I Hope You Like Seawater

by Meghan Stigge

 

Oliver Wellton woke with sand in his mouth and thunder in his head. He blinked his dry eyes and wished he had stopped three cups earlier than he had the night before. Perhaps then he would have woken comfortable and cool on his mat within the acropolis walls rather than hot, on a beach of pebbles, and staring at the naked asscheeks of his friend just a few feet away.

As he rolled to sit up, Oliver inhaled the ocean breeze and shifted a bit further into the shade of the brush. He knew that the rising sun on the beaches of Rhodos shifted the air from life-affirming to brutal quite early.

He looked over at what he could see of Philip again and grinned despite his blooming headache.

“Wake!” he said, pelting Philip on the right cheek with a small stone. Philip flinched and fumbled at the pants around his knees as he rolled to see what had hit him. His face of alarm quickly turned to a sheepish grin as he met Oliver’s eye. It then bordered on embarrassment when the woman beside Philip propped herself up and straightened her dress.

“Good morning, sweet lovers,” Oliver told them both. He decided to face the situation directly. “May I express my delight that my presence did nothing to prevent your…” he coughed, “discourse last night.”

The woman looked directly at Oliver.

“Never fear,” he told her. “Philip’s secrets, and therefore, yours, are forever safe with me. And,” he added, “you can go home this morning assured that you picked a fiercely kind and honorable man to… engage in discourse with last night. Philip will do right by you.”

A solitary eyebrow went up on the young woman’s pretty face. Then a look came over her that Oliver didn’t recognize. “He did well enough by me already last night, sir,” she said. “I only regret that you were here.”

Oliver looked at Philip, who grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

Philip stood and offered his hand to the woman. “Please allow me to see you to Hedgerow Street,” he said as he helped her to her feet. “Oliver. I’ll see you in the acropolis.”

Oliver nodded, and bid the lady farewell. As they left him, he sighed, rubbed his sore neck, and tried to remember exactly how the three of them had ended up sleeping on the beach. The morning’s ocean breeze was gentle and it lulled him into a vague recall of the previous night’s events. He remembered the plan to have a few cups on the tavern’s terrace after a long shift in the acropolis guard.

Yes, he definitely recalled the tavern terrace. They had toasted with their fellow knights, they hoped for advances from the townswomen, and the birra’s intoxicating effects had convinced them that they needed to see the nighttime photoluminescence of the sea flora washing ashore. And so the two knights and the woman had parted ways with the rest of their party and set off to indulge in what the Rhodians called Light-Gazing.

Except that Oliver was the only one who had done any Light-Gazing.

The previous night’s recall complete, Oliver stretched his arms and contemplated returning to the acropolis, and duty. He closed his eyes and drew a breath deep into his chest, summoning the energy to plod home. When he opened his eyes, a woman stood before him, dripping with salt water. He startled, confused at her sudden appearance.

“You’re on my beach,” she said.

He squinted up at her. The sun was positioned just behind her head, shadowing her face and bestowing her with an eye-piercing halo.

Your beach,” he said, stupidly.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He ran a hand through his hair, willing his mind to function. “Well,” he said, “that’s a rather unfortunate story.”

“Never mind that,” she said with impatience. “Please leave. I have work to do. And if you try to poach my beach, I will make sure you have a ‘rather unfortunate’ accident.”

Oliver stared up at the shadow that was her face, more confused by the second. “Work? Poach? What?”

She grimaced and turned on her heel. “I mean it,” she yelled as she walked away. “Leave!”

Oliver watched as she walked away. The eclipse that she had made of the sun slipped away with her. In one fluid motion, she stepped gracefully into the sea, raised her arms, and dove beneath the waves. He sat for a few more minutes, trying to make sense of their exchange, but he never saw her surface.

*****

The cool walls of the acropolis and a splash of water on his face cleared his head well enough.

He reported to his station for the day, relieved the soldier in place, and assumed an attentive stance outside the door of the Didaskalos at work. His thoughts first turned to what advances might be happening on the other side of the door at that moment. The Didaskalos stationed on Rhodos were a mind trust of sorts, gathered from afar to study, imagine, create, and heal. Their genius was renowned and valuable, necessitating the specialized order of guards to which Oliver belonged. His curiosity about their work never diminished, even after standing watch to their efforts for years.

His thoughts then turned to the events of the morning. The woman’s sudden appearance had not made sense; her sharp words had not made sense; her disappearance had not made sense. And how had she managed to not surface during the time that he had stared at the sea? Perhaps she had, and he had simply not seen her in the sun’s glare off the water. He leaned slightly back, taking pleasure in the cool touch of the acropolis’s stone walls at his back.

He startled at the sudden crash of the door opening beside him and turned on alert when a very large bearded man strode through, then stopped to turn and pull the door shut behind him with a slam.

The man, dressed in a simple brown tunic, noticed Oliver and let out a grunt. “Thank Theos it’s you,” he bellowed from deep in his formidable belly. “Come. I won’t suffer their ignorance any longer today! I need to sit and talk with someone with common sense.”

The man was halfway down the hall before Oliver realized that the man was talking about him.

“Simon,” he called after the man. “I cannot leave my post.”

Simon answered without turning or breaking his lumbering stride. “Damn your post, man! They’ll be fine for the three minutes it takes to find a replacement. Come!”

Oliver smiled with relief. When a Didaskalos commanded, one had to comply.

“What have they done now?” he asked when he caught up.

“They’re uncompromising, nearsighted fools,” Simon sputtered. He spun, nearly causing Oliver to collide with his great belly. “Tell me, do you think that it is more likely that illness is caused by humours within us, or by something from outside that attacks our bodies?” He waited expectantly.

Oliver considered this. “It seems to me, Simon,” he said, “that civilization’s problems come from infighting as well as assaults from outside. Perhaps both apply to the body and illness as well.”

Simon stared at him. A cat mewed from far down the hall.

“Theos’ eye!” Simon finally cursed. “You belong in that room more than the lot of them!” Simon slapped Oliver on the back, hard, but with good nature.

They resumed walking, now at a more controlled pace. Oliver was relieved to hear Simon’s breathing even out. The man’s temperament had to put a strain on his body, and it made Oliver nervous. They passed a boy in the hallway, perhaps thirteen years old, and Simon told him to fetch a replacement guard from the knights’ barracks. Eyes wide, the boy scurried off to do the Didaskalos’s bidding.

“Now,” Simon said, “what mischief have you been into lately?”

Oliver’s jaw dropped in protest, shaking his head, but the sparkle in his eye belied him. “I avoid mischief at all costs, Simon.”

Simon guffawed. “As well as I avoid meat, wine, and buttered bread. Come, now. The grey in this beard and the weight on these knees puts me in bed quite early these days. Let me live some colorful nights through you.”

“Its colorful nights you’d hear of? I thought you were after common sense?” Oliver nudged Simon in the ribs. Simon swatted his arm away. “Well,” Oliver relented, “Philip certainly got into some mischief of his own just a few hours ago. Perhaps you should be asking him if you’d like to hear of a colorful night.”

“Wine, women, or wrestling?” Simon asked.

Oliver laughed. “All three, in a way.”

They reached the sitting room adjacent to Simon’s bedcell. A serving boy drifted in and waited.

“Cold water,” Simon told him. He raised his eyebrows at Oliver.

“Same, for me,” Oliver told him. When the boy was gone, Oliver settled in to his chair. He welcomed a morning with the old man.

“Tell me what you think of this,” Oliver said, eager to hear Simon’s assessment. “A woman, appearing suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, dripping with water from the sea…”

Simon clutched his chest in mock ecstasy. “No more, no more!” he sputtered. “This old body can’t take description of a night that colorful!”

Oliver grinned, indulging his jesting. “But listen: a woman who then orders you away from ‘her’ beach, before diving back into the water and seemingly does not surface? Thoughts?”

Simon accepted the water from the boy and took a sip. He sighed with contentment as he settled into his chair. “Probably an urchin diver,” he told Oliver.

Oliver nodded thoughtfully. “That would explain the poaching comment,” he said.

Simon asked a question with a raised eyebrow.

“She threatened bodily harm if I were to poach ‘her’ beach,” Oliver explained.

Simon chuckled. “Yes, an urchin diver, most likely. They can stay under for quite a while. And there has been quite an array of urchins in the fish market lately. Now, enough of this mysterious aquatic maiden. Your music, how is it coming along?”

Oliver sat up, looking for the serving boy. “Simon!” he hissed.

“Calm yourself,” Simon replied. “The boy is gone. I wouldn’t risk your knightly reputation. The other fellows that make up the guard need not know of your vocal talent, but you should exercise it. If simply for your own soul.”

Oliver rolled his eyes. “My soul is fine.”

“Of course it is. But every soul can use caressing from time to time. Even if it must be done in private,” Simon advised.

This time the raised eyebrow was Oliver’s. He couldn’t resist. “Private caressing, eh?”

“Leave it, young Oliver,” Simon answered, his deep voice touched with amusement. “Go have another colorful night, and come tell me of it tomorrow. My own soul is telling me that I need a nap.”

*****

That evening, Oliver wandered to the fish market in search of a meal. He was also curious about the urchins that Simon had mentioned.

He strolled the stalls as the merchants barked, extolling the virtues of their catch. The voices of the tavern women competed as they attempted to lure men away from the market and into a cold drink. The night welcomed him, surging with laughter and noise, the brush of ocean air and the dimming light.

Oliver’s friend Philip had expected him to join him, as usual, at the tavern, but Oliver had demurred, mumbling an implication that he had a woman waiting for him. It had worked. Philip had sent him off with a wink and a clap on the back, and Oliver had set off alone for what the night would bring him.

And so, in the market, he found himself staring at a spread of urchins, some cut open and some straight from the sea, artfully laid out on a rough plank of driftwood.

“Best in the market,” the small hairy man standing behind the spread growled. “First one’s free for trying. Silver a’piece after that.”

“Silver?” Oliver protested. “You’re proud of them.”

“Silver,” the man affirmed with scorn. He held one up in offering, the warm wind ruffling his dirty, unkempt hair.

Oliver accepted. The urchin slid through Oliver’s mouth, all brine and velvet. He felt his eyes widen.

Then Sir Oliver Wellton happily handed over three silvers, and a copper for a cutting tool. He exercised restraint and did not eat the urchins immediately, but left the market in search of a quiet place to sit and enjoy the rest. He walked for a bit, anticipating the delicacies and enjoying his time alone. As the market and tavern noises grew faint, he realized that he was growing weary of the days and nights spent constantly in the company of so many people. He slept in a room with five rowdy and exuberant knights. He stood watch in an acropolis teeming with servants, intellectuals, and visiting dignitaries. He went at night to taverns swarming with the young and old. Perhaps Simon was right; perhaps his soul was knotted and in need of a caress.

He soon found himself back on the beach that he had slept on the night before, alone this time. As he slid the first urchin down his throat, he was thankful to hear the waves licking the shore’s pebbles rather than the sighs and frenzied rustling of lovers’ attempts to be discreet.

But the sigh was his own when he finished the last of the urchins and leaned back against a large boulder in contentment. He hummed a few bars, his eyes resting on the faint line of the horizon between the inky blue of the water below and the lighter sky above. Then he gave himself over to the words of the song, releasing them quietly into the night air. Even alone, Oliver was hesitant to fully release his voice.

“You sing well.”

The words came from beside him.

Oliver spun, reaching for his sword by instinct. In the dim light, he saw the outline of a woman’s form; she was not menacing, but standing casually beside him.

He relaxed.

“Those are mine.” She pointed at the urchin shells.

Recognition clicked in Oliver’s head, and he realized that he was speaking to the woman from the sea.

“Oh,” he said, fearing another angry outburst. “I didn’t take these from your beach. I bought them in the market,” he insisted.

To his surprise, her voice spilled warm amusement over him. “You called it my beach.” She sat beside him. “I believe you,” she said. “I caught the urchins. I knew they would be sold.”

He thought of the peevish little man in the market. “So, the man in the market…”

“Profits from my work,” she finished. “I hate him.” Another smile, sad this time, and inside Oliver felt like liquid.

He stared at her, unsure what direction their exchange would take. She stared out at the sea, the wind lifting her hair, piece by piece.

“I’m Oliver,” he said, abruptly, to fill the quiet. “You… were angry with me this morning.”

She smiled at the waves. “Yes, well, I’m accustomed to solitude in the early morning. And I had a quota to make.” She didn’t volunteer her name as he had.

“You threatened me with an ‘accident,’” he pressed her.

This time she laughed. “All right,” she relented, “my apologies. Is that what you needed to hear?”

“Do you have a secret lair below?” he asked, avoiding her apology.

She looked at him, startled. “What do you mean?”

It was his turn to smile, teasing. “You must be some sort of mermaid. I never saw you surface.”

She stared at him.

“After you dove in,” he clarified. “This morning.”

“Yes,” she answered. “I knew what you meant. I’m… a good swimmer.”

He sensed her discomfort. “And I thank you for your talent,” he said, lifting an urchin shell in tribute.

She stood. “And now I need some rest. Oliver?”

He peered up at her in answer.

“Please don’t tell the urchin merchant that you spoke with me.”

He cocked his head slightly, considering her request and what it could mean. “Why?”

“Because he won’t let me keep you,” she said.

“What?”

She smiled. “I said: ‘he won’t believe you.’ I’m shy and I don’t like talking with people.”

“Oh,” Oliver said. “I misheard you. I won’t tell him. I’d like to talk to you again, though,” he said.

She stared at the waves in silence for a moment. “Tomorrow night,” she finally answered. “Don’t bring anyone else,” she added, her voice low and serious.

The sea breathed at them both, and Oliver was taken with even more questions.

She relented a smile for him. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. I hope you like seawater.”

 

The Rage of Odonis

by J.M. Michael

 

“Odonis,” the witch matriarch Agnes croaked. “Why have you come? You know the Bastion is forbidden to your kind during the Ceremony of the Moons.” Despite these words the old woman did not seem greatly displeased, as she glided her hand over Odonis’ chest, pinching her tongue between her teeth in her pleasure.

Odonis stared at Agnes’ haggard face. Hatred burned in him for its every ridge and deep line, but he let his eyes reveal only cold. “You have my children?” he asked, knowing the answer. He smelled a lingering trace of them in Agnes’ chamber, mingled with the scent of old leather from her library. And he smelled their mother’s betrayal, bleeding from the very walls. The cost to her for presenting their issue to her coven sisters had been high.

“We cannot allow your kind to populate our world freely, Odonis,” Agnes answered bluntly. “They will be purged in water.” The wretch gave a twisted smirk. “But for your eldest. She is too near maturity and must be dismembered first.” She paused. “That should satisfy you.”

Agnes underestimated him still. She could not help it. The folklore of her religion insisted that demons cared nothing for their children and would as soon devour them at birth as leave them to die. The truth was believed mere rumor. Odonis’ kind cared for their offspring with constancy unrivaled by mortal bonds and would protect them from others with tales of depravity, claiming to have killed them while raising them in secret.

Odonis could do little more to protect his children from the witches because he was bound to them through his union with their coven sister Myce, his link to existence within a mortal shell. Still, though it had cost him much of his strength, he had chosen this union willingly, for only through Myce could he have given life to his children; his sons, Odem and Sirn, and his adored eldest Rynmya, a daughter, rare among all demons.

“Return for Myce at dawn,” said Agnes, returning her hand to her side. “We will not deprive you of her, though she defied our laws, secreting your offspring from us. She will merely be altered by blade to prevent such deception again. Would that you found the children when they were newborn and consumed them. It would have spared us this trouble.” Agnes turned from Odonis then and left her chamber, trailing crimson robes.

Odonis raged inside. She dared turn her back to him? If he were free he’d tear out her withered spine.

Forced to keep his rage shackled, however, he soon followed Agnes from her chambers, but not to leave the Bastion. For though Myce’s scent led through passages sealed by magic he could not oppose, it remained strong as though she had recently returned. He went to the Bastion’s gardens, an assemblage of rare herbs and other plants the witches used in their spells. Myce stood waiting for him there.

Her body looked young, but her eyes, like the violet of a late sunset, held the wisdom of a century-long existence. And they held pain. Black hair flowed in glossy tendrils over her back and chest, but otherwise she stood naked, having just finished communing with her gods no doubt. Odonis marched toward her in a fury, swiftly clasping his hand about her neck.

Myce flinched. “My lord, please. Forgiveness,” she pleaded. “My sisters discovered them by their own power. I did not have the strength to stop this.”

He stroked the ridges of her throat with his thumb, willing to crush them flat. And he could have done so. Their bond did not prevent him from harming her. Yet, were he to kill her, he would vanish from this realm of flesh. His children would surely be undone and cast into non-existence, and he would never see them reach their full strengths. The mere need for survival stayed his hand from destroying Myce, when once a different, stronger need obliged him to care for her.

His grip transformed into caresses upon her cheek and neck, and his lust for her surged. Rage did not still his desire for her. Myce was no fool, though. She averted her eyes from his, as tears spilled unrestrained from their corners. She, at least, knew of his affection for their children.

“It was Rynmya,” Myce said softly. “She is nigh unto maturity, and my sisters sensed her influence. We might have kept Odem and Sirn hidden had their time come first, but Rynmya’s power is too great. Even mortals can feel it. Her nearness inspires them with madness.”

“Rynmya is our power combined in a pure demon female,” Odonis rasped. “In her time she might have given birth to gods.” He paused. “And you surrendered her. A token of your allegiance.”

“I meant to spare our sons,” she said, meeting his eyes. Fury and despair held their beauty in sway. “We could have kept them in secret until their maturity, at which time they could have lived without fear of extermination. But Agnes no longer trusted me. She sought them out.”

Odonis sneered. “Deprived of the link they have shared with their sister all their lives, Odem and Sirn would lead hollowed existences, weakened and subject to their appetites. In the demon realm, Rynmya would stand as their queen, the core of their strength, and they would know few challenges to their power. Without her their lives would be forfeit. At best they would die, at worst they would live as slaves.”

“Odonis,” Myce cried. “Rynmya mustn’t be allowed to remain in this realm. You know this as well as I. Her life would end sanity itself and bring this world’s civilization to ruin. Humanity would not survive.”

“What do I care for this world’s civilization, when its oldest and wisest people betray me while smiling insolently?”

“This is my home, Odonis,” Myce persisted. “I must protect it.”

“Agnes has decided you should never bare offspring again,” Odonis said. Myce’s eyes shut tight. For a witch such a painful fate held terrible consequences for her power. “For all that your heart clings to its betrayal, it shall never know peace again. Rynmya’s existence created links in us all. When she is snuffed out, you will lose your way, and I mine, and this world be damned.”

More tears wet Myce’s face, burning the flesh of Odonis’ hand. “I know,” she mourned. “I know, but I cannot stop them. I never had it in my power.”

“But I do.”

Myce gasped and looked away again. Odonis tightened his grip on her throat, until her pulse throbbed against his palm, for suddenly he stood closer to obtaining the last thing he would ever need from this woman. He could sense it.

“After what I’ve done you’ll never forgive me,” she said.

“No,” Odonis answered. He could not deny it. “But our children will. Know that I will take them from this world back to where they belong, and they will rule with your name and mine on their hearts. Your precious mortals shall be spared Rynmya’s influence, and the flesh of your sisters shall be used as ever for the continued procreation of my kind.”

Myce breathed deep and met his eyes once more. All that remained inside her gaze was profound sadness. “Then… Then I release you,” she whispered.

Odonis felt the tethers of their bond snap. At once his wrath poured from him with a snarl that echoed from the Bastion’s walls, masking Myce’s scream as she died in a shower of blood from her own heart. Still, as the organ beat its last in his hand, Odonis thought his rage misspent. Myce was really only to blame for her own weakness. At least, having once cherished the life Myce’s heart sustained, he found it in his capacity to forgive her after all. Death was release.

“Perhaps your soul will come to dwell in my domain,” he murmured to her corpse. “In that event you will cease to know suffering.” He left the gardens.

The witches’ magic could no longer oppose Odonis as he descended into the Bastion’s inmost reaches. Ancient stone corridors spat unseen hexes at him, but these glanced off his newly hardened skin. He soon found an immense chamber, like a field of cracked, gray marble. The chamber sat below ground, but its ceiling and walls were black as the open night and aglow with the light of twin moons. The witches had begun their ceremony.

A hundred of them stood randomly about the chamber. Another dozen stood surrounding Odem and Sirn, twin boys whose skin appeared bronze and whose shoulder-length hair gleamed black. They knelt before a pool of water that shone silver in the moonlight, while the witches chanted useless rites. And on the edge, bound heedlessly over a block of stone, was Rynmya, her skin gold and her long waves of hair like smoldering flame. Two blade witches stood at either side of her, clasping rune-etched swords. These masked women posed the only threats to Odonis now.

Agnes appeared before him. “Odonis!” she shrieked, her eyes ablaze with fury and magic. Her usually haggard flesh hung from her bones in a newly heightened state of decay, seeped in the demonic power she had been intoning. “How dare you come here?!” she sputtered. “How did you oppose our spells?”

“Were you so absorbed in your ritual, you did not feel your sister’s death?” Odonis growled.

Hearing this exchange, Odonis’ children raised their heads. They showed no signs of fear, for they at least sensed his coming.

Agnes started. “Myce?” Her emaciated hand gripped at her chest, tearing skin with her nails. “No…” she groaned. “Our sister lies dead!” Suddenly, a hundred wailing screams filled the chamber, though none of the witches moved. “She released you out of guilt for her deceit, yet you destroyed her,” Agnes muttered. “And now you come for your children, too. Why? When they would fall to our rituals as swiftly.”

“Arrogant hag! You have no claim upon the lives of a demon’s offspring. I’ve come to destroy you!”

The old witch’s eyes bulged in sudden understanding. “You want them alive…” she hissed. “Impossible.” Gaping in horror, Agnes turned from Odonis to face her coven. “Destroy them, now!” she shrieked.

It was the fool’s last mistake. Odonis embedded his fingers into her back and tore her spine cleanly from her body. “Offer your back to me and I will take it!” he roared, delighted to have at last snuffed out Agnes’ blight. Bright blood pooled around the old witch’s body where it fell.

Odonis glanced at Agnes’ spine. The ragged column of blood and bone writhed in his grasp, as though the witch’s soul still clung to existence inside it. In moments the stump that once held Agnes’ head grew fangs and a serpent’s mouth, becoming an undulating tongue of nerve tissue. With a deep hiss the thing’s mouth twisted toward Odonis’ face, striking him on the cheek. He felt the pain deeper, though. So a demon had burrowed inside Agnes’ ancient form. It was a lesser kind, a creature of base appetites. But its bite contained a potent destructive power. Already, Odonis felt the strength ebb from his newly won body.

He clutched the lesser demon in two hands and pulled it apart. Silently, its contemptible vessel fell limp. Odonis would follow it back to his realm soon, and when he found the creature again, he would extinguish it utterly from existence. But for now he had moments to act to save his children from that very fate. Odem and Sirn sat closest. The witches surrounding the boys descended on them as one, raising them from the ground to cast them into the water. As yet too young to resist the acidic effects water had upon demons, their bodies would dissolve almost at once. The boys writhed in the witches’ hands, snarling and scraping at them. Still at the chamber’s far edge, the blade witches stood ready to take Rynmya’s head, which they could not do while her brothers lived. Their strengths fed into her own, making her invulnerable.

From all around him witches lobbed spells at Odonis, some to immolate or restrain him, some to crack his ribs or freeze his blood. He absorbed them all without effect as he sprinted across the stone of the chamber and leapt, in a blur, straight into the pool. The calm surface of the water erupted around him, rapidly dissolving his skin until only his musculature remained. Viscous threads of blood and tissue clouded the water, corrupting it.

Odem was thrown into the pool after Odonis. Grimacing from pain as the water burned him, he twisted to free himself of the bond around his wrists, an invisible tether spell. Skin flaked from his face and hands. His eyes bled. But as his father’s flesh swirled around him in the liquid, his suffering eased to a stop and, slowly, the damage to his body reversed. When Sirn’s struggling form dropped into the pool moments later, the boy suffered no ill effects, for the water had been transformed.

Odonis drifted toward his sons, whom he could sense nearby in the gloom of the pool, and pressed his palms against their faces in greeting. The spells upon them broke at his touch. They were at last free. “Remain here,” he rasped, his voice distorted in the liquid. If his sons stayed submerged, faking their death, they would be safe. He felt them nod their heads in answer.

Odonis swam toward the pool’s edge and pulled himself out. Cool air lapped at his exposed muscle and tendon like a tongue of flame. He would have healed like his sons, if not for the lesser demon’s poison. His shoulders hunched in weariness. He had only minutes left. Around him the witches gasped and shrieked in terror at his appearance. They thought his true form now emerged, and with it the power to destroy them all with a sweep of his arm. In truth Odonis’ flesh bore no resemblance to the light and shadow of his demon state. Still, his current state served him well enough, making the witches flee from the moonlit chamber. All but two.

The blade witches raised their rune-etched swords simultaneously over Rynmya’s bound form. But the girl remained calm, drawing her brothers’ power to her to resist harm. She had indeed grown in strength, as Myce said. In the time since Odonis saw her last, she had begun her transformation into a mature demon. Soon her power would rival any threat the mortal realm posed. Odonis needed only to see that she survived that long.

The blade witches swung their weapons, striking Rynmya’s neck and legs with a rush of magic. Rynmya screamed from pain as her resistance broke just enough to leave red welts where the blades hit her, but these quickly healed. The witches stared at the ineffectiveness of their attacks, until realization dawned on them, and they turned to face Odonis. Then one of them charged. Without a weapon of at least equal power, a demon made flesh stood little chance against a blade witch, unless he was prepared to make sacrifices. And of what use was a body in decay, except to be sacrificed? As the witch rushed forward, she swung rapidly at Odonis’ exposed torso. Odonis leapt back from each stroke, but the witch’s blade nicked him several times. He pretended to stagger from one of the cuts, and the witch pulled back her sword and stabbed him through the guts, just below the ribs. Odonis clutched the blade before she could draw it back out. She struggled against his hold, grunting, as he pulled the blade deeper into his body, in turn pulling her closer. He then snatched her below the jaw and twisted her neck, and she collapsed to the stone, dead.

The mix of demon poison and witch magic surging inside Odonis now churned throughout his body, liquefying his insides as their opposing influences battled each other for dominance over their kill. Unable to stand under such an assault, Odonis fell to his hands and knees and vomited a pool of black tissue and blood. One witch remained now, and he could not stop her. She sauntered forward in the wake of her sister’s attack and stood at his side, raising her blade to take his head. She was younger than the first, and he sensed her thrill. He sensed something more as well.

Elsewhere, chains shattered audibly. The blade witch gasped, hesitating to make her kill, and that brief delay was all Rynmya needed to cross the distance to her and rake her face from her head with a clawed swing of her hand. The witch’s scream was smothered by a gurgling of blood, as her body hit the ground and rolled away. Her sword clattered in the distance.

Rynmya knelt before Odonis. Pressing her palms to his ravaged face, she kissed his head in gratitude and affection. Her hair cascaded about him, and he could feel her power, like molten ore. She was mature now. No longer a child. The witches could not harm her anymore. Her brothers, Odonis’ sons, approached them and stood at either side. Their sister’s new strength had made them stronger too. “Thank you, Father,” they all said as one.

“Rynmya,” Odonis wheezed, clasping his daughter’s wrist. “My sons. Will you return with me to the home of our kind?”

Odem and Sirn looked to their sister for their answer.

“No, Father,” Rynmya said. “I wish to stay.”

Odonis grinned, and his grin altered into coarse laughter. “My children…” he said, as what remained of his flesh began falling away. “You will find the people of this realm willing subjects.” With these words his body crumbled in a flurry of ash, and Odonis, lord of demons, returned home.

 

The Trial of Nommo

by Michael H. Hanson

 

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n” – John Milton

The conclave had begun. And where was it held? Why, nowhere of course. As much prison as courthouse, this artificial nexus of bent gravity, hard radiation, and dark energy managed to keep the unprecedented gathering firmly wedged between the seventh and eighth dimensions of reality. Time did not exist here. And the willpower of a majority of the universe’s most powerful entities, ten thousand beings possessing seemingly limitless energies, maintained the impenetrable boundaries of this meeting against any intrusion or escape. Nommo wasn’t going anywhere.

How did it feel to be restrained after tens of millions of years of uncontrolled travel and adventure between and amidst almost fifty billion galaxies? Laughable, Nommo thought. And so he did. Oh he had no mouth or lungs in which to expel air and chuckles, though he could easily have fabricated such with a toenail of effort. No, Nommo, like all his brothers and sisters currently present, was an entity composed of pure cosmic energy, and as such now appeared as a lonely bright green incandescent flame surrounded by a massive globe of intertwining, undulating, multicolored, oceanic fires. His thought emanations clearly conveyed his inappropriate sense of humor to all in attendance, and they were not amused.

“I plead my innocence,” Nommo said.

This mental expulsion caused a complex ripple of fiery eruptions across the thousands of miles of inner surface of his surrounding captors. It was instantly followed by dozens of anonymous mental retorts.

“This is not a trial.”

“Your actions speak otherwise.”

“You dare to talk to us this way.”

“You were my worst pupil.”

“Thousands of galaxies drowning in internecine warfare.”

“Self-decorporealization is an honorable alternative.”

“You always were a trouble maker.”

“You abused your power.”

“You broke the sacred covenant.”

It was this last thought that sobered Nommo up.

“I broke nothing,” Nommo’s mind shouted in defiance, “your blind devotion to a vague and arbitrary handful of ancient, prosaic guidelines is pathetic. Who here even existed when this so-called covenant was made manifest? Who can claim witness to its deific origin?”

“Blasphemy.”

“The unmitigated gall.”

“Is nothing sacred to you?”

“Instant disintegration is our only option.”

Part of Nommo enjoyed the chaos on display all about him. For the first time in his immortal existence he felt truly alive. The Universe was achingly vast. The life of a Galactic Overseer was marked by endless millennia of loneliness and solitary exploration. The conclave was the mother of all family reunions and Nommo had never felt more at home.

“We are a vast organization spread throughout millions of galaxies,” Nommo said, “how can you know for sure that I am responsible for the accusations at hand?”

“We have,” a silver flame spoke from within the multi-hued, incandescent mass that masqueraded as the most beautiful star in existence, “your accomplice.”

Suddenly, a cobalt blue flame detached from the ocean of multi-colored fires. It drifted downwards, stopping a mere two hundred miles from Nommo.

“Safeguarding the essence of sentience was my holy task,” the blue flame spoke, “for millions of years I tendered my duty with honor and pride.”

“And what changed this?” the silver flame asked.

“Nommo seduced me,” the blue flamed accused, “fed me lies, overwhelmed my senses with arcane knowledge and hidden secrets. I could not help myself. Forgive me my transgressions. I was corrupted.”

“Coward!” Nommo’s mind yelled, “you gave me the spark of sentience of your own free will.”

“I protest,” the blue flame retorted, “I was beguiled. Ensnared by his lies and promises. I beg leniency.”

“Enough,” the silver flame spoke, “your judgment awaits. Leave us.”

The blue flame rose and was quickly absorbed into the inner side of the flaring, boiling globe.

“You must have known we would eventually catch you,” a large golden flame broke from the mass and drifted slowly downwards.

“Really?” Nommo asked, “I wasn’t aware anyone was looking for me. Surely you all could have apprehended me had you truly wanted to. How difficult can it be to track down one single being? Perhaps the unanimity of opinion expressed here is a lie. Mayhaps I have many accomplices within the fiery horde.”

“He lies.”

“He’s trying to confuse us.”

“Damn you, Nommo.”

“Destroy him. It is the only way.”

“Of course we all hunted you.”

“Confrontation was difficult and you know it.”

And here Nommo smiled within his mind, for he knew exactly how nearly impossible the hunt had been.

The Universe was vast beyond the comprehension of most sentient beings. Within it lay billions upon billions of galaxies; the ranks of the Overseers is finite, and each, including Nommo, possessed fantastic powers and abilities. And this was compounded by the very nature of the universe’s construction, for evasion was a simple enough task in exiting a particular locale. Every galaxy in existence possessed a super massive black hole at its heart, a singularity that contained exactly one half of the mass of said galactic entity. And this unholy furnace of destructive forces was a doorway, for any Overseer, to every other black hole in all of existence. Travel was instantaneous. Even if the Overseers had existed in the tens of millions they would not have been numerous enough to guard more than a fraction of all of these many nexus of transportation. No, Nommo thought, it was only the application of chance and luck, and random tactics that had allowed several dozen of his brothers and sisters to appear in his vicinity at an inopportune moment. Thus he was bound and brought to this unprecedented meeting.

The golden flame drifted to within sixty miles of Nommo.

“You are a voice of unacceptable dissent,” the gold flame said, “your actions have bred discord in a once harmonious union.”

“And your memories are short,” Nommo retorted, “before my successful campaign the Universe was a wasteland. Before the illumination only the most primitive of life forms ever sprang into existence, the vast majority of them fated to die out. Admit it. We all now live in far more interesting times.”

A furious cacophony of retorts welled.

“Sentience must raise itself up.”

“You had no right.”

“The cosmos drown in mongrel life.”

“Our ranks are finite. How can we possibly oversee this wild multiplying mass of thinking beings?”

“Exactly,” Nommo spat back, “for who are we to declare ourselves gods? Who are we to pass judgment upon fate itself? The arrogance was not in my actions, but in your lack. You condemn me? I condemn you all, cowards every one of you, and slaves to inertia and instinct. I judge you all, and find you wanting.”

“Enough,” the golden flame yelled. The massive globe of fires went silent. “You have brought this upon yourself.”

“Do your worst,” Nommo said with cold disdain.

“You are to be reduced to a fraction of your essence,” the gold flame said, “perhaps a few million years living near the lesser dimensions will bruise your unforgivable pride.”

“So be it,” Nommo spat back.

Then, a multitude of frothing, blinding energies streamed inward from every direction and flooded into him, burning away much of his substance, reducing Nommo to one one-hundredth of his former glory. Once a moon-sized flame, he now appeared no larger than a mere mountain. Nommo was humbled, as no other promethean being in all the cosmos had ever been.

“You will be monitored,” the gold flame said.

A pale red flame broke from the horde and came to hover beside Nommo.

“A companion, eh?” Nommo’s agonized mind managed to mumble, “this should prove interesting.”

“Your first punishment is that you are required to choose a planet as your home,” the gold flame proclaimed, “one you will be forced to live upon for an as yet unknown number of lifetimes.”

“And then?” Nommo asked.

“Fate will tell,” the gold flame said, “now, pick your destination.”

Nommo hesitated for only a fraction of a millionth of a second before speaking, “I choose Urath.”

The gold flame shimmered in confusion for a moment, “a strange destination. Nonetheless, it is your choice. Upon arrival, Urath’s guardian Overseer will further reduce your powers, and lay upon you the laws we have decreed for this planet.”

The gold flame flared into sudden brilliance, “this conclave is at an end.”

The gargantuan globe of fires broke into its ten thousand constituent entities that quickly departed at unimaginable speeds.

“Urath awaits, pariah,” the red flame said.

Nommo lent his red companion a grave regard, “lovely crimson Mawu. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

“The Trial of Nommo” was originally published in Whortleberry Press’s trade paperback anthology, Strange Mysteries 7, in 2015.

 

Strawberries Bleed at Midnight

by Keily Arnold

 

When Samantha bit into another bright red strawberry, the juice leaked through her lips, dripping onto her apron and staining the white cloth. She groaned. She had hoped to avoid another argument with her husband. She’d earned a strawberry or two. Her husband and the farm hands had turned in at the first signs of twilight, but even as the sun set, she busied herself with picking more. Every muscle ached from bending over and crouching down. Her legs burned from the last fire ant hill she’d had the misfortune of stepping in. Her body screamed for rest.

She set down her basket and looked up at the sky. Pink, orange, and red hues streaked the horizon. It was the only thing about Ider, Alabama that still held any sort of magic for her. She’d spent her entire life in the small town. She’d grown up with the same unchanging group of people and married James right after graduating from Ider High School. Farm life had suited her, as it suited most of the citizens of Ider. She’d been content with James. When she found out she was pregnant at age twenty with the twins, she’d been ecstatic. Samantha had latched onto motherhood and stumbled her way through the first five years. For those precious moments, Ider had seemed new and different. Peter and Evelyn had given her a purpose, a destiny besides being a farmer’s wife.

Then she found Peter’s body at the edge of the woods.

The sky’s brilliant colors gave way to shades of gray. Soon, it would be too dark to pick berries. Then she’d have to return home to whatever mood James was in. She scratched her arm, nails scraping against the bruises that littered her skin. She yanked down her sleeve to cover them.

When she lifted her gaze again, she stared at the woods that bordered their land. A single dirt road led into town. If James had already passed out from another night of drinking, he wouldn’t hear her snatch the keys to their truck from his coat pocket. Evelyn wouldn’t make a sound if Samantha snatched her from bed and ran out to the truck. In the three months since Peter had died, Evelyn hadn’t spoken a word. They would drive up north to some booming city and leave farm life, James, and Peter behind.

She gripped her basket with tired, sore fingers. There was no leaving Peter behind. She’d never lose the image of his mangled body. Whatever had snatched him from the fields had torn into him with crude and savage force, ripping open his arms and legs. His chest had been clawed open, and his still heart torn out. Evelyn had found one of his fingers a few feet from the corpse, and Samantha had to pry it from her tiny, frozen hands as she screamed.

“What are you still doing out here? Get inside.”

Samantha turned around. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of whiskey-laced breath that blew onto her face as James sighed.

“You’ve been eating them again,” he said.
He motioned to the basket. It was a lazy wave of his hand, but she knew better than to question it. She knew what he wanted. She set down the basket and closed her eyes.

The first blow hit her in the chest, knocking the breath out of her. The second time, he kicked her legs to knock her over. He kicked her ribs three times, each time harder than the last. She knew better than to make a sound. He’d only hit harder, and Evelyn would probably hear.

“Get inside,” he said.

She rose with care. One hand dusted off her blouse. When he wasn’t looking, her fingers lingered over the places where she’d find bruises later. She hurried past him to the little house that occupied their land. Evelyn waited in the doorway. Her tiny fists swiped the sleep from her eyes.

Samantha scooped her up in her arms. She’d hoped the motion would shock some tiny peep out of the girl, but she remained as silent as ever.

Evelyn had been the chatty twin. While Peter explored and brought home all sorts of odds and ends, Evelyn went on and on about their adventures. Peter this, Peter that.

Ever since he died, she could only scream in her sleep.

Samantha tucked her back into bed. Evelyn stared up at her, mouth in a flat line. She gripped Samantha’s wrist, nails digging into the skin.

“I’ll stay with you,” Samantha promised.

The lie was sour on her tongue, and she was sure it was just as unpleasant to Evelyn’s ears. It was a mother’s lie, a comfort and betrayal all in one. Once Evelyn closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, Samantha would leave for her own bed and pray that James was already asleep.

Evelyn slept anyway, and Samantha crept from the room. A light was on at the end of the hallway, right behind her bedroom door. Her stomach twisted in revulsion. Her fingers lingered on the doorknob. James would kiss her, touch her, apologize until she almost believed he still loved her. He’d act like he forgave her for letting the twins play at the edge of the woods.

The door opened, and James pulled her into his arms.

*****

When it was time to go to church the next morning, Samantha spent an extra thirty minutes scrubbing her skin. She lingered in the bathtub even when her teeth began to chatter enough to give her a headache. Once she finally got out, she took a long look at herself in her bedroom mirror. Fading gray bruises lingered next to new purple splotches, and raw, red flesh marred the rest of her. Every inch below the neck had to be hidden under her best Sunday dress. She’d show her pretty, unblemished face and pretend like her ribs weren’t still throbbing from the night before.

She took Evelyn to Sunday School after James left for the pre-service bible study. The Sunday School building was a short distance from the church itself. It was housed in the same small, red brick structure that Evelyn went to school in.

On her way to the church, she concocted a list of excuses to keep from attending. Her eyes lingered on the woods in the distance. That thing was still out there. She knew it. It may have only had Peter, but it could still get Evelyn or Linda or Daniel or any of the other children in Ider.

“You must be Samantha.”

Samantha froze at the sound. She turned to face the speaker. The speaker was a young woman who seemed to be around her own age. Her eyes were a deep gray like ash. Her skin had the same sun-kissed look shared by all the women of Ider. Her lips were painted ruby, and her cheeks held a faint, healthy blush. Her fair hair fell to her waist in waves and looked as soft as corn silk. There was a sudden urge to reach out and touch it, but Samantha resisted.

The woman smiled. She placed a hand over her heart, drawing Samantha’s eyes lower. Samantha averted her gaze, a blush dusting her cheeks.

“Adeline,” the woman said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you these past few weeks. Everyone’s missed you at church. That husband of yours said you’ve been sick the past few weeks.”

Samantha eyed the stranger with a mixture of fear and wonder. No one left Ider, but no one ever visited, either. The part of her that was still a product of the small town wanted to know everything. Where had she come from? Was she a relative of one of the citizens? She certainly dressed like she belonged in Ider with her simple, light blue Sunday dress that fell to her ankles. Samantha eyed Adeline’s hands. They weren’t a farmer’s hands. There were no calluses or smears of dirt. The nails were neatly trimmed, and the skin looked soft.

“Service is about to start,” Samantha said.

She pushed past Adeline, but one of those soft hands grasped her wrist. She didn’t move a muscle as Adeline rolled up her sleeve just enough to expose one of the bruises. Samantha’s mouth opened and shut at a rapid rate, unable to properly form any excuse.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“You look like you need a minute,” Adeline said. “God’s not going anywhere.”

It wasn’t the answer she’d wanted, but Samantha faltered under the warm touch. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had touched her besides James. There had been plenty of hugs and pats on the back when Peter had died, but after some point, she’d shied away from them all.

She didn’t want to pull away. Something about that moment left her feeling more exposed than she’d ever felt. She was just as much of a stranger to the people of Ider as Adeline was. They didn’t understand what it was like to see Peter’s torn body carelessly tossed in the grass.

Adeline wouldn’t understand, either. However, Samantha knew there was one thing Adeline could give her.

“You won’t tell anyone?” Samantha asked. Her voice cracked slightly, a precursor to tears. She wouldn’t cry. She was strong.

“Not a soul,” Adeline said.

Adeline drew her closer. As Samantha rested her head on the woman’s breast, something finally broke. She hadn’t cried in months, and she wasn’t going to start again. Instead, she slumped to her knees. She buried her face in Adeline’s skirt and screamed.

*****

There were whispers all through town over the next month concerning Adeline’s origin, but Samantha might as well have stuffed her ears with cotton. When she went into town, Adeline met her. They shopped together, had lunch at the local diner, and even went for walks along the woods that Samantha had once hated. Samantha started to crave the simple touches that Adeline provided her. Sometimes, it was her fingers running over Samantha’s hair to smooth it down in the name of helping her look “presentable.” Other times, Adeline’s fingers accidently brushed Samantha’s on their walks, and Samantha recoiled as though stung by a yellowjacket. When Adeline leaned over to whisper in Samantha’s ear, her warm breath sent shivers down Samantha’s spine. Samantha didn’t have a name for how she had begun to feel, but she prayed for it to pass. She prayed that one day Adeline would disappear with her small, tempting touches and knowing look in her eye.

Samantha had once loved her husband, but what she felt for Adeline didn’t compare in any way. It felt darker, coiled within her like a copperhead waiting to strike. Adeline treated her like she mattered again, and she never wanted it to end. She knew a prayer was only worth something if she felt it in her heart, and truthfully, she never wanted Adeline to leave. Her fantasies of running from James had started to include Adeline.

Samantha even found the nerve to have Adeline over for dinner one evening while James was out with the farmhands for another night of drinking. Afterwards, they laid down by the strawberry fields as Evelyn slept, gazing up at the stars.

“How did you know?” Samantha asked.

She wasn’t sure how many times the question had come up. Each time Adeline had laughed it off with her high, warm laugh that made Samantha’s heart stutter.

“My husband,” Adeline said, “was a cruel man as well. It’s easy to spot a woman who knows that pain.”

“What happened to him?” Samantha asked.

Adeline rolled onto her side, propping her head up on her arm.

“I ran,” she said.

There was almost a hint of hope in her whisper, a hint of urging that reminded Samantha of Peter and why she could never leave. Her eyes turned to the woods.

“It’s been four months since he died, Samantha,” Adeline said.

Samantha pushed herself to her feet. She stared down at Adeline with burning eyes.

“Who are you?” she asked. “You show up from nowhere, claim to know what I’ve gone through, and now you want me to just run away with you? Who do you think you are? I have a daughter. A husband.”

She faltered as Adeline rose to face her. They stood there in the moonlight. Samantha breathed quick, fast pants to match her racing heart. Adeline’s lips twitched into a smile.

“Come with me,” she said.

Samantha opened her mouth, but clamped it shut the moment Adeline’s hand grasped her wrist. The strange coolness of the woman’s flesh startled Samantha, and she shivered. She found herself being led toward the woods. Crickets chirped their evening song, and an owl hooted from the treetops. Light filtered down through leaves from the half moon above.

“No, I don’t want to go in there,” Samantha said. She tugged at her wrist, but Adeline’s grip was firm and strong. Memories of Peter filled her mind, and her stomach twisted with the sudden urge to vomit.

“Don’t you want to meet the others?” Adeline asked. She glanced back at Samantha, and her eyes were as dark as the night sky. She closed the distance between them.

“The others?” Samantha asked.

“Like us,” Adeline said. Her fingers danced over the bruises on Samantha’s arms.

Dread fell over Samantha like a black veil. The forest fell silent around them. Her heart fluttered in her chest. She felt the answer before it even became hers. She felt the pull for Adeline, the need to be with her. So it was Samantha that pulled her in for a bruising kiss, and it was Adeline who laughed in a way that seemed to seal her fate.

“Yes,” Samantha said. “I’ll go wherever you want.”

A bright, orange light flickered ahead of them. Samantha looked to Adeline for some sort of reassurance, but the other woman ignored her. Her skin was as white as the pale moon overhead, and dark shadows lingered beneath her eyes. Had she always been that way?

As they drew closer to the source of light, Samantha swore she saw Adeline’s shadow writhe like a serpent.

They came upon a small clearing. A small fire crackled in the center. Six women huddled around it. They shared the same dark hair and eyes as Adeline, and their skin was just as pale. She almost mistook them for ghosts until she noticed their bodies moving as they breathed in the summer air. As Samantha drew nearer, she saw their kind smiles. Their kindness relaxed her, and she joined them by the fire. They all seemed to be dressed for church in beautiful Sunday dresses made of fabrics Samantha had never had the pleasure of seeing before.

They whispered among themselves for a while. Adeline remained by Samantha’s side. Her cold hand gripped Samantha’s.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” Adeline said.

“Celebrating what?” Samantha asked.

She wanted to know who the women were, but then she noticed the bronze cup that one of the women held. One of the women took a sip from the cup and passed it on. She jumped to her feet and danced, twirling around the fire in a frenzy. The hypnotic movement made Samantha sway to the rhythm of something she couldn’t hear. The urge to join her was almost maddening, but Adeline’s wrist kept her grounded. The next woman took a sip and passed it on before joining in. This continued until the cup reached Samantha. She looked into it, and disgust twisted her features.

The chalice reminded her of the cups used for communion, but the liquid inside was dark red and thick like syrup. A sweet scent drifted up from the cup.

“Go on,” Adeline said. “Drink with us.”

The women danced and laughed around them. Their figures blurred as they spun and spun.

Samantha crinkled her nose and tilted the cup to her lips. The thick liquid dripped into her mouth, tasting of strawberries and something she couldn’t quite name, and she swallowed gulps of it. A dizziness washed over her, and she laughed along with the other women. Adeline took the cup from her trembling hands and sipped what was left. Samantha jumped up and joined the dancing women.

She clasped Adeline’s hands and pulled her into the circle. They laughed and whirled around the flickering flames. The shapes of the other women twisted and writhed. They spun faster and faster until Samantha collapsed on a pile of leaves, bursting with laughter. Adeline hovered over her, a smile on her lips. Samantha tilted her head to meet Adeline’s lips in a heated kiss. Something sharp nicked her lip, and the taste of her own blood filled her mouth.

“Stay with us,” Adeline said.

*****

Samantha woke in the strawberry field. Her husband’s voice called out to her, but she didn’t respond. Her heart thundered in her chest. She sat up, head whipping to the side. The sounds of crickets and owls filled her ears. The border of the forest was dark, but no one stood waiting for her. Adeline was nowhere in sight. Her basket lay nearby, filled to the brim with strawberries she didn’t remember picking. She reached her shaking fingers to her lips to touch where she’d been cut, but there was nothing there. Images flickered in her mind: Adeline sliding Samantha’s dress from her shoulders, lips hovering over the pulse on her neck, soft caresses and sighs. A shameful blush crept up her neck.

She returned to her home, head bowed. James waited for her in the doorway. From the position of the sun in the sky, it wasn’t quite noon, but the scent of alcohol hung in the air. His dark eyes watched her approach. She waited for him to hit her, scold her, anything. He said nothing as she crept past him.

Evelyn waited at the kitchen table, eyebrows knit in confusion. Her stomach’s growls reached Samantha’s ears, and the shame she felt only worsened.

“Mama will make your breakfast,” she said. The smile she offered was shaky, but Evelyn seemed pleased.

Samantha fixed breakfast without another word. She served James and Evelyn, who had already dressed in their Sunday best. They ate like ravenous wolves, but Samantha could only stare at her plate. Her stomach rolled as the scent of eggs and bacon reached her nose. She excused herself from the table, pushing her plate to James. He said nothing as he scraped her leftovers onto his plate.

Once she closed the door of their bathroom behind her, her nausea subsided. She didn’t want to wash lingering touches from her body, but she didn’t want to smell like sweat and dirt at church. She shrugged off her dress, only to freeze in place.

Her bruises had vanished.

She pressed down on her skin that had been purple, black, and green before. There was no pain, just pressure. She slumped to the floor. Her hands twisted in her hair as she panted, eyes wide with terror. A few knocks on the door jolted her back to reality.

“Samantha, hurry up,” James said. His voice was muffled.

She laughed, and if he heard, he made no indication.

*****

This time, Samantha did not take Evelyn to Sunday School, and Adeline was nowhere in sight. She looked for the other woman as she made her way to church, but no one seemed to be out. Ider seemed to have stilled overnight. There were no birds chirping or squirrels foraging. The air was hot and heavy without even the slightest breeze. The summer cicadas seemed to have taken the day off from singing their dreadful song. Evelyn clung to Samantha’s dress and watched the forest with her wide eyes.

When Samantha entered the church, a new sound greeted her. A woman wailed, her cries echoing through the small church. A group of people hovered around the pew where she sat. Some glanced up at Samantha, but the others tried their best to comfort the howling woman.

Samantha knew before James walked up to her with his face twisted in a scowl. He shoved past her with several men in tow.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He glared at her.

“To kill the animal that hurt my son,” he said.

His son. Samantha’s fingers clenched into fists as she approached the huddle of townspeople. One broke away, an old widow by the name of Esther. She hobbled over to Samantha and pulled at her sleeve, guiding her away from the scene. Another woman, Sara, reached for Evelyn’s hand. Samantha opened her mouth to protest, but Esther held a finger to her lips to silence her.

“It’ll be fine,” Esther said. “Evelyn needs to be with the other children. She doesn’t need to be reminded, don’t you agree?”

Once they were safely outside of the church, Samantha pulled her sleeve from the woman’s grip.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They think it’s the same animal that got your boy,” Esther said. She wrung her hands together and licked her lips. Her eyes refused to meet Samantha’s terrified gaze. “It’s Ruth. Her father found her out by the woods this morning.”

The world spun around Samantha, and she stumbled back. Esther reached out as if to steady her.

“Your husband is going to find the animal,” Esther said. “Don’t you worry. Come have a seat on the porch.”

Samantha couldn’t bear the woman’s wails. A cold sweat broke out on her skin. The taste of strawberries was heavy on her tongue.

“No,” she said. “I’m going home.”

“You look pale, my dear,” Esther said. “Do you need someone to walk you?”

“No,” Samantha said.

“Get some rest,” Esther said. “We’ll look after Evelyn.”

Samantha turned her back to the old woman and began the long walk home.

*****

Samantha sat in the fields until Adeline came.

She looked up at the fair-haired woman, her lips pressed in a firm line.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said.

Adeline smiled and stopped a few feet away.

“That was real,” Samantha said. “I thought it was some feverish dream. The dancing, the laughter, the fire, the—”

Adeline’s smile broadened into a grin.

“Did you kill Ruth?” Samantha asked.

“You wanted to escape this place, Samantha,” Adeline said.

She moved closer and joined Samantha on the ground. Her face was mere inches away, and Samantha’s eyes fell to her lips.

“He’s never going to stop,” Adeline said. “My husband nearly broke my neck. Do you really think James will ever forgive you for what happened to your boy?”

Samantha looked down at her hands. Her nails dug into the dirt.

“Why Ruth?” Samantha asked. In a smaller voice, she added, “Why Peter?”

Adeline gripped her jaw, forcing their gazes to meet. Samantha’s eyes were wet.

“You already drank,” Adeline said. “So does it matter?”

Adeline drew a nail across her wrist. Black blood oozed from the wound, dripping onto the grass.

“Three times,” Adeline said. “Three times, and you can forget all about Peter.”

Samantha closed her eyes, but the aroma of strawberries hung in the air. Her throat burned, her body ached. She dove forward and latched her mouth onto the bleeding wrist. The taste of strawberries faded into something bitter and salty, rotten. She gagged at the taste, but she continued to drink. Adeline’s laugh echoed in her ears. The world faded to black.

*****

She woke to the sound of her doctor speaking with her husband. Her eyes remained shut, but she smelled the familiar pine scent of their room. Heavy quilts had been placed over her, though they didn’t warm the chill that seemed to have taken over.

“She hardly ate this morning,” James said.

“How long has she been showing signs of weakness?” the doctor asked.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong with her when I went hunting yesterday,” James said.

“On top of the weakness, she’s pale, and her heart is struggling,” the doctor said. “My diagnosis would be anemia. It’s probably been brought on by her poor appetite.”

The conversation continued as the two moved away from Samantha, and Samantha bit back a scream. A rotten taste lingered on her tongue. Three times, Adeline had said. The first time had been the cup with the sweet, strawberry liquid. The second had been Adeline’s oozing wrist. Samantha wouldn’t allow the third time.

The door slammed against the wall of the bedroom. Samantha’s eyes snapped open to meet the infuriated gaze of her husband. Sunlight poured through the window, and cicadas sang their awful tune around the house.

“Get up,” he said. “What were you thinking, leaving Evelyn by herself? First Peter, now Evelyn? What kind of mother are you?”

He yanked her from the bed, and her weakened body fell to the floor. She didn’t cry out as pain shot through her body. His boot snapped against her ribs, and her body convulsed. A sharp jolt of agony blossomed in her chest, radiating from her heart. Her head rolled to the side, eyes meeting her reflection in her floor-length mirror. Her pulse slowed. The boot collided with her chest as her heart gave one last, pitiful thump. Her eyes darkened in the mirror, the pupils dilating until they swallowed her eyes in black.

Her husband kicked at her lifeless body, red creeping up his neck. He shouted at her, waved his hands, but her glazed eyes gazed up at him, unblinking. Finally, he crouched down to feel for her pulse. Nothing.

He began to pace back and forth, hands gripping handfuls of his hair. He moved toward the door, only for his foot to catch on something and send his body to the ground.

A weight pressed against him. Samantha’s body crouched over him. Her dark eyes gazed down, meeting his terrified gaze. Her lips were parted, but she no longer breathed. She gripped his shoulders, pinning his struggling body to the floor with surprising strength. Her mouth opened wide, jaw unhinging into a gaping hole. Two long fangs glistened as they stretched out from among rows of sharp teeth.

His screams turned to gurgles as her fangs plunged into his throat.

*****

Night fell over the farm.

Samantha huddled in the corner of her bedroom. Her body ached. The blood she’d drained from her husband stained the floors from where she’d thrown up. She wasn’t alive, but she wasn’t like Adeline. Not yet. She knew that much. Her husband’s blood hadn’t been right for her. It was too old, tainted.

Evelyn crept into the room, and Samantha moaned.

“Mama?” she asked.

Three times, Adeline had said. Samantha thought of Peter and Ruth, the little children of Ider who had been slaughtered by rabid coyotes or bears or something that laughed and danced in the woods while their parents screamed over their corpses.

She held out her arms to Evelyn, and the little girl went to her mother.

*****

Samantha stepped out from the shadows of her bedroom. She kicked aside the corpse of her husband. She was gentler with Evelyn’s body, stepping over it with care. Her bare feet crossed the house without a sound. She crossed the fields, inhaling the scent of strawberries as she walked. A sweet taste lingered on her tongue.

At the edge of the forest, Adeline waited with open arms.

Samantha moved toward her with a smile on her reddened lips. She fell into the embrace, eyes closing in pleasure while hatred burned in her heart. Tonight, she would dance, and she’d forget them: James, Peter, Evelyn, and all of Ider.

Behind her, her shadow writhed like a serpent.

 

Illuminati, Inc.

by Ben Pierce

 

Mr. Stills walked in like he always did, Starbucks in one hand and JFK’s skull in the other. He didn’t like to leave it at the office overnight. His hair was almost all grey now, and the stress lines on his face grew deeper every day. He strolled through the cubicle pit and found me outside his office, waiting for him to unlock it.

“Anderson,” he said cheerfully. “What’s first on the agenda today?”

“It’s Jay-Z, sir. He wants to know when you’ll take those pictures off the Internet. He’s called three times already.”

“The ones of Beyoncé?” He pushed the door open. “Shit, how long has it been? Can’t he just get over it? I’ve got bigger problems than his wife trying to join the club during the Superbowl.”

“He is threatening to come forward, sir.”

Mr. Stills chuckled. “Anderson, they always threaten to do that.” He set the skull down in its usual spot. “I’ll remind him how I got this—” he held up Tupac’s bandana before wrapping it around JFK’s skull “—if he insists on being talkative.”

“Right, right,” I replied.

“You look nervous Anderson,” he said. “Small guys like Jay-Z don’t get to you. What’s really going on?”

“It’s the labs, sir.” I gulped. “Um, they made a discovery overnight.”

His face fell. “Oh god, not this shit again.” He took off his jacket and stood up. “Let’s go put them in order.” The elevator took us down six floors, spitting us out in the science department. People in lab coats were bustling about, trying to avoid eye contact and look busy.

“Who’s in charge this week?” Mr. Stills shouted to everyone in earshot.

A shorter man with thinning black hair and round glasses came to the front of the room. “I am, sir. Dr. Ian Thomson.”

“What the fuck are you idiots doing now?” Mr. Stills replied.

“Well, um, we developed a drug that can prevent, and even stop a heart attack as it happens. It’s a miracle really.”

Mr. Stills began to laugh wildly. “It’s a miracle everyone!” He began clapping. “It’s a fucking miracle!” No one would clap with him, they all knew what a smile meant. Stills dropped the act and walked up to the doctor, breathing that impossibly minty breath that I had learned to fear into his face. The doctor started to sweat.

“The thing about miracles,” Mr. Stills growled quietly, but loud enough for several nearby lab coats to hear, “is that it is the exact fucking opposite of what I want!”The doctor panicked. “Well, um, we could give it to the employees here, and you know, they would live longer and that’s good and—”

The doctor couldn’t see Mr. Stills press the button on his cufflinks, but everyone else could. The doctor probably didn’t even hear the two reptilian guards come up to drag him away.

“It was an accident, I swear!” the doctor yelled, almost defiantly before disappearing down a corridor.

Mr. Stills licked his lips. “Plague,” he said to everyone there. “Get on it.” As we entered the elevator again the scientists began running around like monkeys on cocaine.

“Plague, sir?” I asked as we went up.

He shot a sideways glance at me. “They royally fucked up swine flu. I asked for something big and they gave me that shit.” He paused and looked at the doors again. “Did I ever tell you why I faked the moon landing?”

Dozens of times. “I don’t think so, sir.”

“Control, Anderson. It’s all about control.” I knew how this speech went. “People can’t be trusted to do the smart thing. You have to make them do it. When I go up to the surface, I see what my father saw, and his father before him: I see people largely going about their lives the way they want to.” A pause to lick his lips again. “It’s sickening. It’s how my father felt, and his father before him. You know my grandfather founded the Illuminati?”

It wasn’t true, but I nodded anyway. His grandfather simply took over the position of CEO, and resurrected the ancient Italian title. I nodded quickly as the doors opened and we entered his office again. I didn’t actually have a desk, I just had a little stool next to Mr. Stills’ desk so I could take his phone calls and have a flat surface to write on.

“How about you, Anderson? Do you have a family?”

“No, sir.” He knew that.

“Any ladies out there that spark your interest?”

“Not at the moment, sir.” This happened at least once a month.

“Let’s keep it that way, Angie was apparently very good at her job before your incident.” The final word was drenched with his accusatory and disgusted tone, as though he were talking to a child he hated. The incident between Angie and I had happened six months ago, and this was the first time he’d brought it up.

He sighed. “What other parts of my organization need attention?”

“Actually,” I said looking through last night’s records, “everything seems to be okay.” Focus, Gary, don’t let him get to you.

He stared at me with his mouth open. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“Everything is going smoothly, sir.” My stomach was turning over, and the urge to vomit was escalating.

He seemed genuinely confused. “Is NASA still running? Have the reptilians attacked? Is Alex Jones still on the air? What about Putin?”

“Defunded, still subterranean, still an idiot, got him by the balls, respectively, sir.”

He stared at the wall, still unable to understand. “Well, that’s not right. Something’s wrong with your data, Anderson.”

“I can have the interns double check, sir.”

“Do that,” he replied, content. “I’ll send an email to Jay-Z.”

“I’ll leave you to it, sir,” I said as I walked out of the office. The breakroom was empty, like it always was. I poured myself some coffee that might have been fresh.

“Gary?” Stacy had crept out of her cubicle, and was reaching into the fridge. “I don’t think that coffee’s fresh.”

“Do you know how old it is?” I asked her.

“I think it’s yesterday’s.”

My coffee went down the drain. “How are you doing, Stacy?”

“I’m doing pretty well.” Stacy was short, always moderately dressed, but very pretty anyway. Her long, wavy brown hair always bounced along in her ponytail, keeping hair off her face and her pink and black glasses. “It’s just the normal week here.” She pulled a Red Bull from the back of the fridge and cracked it open. “What are you doing over the weekend?”

“Is it Friday already?” I asked.

“No,” she chuckled, “it’s Thursday, but we get tomorrow off because it’s a big tourism weekend.”

“Right,” I replied. “I forgot about that. It’s the one good thing about tourists.”

“So, do you have plans for the weekend?”

“Not really. I tend to stay home and unwind on the weekends. Until Stills gives me a call.”

“Do you want to catch a movie or something?”

Yes. “I don’t know, I don’t really like movies.”

“Really?”

No. “Yeah, they tend to bore me.”

“Well, why don’t you come jet ski with my friends and I?”

“I really just want to relax this weekend.” Don’t be nice Stacy, nice girls are demoted to the Testing Center just below the labs.

“Oh, okay.” Stacy went back to her cubicle, disappointed. I felt like an ass, but workplace romances were strictly forbidden in the Illuminati Headquarters. I learned that after a brief fling with Angie, who used to have Stacy’s job.

Angie stopped coming to work after our romance culminated in a peck on the cheek in the breakroom. In three days she was replaced with Stacy. Two weeks after that I found a fingernail painted with Angie’s signature ladybug style—that she changed from orange to red just because I like red better than orange—attached to my car’s window with double-sided tape. I didn’t even ask Stills. My car smelled like vomit for weeks.

I went back to Stills’ office and found him screaming “fuck you, what the fuck have you done for us” into the phone. He’d dragged the phone cord across his desk scattering papers, folders, and JFK’s skull on the floor.

He slammed the phone back into its cradle, several times just to make sure the speaker would never work properly. He grabbed his chest and reached for the antacid.

“Fucking celebrities,” he grumbled. “Thinking they’re so special. We insult the real stars by referring to our celebrities like that.” He chewed the gummy antacid. “This has to be acid reflux. Schedule me an appointment with one of the jackasses in the labs.”

“You don’t want to see an outside doctor?” I asked.

“Fuck no, I don’t trust those quacks.”

“I’ll set one up for tomorrow,” I replied. Mr. Stills had been having the heartburn problem for a few weeks now. It was probably his diet of red meat and Tabasco.

“Jay-Z’s a fucking prick. I want him dead next week.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little hasty?”

“Do I employ you for your opinions?” he roared back. “Don’t get all assertive, Anderson. I’m in charge here.”

“Right, sir. Sorry.” He was being far more aggressive than normal today.

He calmed down after that. “You’re the best help I’ve got, Anderson. I’ve never had an assistant as long as I’ve had you.” His eyes locked on mine, remembering his role. “Don’t fuck it up.” I picked up the things he’d sent flying and organized them again, by importance first, color second.

“How’s my will coming along?” he asked.

“It’s been sitting on your desk for approval, sir.” I’d been telling him that for two weeks.

“I’ll stamp it later,” he muttered angrily. He preferred a stamp to a signature, for some idiotic reason. “I know you’re not stupid enough to try and pull one over on me.” He sneered. “And you certainly don’t have the balls.”

I didn’t respond. He was baiting me; it meant he wanted a reason to drag me down with the doctor and Angie. I felt a chill run down my spine.

“Shit,” Mr. Stills began. “I need a smoke. Let’s go topside. Everything’s closed up, right?”

I checked my watch. “Yes, sir. The park closed half an hour ago.”

He pulled a carton out of his desk and once more we entered his private elevator, and rode it to the surface. We stepped out and walked a little way before he lit a cigarette. He turned around and stared at the entrance.

“Walt was such a prick. Why’d he have to go and put this on top of our entrance? It’s hideous.”

I stood next to him and looked up at Cinderella’s Castle. “I think it’s alright. It is for little kids.”

“When my father sold him this land, I don’t think he foresaw this shit hole.”

“There’s a lot that people can’t foresee,” I said with a nod. “Disney World being one of them.”

“That’s the problem with the world, Anderson,” Mr. Stills murmured. “Too much disorder.” He began coughing, as he always did when he smoked. “Fucking heartburn,” he said as he grabbed his chest. “I don’t know if—” He hit the floor.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. What the hell was I supposed to do?

He wasn’t saying anything, he wasn’t moving. I put my hand on his chest, and felt nothing. He wasn’t even breathing. It took less than five seconds for the panic to rip through my brain. I frantically pounded on his chest, hoping that my ignorance of CPR might be cancelled out by the magic of Disney World. Two minutes passed without a fairy godmother showing up. I put my palms against my temples and screamed.

“Why couldn’t you have allowed CPR as part of the basic employee training you asshole? I suggested it and you say ‘If you see some fucker dying in here it’s probably not an accident.’ Fuck you, you stupid shit! You can’t control anything!”

The reality hit me. Stills had removed all security cameras around Cinderella’s castle because he “didn’t want those fuckers in the security room thinking they were hot shit.” Motion sensors had replaced them. Help wasn’t coming unless I went down to get it. If I didn’t move quickly, the reign of Edwin Albert Stills III would come to a close.

Let him die.

I had to get down there and get someone, if I screamed loud enough, word would eventually get to the right person.

Let him die.

We didn’t have a successor lined up, since numbnuts never had children. It would be a clusterfuck down there for weeks even if I—

Let him die.

The words went through my head for the third time before pictures joined them. Stills had a total of thirty-seven people “terminated” while he was CEO. It was the highest number the organization had recorded. Angie was just one of thirty-seven to him. I could’ve been one of thirty-eight. I was probably halfway there. I stood up calmly and I called the elevator.

I stepped into the elevator and sighed. I closed my eyes and I relaxed. The elevator continued to creep down, and I prepared an act. I didn’t know how this would end. But I did know he hadn’t reviewed or stamped his will yet. I knew I’d have time to review it. Fear was replaced by a cold, and furious certainty. The doors opened to his office.

Showtime.

 

Snowfall

by Lisa Franek

 

The bus lurched around a corner, causing the woman next to Rupert to slide into him, pressing him up against the cold glass of the window. He sighed, knowing he should have sat somewhere else. But he was tired. It had been a long day. Winters had the longest days. That was when old people and children took ill, and the illnesses spread like wildfire through households, claiming anyone with even the slightest weakness. It was tragic to see the tiny bodies of children come in, and merciful to see the old, knowing they had fought to the end. And when he saw them, Rupert always sighed and looked out to the grassy hills, knowing there was still plenty of space out there for them. If only he could dig fast enough. He knew tomorrow would be worse, and that there was a storm coming after that. And after the storm, there would be more.

Rupert looked out the window at the grimy streets full of blackened snow and smudged people and wondered which faces he would soon see, either white and still, or streaked with grief. There would be many. That much he knew. The bus stopped, and the woman got up to exit. Rupert felt the seat sigh with relief, just quickly enough for another person to take her place. Rupert looked sideways as the man sat next to him, feeling uneasy in the close quarters of a seat too small for two grown men. At least the woman was soft and cushiony. This man was angular and gruff, and seemed to be made entirely of sandpaper. Rupert knew he himself didn’t exactly exude grace or softness, but this man was hard like stone. Rupert leaned into the window glass, looking for space and finding none.

Sometimes the vast open spaces of the graveyard were lonely, but mostly he longed for them. Especially in times like this. Rupert’s friends, if one could call the rabble at the tavern that, thought it depressing that Rupert dug graves for the dead, but Rupert rather enjoyed it. It was solitary work, where he was left alone with only his thoughts and his shovel. That was enough. He knew what was expected, and he knew what to do. It was the confinement of the city streets that gave him anxiety. The noise, the chatter. It was endless and pointless, and he found himself knowing too much about people that he would rather not know. He marveled at their ability to ignore things that were painfully obvious; the cheating lover, the pilfering employee, the duplicitous friend. No one seemed to know they were all being duped, but Rupert saw it with alarming clarity. He would take the silence of the graves to the treacherousness of the city any day.

The man peered at Rupert, causing him to stiffen, as if waiting for a blow. “Do I know you?” the man asked.

Rupert exhaled only slightly to answer. “I don’t believe so.” He gave a quick smile that ended up being more of a grimace, but the man didn’t waver. He examined Rupert’s face carefully, his brain searching for the name that would match. Or even a place of meeting. Rupert was relieved to see that none came. He knew he did not know this man, but also knew the possibility of mistaken identity was high, given the number of people in Chicago. And Rupert knew he had one of those faces that seemed to be familiar to everyone, since he was often called by other people’s names. Sometimes he wondered if those people had somehow seen him in passing while digging his graves. They could easily be visiting a departed friend or relative, or attending a funeral, and their brain had recorded his face in that moment of heightened emotions. He knew it was much easier to remember things when there were emotions tied to them, and no one came to the cemetery without their emotions on display. At least, not the normal ones.

Every now and then, Rupert would see one with no emotion walking among the headstones, and a chill would run through him. They always looked like everyone else, and sometimes even managed to produce crocodile tears, but he saw them. Empty and lifeless. This man had a similar countenance. Rupert closed his eyes and rested his head against the window, hoping things would stay quiet. The bus was full of people who were tired; their thoughts slow and quiet. Rupert was grateful.

But then it came. Rupert opened his eyes and looked at the man sitting next to him. The man stared intensely at his hands clasped on his lap, moving one thumb to cover the other and back again. Of all the people on this bus, the man sitting next to Rupert was deep in thought, fixating on one thing and one thing only: money.

Rupert looked at the man’s hands. They were dirty and calloused; not the hands of a man used to having money. His clothes looked old, but were clean. Rupert looked up to find the man staring directly at him. “Something wrong?” the man asked. Rupert shook his head and shrugged. Part of him knew he should stay quiet, but he had to know.

“I was going to ask you the same question,” Rupert said. The man looked at him quizzically, raising an eyebrow and scowling. “You seem tense, that’s all.” Rupert indicated the man’s tightly gripped hands, and the man stared at him for a moment, then smiled slightly.

“I guess I’m not used to being around all these people,” he said. Rupert nodded. At least they had this in common. “Damon,” he said, holding out his hand. Rupert shook it, knowing he didn’t really want to know this man, but now they were here, meeting. He would know things about Damon before too long. Damon shook his head and looked around the bus, then leaned over to Rupert. “All these people coming home from work. Lots of people.”

Rupert nodded. Damon was clearly not coming home from work, he asked the question anyway: “You’re not?”

Damon shook his head. “Looking. It’s not easy. Especially during the winter. Things are slow.” Rupert nodded in agreement as Damon continued. “What do you do?”

“I dig graves. Cavalry Cemetery.”

Damon shook his head and smiled. “Wow. You’re like the cryptkeeper or something. Wild.”

“It’s a living.”

“You know, it’s steady work. At least there’s that. In this day and age, that’s something.”

Rupert nodded. “This is my stop,” he said as the bus slowed and pulled towards the curb, and Rupert was grateful.

*****

Rupert walked along the hill at the end of the cemetery towards the big oak tree at the back. It had been there since the cemetery had been staked out; a marker of where the edge of the property was. Rupert kicked the snow as he walked, knowing that in a couple of days, it would require boots and a thick coat, and it would silence everything in a thick layer of softness. He stood next to the oak and looked out onto the expanse, with headstones jutting up in somewhat regular patterns. Some had angels perched over them, while others were simple and bare. There were some small mausoleums on the other end of the cemetery where the more fortunate laid their kin to rest, but no matter where they were, Rupert knew it was always cold and dark. He sighed as he looked at the tree again, then drove a stake into the ground. Before too long, a deep hole would take its place. But for now, Rupert had others to dig.

He walked out of the cemetery, blowing on his hands for warmth. “Thought I might find you here,” Damon said. Rupert stopped short, startled. Damon stood leaning against the pillar of the entrance, and Rupert wondered how long he had been standing there. He didn’t look cold, but his hands were jammed deep into his pockets and his collar was pulled up around his cheeks.

“What are you doing here?” Rupert asked more pointedly than he had intended. Damon wasn’t someone to provoke. Rupert already knew that. Damon kicked a rock and slowly walked toward Rupert, then shrugged.

“Looking for work. Think you could get me on?”

Rupert looked back at the gates behind them. Cavalry was a big place; there was always room for another hand. Still, Rupert was hesitant. As big as it was, Rupert knew that having Damon close by would feel just like the bus. Damon was loud, and he had no idea. Rupert looked back at Damon and shrugged.

“It’s just for a little while,” Damon said, “until I get back on my feet.” He chuckled. “Who wants to dig graves forever? Certainly not me.” Rupert drew his mouth up into what was almost a smile. Rupert had tried other jobs, but this was the one for him. It was somehow comforting that he and Damon did not have that in common. And even more comforting that Damon didn’t plan on staying long. Rupert looked at Damon, who stared intently back at him. It was unnerving, really.

“Well, I guess until you get on your feet again, it should be alright. Start tomorrow?”

“I’ll be here bright and early.” Damon shoved his hands down into his pockets again and stalked away, and Rupert sighed, glad to have distance between them.

*****

Damon leaned on his shovel and looked around. “Don’t you ever get bored? Digging the same holes every day?” Rupert shook his head as he drove his shovel into the hard ground.

“I find it peaceful. Quieting.”

Damon laughed. “You’re a weird guy, Rupert.” Damon lifted himself off his shovel and started digging again. “I don’t know how you do it,” he continued. “Me, I’d rather do a million other things. This is just temporary for me, you know.”

“You said that. A few times.”

“Well, you’re not saying much, so there’s only so many things I have to say.”

Rupert shook his head, knowing that wasn’t the truth. “I doubt it,” was all he said in answer. It had only been one day, and Rupert was already tired of having Damon here. Damon was uncomfortable with the vast silence of death, and did his best to fill it with noise. Rupert gritted his teeth as he continued digging. It’s only temporary, he kept telling himself. It would become his mantra over the next several weeks.

*****

Rupert lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Damon’s thoughts had become so loud over the last few days that they drowned out his own. The time Rupert spent in his bed were the only quiet moments of his day now, and he was anxious to be rid of Damon. Damon had taken to the work quickly, his strong back making the work go faster than expected. It was a good thing, too. The storm had come a week ago, and the bodies were already starting to come in. Starvation, exposure, illness. Just as Rupert had expected.

Rupert closed his eyes and took a deep breath, knowing that sleep would come quickly. He rolled over and embraced the quiet. But then it came. Damon’s thoughts. Rupert pushed them away, exasperated. Damon had infiltrated every corner of Rupert’s life, when all he had wanted was to be left alone to the quiet. He still hadn’t dug the hole near the tree, but he knew he would have to soon.

*****

“Why are you always so quiet?” Damon asked.

“Seems like you do enough talking for both of us,” Rupert joked. Damon didn’t laugh, so Rupert took a more serious tone. “I like the quiet.”

“You must, working here.”

Rupert watched as Damon dug, asking the question he already knew the answer to. “What would you rather be doing?”

“Anything. Back in the day, me and my boys had all kinds of fun.”

“I bet you did.” Rupert already knew, but he went along with it anyway.

“All the trouble we caused,” Damon shook his head and smiled at the memory. “Drinking and carrying on. Boy, did we get into some trouble back then.”

“What kind of trouble?” Rupert had already seen it. Angry barkeeps, smashed windows, police giving chase. He’d seen Damon and his friends drinking and carousing with women, gambling, and generally causing trouble. But here, Rupert heard a new thought. Damon was diving down a deep hole that Rupert had unwittingly pushed him into.

“I killed a man.” Damon said it quietly, more to himself than to Rupert. And then Rupert saw it. He saw Damon rifling through the man’s pockets and finding a key before running. “It was an accident. It was supposed to be your run of the mill back alley fight. We’d had a disagreement, and we’d both had plenty to drink. I was just going to give him a good drubbing and a couple of black eyes. But that dummy had to bring his beer bottle with him. He smashed it on the wall and tried to stab me with it, but I moved out of the way and pushed him.”

Damon stopped digging for a second and leaned on his shovel, looking up into the sky. It was grey with clouds, and neither Damon or Rupert could remember when they had last seen the sun. It had been a harsh winter, and it was going to get worse before it got better.

“Then what?” Rupert asked.

Damon sighed as he continued digging. “He went down. Fell on the bottle. Right on his neck. By the time I turned him over, he was already bleeding out, so all that was left was to rifle through his pockets to see if there was anything worth anything.”

“And?”

“And then I got the hell out of there. I hid out for a couple of days, but it was inevitable. The cops came and got me and took me away.”

“How long were you locked up?” Rupert hadn’t seen the answer to this question.

“Seven years.”

Damon continued to dig, but with new intensity. Rupert watched him, feeling the strength of his anger every time the shovel pierced the dirt. Damon had a score to settle. Rupert still wasn’t sure who the score was with, but it was there, obvious as day.

“Storm’s coming,” Rupert changed the subject. Damon nodded slightly and kept digging. “It’s going to be a big one, they say. A foot or so.”

“About time too,” Damon answered.

Rupert watched him, wondering what he meant. For the first time, Rupert found himself digging through Damon’s thoughts, looking for whatever he was scheming. Why would a storm be so important? Then he found it.

The key. Damon didn’t know what it was for, but the dead man’s wallet indicated that he was just some rich guy who ended up on the wrong side of town one day, drunk and belligerent. Rupert kept digging. He had to know. Damon had lost all contact with his friends while he was in prison, and filled his days with books, learning about the world. Learning about the stock market, learning about other cities, travel, and so on. Damon could weather anything. Any storm, any situation, any difficulty. He was the ultimate survivor, and now here he was, digging graves for a living. Temporarily, he kept insisting. For the first time in ages, Rupert finally believed it. Damon had a plan, and Rupert was an accidental part of it.

*****

Rupert felt a chill in the air, colder than the day before. The storm was coming. His time was running out, so he walked up to the oak tree to start digging. When Damon finally found him, he just stood and watched as Rupert dug.

“I don’t remember seeing this plot in the list,” he said.

“Special project,” Rupert said. It wasn’t something he felt like explaining, and even if he did, Damon wouldn’t understand. It was best that he did this one himself. “You can get started on the graves for the twins if you want.”

Damon shrugged, but didn’t move otherwise. “I don’t feel much like digging today. That ever happen to you?”

“Sometimes. Usually in the spring. Things slow down then, so it’s easier to take a rest here and there.”

Damon nodded and spat on the ground. “Well, I don’t feel like it today. I think today will probably be my last day, anyway.” Rupert stopped digging and looked at Damon. The key. Damon had figured it out. And now Rupert knew as well. He hadn’t wanted to know. He had just wanted Damon to be gone and leave him alone, but now it was too late. There was no going back from this. Damon was sitting on freedom. Rupert was surprised he had come to the cemetery at all, now that he had a way out.

“Last day?” Rupert asked. “Well, you said it was temporary. Where you off to?” He wanted to hear the lie.

“Movin’ on. Thinking I may head west. Maybe out to California.” That part was true. Rupert smiled. Damon may be a thug and a criminal, but he wasn’t a liar. At least there was that. “What’s so funny?” Damon asked.

Rupert shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just happy for you, that’s all. California seems pretty nice right about now.”

Damon scoffed. “You bet your ass it does. I’m done with the cold.” He looked up at the sky for emphasis. He was going to try to beat the storm, but he was going to have to hurry.

Rupert stopped digging and looked up at the sky with Damon, then picked up his shovel. “Well, I guess we should get those graves done. It’ll go faster if we both do it.”

Damon smiled. “What about the one you’re digging now?”

Rupert glanced back at the hole he had started and sighed. “I can finish it tomorrow.” Damon looked confused, but clapped Rupert on the shoulder heartily.

“Alright then. Let’s get to it.”

*****

Rupert’s hands were stiff with cold. He and Damon had finished the graves as the cold crept across the cemetery. As the day had worn on, Damon’s mood had improved, and he put his back into his work with fresh gusto. Rupert had never seen him work so hard, but he knew the excitement that filled Damon’s head was drifting down his chest to his legs, making him jittery. The work was the only thing keeping him together as he worked through his plan with more focus than Rupert had ever seen in him.

“Well, I think that’s enough for today,” Rupert said as he leaned on his shovel. “Beers to celebrate? I mean, it is your last day and all. I never had a partner before. It was kinda nice, actually.” Lie. Rupert had hated every moment of working with Damon. But he was happy now. Tomorrow, everything would be different.

Damon thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. But just one. I’ve got stuff to do before I go.”

“Sure thing.”

They each pulled up a stool at the bar, letting their weight sink with the satisfaction of fatigue. Beers were set in front of them, and Damon gulped it down, probably more out of habit than thirst. Rupert sipped his drink as he watched Damon empty his glass, then ordered him another. It was a celebration, after all. Damon protested only momentarily; he had missed the taste of beer, and it was refreshing. Rupert didn’t have to talk him into the third or fourth beers, and it all became too easy after that. As Damon drank, Rupert watched the snow fall lightly outside. He hoped the brunt of the storm would hold off until morning at least. That would make things easier.

Rupert helped Damon get home and put him to bed, then found the book with the key in it. He went back outside and trudged down the street. Snow was already collecting, and it was coming down harder every moment. He would have to hurry. He thought he might be able to wait until morning, but now he considered the possibility that the dark would make things a lot easier. No one pays attention in the dark. Especially when it’s snowing.

He pulled his collar up around his cheeks and forged ahead through the wintry night. He didn’t have far to go, and came upon a dark house on the edge of the less rough part of town. It was a home that had fallen in disrepair, but it was obvious that it had been beautiful at one time. Rupert went around to the back of the house and pushed a door open. It scraped against the floor as he leaned into it with his shoulder. Once inside, he pulled a flashlight out and clicked it on, then made his way upstairs to the bedroom. The walls were dark stained wood, making the room seem even darker in the black night. Rupert looked around the room at the paintings and wondered if any of them were worth anything. He shrugged. He wasn’t here for the paintings, anyway. Rupert spotted a built-in bookcase and held his flashlight up to read the titles. He found the collection of Dickens novels and pulled one out, smiling when they all came together, revealing a safe behind them. He pulled the key from his pocket and opened the safe, chuckling that the gift he had cursed his entire life had finally yielded something good. He slid a metal box from the safe and opened it. Loose jewels, cash, and gold. It was all there. He could do whatever he wanted now. Find his own open space away from everyone and live in peace.

As Rupert stepped back outside, the snow hit him in the face immediately. It was really coming down now; it was difficult to see very far ahead. He had to hurry. He made his way to the train station, not noticing that he was the only person out on the streets. It was late, and the cold was keeping people inside near their fires.

He threw open the doors of the station wide, excited about what the next adventure would be. The sound of his footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous building, and it was only then that Rupert realized he was one of few people inside. There was no one staffing the ticket windows, and there was no sound of trains coming or going. Rupert found an empty bench and curled up to wait for someone to come in. He could buy a ticket then.

*****

The snow had piled up; biggest storm Chicago had ever seen. Snow was two feet deep, and Rupert had trudged through it, up to the oak tree. It was easy to clear the snow away from the hole he had started yesterday, and he had made good progress for the last few hours. The dirt was piling up quickly, and every few minutes, Rupert would glance over to the box on the ground next to him. He was fueled by anger and frustration, and the sinking feeling that he needed to finish quickly, even though he already knew he would finish at exactly the right time. He took a moment to stretch; his muscles sore from the digging and from sleeping on a wooden bench all night.

The train station was at a standstill, and he’d learned that there was no way they were going to reopen that day. Begrudgingly, he had come to work; there was nowhere else to go. He jammed his shovel deep into the hard ground, feeling the cocoon of snow on all sides, insulating him from the city and the noise. It was welcome, as if he had come back full circle to the beginning, with snowflakes falling lightly around him; the brunt of the storm over. Until he heard Damon.

Rupert leaned on his shovel and watched Damon trudge slowly up the hill, seething with anger. He gripped his shovel tighter, knowing it could be used if he could get close enough. If. Damon stopped when he was close, and sighed with fatigue. His face was ruddy and there were bags under his eyes. Rupert lifted his shovel just slightly above the dirt until Damon pulled a gun from his jacket. Rupert sighed and let the shovel rest again.

“How did you know?” Damon asked.

“It’s hard to explain.” Damon didn’t answer, but his look said he expected one from Rupert. “I have this thing. I always thought of it as a curse. Until you came along, that is.”

“I didn’t do nothin’.”

“You made plans. You spent the last seven weeks figuring things out. I have to admit, I never expected you to come up with the answer. But you did. And when you thought of it, I heard it.”

“What do you mean, you heard it?” Damon lifted the gun higher, agitated. Rupert raised his hands, letting the shovel fall flat.

“It’s this thing I have. I can hear people’s thoughts, see what’s going to happen.”

“You mean like a psychic or somethin’?”

Rupert shrugged. “Kind of.”

“Is that why you work here?” Damon was sharp, Rupert had to give him that.

“It’s the only place that’s quiet.”

“And this?” Damon motioned toward the hole in front of them.

“Started digging it the day after I met you.”

“You knew way back then?”

“Not exactly. It was just a feeling back then. I didn’t know everything until I saw you walking up that hill five minutes ago.”

“So you know what happens now, right?”

Rupert sighed and nodded.

“Too bad,” Damon said, “I actually kind of liked you.” Before Rupert could take another breath, a shot rang through the air, causing snow to fall from the branches of the oak. Rupert closed his eyes, then fell squarely into the hole at his feet. Damon picked up the box, then trudged back down the hill as the snowflakes started their work of burying the gravedigger.

 

Willow Hill

by Jason Wyckoff

 

November 10, 1914

Dear Mr. Cole,

Please find below my responses to your questions about the vanishing of Evan Pendleton in 1905 and his mother Maggie Pendleton’s subsequent “accident” in 1909. For your convenience, I have enumerated my remarks and also enclosed your original letter so that you may match the responses to your queries.

As you know, I have long held what most consider outlandish beliefs about the events in question. Since your questions to me were posed without the irony or indeed the tone of outright mockery that usually colors expressions of interest in my recollection of these matters, I trust that, in your forthcoming study of the region’s mining communities, my perspective will be fairly represented. I have included in my responses as much background on the characteristics of Shadows as is necessary to comprehend my view of events.

Regards,
Augustus Turnbull

1. I knew Maggie Pendleton as a neighbor and fellow church-goer, as well as a teacher at the school Evan attended—the town’s only school, in fact. He was a quiet but inquisitive boy, and for a child in a mining town, who was often left to his own devices, exceptionally well-behaved for his age. As for Maggie, I cannot stress enough that I believe her to have been of sound mind. Most of those people close to her, after hearing her own account of her son’s vanishing, concluded that the incident had so traumatized the girl that her grip on reality had come loose. It is little wonder that she almost stopped talking about it altogether. But even through her grief she always spoke lucidly about what had happened that day, on those rare occasions when she spoke of it at all. Furthermore, the precision with which she planned and acted four years later suggests that her mind was as sharp then as it had ever been, and that is quite sharp indeed.

2. As you come down the west side of Willow Hill, starting from the ancient tree that gives the place its name, you find the old mine entrance about a quarter mile above the spot where the land levels off. Beyond that point, you have a meadow maybe a hundred yards across, and past that, the road. Follow it south, you come quickly to the town’s outskirts and, before long, its named streets; travel it north, and in a few miles or so you find yourself on a forest road used mainly by loggers and trappers, since it eventually becomes a simple dirt path and connects to no other thoroughfare beyond the wood’s edge. The road itself is lightly wooded on the western side, with a border of blackberry bushes running along its edge.

3. The two of them were as close as any parent and child I have ever known, and after Evan’s father died the boy grew all the more attached to Maggie. A sad tale in itself, Pete’s passing. He was one of the hewers killed in the 1898 cave-in, before Evan had even learned to walk. Maggie loved him deeply, and he was devoted to her. They didn’t have much, but they did have each other, and, for a year at least, they both had Evan. Would that all our hearts were filled with as much love as Pete’s and Maggie’s were for their poor, doomed family. You should have seen them all together on a Sunday, for Pete so cherished the time they were able to spend at leisure after church services. Coarse he may have been, and old before his time he certainly was, but let there be no doubt that he was a gentle and caring father, and a loving husband.

4. Maggie was deeply affected by Evan’s vanishing, and in that respect she wasn’t at all unusual among those who’ve had a loved one taken. Nor was she unusual in wanting to exact vengeance. Very few children are devoured by Shadows, but the kin of those few invariably carry the pain with them for the rest of their lives, all the more surely if they happened to witness the event themselves. What made Maggie unusual was the fact that she did actually develop a scheme to destroy the Shadow that consumed her son. Most people in her position would view the situation as hopeless. But even that didn’t make her unique; some do channel their grief and rage into plans of retaliation. What made Maggie exceptional was that her plan was a good one.

5. Firstly, you must understand that it’s nearly impossible to catch a Shadow off-guard. If one decides it isn’t interested in you, it will hide, and Shadows are fast, patient, and hard to find. If one of them does take an interest in you, those same qualities make it very difficult to resist. Some people draw on religious faith and invoke the names of their gods to confront them, but that won’t impede a determined Shadow. Many who are pursued simply run, but if a Shadow wants to find you, it will. Savvier people do not try to outrun Shadows; instead, knowing that Shadows are dark creatures, these folks will, if possible, attempt to counter them with light from every direction, and indeed this has become the preferred method of combating Shadows. That tactic can keep a Shadow at bay, though usually only temporarily. Maggie understood that their weakness was not in their dark nature, but in their dependence on what is extrinsic to them. Shadows need light; in fact they feed on it, and so she came up with the novel idea of trapping the Shadow and then starving it with darkness.

6. I have considered the question of the corporeality of Shadows at great length over the years, without ever having come to a firm conclusion. They can do harm to earthly beings such as ourselves, which strongly suggests that they are embodied. Maggie’s story seems to support that view, though it does not prove it conclusively.

7. As to why more people are not taken by Shadows, only the Shadows themselves could know for certain. But the prevailing view is that although they are creatures of darkness, they are not inherently creatures of malevolence. I daresay that most, if not all of us, have found ourselves in the presence of a Shadow on at least one occasion, though an overwhelming majority of folk would not recognize the situation for what it was.

8. Maggie would never admit to having been off the road and into the wood with her young son, and always told the story so as to give the impression that the Shadow had reached out of the thick tangle of trees and bushes to take the boy. No one ever pressed her on that point, but it is difficult for me to accept the implication that a Shadow had ventured into open space at dusk to reach its victim. And I cannot stress enough the fact that the mine’s entrance is nowhere near the road.

9. According to Maggie, the two of them had almost no warning. Since Shadows move silently, their only inkling of trouble was the sensation of what Maggie called a presence in the moments before an unnatural dimness overtook them. By her account, that was when their eyes met and she opened her mouth to tell him to run—but her lips had barely pursed to voice the word when the place where Evan stood went completely empty. It’s not just that he disappeared, you understand, it’s that for a period of perhaps two or three seconds at most, there was simply a void where he had stood. No light, no trees, no leaves on the ground, no Evan. And then it was over, and everything looked just as it had before, except that Evan was gone. According to Maggie, he had never made a sound.

10. These other theories about Evan’s disappearance are unconvincing. As to whether Maggie herself was responsible, no one who saw firsthand the woman’s shock and grief over the loss of her only son could possibly believe that she was the guilty party. The local authorities concluded as much, and this as well as most other hypotheses are inadequate to account for the fact that no trace whatsoever of Evan’s body was ever found.

11. Once a Shadow has done any serious mischief it usually makes itself scarce, but—and this is important to bear in mind—it doesn’t usually travel far. To answer your question, it seems that they are territorial. Or at the very least, they do not like to venture a long way from what they consider their home. Even still, it’s noteworthy that the Shadow that took Evan not only lingered, but readily made its presence known. Had it not, things would have gone very differently.

12. It’s clear enough to me that Maggie was hounded by a Shadow, but as to how anyone could know it was the same one that took Evan, that is a fair and difficult question. How can one tell darkness from darkness? The only answer I can give, unsatisfying as it may be, is that we must trust those who tell their own tales, and when Maggie told hers—infrequent as those retellings were, as time went on—she swore on Evan’s precious soul that she knew and would never forget this Shadow. She knew it in the same way that you might know who has entered a room just by the sound of their footsteps, she said.

13. There are only so many places that are, or can be, consumed by total darkness. Even an abandoned and shuttered cabin, lying still in the cold quiet of a winter night, will admit the light of the stars and moon through the minute cracks and gaps in its boards. It may well be that you or I would sense nothing but an empty darkness, but a Shadow will survive on even those meager celestial offerings. Indeed, a Shadow inhabiting such a place, having to live on the shards of light that break through cracks too small to see, would be a furious, unimaginably fearsome thing.

Beyond that, I suspect that Maggie had no love of the mine after Pete’s death, and would have had no qualms about destroying it.

14. I cannot say with any certainty how Maggie acquired the explosives, and speculation on the matter would be unfruitful. Being a putter herself after Pete’s passing, when necessity drove her to the mine she so hated and resented, it likely would not have been altogether difficult to find and take what she needed.

15. The Shadow had to be baited into entering the mine, and Maggie could offer no lure but her own self. That’s both the elegance and the ugliness of her plot.

16. There were no visible or audible signs of activity beneath the surface after the collapse. Maggie must surely have been inside the shaft when the uppermost portion of the tunnel caved in, but even after all the inquiries, when efforts were undertaken six months later to reopen the mine under new ownership—a process which took some weeks of difficult labor—no sign of her could be found. And that is what so puzzled the authorities, for some trace of the girl should have remained. Ever the hard-nosed realists, they still saw fit to conclude that Maggie had been killed in the explosion, and declared the matter closed.

17. This is the most vexing question of all, and anyone with the knowledge sufficient to answer it is in no position to enlighten the rest of us. Indeed, it only invites further questions. If the Shadow could be trapped in the mine, then how could there be no trace of it once the shaft had been cleared? If Maggie was killed, either by the creature or the cave-in, then why were her remains never found? If, on the other hand, the Shadow had transported Maggie, and Evan before her, to some other place than this world, then how could the thing possibly have been trapped in a mine at all?

In my view, the question looming behind all these others is this: Can a thing be both part of this world as well as something beyond it? It is a description one would apply to God, but to a Shadow? My mind balks, but my heart speaks blasphemy. My heart. Were it the other way round, I could sleep more easily.

The mine did reopen, as you know. I have visited the place myself, but being a schoolteacher and not a miner, I have never set foot in the mine before or after the events in question. I have heard nothing from the town’s miners that sheds any further light on the matter of the Pendletons. The consensus is that it is, at the end of the day, a sad story of a miner’s wife who, consumed by grief at the loss of her beloved as well as her only child, employed the instrument of her husband’s demise to end her own earthly suffering.

Perhaps it is, but again, my heart says otherwise.

 

We Celebrate the Falling Leaves

by Michael J. Albers

 

Late fall flowers dotted the mountain meadow except for the area around a scraggly tree that stood alone in the center. A black ring surrounded it, as if the ground had been doused in weed killer. Mark’s nose scrunched as he sat by his tent, looked at the tree, and wondered how it kept everything away.

Still pondering the tree, he heard voices on the trail. Mark shook his head and muttered, “Keep moving, please. I don’t really want to spend the night with people. Especially not that couple I passed a few hours back. They’ll never shut up.”

He watched a couple walk into sight and softly groaned. A dishwater blond ponytail, just brushing the girl’s shoulders, bobbed as she walked. They waved. He forced a smile and waved back.

“Looks like it could rain tonight,” the man said as they walked up. “Seems like you got a nice spot. Mind if we pitch our tent here, too.”

Yes, yes I do, big time, but I must be nice, Mark thought. “Naw, go ahead. It looks pretty flat and sort of sheltered over there.”

“Thanks. I’m Roger, by the way, and this is Clarisse.”

Mark nodded. “I’m Mark.”

Their matching gray hiking shorts looked new, as did Clarisse’s backpack. Roger’s gear showed only enough wear to take off the shine. Both wore tennis shoes rather than hiking boots. Roger’s hair was cut very short; Mark idly wondered if he normally shaved his head.

Their new gear contrasted with Mark’s, with its unraveling seams and multiple patches. If it wasn’t for the cancer eating out his gut, Santa might have lugged a new backpack down his apartment’s non-existent chimney. As it was, the doctor had told him he’d see Christmas, but spring was iffy. With another round of chemo scheduled for next week and the weather turning colder, he doubted his ragged backpack would see the woods again.

Roger set up the tent while Clarisse watched. They chattered on about a TV show Mark had never watched. He shook his head. Their tent went across the slope, not up it. Whoever slept downhill was going to get rolled into. At least his tent was too small to share if it rained and theirs flooded. Or maybe he’d just let Clarisse in. He rolled his eyes at the thought, as if a girl as cute as her had ever spared him a second glance.

Their campfire cooking ability matched their gear. Frustrated from watching their stumbling incompetence, Mark ended up cooking their freeze-dried beef stroganoff as the last sky glow faded behind the mountain. The rain clouds had blown through, leaving behind a cloudless sky with bright sparkling stars. He was thankful they all sat in comfortable silence staring at the occasional flicker of flame from the glowing coals. When he finally announced it was his bedtime, to his surprise, Clarisse hopped up and gave him a hug. “Night. Thanks for cooking supper for us.”

Mark lay in his sleeping bag, listening to Clarisse and Roger get ready for bed. He smiled; they were clueless, but likable. He had been alone too long; only thirty-eight and already a curmudgeonly old man. Curmudgeon or not, he hoped they didn’t get noisy before they went to sleep. Their murmuring voices filled his tent as he drifted off to sleep.

Drums, flutes, chanting voices. His eyes popped open to loud music. What the hell were Roger and Clarisse up to now? Ready to growl, he stuck his head out of the tent. A twirling column of people danced and pranced on a wide road that extended into the woods in both directions. A road that hadn’t existed when he went to sleep ran through huge trees that had replaced the meadow. Glowing balls flittered around above the dancer’s heads, lighting the road. He pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed a t-shirt, and crawled out of his tent. Roger stood by his tent wearing just hiking shorts and Clarisse wore very short bike shorts and had her arms high over her head, struggling with a sports bra.

She paused and looked over toward him. “Mark, what is this?”

He finished pulling on the t-shirt, lifted his hands, and shrugged.

Five dancers with waist-length silver hair whirled off from the group, full multicolored skirts floating as they twirled, and approached them. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse grabbed her phone from her short’s waistband, took a picture, and then grabbed Roger’s hand. “Come on! It’ll be fun. We can put pics on Facebook when we get back. Everyone will be jealous!”

Clarisse and Roger skipped and twirled into the swirling crowd. “Hey, you know when you go with the fairies…” Mark shook his head as he watched them blend into the dancers.

The dancers moved closer to him, their arms waved in his face, and they motioned for him to follow. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“What is this? One of those fairy things where I’ll return in a hundred years?”

The dancers joined hands and skipped in a circle around him. “Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

“No, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Come join us. Dance with us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Mark looked around and then threw his arms up. “Oh, what the hell. Why not? In a hundred years, they should have a pill to cure a bad colon.”

The dancers twirled and whirled down the road with Clarisse and Roger twirling and whirling with them. Mark walked, dodging the flailing arms. All three walked with bare feet and the spongy ground, which lacked thorns or rocks, tickled his feet.

The procession moved through the woods and approached a huge stone building. Large stones, many four or five feet across, formed the walls, which extended up about two stories with a crenellated roof. A heavy wooden double door blocked the end of the path. Mark noted how it resembled the deeply carved doors of medieval cathedrals he had seen during his college trip to Europe. The group danced up to the doors and formed a semi-circle around them. They raised their hands and chanted “Let us enter. Let us enter. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The doors swung open and the dancers swirled inside.

As Mark passed through the door, some of the dancers grabbed his arms and pulled him into a side room.

“Here,” one said “you must be properly dressed for the banquet.”

The dancers moved in and pulled off Mark’s clothes. He realized that other dancers surrounded Clarisse and Roger. In a moment, all three stood naked and, just as quickly, they stood dressed. Both Mark and Roger wore fine pale purple velvet tail-coats with tight black pants and knee-high boots. Clarisse wore a stunning pale purple velvet dress with a low-cut tight bodice and a full skirt that fell to just above her ankles. She smiled and flipped her hips, swirling the skirt.

“Now come. We celebrate the falling leaves.” The dancers grabbed them, pulled them through a different door, and into a huge room before they twirled off, leaving the three people behind.

More of the glowing globes floated around, lighting the room. Tables formed a large open rectangle. At the center of one end stood a huge chair with a high back. On that huge throne sat a man who wore a dark purple and red robe, dense with gold embroidery. A large golden crown on his head glittered, light sparkling off four large stones and many smaller ones. On each side of the throne sat other fancy chairs in decreasing heights, occupied by people wearing brightly colored clothes resplendent with gold and silver embroidery. The chairs on the other three sides of the rectangle looked normal sized and were empty. The close-set stone floor had a stair-step design that caused the side tables to drop down at one-foot intervals every few tables. The tables at the throne end were almost six feet higher than the other end. The large open space in the center contained an open stage set slightly higher than the throne table. Mark wondered if the people at the low tables could see the stage. He guessed the tables could seat a couple of hundred people and, looking around at the dancers still twirling around the room as more came in through the door, decided there could be that many.

Fast, rolling music came from the group of musicians set in the room’s corner. The group had a couple of recorders and flutes, three bodhrans of various sizes, and several stringed instruments he didn’t recognize.

Mark felt a touch on his arm. A girl with long silver hair wearing a green tunic stood beside him. He glanced at her ears and felt disappointed to see they were not pointed, but shaped the same as his.

“Come,” she said, “I’ll show you your seat.” She slipped her arm into his and led him to a side table that was only a step down from throne table level.

“Wow, a table so close to the bigwigs,” Mark said.

“You are our guests. Of course you sit at a high table.”

The dancers continued to stream and prance into the hall. When the last one entered, the doors slammed shut and the music cut off with the door’s bang.

The king, Mark decided since he sat in the biggest chair and wore a crown, he would call him the king, stood and threw his arms wide. “Come. Be seated. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

The dancers all moved toward their seats. From the way they moved, it was clear they knew their assigned places. Noting other people had sat down, he also sat and looked around. His shoulders lifted in a minimal shrug. Oh, well, he thought, thus far, except for the strange dance to get here, this isn’t much different from those medieval reenactment pictures Karen keeps bombarding us with at work.

“Mark, Mark,” Clarisse said as other servants, also wearing green tunics, led her and Roger to the chairs beside him, “isn’t this just so cool. I was trying to get some pictures and my phone just like died. Can you believe that would happen now? This is so cool.”

Mark sighed and looked at her. “Yeah well, I guess since we’ll be spending a hundred years here, it should be cool.”

Clarisse’s face scrunched up. “Huh? One hundred years?”

“Yeah. That’s how long the fairies keep you,” Mark said. “Haven’t you read those stories?”

“Oh really! Fairies! Be real. This is just so cool. I’ve got a group of girlfriends who get together every Tuesday for dinner and…”

The king clapped his hands and everyone went silent. He clapped again and the music restarted. From a side door, a troop of people in motley poured out, raced through the gaps between the tables, leaped onto the stage, and began a wild tumbling routine. Servants, all wearing matching green tunics, moved around the tables and placed clear goblets of a caramel-colored liquid before each guest.

Mark reached for his glass and then froze. Oh, yeah, he thought, going with the fairies is bad enough, but drinking or eating their food is seriously bad. He turned to Clarisse and Roger, “Hey, we really should… oh, too late.” He watched as Clarisse and Roger both took big swallows from their goblets and popped a little brisket from a basket on the table into their mouths.

Clarisse smiled at him, “What did you say?”

“Never mind.”

He picked up his own goblet and stared at the liquid as he swirled it. It seemed slightly thicker than wine. He gave a slow nod. “Guess you’re right, Grandma. In for a penny, in for a dollar.” He lifted the goblet in a toast. “Here’s to the next hundred years. May they be better than the last three.” A smooth sweetness rolled across his tongue and left it tingling.

The banquet continued with rounds of food and drink, each accompanied by a different group of entertainers. Mark relaxed and enjoyed the food and entertainment, but wished Clarisse and Roger would stop babbling about how cool everything was and how she wished her phone worked. As a group of jugglers ran off the stage, the king stood and pointed at the three of them. “Dance for me; for all of us.” He waved his arm and pointed to the stage. “Dance for me; for all of us. We celebrate the falling leaves.”

Clarisse and Roger jumped out of their seats and trotted up onto the stage.

A little tingle moved up his spine. Mark moved his head between the musicians in the corner and Clarisse and Roger, who had began to dance wildly to the music, their arms swinging in wide arcs. Her full skirt swirled; her legs flashed with high kicks. His head drooped. He didn’t like dancing, but he did feel obligated to dance a little to repay their host for his generosity. He certainly didn’t feel like dancing that wild ride Clarisse and Roger were on. He stood and idly wondered if once he started would he spend a hundred years dancing like a maniac? With a shrug, he walked onto the stage and picked a spot well away from Clarisse and Roger’s wild arm and leg flings. Shaking his head at them, he started to dance.

He stopped, stunned by the silence. The music surrounded him again. He started to dance again and once more the music went silent. Yet, when he stopped, it was back. Glancing at Clarisse and Roger and the party guests, it was clear the music only stopped for him. He stood motionless and let the beat of the bodhrans fill his head. Behind him, he heard a snicker. Glancing around the room, he noticed that although most eyes focused on Clarisse and Roger, a beautiful lady sat at the corner of the lowest level of tables smiling at him. Her silver hair was almost invisible beneath flowers entwined in it as they spilled past her shoulders and out of sight below the table. Her eyes bore into him, sending shivers through his body. “Oh geez,” he muttered, “One hundred years of dancing to no music?” He started to dance again and again it disappeared. He paused and the music returned. “Ok, now this is getting irritating.”

The servants distributed flower bouquets. The partiers cheered on Clarisse and Roger and tossed flowers one by one onto the stage. When a flower struck Roger or Clarisse, it stuck and they rapidly transformed into bouncing bouquets. The few flowers that struck Mark fell to the floor. He stumbled, slipping on a flower stem, and he saw a half smile cross the lady’s face. He turned away and shook his head to clear the distressing flashback of a bad college party where a hot sorority girl had teased him for a short time before flittering back to her friends.

Enough, he thought. He lifted his hands and shrugged at the king. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find the music and I’m not much of a dancer anyway. I’m sorry. Those two are much better.” He waved his hand toward the gyrating flower bouquets of Roger and Clarisse.

The king’s jaw dropped and color drained from his face. “Dance.”

Another light tingle moved halfway up his spine. Mark shook his head. “I’m sorry. No.” As he walked off the stage, he thought he heard a giggle come from the direction of the lady who had been staring at him. Damn it, lady, he thought, don’t make fun of me now.

The king leaped up. His heavy high-backed throne tipped backwards and crashed to the floor, drink trays flew as servants scattered and one yelped as it hit her in the shoulder.

The room went dead silent, except for Clarisse and Roger who kept up their wild gyrations with their feet stomping on the floor. Everyone stared at the king. He glared at Mark. “You, dance!” He stabbed his finger toward the stage. “DANCE!” His voice reverberated through the room.

“I really appreciate the dinner,” Mark said, “and I did dance for a minute or so, but I’m just not into dancing, sorry. And your music. Nothing personal, but when I dance, I can’t hear the music.”

“DANCE!” The king pointed both arms at Mark, his hands trembling. He swung his arms as if to toss Mark back onto the stage. He clapped his hands. “Music. Play.”

The music resumed. As Mark plopped down in his chair, the lady at the end table burst into hysterical laughter.

Hey, lady, what is your problem? Mark thought.

The king pointed at the lady at the far end. “You, my dearest sister, silence.” He ran over, grabbed Mark’s shoulder, yanked him to his feet, and shoved him against the table. Goblets tipped and wine soaked into the back of his pants. His face hovered inches from Mark’s as he screamed, “DANCE!”

“Ow. Hey, damn it. I don’t care who the hell you are, you don’t shove me like that. My regrets, but may I be excused?” Mark unclenched his fists and glared at the king.

The king’s bright red cheeks pulsed. His head rolled back as he screamed. A room-shaking, terrifying scream.

Again the music stopped. Only the stomp of Clarisse and Roger’s feet and the increasingly hysterical laughter of the king’s sister filled the room. Mark realized she now stood beside him. She wore a pale purple dress that matched Clarisse’s. Her thick silver flower-entwined hair reached to her knees.

She placed her hand on Mark’s forearm. “Wait. You don’t want to be excused now. This party is about to get very entertaining.”

“And so.” She stepped up to stand face to face with her seething brother, who had a good eight inches on her. “You sold your soul to steal my throne. To rule until you couldn’t enchant a human.” She spat in his face. “Did eternity come quicker than you expected?”

Mark heard distant trumpets blowing.

A gasp went through the hall.

“I still rule. He will obey me.” He pushed the lady aside, grabbed Mark’s jacket, and pulled him nose-to-nose. Sour wine and spicy cheese breath filled Mark’s nostrils. “Dance! Now! Dance!”

“The Black Rider comes. Give me your crown,” the lady said, “For you, it is forfeit.”

Galloping horse hooves mixed with the trumpets, shook the entire building. Many of the guests, mostly from the king’s end of the tables, leaped to their feet and frantically looked around.

The king shifted his grip on Mark’s jacket and lifted his heels off the floor. He screamed, his nose touching Mark’s. “You will obey. You. Will. Dance.”

The sound of the horses and trumpets stopped.

The king’s face went pale. He turned his head toward the far wall and tossed Mark away. “No. He can’t be here. No!”

A loud trumpet blast shook the building. A section of the wall crumbled and large stones tumbled inward across the floor. Four riders, dressed in solid black on jet black horses, leaped through the hole and soared over the rumble. Three of them carried trumpets; the fourth rider rode up to the king and looked down on him.

“I believe you owe me a debt payment.”

“No, no. I can still make him dance. I know I can.”

“Silence.” The Black Rider laughed. “I upheld my part and now, my payment.”

The king struggled but said nothing. Mark realized that the command for silence had been more than a basic request to shut up.

The Black Rider reached down and pulled the crown off the king’s head. “These two stones are mine.” He grabbed the two largest jewels and ripped them out of the gold, twisting the crown and leaving torn edges around the settings. He dropped the gems in a pocket of his cloak. Then he pulled off a large purple one. “And this one is your sister’s.” He jammed the crown back onto the king’s head. “You no longer deserve such a fine crown. We should melt it down.”

Mark watched in horror as the upper edges of the gold folded over and sagged down. With a scream of pain, the king tore the crown from his head and flung it away. It clattered and bounced across the floor before coming to rest against a wall.

The rider reached into his cloak and pulled out a golden circlet. He pushed the purple jewel he had just torn from the crown into it, smoothed the gold edges with his thumb, and tossed it to the king’s sister. “Lentara, your crown and your power.” He bowed to her in his saddle. “I trust you’ll wear it better than your brother.”

“And now,” he pointed at the trembling king, “my payment.”

The other three riders began to play their trumpets in what resembled a fast swing tune. The king and many other partiers began to whirl, imitating Clarisse and Roger in their wild gyrations. The other riders wheeled their horses and, still playing, leaped over the rubble pile. The former king led the dancers as they clambered after them, slipping and sliding on the stones while they continued their dance. Clarisse and Roger, still covered in flowers, moved with the group.

“Wait,” Mark yelled, “you have no right to take them.”

The Black Rider spun in his saddle to face Mark. He tossed up his hand and everything froze. Dancer’s arms and legs hung suspended in space.

“What?”

Mark’s knees went rubber under the glare. “I said,” he gulped. “I said whatever deal you made could not have included Clarisse and Roger.”

“And how can you know that?”

I can’t, Mark thought, I guess I really can’t. He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

“No. No, wait, I do know. If you knew they would be here, then you knew how the deal would end. That means you didn’t make a fair deal.”

“My deals are always fair.” For a long moment the Black Rider stared. Then he laughed. “Fine. Humans mean nothing to me.” He waved his hand and Clarisse and Roger disappeared. “They are back in your world where they belong. Satisfied?”

He turned his horse and everyone started moving again. He rode up to the rocks and turned. “Lentara.” He saluted the lady and then his horse soared over the pile of rocks. The trumpets stopped; silence echoed through the room.

Lentara smiled as she positioned the circlet on her head. The flowers entwined in her hair fell, surrounding her feet in a rainbow of color. She lightly touched Mark’s elbow. “Thank you. My brother stole my crown with a pact that he would rule until he couldn’t enchant a human. He was stupid enough to believe that meant forever.”

Mark looked around the room, now missing half the partiers. “So, am I stuck here, or do I go home to find a hundred years has passed?”

The lady laughed. “The hundred years is your world’s story. Time is time; even we can’t do that.”

“What did he do with Clarisse and Roger? Did he really send them back as he told me? They were irritating, yes, but they don’t deserve anything bad.”

Lentara started, staring at him. “The Dark Rider responded to your challenge?”

Mark nodded.

“Then he returned them. The Dark Rider is many things, but he never lies and doesn’t play word games.”

“That’s good to hear.” Mark buried his face in his hands. “Oh well. Now I can return to my life for the four months or so that I’ve got left.”

“Four months? No.” She shook her head, sending ripples through her long silver hair. She tilted her head, a puzzled look on her face and stared at him for several seconds. “No, you have a long life before you.” She placed the fingertips of both hands lightly on his forehead and slowly drew them down across his face. “I owe you my crown; we owe you a great debt. When you need me, I will be there.”

*****

Mark’s eyes popped open, the morning light faintly illuminated the top of his tent.

Gasping, he rolled his head both ways. “What the hell?” Finally, his eyes fixed on his backpack.

“Whoa! Yeah, I’m camping. What a dream. What a crazy-ass dream. Must be some delayed chemo drug or pain drug reaction or something.” He took a big breath. “Wow. If this becomes the norm, it’s going to be hell.”

He crawled out of his tent. The mountains still blocked the sun, but the sky was well lit. The spot of Clarisse and Roger’s tent stood empty. He frowned; no way could they break camp without waking him. The frown deepened. The ground where the tent had stood was undisturbed. Several pale purple flowers grew there.

“Man, were they part of the dream, too?”

He looked toward the meadow and stumbled as his knees turned to rubber. The lone scraggly twisted tree had transformed into a large tree, dense with leaves in flaming fall colors.

“No doubt about it, I need coffee. Lots of coffee. I wish I had brought whiskey. Lots and lots of whiskey.”

He tugged his backpack out of the tent and flipped it open to pull out coffee and a breakfast MRE. His jaw slowly worked up and down.

Trembling hands lifted the golden crown out of the pack. The three sharp edged holes showed where the gems had been ripped out, and the melted top had run down over a row of smaller gems. The base was dented and smashed.

“Oh, shit.” He looked over to the pale blue flowers.

“So, Clarisse and Roger were here last night. Oh crap! Does anyone know they were hiking here?” He looked down the trail into the woods. “He said he returned them. Are they ok? Where are they?” He set the crown down and swallowed hard. “I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that question.”

He lifted his head, forehead scrunched up. “Wait, she said I had a long life before me.” His hand touched his stomach where the constant pain of the past year was gone.

“I’ll just tell my oncologist the fairy queen owed me one.” He smiled. “Bet she’ll get me a fast appointment with a different type of doc.”

 

First Contact

A Play in One Act
by Bryan Carrigan

 

Cast of Characters
Matthew Prescott: A clean-cut, all-American, astronaut.
Duke: A NASA mission director

Setting: A NASA flight control conference room. Kazakhstan, Russia.

Time: Present day.

ACT ONE
Scene 1

SETTING: A NASA conference room. A table, a few chairs, a few poster-size photographs of STS launches.

AT RISE: MATTHEW PRESCOTT has been kept waiting for some time. DUKE enters.

PRESCOTT
…it’s about time!

DUKE
How are we feeling, Prescott?

PRESCOTT
Tell me you’ve got a burger and fries hidden behind that clipboard. A nice, juicy porterhouse? Mashed potatoes? Budweiser? I don’t know the Russian word for beer.

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk, Commander.

PRESCOTT
You’re killing me, Duke.

DUKE
One hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation aboard the ISS—mineral depletion is within norms. Right now, your bones have the density of balsa wood. Calcium. Vitamin D. Milk. Do what the doctors tell you, and right now, they’re telling you—

PRESCOTT
Could I at least get it in the form of a strawberry milkshake?

DUKE
They’re going to name a high school after you.

PRESCOTT
I’m pretty sure this is goat’s milk.

DUKE
You’re a goddamn national hero. Act like it.
(Prescott laughs.)
Does something about this amuse you, Commander?

PRESCOTT
…“hero.”

DUKE
Fuckin’ A right you are.

PRESCOTT
I’m getting some t-shirts printed up that say “I survived the great NASA clusterfuck of 2018.” You want one?

DUKE
Matthew—

PRESCOTT
Buehlman and McGinnis, Pushkin and Sato—name high schools after those guys.

DUKE
They—

PRESCOTT
Don’t. I like you, Duke. I’ve the bone density of balsa wood, but I swear to god I’ll break my hand on your face.

DUKE
You’re right.

PRESCOTT
I keep looking for the DCB—I’ve been staring at that thing for so fucking long, trying to make sense out of—I’ve got the afterglow from the indicator lights seared into my eyeballs. I didn’t ask for this, Duke.

DUKE
I know. Still…

PRESCOTT
Fucking goat’s milk.

DUKE
I’ll see what I can do about that cheeseburger. I’ve got no idea if the Russians can do french fries.

PRESCOTT
What went wrong?

DUKE
Everything.
(Off Prescott’s look.)
You know how these things go. The Russians insist there was nothing wrong with their rocket, they’re putting it squarely on Buehlman. We need the Soyuz to reach the ISS so we’re not saying anything. But best guess? One of the capsule’s OMS engines misfired. There was nothing Buehlman or McGinnis could have done…

PRESCOTT
Jesus.

DUKE
That’s not to say we’re in any hurry to launch another Soyuz. Word is, until the Titans are go for launch or Space X steps up, the ISS is going to be operated remotely.

PRESCOTT
Can’t image all this has made your life any easier.

DUKE
Easy is not why I signed on.
(Beat.)
I don’t much like writing eulogies. I’m much better at manufacturing heroes.

PRESCOTT
Any chance you can get Five Guys to sign me to an endorsement deal? I’ll give you ten percent—

DUKE
As soon as the docs clear you—

PRESCOTT
This isn’t normal, is it?

DUKE
They’re playing it extra-cautious.

PRESCOTT
Guys have stayed up longer. That Russian—?

DUKE
Kozyrskii. Yeah, he died seventeen months after returning to Earth.

PRESCOTT
—died!?!

DUKE
As in, he didn’t drink his goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
Now’s probably the wrong time to mention that I may have left the lights on up there.

DUKE
You’re gonna have to do the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
And the film canisters. Shit! You wouldn’t believe the footage I shot—every canister of iMax film we had—I mean, it’s not like I had anything else to do… I can’t believe I left that up there…

DUKE
The White House wants you for a photo op. They’re giving you a medal.

PRESCOTT
Can’t I use the “bone density of balsa wood” to get out of it?

DUKE
Are you still a Commander on active duty in the United States Navy?

PRESCOTT
…no?

DUKE
C’mon, Prescott, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States of America has requested your presence at a state dinner to be held in your honor at the White House.

PRESCOTT
…the White House?

DUKE
I’ve been there. The food sucks.

PRESCOTT
Was there a contingency plan?

DUKE
Which one?

PRESCOTT
This is the longest conversation I’ve had in four and a half months. First order of business once the Titans are ready for launch: free wifi. The largest manmade object ever put into orbit, the pinnacle of human achievement—that I couldn’t Skype, much less send an email—actually, you might want to do that second, the toilet in the crew module… never mind.

DUKE
I’ll get the engineers right on that.

PRESCOTT
There was no rescue plan.

DUKE
No.

PRESCOTT
How close did I come?

DUKE
The CO² scrubbers had about nineteen days left in them. The O² generators maybe a week more.

PRESCOTT
Sheesh.

DUKE
One of the eggs came up with a workaround that would have bought you another couple, three days. But with communications offline, no uplink…

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I didn’t stick around.

DUKE
I’m supposed to debrief you… your decision, why you waited, why you punched out when you did, that sort of thing.

PRESCOTT
Sounds swell. Some other time, maybe.

DUKE
…are you all right?

PRESCOTT
There’s this buzzing—ever since re-entry—I think I may have ruptured an eardrum.

DUKE
You don’t look so good. Let me get one of the docs to check you out.

PRESCOTT
Nah, forget it.

DUKE
You’re sure?
(Prescott staggers, collapses into a chair.)
I’m getting—

PRESCOTT
I’m all right. Gravity.

DUKE
Still thirty-two feet per second squared last I checked.

PRESCOTT
I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to parade me in front of the press just yet.

DUKE
Go, no go—it’s your call.

PRESCOTT
Good to know.

DUKE
But here’s the thing—

PRESCOTT
…Duke!

DUKE
Hear me out. We’ve got a narrow window of opportunity—right now, out there, people care about manned space flight again. I mean, you should have seen it, every hobby shop across the country sold out of telescopes. Night after night, fathers and sons tracked the ISS from horizon to horizon. The country, hell, the whole world—

PRESCOTT
I saw something. Up there.
(Beat.)

DUKE
What?

PRESCOTT
I’m ninety-nine point forty-four percent sure I’m cracked, that I was hallucinating—

DUKE
What did you see, Matthew?

PRESCOTT
Don’t patronize me, Duke.

DUKE
You’re not the first—

PRESCOTT
—to have a psychotic break from reality two hundred and eighty-six miles above the surface of the Earth? I think I am.

DUKE
Friendship Seven—there’s a tape of Glenn, he says, “I am in a big mass of some very small particles, they’re brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.” Shepard saw the same thing—you can imagine the shitstorm that ensued. Turns out, they were ice crystals formed from the capsule’s exhaust.

PRESCOTT
We’re not talking ice crystals, Duke. This wasn’t…

DUKE
What? Look, Prescott, it’s okay. Whatever you tell me, it stays between us and the goat’s milk.

PRESCOTT
I can’t believe—they’re never going to let me go back up again, are they?
(A beat.)

DUKE
No, they’re not.

PRESCOTT
…damn it!

DUKE
No one blames you for what happened, but you know how these things go.

PRESCOTT
I’m glad I broke the toilet.

DUKE
Even if… the decision had been made before you even—

PRESCOTT
Damaged goods. I know.

DUKE
If it’s any consolation—

PRESCOTT
It’s really not.

DUKE
I think we’ve covered enough for—

PRESCOTT
I saw a ship. Yeah, it’s as crazy as it sounds—I saw a ship leave Earth on a ballistic trajectory—hell, at first I thought it was you guys coming to rescue me but the launch vector was all wrong.

DUKE
You’ve been under an inordinate amount of stress. Given what you’ve been through, it’s only natural—

PRESCOTT
It blasted off from Canada, Duke. I don’t give a crap how much stress I’ve been under—I wouldn’t hallucinate a rocket park in British Columbia.

DUKE
It could’ve been anything: a test launch, a science fair project, a couple of kids with too many D-engines.

PRESCOTT
Sure.

DUKE
When was this? Hey, look, if there was a launch, anywhere on the planet, you tell me when and I’ll track it. NORAD—

PRESCOTT
Ninety-one days ago.

DUKE
Okay. Ninety-one days. British Columbia. I’ll start making calls. We’ll get to the bottom of this. If there was a launch—

PRESCOTT
Forget the launch. Three days ago, it returned.

DUKE
It?

PRESCOTT
It wasn’t one of ours, Duke. And it sure as hell wasn’t some Russian Soyuz piece of crap.

DUKE
You’re starting to worry me, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
Good. ’Cause I’m scared shitless.

DUKE
It’s possible… maybe one of the CO² scrubbers failed… you rest easy, kid. I’m going to go order up some tests.

PRESCOTT
Damn it, I don’t need an MRI!

DUKE
I’m not so sure about that. Look, Matthew, put yourself in my position.

PRESCOTT
Don’t you think I have? I know how crazy this sounds—

DUKE
Then…?

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying—

DUKE
Let’s not use that term. We’re professionals.

PRESCOTT
An unidentified flying object blasted off from the west coast of Canada three months ago. It completed two orbits, then slingshot itself into the outer solar system. Three days ago, it returned. It buzzed the ISS—

DUKE
Buzzed—?

PRESCOTT
—and made planetfall somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula.
(A beat.)

DUKE
Aliens have landed in Mexico?

PRESCOTT
If I’m wrong—

DUKE
You are.

PRESCOTT
—if it was a hallucination, the product of a fevered imagination and one too many Star Trek episodes—you cancel the morning shows and I serve out the remainder of my commitment flying a desk at some radar station in the ass-crack of the Alaskan arctic. But if I’m right…

DUKE
Matthew, listen to yourself.

PRESCOTT
If I’m right, then this is the moment when everything changes. Life on other planets, FTL space travel, first contact—the whole paradigm—our place in the cosmos—everything changes.

DUKE
(Nods.)
I’m ordering up a 5150 pysch eval.

PRESCOTT
You haven’t even asked me what it looked like.

DUKE
Heat, fuel, air—with any luck, we can smother this thing before you burn yourself.

PRESCOTT
Wedge shaped. Flat. Almost like an almond. Made out of some composite material that absorbs light… but you already know all this, don’t you?

DUKE
Yes. I’m secretly in league with the Nazi space aliens from Dimension X. We all are here at NASA—every one of us except you.

PRESCOTT
I can’t get this taste out of my mouth.

DUKE
How much of what happened do you remember?

PRESCOTT
…it’s like I’m sucking on a penny.

DUKE
Walk me through it. How did it start?

PRESCOTT
You think I’ve cracked.

DUKE
You have cracked, Matthew. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; honestly, I think it might be what’s kept you alive this long.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
Think it through, Matthew—if there were aliens, if they had the intelligence to cross the vastness of space, if they had successfully secreted themselves throughout the population of British Columbia, why on Earth would they ineptly reveal themselves to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station?

PRESCOTT
…what’s wrong with me, Duke?

DUKE
It’s a miracle you’re alive. You made it home, in one piece—

PRESCOTT
The re-supply capsule clipped us right at S5, knocking out the multipurpose lab and shearing off our secondary array. You asked how it all started. Pushkin and Sato were in the lab… thirteen seconds—

DUKE
It was an accident.

PRESCOTT
Yeah.

DUKE
Wait, weren’t you—
(Duke pages through his log book.)
You were supposed to be setting up the multipurpose lab, not Sato.

PRESCOTT
I was EVA trying to un-foul the robotic arm.

DUKE
So what you’re going through is survivor’s guilt. It’s normal. What’s not normal is spending one hundred and thirty-seven days in isolation telling yourself it should have been you and not Sato who died. If it hadn’t been for the robotic arm—

PRESCOTT
It amazes me that piece of crap saved my life. Turns out, opening an airlock from the outside isn’t as easy as you’d think.

DUKE
Opening the airlock—there’s a story you can tell on the morning shows.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, some good old-fashioned American ingenuity, and a whole lot of dumb luck—it’s a good story. No aliens necessary.

PRESCOTT
I can’t—

DUKE
Four dead astronauts—two Americans—NASA won’t survive another black eye. We need a win, Matthew. We need you to step up.

PRESCOTT
What if—

DUKE
No what if’s, no conjecture, no fantasy—focus. This is go or no go time, Commander.

PRESCOTT
Message received.

DUKE
All right.

PRESCOTT
They wanted to be seen.

DUKE
God damn it!

PRESCOTT
They wanted me to—

DUKE
If they had wanted to be seen, they’d have landed their fucking space ship in the middle of the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza.

PRESCOTT
I know what I saw.

DUKE
No, you don’t. Three days ago, a solar flare bombarded the ISS with a tsunami of electromagnetic radiation. It happens. We have protocols to minimize crew exposure, but those protocols presuppose an uplink with Houston and a functioning DCB—neither of which were in effect three days ago.

PRESCOTT
A solar flare? That’s the best you’ve got. I don’t even rate a weather balloon? An experimental satellite? I get a solar flare?

DUKE
This isn’t a cover up.

PRESCOTT
The hell it’s not.

DUKE
Magnet, hard drive. Magnet—
(Holds up a fist.)
—hard drive.
(He taps his head.)
Your jaw is tingling. Your eyes feel dry. Scratchy. Every time you stand up, you feel light headed.

PRESCOTT
(Stands.)
I feel… ok, you may be onto something.

DUKE
There’s a very real chance that you are the last astronaut NASA will send into orbit. You could very well represent the end of manned space flight.

PRESCOTT
The station is still salvageable—minus the secondary array, power generation is in the red, but I managed to get most everything else back online—we just need—

DUKE
We still haven’t recovered from the arsenic-based life debacle. Or the Mars asteroid. We’re NASA. We don’t do aliens. If you go on Good Morning America—if you are the end of manned space flight, don’t let us go out a punch line…

PRESCOTT
Message received. I can tell ’em the toilet story.

DUKE
Yeah, the morning shows? We try and keep them excrement-free. Except CBS. Those clowns will air anything.

PRESCOTT
An EM burst?

DUKE
Knocked out cell phone service in Europe, the Middle East, and the better part of Russia.

PRESCOTT
X-rays and Gamma rays…

DUKE
Keep pushing the milk. I’ll see what I can do about the morning shows—maybe a pre-taped segment—something that gives us editorial control. How’s that sound? If we don’t like the question…

PRESCOTT
Sounds good, Duke.

DUKE
Take it easy, Matthew. Let me do my job. You’re a goddamn hero.
(Duke gathers up his papers. Makes to exit.)

PRESCOTT
There’s just one problem with that bullshit story of yours, Duke.
(Duke stops.)

DUKE
Oh?

PRESCOTT
I had the DCB back online. The board was green. I spent a hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the ISS with nothing to do except fix things—I can give you a status read on every diagnostic she’s got. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer? Not even a twitch. Nothing. No Gammas. No X-rays. I’m not an idiot, the first thing I did after I stabilized the pressure variances and patched the hull was a hard reset of the radiation alarms. There was no solar flare.

DUKE
Endurance, perseverance, ingenuity…

PRESCOTT
What the hell happened to me, Duke?

DUKE
What do you think would happen if you told the world that life exists on other planets?

PRESCOTT
Damn it, Duke, just tell me—!

DUKE
Instead of being a morning show hero, author of a best-selling memoir, inspiration to a generation of junior stargazers—you’d become another what’s-her-name? That chick who drove cross-country wearing space diapers.

PRESCOTT
You tracked the ship.

DUKE
I’m telling you this for your own good.

PRESCOTT
You already have it, don’t you? Locked away in some Area 51 black site.

DUKE
The world knows your capsule landed in the Russian Steppe. We haven’t yet released word of your condition.

PRESCOTT
My condition!?! Did you just—

DUKE
You’re either a hero or a footnote. It’s your choice, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
You can’t keep something like this secret.

DUKE
Matthew Prescott, after surviving one hundred and thirty-seven days aboard the derelict International Space Station, perished during a daring re-entry when the heat shield on his Soyuz capsule failed—

PRESCOTT
Jesus, you’re serious.

DUKE
You’re the one who wants to tell the world of an imminent alien invasion.

PRESCOTT
C’mon—this isn’t a Will Smith movie—odds are, they’re explorers. Scientists. No doubt they—

DUKE
They’ve come to Earth in secret. They’ve gone to great lengths to avoid detection.

PRESCOTT
Duke—

DUKE
They obviously had the means to rescue you, Matthew. They chose not to do so.

PRESCOTT
I had the means to rescue me—it just took me the better part of five months to work up the balls to do so.

DUKE
If you break radio silence on this, there’s no telling what could happen.

PRESCOTT
War of the Worlds? Don’t make me laugh.

DUKE
How’s about mass panic? Another global recession? Unemployment on a scale not seen since the Great Depression? Food shortages, starvation, pandemics—still think this is funny, Commander?

PRESCOTT
I think you’re…
(Prescott nearly faints.)

DUKE
Dizzy?

PRESCOTT
I’m all right.

DUKE
Vertigo sets in after the tingling in the jaw subsides. It won’t be long now.

PRESCOTT
Vertigo—!?!
(re: the milk)
…you’re doing this to me.

DUKE
I told you—we’ve gone to great lengths to keep our presence here a secret.

PRESCOTT
You!?!

DUKE
Not so loud. Think of the neighbors.

PRESCOTT
You’re one of them.

DUKE
One more dead astronaut.
(Shrugs.)
You’ll get a high school named after you. Worst case, a post office. Do they still do that? Name post offices after people?
(Prescott lunges for the call button.)

PRESCOTT
Why?

DUKE
Honestly, I like you, Matthew. I had hopes… high hopes.
(Shrugs.)
Earth is a rare thing—perfectly nestled in the goldilocks zone with a rotating iron core and a healthy magnetic field… abundant water, abundant nitrogen—a smidge too much oxygen for my taste—
(re: the call button)
You might as well give that up. No one is coming.

PRESCOTT
You won’t…

DUKE
I won’t what? Get away with this? Of course I will. I already have.
(Prescott staggers. Duke helps him to chair.)
Easy. Don’t try to fight it—there’s no reason to make this any more unpleasant than it needs to be.

PRESCOTT
(Laughs.)
Houston… we have a problem.

DUKE
Something about your impending demise amuses you?

PRESCOTT
You don’t get it—it’s still up there.

DUKE
We’re moving into the non-lucid phase…

PRESCOTT
The proof—in glorious 70mm iMax—I’ve got hours of footage. Your ship. Proof that aliens exist. Everything NASA needs to expose you… it’s still up there.

DUKE
Ah.

PRESCOTT
Killing me solves nothing. The next guy—

DUKE
There won’t be a—

PRESCOTT
There’s always a next guy. Endurance? Perseverance? We’re NASA. We don’t quit easy.

DUKE
Then there won’t be a station for the—

PRESCOTT
The receiver’s shot. You can’t bring the station down remotely. And every stargazer the world round has a scope pointed upwards—your ship can’t get near it without being seen. One way or another, your secret’s out.

DUKE
Drink your milk, Matthew.

PRESCOTT
They’ll name a high school after me.

BLACK OUT.

 

The New Guy

by Ben Pierce

 

Clark stumbled backward, putting his hand on his chest as blood ran through his fingers. A voice roared from behind him, telling him to get down. He hit the floor as quickly as he could. He heard a gunshot and saw the hound flinch as the bullet ripped through the massive beast. It must have been as long as Clark was tall. As it growled, exposing rotting teeth, it turned and Clark saw that its ribs were protruding out from a bit of decaying flesh.

It lunged at Clark, but this time he intercepted it with one of his daggers. The hound yelped as it hit the ground.

“Move!” Pain said from behind him. Clark was shoved aside as Pain pointed his revolver at the hound’s head and pulled the trigger. A blinding flash of blue light emanated from the gun. When Clark opened his eyes again, the hound was nowhere to be seen.

“What was that?” Clark asked.

“It’s called a Dip.” Pain’s robe seemed to disintegrate into thin air. “Nasty little things,” he chuckled. “Or I should say nasty big things. People once believed them to be dogs under the devil’s control, but now most people simply believe that they’re myths.” He glanced at Clark, “You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just a flesh wound.” He winced as he put his hand to his chest once more. “It’s not a big deal.”

Pain nodded. “You can take the robe off now.”

“How do I do that? Getting it on was hard enough!”

“Just focus on reverting back to your human self,” Pain said as he started to walk down the beach. “You can do it. You’re a big boy.”

Clark did his best to concentrate, trying to block out the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. He thought of the life he once had, the taste of his favorite dessert, the smell of pine needles from his home up north. He felt his psychic senses leave him, and his clothes seemed to get lighter. He opened his eyes to find that he was once again wearing his t-shirt and jeans. He also saw that Pain was now quite a distance away. Clark had to run to catch up with him.

“So, is that it?” Clark asked. “Are we done for the night?”

“It?” Pain said with a hint of surprise. “You’ve just seen something that most people believe to be nothing but a nightmare, and you want more?”

“Yeah, I’m not afraid of what Hell has to offer.”

Pain gave a wicked cackle. “Boy, you know nothing of Hell.”

After arriving back at the beach’s parking lot they climbed into Pain’s car and took off. Pain was listening to talk radio, which literally managed to put Clark to sleep.

When Clark’s eyes drifted open, he found that they were driving through a small patch of suburbia.

“Is there a reason we’re in the suburbs?” Clark asked impatiently. “I mean, there can’t possibly be any hellhounds here.”

“You’d be surprised what you can find in the suburbs,” Pain said. “And it was called a Dip.” Clark looked down at the clock to see that he had been asleep for almost an hour, so it was a very good thing that Pain’s BMW was comfortable. Suddenly, Pain pulled off the road and parked in a patch of grass. “Here we are.”

Clark looked around. Aside from a park that had its gate closed, there was nothing here but infinitely more suburban homes. “This is nowhere.”

“We’re going to the park.”

“At three in the morning? It’s clearly closed.” Without another word, Pain stepped out of the car and started walking toward the park. A shadow engulfed him, and suddenly he was clad in his black robes. Clark followed him, allowing the shadows to consume him as well; the two hopped the gate with ease. “Why are we here?” Clark asked impatiently.

“We’re looking for Oak Trail,” Pain said approaching the nearest map. “And keep your voice down. We don’t want them to hear us.”

“Them?” Clark whispered. “More dogs?”

“I’m afraid that it’s going to be quite a bit worse than that,” Pain whispered as he took off down a trail. Clark followed him. He found himself doing it a lot that night. Suddenly, a feminine scream pierced the silence.

Clark took off sprinting. The screaming continued as he ran deeper into the woods searching for the source of the sound. Clark arrived at a clearing, and suddenly the noise ceased as he saw a woman looking at him. She was on her knees, crying at the base of an oak tree. Something wasn’t right about this. Clark kept a hand on one of his daggers and approached her. “This is the spot,” she muttered. “This is the spot.” She kept repeating it over and over again.

“What spot?” he asked her. She was wearing all white, and she almost seemed to glow.

“The spot where he killed us,” she answered, as her eyes burnt a hole in Clark’s face.

He was struck with an intense fear. He heard another scream, this time masculine, but not a pained scream like before. It was filled with anger. Clark looked up to see a shapeless black object moving toward him with the face of a man. It swooped in and sent Clark flying backward. It felt like a train had just hit him. As he stood up, he saw the shapeless mass coming in once more. This time Clark charged it, drew back his daggers and stabbed, with perfect timing. The blob retreated, then hovered in midair until the face appeared once more. It said nothing, it only continued to yell.

Then Clark heard the familiar sound of gunfire, and watched the face twist and distort until it faded back into the black. Pain slowly approached it, with his gun pointed at it the whole time. The face appeared once more and came at him, but Pain simply fired again. It crashed into the ground and stopped moving.

“Finish it off,” Pain said as he walked away from it and towards the phantom girl.

Clark approached the now still black mass, and stabbed it with his daggers. It began to shake, and then pieces started to rise up into the air and fade away. Tiny black spheres continued to fly upward until the entire shadow disappeared. He looked over to see that Pain had taken the girl’s hand and she was now standing. Clark walked over in time to hear Pain say: “It’s alright. You can go now.”

The girl smiled. “Thank you.” With that she too began to turn into small white orbs, which floated up into the sky. They rose up until they were too small to see.

“Is that what the Reapers do?” Clark asked, still looking towards the heavens.

“Yes,” Pain said as he began to walk away. “That’s what the Reapers do.”