Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Islands

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

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

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

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

“Linsky?”

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

“Ito?”

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

“Roberts?”

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

“Sturgess?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Croft,” Sturgess said icily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Orbis Tertius, Sturgess read.

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

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

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

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

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

“And the founder?”

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

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

Orbis tertius. Sturgess traced the engraving with his finger.

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

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

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

Sturgess looked. And was held captive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Croft smiled. They were finally speaking the same language.

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

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

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

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

One island. Why be greedy?

Sturgess smiled.

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The Marshes of Time and Space

Mr. Wenjing stood at the edge of the cold, dark water.

“You have one hour,” he said in clipped, nearly accentless English, “you are authorized to use only the ammunition we have given you. Anything and everything can be hunted. The trees with yellow bands—” he turned to imitate a hemlock behind him bearing a canary-colored sash, “—indicate you are nearing the limits of our territory. They are your warning. If you see the trees with red bands you must turn back. We are absolved of all responsibility if you do not.”

The man standing next to Miriam clicked his tongue, doing a little dance with his eyebrows. He held a shotgun. Pink ammo lined his belt.

The man turned suddenly to Miriam and extended his hand. “Pike Walsh,” he said, “Australian.”

Miriam nodded but did not extend her own hand. Her arms were hidden beneath the grey shawl that swathed her whole torso, hair gathered beneath a dark brown beret.

Walsh smiled, showing a dimple high in his cheek. “Don’t see many Sheilas here, forgive me. This’ll be my third time, how about you?”

A rotund man who employed a young boy to carry his guns and ammo answered without looking up. “First time. I was recommended by an associate. I’m all safaried out, you see.”

Walsh nodded, slightly irked.

“Fifth time,” said a man to Walsh’s other side. He hefted a large gun with ease. An intricate design of swirls was shaved into the side of his head. “I collect for this really upscale restaurant. They don’t even take reservations. You have to know someone. I couldn’t even eat there.”

Walsh chuckled, digging in the soft peat with his toes. The dents he made filled up with brown water.

Mr. Wenjing raised his left arm. The gathered group spread out in a horizontal line. Aside from a frightening old biddy lugging an elephant gun, Miriam was the only woman.

“Pardon my asking,” Walsh murmured out the corner of his mouth, “but you do have a gun, don’t you?”

Miriam slid her pistol out from under her shawl.

“A bit small, isn’t it?”

“I only need one shot.”

“Thatta girl.” Walsh grinned.

Mr. Wenjing dropped his arm. Galoshes and hip boots churned the freezing water into mud. The rotund man got stuck and began wailing. The others pad no mind and pressed deeper.

Miriam focused on walking, lifting one foot and finding a good place to put it down again. Visions of snapping turtles kept plaguing her, no matter how she banished them.

Walsh turned suddenly. “There!” The pink cartridge made a flash and a lot of smoke. Walsh swore, “missed!” and turned to reload.

In the beam of the flashlight taped to his gun, the restaurant hunter found an ancient yellow eye with diamond pupils. Quick as a flash, the old woman’s gun went off. The men laughed.

“All right granny,” the large man crowed.

The old woman planted a neon orange flag by her kill.

Besides sporadic sightings, the animals fell away. Their only company was the sucking sound their feet made in the muck.

“So how’d you hear about this?” Walsh said, eyes up to the treetops.

Miriam could not get out of answering this time. “It was a present. I’m a biologist.”

“No kidding?” Walsh shot her a humored look. “You know they don’t accept specimens from this place?”

“It was more about seeing them. In the flesh.” Miriam pretended to look around, blinking away the tears that were rapidly accumulating. “He knew that much was important to me.” Damn, her voice was getting thick. She coughed to cover it up.

Walsh nodded. “I was—” This time he fired without preamble. Something yelped once in the dark. Walsh struggled with his light, flickering on and off, before he trained the beam on his kill.

A thylacine sat on a raft made of dead branches. The bullet hole at its shoulder was leaking red. It breathed erratically as Walsh sloshed closer. He looked at the dead animal reverently as he gently brushed the fur of its ears with his fingertips.

Miriam crept away while he was distracted, pressing deeper into the marsh. The pros were reaching their kill quota. The first-timers were running out of ammo.

A dragon-like lizard with a bright crest reared in front of her. The rotund man sloshed up beside her, yanking his gun from the boy at his side.

“Banzai,” he cried. His gun did not flash and smoke, there was a definite bang. The other hunters zeroed in on him.

The restaurant hunter marched over and grabbed the gun from his trembling hands. “Real shells. Quentin, you asshole.”

“I’m worth more money than your entire home country, don’t lecture me,” the rotund man yelped, digging out a handkerchief to blot his trembling forehead.

“Money don’t mean jack here. You broke the rules. You’re gone. I’ll make sure you’re banned from my place, too.”

“You can’t do that, I’m on the list for July!”

“I’ll make sure they know that, strike all of your guests from the registry too.”

“Know your place, you—tradesman!” Quentin’s rage grew faint as Miriam snuck away from the scuffle. “You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for people like me….”

The cold seeped into every crack, every exposed bit of flesh. Miriam’s teeth chattered as she pressed on. An old, dead cottonwood loomed before her, yellow band shining like an eye in the night. Miriam gave thanks under her breath and pressed on. Soon the red bands appeared. Theses were not tied high like the yellow bands, instead they were laced between trees to form a sort of fence. Miriam stepped over them and continued onward. Her ears felt pressure, like she was ascending up a mountain.

It was a long, cold, difficult slog. This side had water weeds that slowed her steps. Miriam’s breath steamed as she grew closer to turning back. The worst they could do was ban her. Out here—

Something disturbed the water to the north of her. Miriam clicked her tiny penlight on.

Miriam caught sight of a grey shawl and a hunched back before the person straightened, holding a hand over her eyes. Miriam was looking at herself.

The other Miriam looked puzzled, then broke into a smile. “Mir—”

Like a gunfighter, Miriam’s piece flashed from underneath her shawl and drilled a neat hole in the other Miriam’s chest. She gasped and fell face-forward into the water.

Heart pounding, Miriam made her way over. The other Miriam was wearing the same grey shawl and—dammit! Her hat was a bright burgundy. Miriam took her own hat off and sank it in the water. Too late to look at the boots, she could just say she lost hers and took a pair that she’d found abandoned.

Miriam drew a deep breath and walked forward.

The torchlight was the same as the place she’d left. The faces were different or rearranged. Wenjing had a t-shaped scar on his forehead. An old man who could have twinned for the old woman sat on a pile of his kills. And by the refreshment cart—

“Michael!” Miriam flung her arms out, nearly tripping in her eagerness to get to shore.

Michael met her on the way, warm blanket in hand. The smell that enveloped her with his hug was the same. His touch, the same. His warm eyes were still brown when he pulled away to examine her for wounds.

“I only shot once,” Miriam confessed, “I nearly—I nearly—”

Michael hugged her again. “I understand. Did you have fun?”

Miriam dug her nose into his shoulder. “No. Better than that.”

Wenjing gave her a once-over. Miriam could feel it through her shawl. She drew away from Michael.

“I’m frozen half to death,” she said, “can we continue this in the lodge?”

Michael grinned and the air around her grew a few degrees warmer. “Of course.”

The fireplace was big enough to hold a dining table and hosted a fire made of whole trees. Above the mantel were a collection of tusks from various elephant antecessors. The floor was a cave bear skin rug. Michael fetched her a hot toddy and took her boots off, easing her feet into a bucket of hot water. The other hunters trickled in, comparing kills, slapping each other on the back. Wenjing was the last to enter, face inscrutable as always.

Miriam’s heart beat faster as he approached. He wouldn’t. He didn’t.

“I believe you mislaid this,” he said politely, and dropped a mud-crusted red beret into her foot bath.

Miriam whitened.

Wenjing gave her a long look before turning and walking away.

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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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Folding

It was in the internment camp that Gideon’s mother would fold paper, sending her bone-white fingers to travel along the flat yellow construction paper (no thick, quality washi in those days) transforming it into the most recognizable of shapes: the tsuru. The crane that would alight on a house to bring it good luck.

Gideon thought of her, sitting in the coffee shop. There was a domestic magazine open in front of him, an American woman in red lipstick and white sweater, the modern domestic goddess. Gideon had torn a page out of the spread and worked it into a square.

The other patrons paid him no more mind than a dragonfly skipping over the surface of a pond. That’s how he knew the young man who pushed open the door was there for him. The young man glanced at Gideon and then away, then back at Gideon. Gideon had no doubt he was there from the university. He pretended to busy himself with his paper, sipping his hot caffé Americano.

The young man did not bother with niceties. He walked straight over to sit on the lounge opposite Gideon’s, a bright, intent look on his face.

“Dr. Morimoto?” He held a hand out. “Kevin Fielding. You know why I’m here.”

Gideon ignored his hand. The woman’s face mutated into a series of planes under his fingers, distorting her irrevocably. Gideon had but one picture of his mother during the war years, her long hair butchered into a bob, ruffled housedress disguising the natural curve of her body. His mother, folding herself smaller and smaller so as not to be tossed away like waste paper.

Kevin frowned slightly and withdrew his hand. “Doctor, I hope you know how obstinate you’re being. You’re not the only one on this project you know.”

Gideon flicked out a finger, expertly smoothing creases. The slick magazine paper was impregnated with clay, making the task of folding more difficult. This paper held its first folds crisply, but too many folds and it would weaken and round out faster than regular paper.

Kevin was watching his hands. “Sir? You realize we’re running up against a deadline. They will cut funding to the department if the experiment doesn’t carry through. That’s very selfish, I think.”

A square studded with diamonds lay on the table between them now. Gideon was a frequent guest on experimental origami forums. This form was a variation on Mills’ 75th configuration. It could be unfolded many ways, accordion-style, and folded back without losing integrity. The first time he’d done it, it had taken an hour to finish the form. Now he could finish it in minutes. Now it was merely a stepping-stone to greater things.

Gideon took the origami and, with a flick of his wrist, turned it inside out.

“The admin is very upset. You may have originated the manifold wormhole theory, but it no longer belongs to you as a concept.” Kevin wet his lips and leaned closer. “I struck a deal with them. You can tell me the roughs of it, I won’t ask more than that. But—” Kevin looked around. “We need to give them something.”

Well, well, well. From ‘I’ to ‘we’. Gideon was moving up in the world.

Gideon looked up from his busy fingers. “Origami was not always called origami.”

Kevin’s brow furrowed. Perhaps they had told him of Gideon’s supposed eccentricities. “Sir?”

“It was once referred to as Orikata. Kata is a form, a style, like fighting. A discipline. A way of altering the mind in favor of the art.”

Kevin’s eyes were blank behind his glasses.

“Paper has limits. I can fold this—” Gideon brandished the magazine page, “—only so many times. Its thickness might be considered strength in any other area. In orikata, flexibility is the strength.”

Kevin grasped at that straw. “Yes, and we need flexibility—”

“The paper must fold, and your mind must fold with it,” Gideon continued, tucking tabs into their pockets. He produced a shape not unlike a klein bottle. “That is key. If one cannot think multidimensionally, one will fail.”

Kevin ground his teeth. He wore round, wire-rimmed glasses, much like the officer that had overseen the quadrant of the internment camp Gideon had lived in. Gideon’s father had joined the army long before Pearl Harbor, he was in the South Pacific while his wife and child folded paper behind barbed wire. Gideon’s parents had both been Nisei, barely speaking enough Japanese to satisfy their parents. Gideon’s father, Clark Gable haircut distorting his hairline, flamed out over the pacific. Gideon’s mother had taken his head in her hands that day, smoothing his hair.

“Your family name is Morimoto,” she had whispered in a voice shriveled by grief, “‘one who lives near the forest.’ Our people made paper once. Paper is the stepping stone to many things. Remember that.”

Kevin shook his head. “You realize you are holding progress back. This could be a great leap forward in the field of physics.”

Gideon inverted a mountain fold. “Did you know I was in an internment camp as a child? Manzanar. Thousands of Americans rounded up because of a circumstance of birth.”

Kevin frowned. “…I don’t see how that’s our fault.”

Gideon held up a finger. “I have thought along the folds of the manifold wormhole project, and I have come to the conclusion that it would risk too many lives. A misfold in the paper.”

The clear crystal of Kevin’s glasses caught the light of the reading lamp just above Gideon’s couch. “As a researcher, we cannot concern ourselves with petty risks like that. The potential loss from not moving forward with this experiment is greater, in my eyes.”

Gideon clicked his tongue sadly. “Then you’ve listened to nothing I’ve said.”

He placed his folded paper form on the table. It was now completely unrecognizable from its origins. The model’s lips scattered across the page like radar dots. The paper formed a space that seemed convex and concave at once.

“Do you know the meaning of my name?” Gideon asked, “it is Gideon. Meaning one who hews or clears. I was meant to be the cutting-off point for my family. The ender of things. I feel that I must live up to that name, one way or the other.”

Kevin wet his lips again. Cold avarice shone in his eyes. “Does this mean you’ve agreed to come back?”

Gideon gestured to the table. Kevin followed the gesture, not understanding. Gideon indicated the origami form sitting in the middle of the beat-up wood ringed with round burn scars.

Frowning, Kevin reached out to touch it.

His hand did not stop at the surface of the table.

Kevin’s eyes went wide as he fell within, making not so much as a gasp as he fell into a space that did not not seem big enough to hold anything.

No one in the busy cafe looked twice.

Gideon finished his Americano. Then he took the paper form and worked it, tenderly soothing it out of its severe folds until it came to rest on the table as a tsuru, a tidy little crane recognizable to any schoolchild across the world. Gideon left it there.

His family home was on Santa Maria avenue, a simple double-story that cooled well in the sticky California climate. Gideon called “tadaima” at the entrance and left his shoes there.

Gideon’s father was sat before the television on his zabuton, his tall frame folded by time and osteoporosis. Gideon brushed a kiss to his white, sparse temple.

“How goes it, pop?”

Gideon’s father pointed a shaking hand at the screen. “Can you believe this? They want to develop the land beside the gasworks. Haven’t I always said that’s a floodplain? They never listen to residents. We’ve lived here longer than those idiots, haven’t we?”

Gideon looked at his father, a long, loving stare. “Always. And never.”

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Creepypasta Cookoff 2016

Another year, another batch of spooky goodness, cooked up by the finest minds of the internet. This year’s entries are:

The Daddy Face

What the Sea Leaves

Homo parkinsoni

Grasshopper Glacier 

All this and so much more in the 2016 cook-off. Multimedia entries as well as traditional text stories, all more than worth a look!

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Belle de Jour

Ix stumbled out of the alley, hand pressed to mouth. The night routine of the red light district had just begun. Clubs had lines forming at the entrances. Conspicuously inconspicuous young men paraded up and down the sidewalk in jackets with hidden pockets. Streetwalkers of many different breeds were planting themselves on a promising corner, sounding off a songbird chime advertising their assets.

The street Ix shuffled down already had a few shifters working. Really, they were too good to know from a simple glance. But that was what made them stand out. They were too good. Ix stumbled by an exotic beast with an elaborate, teased mane that would not have lasted thirty seconds outside a salon in normal circumstances. Ix crossed the street to get away.

Ix took the form of a young, bedraggled woman in club finery, fashionably androgynous. The form’s original owner had boarded a cab a few blocks back, so Ix was in no trouble of collision. Ix did not want trouble tonight.

There was a shifter alighting the steps of a high-class club, bedecked in glass heels and slinky cocktail dress. Un (it had to be Un) was arm-in-arm with a minor celebrity. Ix could not place his blandly handsome face and maintain form. Ix pretended to stumble drunkenly, hand to stomach, eyes to the ground.

The movie star said something. Un laughed musically. Ix wondered where the laugh had come from. The best shifters, the ones that commanded the highest fees, knew how to compose a character rather than copy.

Ix slipped, heel catching on an uneven curb. Unable to help it, Ix looked up.

Un caught and held their gazes for a moment, an eternity. Disgust and shame deformed the other shifter’s face.

Ix made a retching motion and dashed to the nearest alley. Squatting among discarded bottles and candy wrappers, Ix breathed hard. Holding a form was getting harder and harder. Hopefully Un would be borne along by the group, leaving Ix the opportunity to change.

“Excuse me? Miss? Are you alright?”

Ix swallowed. The voice was unfamiliar, but kind. Ix shifted subtly before turning, sucking features from a torn magazine page nearby.

The man at the opening of the alley had “target” writ in every line of his body. Ix could see the bulge of his wallet in his front pocket, no chain. His clear, honest eyes wanted to be lied to. He hunched over, clear concern in his body language.

Ix found a voice that belonged to a DJ serving two clubs down. “Looking for some fun tonight?”

The man straightened up. “Excuse me?”

Ix hastily recovered. “No, no, it’s not like that. I’m a shifter.”

“Oh. One of those. You know, I’ve been here three days and I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of you yet.”

Ix rose to a stand. He had probably seen a handful on his detour to the alley without knowing, but it was best to let him think he had scored something unique.

“You want a good time?” Ix shuffled closer. “I can be whoever. Here, look.”

Ix tried shifting to a sports model but got her muddled with a girl glaring across the street at them. A long, aquiline nose clashed with a rosebud mouth. The man’s eyebrows rose at the sight, but his body language still spoke of an urge to run, find some other entertainment.

“Try me!” Ix gasped. “I can be anything you want! You don’t like girls? Here!”

Ix shifted into the actor who had been on the club steps with Un. Close enough, though his features would not bear close inspection.

The man laughed. “Oh wow. That is a trip.” He paused, tapping a finger on his jeans, looking from the alley to the club.

“How much?”

Ix felt a wash of relief. “Not too much. Fifty for two hours. One-fifty for the night.”

“That’s so cheap.” He sounded almost disappointed.

Ix played the one hand left.

“Fine.” Ix shrugged and turned around.

“Wait!”

Ix stopped.

“I don’t have a whole lot. I was going to hit some clubs. Are you still going to be here in a few hours?”

“I don’t know,” Ix answered truthfully.

The man reached a decision, grinding his fist in his palm. “Okay. I’m game. Is there a hotel, or…”

“I know a place.” Ix stepped past him, taking his hand.

The man danced away, laughing. “Hey! Your hand is cold.”

Ix linked arms and walked, afraid to touch him again.

“May I have your name?”

“Ted. Short for Theodore.”

“Shall I call you Theo?”

He seemed tickled by the idea. “Yeah. Something different tonight.”

Ev was in an alcove with a handful of working girls. Laughter caught in throat as Ev traced their journey with a spiteful gaze. Ix hunched down, praying Ev was not in the mood to expose the charade.

“This is the place?” Theo looked dubiously at the hotel.

“You want somewhere more upscale? It costs.”

“Naw. It’s fine. They just told me the DeRose was the place to hook up.”

“With regular girls.” And the other shifters. Ix was not about to take him into that wasp’s nest.

The room was two flights up. Ix kept looking back to see if Theo was still there. He was strolling along with a mildly bored look on his face.

Once they got in the room, Ix ushered him over to the bed.

“So how do we do this?”

Ix took a breath. The form was beginning to wear, so Ix shifted to a pornagraphic actress whose handbills were plastered over the building across the street.

“I take requests. Anyone you want to see.”

Theo put a hand to his chin. “Let’s see…my ex?”

“Do you have a picture?”

Theo produced a much-folded piece of paper from his wallet depths, fishing past crisp fifties. Ix gripped the picture and willed sun-bleached hair and freckles to appear. Theo crowed and clapped his hands.

“That’s amazing! You only need a photo?”

Ix nodded, trying not to sweat. Truthfully, the other shifters didn’t even need photographs. But Theo didn’t need to know that. Theo was charmed instead of revolted as Ix shifted a form every five minutes. It was going so well that Ix didn’t even remember falling. Life simply went from vertical to horizontal in the space between blinks. The ache Ix had been ignoring spread like a warm blanket.

Theo peered down, water glass ready to douse Ix back to life.

“Hey. You okay?”

Ix wanted to answer truthfully. Instead, Ix took his proffered hand and stood.

“I can do more. Just give me a break.”

Ix wandered over to the sink. Theo sat on the bed, bouncing a little.

“I almost forgot, what do I call you?”

“Call me whoever I am when you call me.” Ix dabbed a towel at features that slithered traitorously from one shape to another.

“But I mean…are you male? Female?”

“Neither.” Ix shut the bathroom light off and walked back into the room, shifting into the blocky form of a local senator. Theo laughed, but it did not made him forget his questions like Ix had hoped.

“So…what do you look like when you’re not…you know?”

Ix sighed. “Nothing. This is all I am. You don’t need to worry about getting anyone pregnant or seeing the ugly side of me. I am who I am in the moment.”

Theo looked slightly melancholy. There were many different breeds of john. The johns with a conscience eventually outgrew the girls, usually after an attempted rescue that landed the object of salvation in the hospital. Ix really hoped to avoid that.

“So, you have sex like that? Do you even enjoy it?” Theo frowned, the bed creaking as he rearranged himself. “Can you make more of you? Sorry if this is a lot of questions. This is my first time, after all.”

The vertigo came back. Ix willed it away and shifted to an underwear model who frequented the club Ix worked at. Used to work at.

“I enjoy it enough. It’s all I can do.” It was too honest, too dirty. Ix needed to steer the talk back to business but it was so hard to shift and talk at the same time—

Theo caught Ix on the way down. “Oh my god. Are you sick?”

Ix couldn’t lie anymore. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Theo looked understandably reluctant. “Is it contagious?”

“Not to you. But the other shifters won’t come near me.” Ix put a feeble hand up. “Please put me on the bed.”

“You know, that’s the first request you’ve made all night,” Theo joked as he laid Ix out on the stiff mattress. His eyes were worried. “You’re sick. So is that why…all the shifting?”

Ix tried to sit up. “I can hold it for long enough. Tell me who to be.” Failing, Ix fell back on the covers.

Theo shook his head slowly.

“Please?”

“Are you dying?”

Ix wanted to cry. Couldn’t. “Yes. Please?”

“I don’t want to make you. Why are you asking?”

“It’s all I can do.”

Grimfaced, Theo sat at the side of the bed, looking down at Ix. Then, with footsteps that fell like years, he went to the television and turned it on.

The box was tuned to a channel that required payment to view. Without asking, Theo switched it to a public channel. A young woman dumped a glass bowl of shallots into a pan and started frying. Ix gasped and claimed her form. The camera shifted over to an old italian man. Ix shifted, struggling with the wrinkles. The program switched over to a map of Naples, so Theo changed the channel. A shopping network. Two youngish women hawked jewelry and perfume in the name of a B-list actress. Ix seesawed between the two of them, switching from blonde to brunette in a stutter. Theo switched the channel. An old technicolor movie. Ix could not name the actress, but she was alone in the middle of a brightly lit church. Ix felt the relief of her smooth skin and clear eyes.

Theo scooted a chair up to the bedside, eyes shuttered. He let the movie play. Ix held the form until the struggle became too much. Suddenly Theo was staring down at his own double.

“Please.” Ix struggled to make the words. “Please stay with me.”

Theo took Ix’s cold hand. “Okay.”

Theo stayed until Ix looked like nothing. Nothing at all.

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Synurbization

It was in the stairwell coming back from lunch that Bethany found the spider. Well, her head found an outlier strand of the web. The spider, incensed at the slight, vibrated like a plucked guitar string.

“Oh!” Bethany said from shock. Then, “sorry!” because she was startled again.

The spider gleamed in the middle of the web. As Bethany craned her head to look closer, she realized the spider’s abdomen was covered in mirror-bright patches. She’d never seen a spider like that, not ever.

She brushed against the web again. The spider scuttled into a corner.

Bethany walked in the office door. “There’s—”

“Thank God. Here.” Bob shoved a stack of proofs in her hand. Bethany instantly forgot the spider.

She remembered when she heard Aja shriek and topple over a stack of bygone magazines.

Devon beat her to the scene of the crime. Aja had her back pressed to the wall of the copy room, one hand extended in bony accusation. The subject of her ire reclined at a slight angle on the wall.

Bethany and Devon bent close.

The small fence lizard gave them an apathetic glare before closing its eyes and settling itself.

“This what you’re afraid of?” Devon asked. “This li’l guy?”

“It’s a freaking lizard!” Aja’s polychrome leggings flexed like the warning display of a cuttlefish as she scooted away. “It’s not supposed to be inside. Doesn’t it belong in a zoo?”

Devon and Bethany exchanged a look.

“I’ll get it,” he volunteered, trying to cup his hands around the little reptile. The lizard sensed his hands and scooted down the wall so rapidly it appeared not to move at all.

Aja shrieked.

Bethany dumped her Starbucks cup out and handed it to Devon. Through some careful coordination, they got the lizard under the cup and a sheet of bristol board under the lizard.

Aja’s nose wrinkled. “Kill it.”

Devon rolled his eyes and left for the stairwell. Bethany followed, dragging her feet.

Devon did not kill the lizard. Rather, he shook the cup over the ornamental hedges at their building’s entrance. The lizard held on for one moment to its invisible prison and then disappeared into the bark covering the ground.

Devon straightened, shaking his head. “Belongs in a zoo.

Bethany smiled faintly. She felt unmoored this afternoon, like something had been confided in her and she hadn’t fully understood at the time. She stood, just absorbing the minutiae of their surroundings. The ticking of the crosswalk indicator. The multilayered sound of people walking past. The bright glare of their building.

“I don’t like what living in the city does to people,” Devon said. He wasn’t looking up at the building. He was looking down where he had last seen the lizard.

Bethany felt she had to respond. “I don’t like what it does to animals.”

As if awaiting some comical cue, a bird thumped into the glass facade of their building. Both of them started, Devon shouting a hearty “fuck” and laughing. Bethany did not laugh.

“See? That bird probably never would have flown into anything. Then we stuck glass windows right in its way—”

Devon was shaking his head again. “No, see, I believe in survival of the fittest. Adapt or die. The bird that flew into it might not ever live to reproduce. But the bird smart enough to detect glass will live to mate another day.”

This seemed to her a gross oversimplification. But the nagging feeling came back and she looked up at the building again.

“I found a spider in the stairwell,” she said, grasping for what exactly she was trying to say, “it was shiny. Like a mirror.”

Devon looked at her oddly.

“You think I’m mistaken.”

Devon shook his head again. “No, I’ve seen spiders like that. They exist. But I thought they were only in the Amazon.” He absently flicked the rim of the empty cup. “They use it as some kind of invisibility cloak. Makes hunting easier.”

When Bethany went to show him the corner of the stairwell, some enterprising hand had swept the web away. The spider was nowhere to be found.

Devon gave her shoulder a squeeze and went back to proofing.

Bethany hovered on the edge of activity. The entire office was working on the next issue, pawing over glossy mock-ups, sorting through photographs. She couldn’t bring herself to join.

It was like a sound that hovered at a frequency no one else could hear. Like a faint smell. Like a touch that brushed almost-but-not-quite against her skin.

Bob sat at his desk. Mesoamerican art references littered the space as he drew chunky geometric swirls on the paper.

“I saw a spider today,” she said softly, not expecting him to respond.

To her shock, Bob looked up. His pen ceased. “In the stairs? Yeah, I got it. No need for another Aja alarm.”

Bethany felt a little excitement. “You saw it too?”

“Hmm?” Bob’s attention was buried again. He was looking at a smeared photocopy of a picture of a stirrup vessel. “No. I got the web.”

Bethany felt oddly disappointed. Why was it so important that someone else saw the spider? It had something to do with the feeling she couldn’t quite place.

Aja shrieked again when she found a dead bird. This was not the bird that had hit the building earlier. This one was a sparrow. However it had gotten into the building, the body was now swaddled with cobwebs.

Bob frowned down at it. He stooped and grabbed it barehanded, over Aja’s protesting squeak, and lobbed it out the window.

“Back to work, all of you,” he said, shaking his hand as if to dislodge bacteria that way.

Bethany disobeyed. She stayed behind as Bob washed his hands at the breakroom sink.

“Think I’ll get some exterminators in here,” Bob said offhandedly, “sorry if it seems cruel.”

The phrase that leapt to Bethany’s mind was not cruel. It was too little, too late.

“Sir,” she said, “the spiders—”

Bob was shaking his hand again, aiming it at her like a fleshy tamborine. “I’ll take care of it, Bethy. Can you get me Todd’s snaps from the fountain square shoot?”

Defeated, Bethany nodded.

She saw the spider again, this time in the hallway just before the stairs. It gleamed in its new web like a fallen star.

Bethany looked up at it, an odd sort of reverence filling her.

Aja clattered up, her wedge heels slapping the linoleum as if it had offended her. “Not again!”

In the space of a blink, Aja swept her designer bag up and obliterated the spider. Bethany felt a sense of steep loss coupled with annoyance.

“Thanks,” she said flatly.

Aja did not appear to detect the sarcasm.

The office diverged at the sidewalk. The photographers were going straight home after a long day of travel. The purely office drones were going to drink. Bethany, neither one nor the other, remained indecisive on the sidewalk.

Bob saw her waiting and brushed her shoulder with his hand. “It’s okay.”

She wasn’t sure if he was referring to the spider, or the deep feeling of unease that had permeated the air. She could see the restlessness spread to her fellow workers, saw them check watches, fuss with their hair, look around frequently. However unnerved they were, though, it did not stop them from congregating on the sidewalk while she lagged behind in the safety of the building’s entrance.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”

Bob nodded as if he understood it. “You’ll survive.”

Bob left her standing in the entrance and joined the others on the sidewalk. Bethany stood with her wordless questions, her unease and her loss, apart from all the others.

So she was the only one who noticed when a massive section of the building broke away and crept with a silent eight-legged gait down to her coworkers.

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The 10,000-Year Sarcophagus

The hieroglyphs were dull in the halogen of the lamplight. Bill hardly dared breathe as he followed the expected progression of birds, beasts and baskets to a single glyph.

A figure with no clear separation of head and neck, featureless save for a single black bar where eyes would be. The thin wash of black gave it a gunmetal grey coloration, but the figure was limned with gold to show it was an important figure. He hit the shutter button once, twice. The flash lit up and down the halls of Djefere’s tomb. Everything about it—the ornamentation, the grandeur of the architecture—bespoke ‘king.’ Yet there had been no record of him as a ruler.

The grey figure progressed along the wall like a flip-book character. Here he addressed the king, wearing the red crown of lower egypt. Here he offered a stone with rays emanating from it. Here he oversaw workers at a forge. Here he submerged a pot into water.

Hailey ran, stooped, down the hall. “Sir! Come look.”

The lock on the tomb itself was almost laughable, a simple mechanism of rope and wood. What gave them pause, however, were the pictographic warnings on the doors themselves. It showed brown, old-kingdom men opening a box and then recoiling from the gold rays emanating from within.

The others hovered around the sarcophagus. The lid had been prized up and set to the side, the outer coffin shone gold in the lamplight.

Hailey signaled  him closer. With a knife, she dug a chunk from the dull metal.

“Gold-plated lead,” she murmured, “and there’s more.”

Bill drew closer to the coffin. Djefere’s imago smiled benignly up at the ceiling. He clutched a tube and a disc, not the usual symbols of kingship.

As Bill watched, they passed a handheld geiger counter over the coffin. It clicked like an amorous cicada.

 

Many millennia ago, on the same spot, the silver man walked up the hill.

He had appeared to the people forty days ago, speaking haltingly, mispronouncing many words. It was he who had told them of the sun-god’s rock, ingratiating himself with the king. He had spoke sweet words, painting a glorious kingdom they would build  when the sun was in their hands. It was he who had lead them against the nomadic tribes many day’s journey to the west, who taught them to dig for the dull grey metal that they could not touch barehanded. It was he who taught them more sophisticated smelting techniques, how to alloy metals that could hold their dangerous new treasure. It was he who had watched as a jar capped with clay submerged into a pool of water, heating it and sending it up channels to spin a crude turbine.

Now he took off his helmet, the action akin to the removal of a cooking pot lid.

“Phew!” He said. His crew-cut was wet as if he had been showering. The air in his suit practically steamed.

There was a machine he had stored in a hidden place, a thing where he now hung his helmet. He touched a pad that lit up with blue LED.

“Come in, Newton?” he said jocularly.

“Copernicus, can you hear me?”

“Clear and plain as day, Mister Ansel. Wow, I didn’t think a radio to the past would actually work.”

“Oh, it’s all very technical Adams, quantum superpositioning and the like–but tell me, what is your success rate?”

“Oh, beauteous. Once they wrapped their heads around the concept, the rest came in leaps and bounds. Notice any change on your end?”

“Change?” There was sound in the background, something other than static interference. “No change. Ansel-Kittering are a legacy company, and have existed for hundreds of years. We are the foremost authority on nuclear applications and have the monopoly on all uranium deposits.”

“Right, right.” Adams laughed. “I suppose that makes sense. I guess I’ve done it right, then. I’m just glad I didn’t somehow make it so my great-great grandfather was never born.”

“Adams, causality being what it is, you would always have existed. Even if you had a different grandfather due to some little change, you still would have been around to send you back.”

“Right, yeah, it hurts to think about.” Adams wiped his brow. “I got my degree in engineering, remember, not physics.”

“Ah, well, just remember that your existence means you’ve succeeded. You’ve made a visible difference, Adams, not many people can say that.”

“And how did you find a solution to the ontological paradox, sir?”

Empty air. There was a pop and laughter. A get-together of some sort.

“What?” Ansel said pleasantly, the fizz of champagne so close Adams could almost taste it.

“Well, if time travel worked, why don’t I remember historical evidence of time travel, sir?”

There was a long pause. Adams imagined sipping something cool. Egypt was about a hundred degrees in the shade, and the suit’s fluid channels could only do so much.

“It’s all quite technical, Adams, and nothing you need to worry about,” Ansel said finally. “If you feel you’ve established a strong enough tradition, all you need to worry about now is the journey home.”

“Yes, sir. It must be strong. I mean, you’re talking to me, aren’t you?”

“Then you know what to do.”

Adams readied the dummy plugs, swapping them out for the machined aluminum pieces that had been screwed in place. He climbed into his seat and strapped himself in, smiling proudly. Five minutes later, a neutron-chain burst inwards, generating a wave explosion that spread over the hilltop. Adams was blown into smithereens, leaving no big pieces to puzzle future archaeologists.

 

“Now, they tell me you’ve made a monumental discovery in lower Egypt.” Charlie Hawthorne, host of the hit talk show Thorne In Your Side mopped his face with a blue handkerchief.

Hailey sat sidesaddle in one of the set’s chairs, glistening beneath the studio lights. She sat next to a celebrity chef and a religious leader who had just published his 38th consecutive book. Hailey had been chosen because they deemed her the most photogenic of the archaeological team. She was flop-sweating through her dress shields.

“That’s right,” she said, voice thinned with nervousness. She cleared her throat. Someone passed her a bottle of water.

“That’s right,” Charlie repeated, leaning emphatically on the words, “and you’ve come today to let us all know what you’ve found.” He turned to the audience.

Hailey straightened a little. “We found evidence of early nuclear technology in the old kingdom.”

There was a little uproar. Charlie gestured and a handheld microphone was brought to Hailey. She held it too close to her suit mic and there was a feedback whine.

“That’s it, child,” Charlie encouraged, “and tell us all just what you found about this early nuclear power.”

Hailey cleared her throat. The mic picked it up.

“It was given to them,” she said, “by an external force.”

The audience took a composite gasp. Charlie nodded encouragingly.

“Tell us who you believe it to be,” he orated.

Haley llicked her lips and held the microphone close.

“We believe it was given them by God,” she purred.

The crowd went wild. The author stood up and gave her a hug. Charlie waved the crowd higher, fanning the flames of adoration.

“This leads into the prayer I have written for today,” he said, adjusting his wide, circular collar. “If you all would be so kind…”

Guests and audience alike sat silent. Some mouthed the words. Some, like Hailey, closed their eyes.

“Our father who art in heaven,” Charlie intoned, “who holds the gold disc of the sun in his hands, who journeys through the dark underworld of the night, Ra be thy name…”

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Phone People

There was an old, white, square office phone at her uncle’s supply depot. It sat on a small table apart from everything else. The plastic was scuffed and grey from age. It didn’t plug into anything. There was nothing to plug into.

Luka noticed it her first day in the depot, but waited to ask after it. There were new rules to follow, more stringent than the ones at home. There was her cleansuit to get used to. There were engines to keep running. Even when she finally did, the question was not posed to uncle Jesse, but the men on the crew.

“I mean, does he keep it as a souvenir, or something?” she asked.

The men looked discomfited. One-ear Pete twirled a screwdriver around his bent middle finger.

“Somethin’ like that, yeah.” He harrumphed a measure of phlegm into a nearby plastic bottle.

“Stick around long enough, you’ll see.”

‘Long enough’ turned out to be three hours later. The phone rang.

Luka started, dropping the filters she’d been rinsing.

“Unca’ Jesse?” she called, “Deej? Phone’s ringing.”

Jesse came waddling through the depot door, shrugging on the loose shoulder of his coverall. He was the only chubby person Luka knew, which meant he had a lot more to offer than her family back home.

“I got it, I got it,” he said hastily. He took a quick breath before picking up the receiver. “Hello, McCalister’s department store,” he said in a polished tone she’d never heard before.

Luka clapped a hand in front of her giggle. Jesse shot her a glare.

“Oh hello, Mrs. Scheuble-Wilkes! What can I do for you today?” Luka’s uncle flicked his pointer finger to the doorway. Out, out.

Luka sought refuge outside.

The crew worked in shifts. Half the men were in heavy coveralls, unloading crates, soaping and rinsing down equipment. The other half were leaning against the wall, chewing tobacco and drinking bottled water.

Luka put her back to the wall and slid down to a sit, walking her legs out in front of her. Deej, the youngest member of the crew, handed her a bottle. She nodded thanks.

“He’s going off in there.” She motioned with the bottle.

“The phone? Oh yeah. He’s gotta answer it.” Deej smiled. He was missing his right top canine. “Cal tried answering it one day. That was nearly a disaster.”

Luka sipped her water, tonging the iron taste, trying to put her next statement together carefully.

“So is it—ghosts? Or some kind of weird radio?” She tried to back away from the first statement.

No need. “Right on the first.” Deej ate a handful of sunflower seeds. “It’s from the people who used to live over that way—” he waved off through the gray lead-cored wall, “—in some place used to be called Avalon Heights. Rich folks, lived in big houses.”

Luka looked at the wall. There were no windows in the depot. “Why do you think they call? How?”

Deej gave a shrug, finding something else to look at. They didn’t like questions here, none of them.

The afternoon was free, so she donned her cleansuit and walked a ways down the direction Deej had indicated.

Avalon Heights. She’d never met a rich person. The word ‘rich’ held no meaning for her. Jesse was rich, he had all the food he could want and power over other people. That was just about all you could ask for.

She took her binoculars and squinted down the tundra created by the blast. However big those houses may have been, there was nothing but wreck now. The few standing walls were pockmarked by shrapnel. Here and there, they were the blurry half outlines of shadows permanently fused to the wall.

Her filter indicator was orange. She treked back to the depot.

It was an insult, considering how carefully she carried herself out in the wastes, that the airlock door closed on her suit and ripped it. That earned her a chewing out from her uncle.

“Fool girl goes outside without a partner, for no good goddamn reason.” Jesse took a piece of precious electric tape from the roll and sealed the suit again. “I will ship you back to your folks, don’t think I won’t.”

“Unca’ Jesse,” Luka said, “why do you keep the phone? Those folk are gone, why not get rid of it?”

Jesse’s face was hard as he answered: “simple girl thinks everything’s goddamn simple. No, we can’t just chuck it. The phone stays there, and we take the calls. It’s part of the package, girl. Came with the building.”

Luka watched him store the tape in his drawer and lock it up. “What’s a department store?”

Jesse’s face was softer. “Another way of saying depot, child. Used to be you could find anything there, not just what you needed. All the time. Didn’t depend on the season or the roads, they always had it in. When your dad and me were young—” he broke off and rearranged some wrenches sitting on his tool bench.

Luka tried to imagine such plenty. “Y’ever been in one?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t like that anymore. That was the start of lean times, child. It was more like this depot, only most of the stuff it had, nobody needed anymore.” He turned. “Now I’ve got nine head of iodine tablets sitting on the floor out there, and no hand laid on them.” He gave her a pointed look.

As Luka sorted goods, she thought about the phone. What it was like to talk to a ghost.

She made it so the next time the phone rang, she was handy.

Luka picked it up and waited.

“Hello?” the voice was a woman’s, irked and sharp. There was an odd heaviness on the line, something that distorted her words like a rock on a plastic sheet.

“Hello?” Luka said right back.

“Is this McCalister’s?” There was a fuzzy background static to the line. Luka tried to imagine the signal struggling in from some grey land.

“Sure,” she said.

The woman’s voice grew angrier. “Sure? Sure? It’s good to know your store’s so casual about customer service, missy, I’ll be sure to pass the knowledge on to my friends. Now are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll try,” Luka said, which seemed like a safe answer. No one had ever been this angry with her. It was puzzling.

The woman gave a sigh which made the line crackle. “Well, I bought a 24-piece crystal set from your store not three months ago. When I went to use the punch bowl for our Memorial Day gathering, it was chipped.” The woman’s voice made it clear that this was quite possibly the worst thing in the world. “Now, the only time it had been out of my hands is at the register and when it was delivered to my house. What do you think that says about your service?”

Luka squinted. She had never before encountered someone speaking the same language but misapplying so many words.

“Back up,” she said, “you use a bowl to punch somebody?”

The woman’s voice was flat when she said, “let me speak to your supervisor.”

Uncle Jesse pushed open the door and bustled in, furiously beckoning to her. Luka surrendered the phone, still puzzled as her uncle tried to appease the unbelievable voice. A full refund didn’t do it, nor did an apology. A voucher for a free spiral cut ham and 50% off her next purchase did.

“I don’t get it,” she said as he hung up, “you don’t let anyone else talk to you like that. Why you let dead people push you around?”

Jesse put his hand on her scruff and pushed her out of the room. “You gotta make nice with them, girl. Make them think they got you by the scrote so they might consider letting it go.”

“Yeah, but you cut Joe off last week just ‘cause he looked at you funny.”

“That’s different. You have to make nice with the phone people or bad things happen.” He gave her a final shove. “Don’t you worry about the phone no more. I don’t want to see you near it.”

Deej gave her a sympathetic look as she took up a sponge and worked on the engine next to him.

“He talks a hard line, but he’s fair man, Luke.”

“He talks a fool line. Probably just likes to feel important.” Luka worked her aggression into suds. “You really respect him and all that?”

Deej shrugged, which earned him a few points in her eyes. “My dad got lymph sickness when I was young. I got nothing to go back to, so I got no reason not to.”

Luka watched the suds creep down the side of the engine part. “I guess respecting him I could see. Why the hell I should give bossy dead folks respect is beyond me.”

Deej grinned. “Maybe they just want to feel important after all.”

“If they wanted to be important, they should’ve left the big houses and gone underground,” she argued, “like sensible people. ‘Stead of worrying about crystals and punch and what else.”

“Ohhh, you got the crystal set lady?” Deej guffawed. “She’s one of the worst. You can’t just give her what she wants, she has to cut you down some beforehand.”

Luka wasn’t scrubbing anymore. She was looking at her hands, grime clinging to the cracks in the skin.

“Shouldn’t be right,” she said, “such disrespect. Who the hell do they think they are?”

Deej’s grin disappeared and he looked away. “Nothing we can do. Way of the world.”

Luka begged to differ, but she knew to do it silently. She did nothing by pretending to do something all the time, so whenever her uncle spotted her she was carrying something or looked like she was  in a hurry to the next place. One day this turned out to be true: she was hurrying to the room with the phone.

Luka made sure to position herself behind the door, just in case Jesse walked in.

The phone sat in the middle of everything, an island of anachronism.

When it rang, Luka picked it up before it could even finish.

“What?” she said dully.

“Who is this?” It was a man’s voice this time. She tried to imagine the body that had supplied it a long time ago. Tall, broad-shouldered. Probably thinning hair.

“Who is this?” she repeated back.

“This is Preston William Weber jr. Who is this?” The man’s voice was brassier than the last caller, like he was speaking way too close to the receiver. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you who this is: this is the person making less in ten years than I earn in a month and yet decided to throw their weight around. Don’t even try me, you drop-out, I will have your parents evicted.”

Luka smiled. “Alright.”

“I bought an argyle tie from your men’s wear counter. I have bought every single tie I’ve ever owned from your counter. And they have all been of a quality. But this tie,” and he really wound up to a yell, “this tie fell apart in the wash. Do you hear me? I spent sixty dollars on this item and it falls apart when water hits it. Now, do you see that I’m upset?”

“Uh-huh.” Luka wondered what the hell an argyle was.

“Well, what are you going to do to make it up to me?”

Luka took a deep breath.

“What are you going to do to make it up to me?” the voice prompted.

“You’re dead,” Luka said. “You hear me?”

“What?”

“You’re dead. You were probably sitting in your big house when the flash happened and got burnt to ash. You’re dead, and so’s anyone who cared.”

“This isn’t funny, young lady.” The line was distorting even more heavily. “I may have to teach you a lesson if you don’t smarten up.”

“Fuck you,” Luka said, “what the hell makes you think you can bug people like this? You’re not important. You didn’t do anything for anyone. Just sit in your ash house and leave the rest of us alone.”

There was a commotion down the hall.

Do you want me to come down there?” He was yelling now, the feedback hurt her ear. “I will come down there and make you sorry.

“Go right ahead, fatty,” Luka said as Jesse elbowed open the door, “just get up and walk on your legs that aren’t there anymore. I hope you—”

Jesse ripped the phone from her hands and threw it onto the cradle. “Girl—dammit!!”

“There,” Luka said coolly, “I fixed it. I told him off.”

Jesse’s face was red. He dug the stubby nail-ends of his fingers into the flesh of his forehead. “Fucksakes, what am I going to tell your folks? Why can’t you have half the sense of a dog?”

“He can’t do nothing, he’s dead.”

“No, he’s coming down here now!” Jesse shouted in her face, “that’s what he’s doing! You think this never happened before? What do you think happened to your cousin Emmett?”

Luka said “oh” in a small voice.

Jesse wasn’t angry now. He was looking at her and shaking his head. He was afraid.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you got to go out there, now. Meet him. I can’t have it happen in here. You understand.”

The weight of what she’d done was slowly coagulating in her stomach. She donned her cleansuit with numb fingers. The crew all looked away from her as she settled the mask on her face.

Deej and Cal met her coming into the airlock. “Luke? You going out solo? I’ll go with ye.”

“You just got back.” Luka tried to talk calmly. “I got to go alone anyhow. I’m waitin’ on a telephone man.”

Cal hustled past her, stripping off his gear. Deej stood his place.

“I’ll go with ye,” he repeated.

She was too frightened to say no.

They sat in the lee of the building. Deej tried to lighten the mood.

“What d’you think he’ll look like?”

Luka stared out into the white tundra. Whatever had made it had bleached all the color, all the life out of everything.

“He sounded like a thick bully,” she said, “the kinda man who leaves an angry ghost. I’m sorry.”

This last sentence she directed at Deej. He blushed through his suit’s faceplate.

“Nothin’ to sorry at me for.” He dug his heel into the scrub at their feet. I hate those phone people too. Wish I had your guts.”

“Wish I had your sense,” Luka said softly. She watched the horizon, watched Avalon Tundra for any signs. She’d never seen a ghost before. Would it be like the pictures her momma had shown her once, oozing sores and burnt flesh? Or would it be a rich person, all punch bowls and argyle?

“S’not fair. I don’t think there really is a ghost. I think—”

As they watched, one of the shadows slowly peeled away from the wall and started walking towards them.

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The Incident at Hillside Downs

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Photo courtesy of the ever-excellent Bill Draheim

Russell Bryant stepped out of his apartment in the Hillside Downs housing project at a little after 6pm on a Wednesday in 1992. Intending to check for the mail, on return he found the door to his apartment would not open, even with his key, and was forced to solicit help from the building superintendent. After an interval of approximately half an hour, the super accompanied Russell to his apartment. By their combined efforts, the door was finally forced open. Drawn by a foul smell, the two men entered to find the interior abandoned as if for weeks and not hours. Bryant’s cat lay dead on the windowsill where it had unsuccessfully tried to claw the screen open.

***

Hillside Downs, like other government-subsidized housing, began construction shortly after WWII. The architect was a polish man, Andrzej Budny, who had studied in the secessionist school before emigrating. He drew up an innovative “cloverleaf” design for the grounds, including a small park and pond situated in the middle of the four buildings. Budny himself never lived to see the building finished. One night he told his secretary he was going for a walk of the construction site and never returned. He was presumed dead.

***

A police car dispatched to the Laurel building of Hillside Downs around 7pm. The super accused Bryant of neglect and demanded he turn over the keys to the apartment. Bryant protested that he had only been gone a matter of hours, and had an alibi to back his statement up.

Tiffani Marivich was a single mother who worked night shifts at a nearby hospice. Bryant claimed he often babysat her daughter Candace “Candy” Marivich. That very morning, Tiffani had come by to borrow toilet paper, giving ample time to examine the apartment.

Marivich’s door was also difficult to open. With the aid of the policemen, the door was forced open to reveal a scene not dissimilar to Bryant’s apartment. The sole occupant of the garbage-strewn flat was an elderly woman watching a television that displayed nothing but static. The woman showed signs of longterm neglect and had visible sores.  She appeared aware of the officer’s presence, but afraid to leave her chair.

On entering the apartment, Bryant fell to his knees. When asked if he knew the occupant, he said yes. It was Candy.

***

The park that lay between the four buildings of Hillside Downs was eventually demolished in an attempt to reduce crime rates. The pond was cemented over twenty years before Bryant rented an apartment in the Laurels, the building showing the least decay. The four buildings were named in turn: the Laurels, the Cedars, the Pines, and the Hollies. Budny had named them after evergreens in keeping with his intended theme of renewal. He envisioned buildings that could change easily to accommodate the shifting demographics of future residents, immigrants like himself. Many of his changes remained unimplemented because of his untimely disappearance.

***

Russell pointed to a discoloration in the older woman’s right eye and a scar on her elbow. The scar was from a roller skating accident. The discoloration was a harmless birth defect. It was Candy, he was sure of it.

Attempts to reach Tiffani at her place of work proved fruitless. The elderly woman appeared senile and could not properly answer questions. When removed from the apartment, she became distressed. Only Bryant could calm her.

The super informed the policemen that the apartment did indeed belong to a Tiffani Marivich, he had been in only three days before on a plumbing call. There was no old woman, and the apartment had been clean. He could provide no answer as to what had happened in the interim.

The policemen inquired if there was another resident who could verify Russell’s story. Russell volunteered Samuel Beech, who lived on the top floor. One of the officers stayed with the superintendent and Bryant, who refused to leave the old woman. The other boarded the elevator.

After an interlude of three minutes, the officer in the elevator contacted his partner through the walky-talky. He asked what floor, exactly, did Beech live on? He was on the forty-third and rising.

The super replied that building only had thirty floors.

***

Hillside Downs decayed over the decades, though it never reached the infamous heights of the Cabrini-Green projects. Tenants would often disappear owing several month’s rent. The elevators would malfunction frequently, stopping in-between floors or skipping them entirely. The stairs were prone to blackouts. But however poor its condition, the housing project had never been subject to investigation of any kind. Its tenants were low-income families and recent emigres to the US, and the frequent disappearances were written off as rent evasion.

***

The officer on the ground instructed his partner to exit the elevator as soon as possible. He solicited the emergency shutdown key from the super, who left to collect it. The elderly woman had another fit and Bryant attempted to comfort her. Over the walky-talky, the officer in the elevator counted into the fifties. The super had not yet returned. When the number reached sixty, the officer on the ground left to find the super, taking Bryant and the old woman with him. The super’s basement apartment sat beside the incinerator. The door was closed. It took the combined efforts of Bryant and the officer to open it.

The super lay fully reclined in his easy chair. It appeared he had shot himself some months before, the body having had time to dessicate. The apartment was in disarray; there were deep scratch marks created by a crowbar in the windowsill and the inner doorknob had been smashed. On the walky-talky, the other officer exclaimed that he had finally exited the elevator.

The sixty-eighth floor of the building appeared to be under construction. Raw wood and tarps littered the area. Wind blew through the open walls. The floor seemed solid enough so he walked out, abandoning the elevator.

On the ground, the officer instructed his partner to remain within sight of the elevator. He then attempted to use the super’s phone to call for backup. The phone did not work.

The officer on the unfinished floor described steps echoing his own. Twice he went silent for a period of five minutes, claiming he had heard someone calling. His own calls garnered no response. Either disobeying or forgetting his partner’s request, the officer eventually found the edge of the building and a half-finished fire escape. It was at this point that the ground officer’s transmitter ceased to function: though he pleaded with his partner not to board the stairs, the other officer kept up a running commentary of his descent as if oblivious. After the top floor, the construction became sturdier. He descended three floors without incident until he came to a dead end. The platform he stood on had no stairs leading to the next platform. There was also no next platform.

***

Shawnda Barber, a waitress who lived in the Hollies, had propped a fire door so that she could smoke a cigarette without entering and exiting the building through the front gate. The bucket she used to prop the door fell away, and the door closed before she could catch it. She was forced to use the fire escape to descend down the side of the building. Antoine James was disposing of rubbish in the Pines’ incinerator chute when he saw someone clip the padlock on his bike and steal it. He gave chase, but gave up after three blocks. Harold Kim turned the keys to unlock his apartment in the Cedars building, but found himself stepping out the delivery entrance of the Laurels.

Besides Russell Bryant, the officer, and the old woman found in Tiffani Marivich’s apartment, these three people were the only known survivors of the Hillside Downs incident.

***

The officer on the ground had lost contact with his partner and was shepherding the two left in his care to the police cruiser. Observers described a strange blur, as if the building itself was vibrating, before Hillside Downs disappeared completely. In its place were four excavation holes and the puzzled survivors. After a brief investigation, the city labeled it a structural collapse despite the absence of any debris. The holes were backfilled with filler dirt and paved over. Besides a small concrete memorial, no further construction was attempted on the site. The displaced occupants were re-homed elsewhere.

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