “Ah, that is too difficult. You were after me as well, so I will call you Second also.”

The second Second ended himself much the same as his father, and One went on his way, chuckling. But his peace did not last. Soon there were other-others, son-of-son-of-man, brother-of-son-of-man, nephew-of-son-of-brother-of-son-of-man and so forth, though he called them all Second. He tricked them all in much of the same manner of the first Second, but they kept coming. Though their deaths still brought him bottomless mirth, he began to hate the Second and long for the peace of the first day, when he had been alone.

Working fastidiously, he sought to drive man to extinction by his own hand. Though it took eons of time, one dim day he did succeed and stand alone in the wastes. The land was no longer young and green as it had been, but it was his alone. That made it good.

Then One found out something terrible. He knew loneliness. All other of man’s maladies had passed him by, but this One had gone unchecked for he had always been surrounded by man’s children. Now even the pleasure of killing himself no longer brought the joy it once had. He knew boredom again. He knew cruelty. And in his cruelty, he brought forth the only thing worse than himself.

And he told it, “You shall be called One, for you are the first.”

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