Harcourt Manor

Harcourt Manor

Illustration by Shane Watson

by Dean P. Turnbloom

 

The letter itself was strange. After all, who writes letters nowadays? An email would have been the norm for communicating with an old friend. But then, an email is much easier to dismiss—easier to forget about. A letter is a very deliberate thing.

In the letter my friend divulged that he was quite taken by surprise when he was contacted by his great-grandfather’s lawyer, or solicitor as they are termed in England, and even more surprised to discover he’d been bequeathed a sizable estate worth a substantial sum of money. My friend was the only child of an only child and both his mother and father had died tragically in an auto accident some five years past.

Even more surprising, he had been bequeathed the estate, all very properly and legally, with the title and deed signed and sealed, even though his great-grandfather was still very much alive, if not well, and residing on the estate.

If it were just the letter that would certainly be strange enough. But Charley had enclosed a coupon good for a one-way ticket to London, England.

Charley and I had been best friends at college—roommates in the dormitory our freshman year and roommates in a small apartment off-campus the remainder of our days at old Indiana University. More than once, we’d sworn that should one of us ever need the other, never mind the reason or the hardship it might impose, we’d answer the call unhesitatingly.

Still, after so many years, years in which neither of us had heard from the other, I was inclined to deny the oath taken in such youthful exuberance, and throw the letter, coupon and all, in the trash. I would have done just that, except my personal circumstances, coincidentally, suddenly lent themselves to taking a trip.

Susan and I had been dating for over a year, and I suppose I just assumed I could continue to string her along indefinitely. But it had very recently come to my attention that Susan had taken matters into her own hands in a way that was sure to upset the status quo. I discovered quite by accident that Susan was sleeping with our mutual friend and my teaching partner, Ted.

Rather than suffer the humiliation of being a cuckold, I fabricated a story about a research grant that I could not pass up. I told Susan we would have to put our relationship on hold for a year, while I pursued this wonderful opportunity. I then arranged to take a sabbatical in pursuit of the supposed grant to write a treatise on English literature of the eighteenth century.

I thought it would do me well to get away and I had been meaning to write a book on that very topic, so my story had a ring of truth to it.

The opportunity to actually begin the book by first taking a trip to England was irresistible to me. I was certain that in addition to fulfilling my oath to my dear friend and cheering him out of his obvious well of depression I could use the occasion to prowl the aisles of London’s best research libraries.

I determined to go at once and replied via email to the address my friend conveniently included along with his telephone number at the bottom of the letter.

I was met at Gatwick Airport by a bespectacled middle-aged man with a mustache in a dark brown uniform. He was my driver, James, engaged by Charley to make sure I arrived safely at his estate. The ride from Gatwick Airport to Harcourt Manor was picturesque. The scenery was pastoral and quite beautiful as the sun set on the horizon.

With the gathering darkness it became increasingly difficult to discern the countryside, then impossible. Just as James announced we were on the private manor road, the moon rose. As we approached the manor, the trees grew thicker and the shadows darker. What little light penetrated the blanket of leaves only served to heighten the sense of gloom.

Abruptly we came into a very large clearing. There in the middle stood what could only be Harcourt Manor. The expanse of stone and mortar that appeared to gleam in the soft moonlight stood in stark contrast to the dark forest beyond and the terraced lawn in front. The low ground fog gave the entire scene an eerie, ethereal quality.

James pulled up to the entry. As I emerged from the auto he retrieved my bags from the trunk, placed them neatly by the door, and then returned to the limo and drove away without a word. I watched as the taillights faded from view.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I drew back an enormous iron knocker, letting it swing against the door. It struck the door with enough force, I thought, to send the reverberations throughout the sizable manor house. I waited, not wishing to appear impatient. The door creaked as it was slowly opened from within.

At first there appeared to be no light whatsoever from inside the manor (I say manor because “house” is woefully inadequate to describe it, and “manor”, although it may be somewhat lacking, brings to mind a structure more closely akin to what Harcourt is). As the door swung inward, I became aware of a dim flickering in the entryway, which grew brighter and warmer. Its source then became fully visible as a tall, gaunt but smiling man holding a candelabra greeted me most congenially. So emaciated was he that he appeared mere days or perhaps hours even from the grave. His skin had an ashen quality, his thinning hair was unkempt, wild even, and even in the pale candlelight the rheuminess of his eyes, wide and animated, was clearly visible.

The combination of these factors gave the impression of a man near madness. As he greeted me, however, there appeared no trace of madness in his voice—nothing about its tone or quality that betrayed any trace of insanity.

Could this be my friend? It had been twenty-five years since we had last seen one another, but my friend (and I by now realized this was Charley) with whom I’d lived for four years while we were in our salad days, appeared to me to be fifteen or more years my senior.

Greeting me in the warmest fashion possible, “Come in, Winston, it’s so good to see you again.”

“Charley,” I said, “it’s been a long time,” and I took his frail hand in mine, shaking it gingerly, afraid I might damage it. I must admit, though, his grip was surprisingly strong.

“How’s your family?” he inquired as he led me through the foyer, down a long hallway, and into the drawing room. There he had prepared a roaring fire. “And Jack, and Alice, do you see much of them?” he continued, asking about friends long forgotten. “Please, sit here by the fire,” he said, inviting me to sit in one of two chairs situated on either side of a small table on which was arranged a light repast of cheese and wine.

“Thank you,” I replied, looking around the room in which the only light came from the fireplace and the candelabra Charley had placed on a table. The furnishings were old, but obviously of great quality and probably valuable antiques.

He laughed nervously, then said, “One of the many annoyances in a house as old as this one,” he explained, “is that you have to put up with frequent interruptions in the electrical service.”

As my friend poured the wine, I sampled the cheese, and we talked about old friends we’d known, reminiscing about our youth. My friend showed none of the frenetic anxiety displayed in his missive. I asked him about the letter, “Charley, you seemed so distraught and troubled in your message, I couldn’t help but come. But you…”

He interrupted, “Oh, the letter. Yes, well, I was a bit upset. My great-grandfather had recently passed you see, and I was feeling overwhelmed… lonely and melancholy. I’m afraid it got the better of me,” he said apologetically. “Just seeing you here, though, is like a tonic for me.”

When he spoke of his great-grandfather, he looked away nervously. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I distinctly remembered it later on.

At a little past nine my friend suddenly arose, yawning. With the promise to continue our conversation in the morning, he said, “I’m sure you must be exhausted after your long trip. I don’t wish to overtax your energies here on your first night. We’ll have plenty of time for chit-chat tomorrow.” Rising and fetching the candelabra, he said, “I’ll show you to your room. I hope you’ll find it comfortable.”

“After the airplane, I’m sure it’ll be heaven,” I replied.

He led me down the corridor and up a stone staircase to a second-story room. Placing the candelabra on a table, Charley removed two candles. One, he placed in a candle holder beside the door leading to the hall, the other in an identical holder leading to the adjoining bath. He then bade me goodnight and disappeared down the dark hallway.

The room and adjoining bath appeared surprisingly modern. There was a king-sized bed, a large overstuffed chair for lounging and a smaller straight-backed chair at a desk with a reading lamp. My bags, which I had left in the foyer, were placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly finding myself to be very tired, I retired for the night.

At about two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a loud voice. It sounded as though Charley was having an argument over the phone, as his was the only voice I heard with pauses where another voice should have been. I arose, but as soon as I opened my door, the house grew suddenly quiet again.

The next morning I awoke, showered, and made my way downstairs before 8 o’clock. The electricity had been restored sometime during the night. I explored more carefully the path I’d taken to my room the night before. A fortune in antiques, paintings and artifacts lined the corridors and the walls of the drawing room.

One painting in particular caught my eye, as it appeared to be a portrait of my friend, but not as I’d seen him last night. This portrait was of a much younger, more robust man, a man of my own age. I realized this was the man I had expected to see when I arrived, not the shadow I’d seen the evening before.

The painting was nearly life-sized; a full-length portrait of my friend standing before an antique globe in front of a shelf of books. The painting itself and the frame that held it also appeared to be antique, but the clothing he wore was of obvious contemporary fashion. As I stood examining its intricate detail, my friend suddenly spoke my name from directly behind me.

“Good morning, Winston,” he said, “I trust you slept soundly.”

Startled, not having heard his approach, I jumped and turned to face him. The look on his face was fearful and a tic appeared in his left eye that immediately brought the letter to mind. This was the face of the man who’d written me. “Charley, you startled me,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Would you like some coffee?”

“That would be very welcome. I was just admiring your portrait.”

Casting his eyes downward, in a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “I didn’t commission that; it came with the house. Tradition, you see.”

After a moment he looked up at me smiling—the wide, toothy smile of someone hiding something—and invited me to the dining room for breakfast.

As we sat down to eat, I asked, “Charley, who was that you were on the phone with last night?”

“On the phone?” he asked, seeming genuinely surprised by the question.

“Yes, I heard you about 2 a.m. It sounded as though you were in violent disagreement with someone.”

Looking a bit shocked, he said, “You must be mistaken.” Then, gaining some of his composure, he posited, “Perhaps it was the wind. It sometimes howls through the house. It can play havoc with a sleepy mind.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed, but I was sure he was lying.

As the days passed, my friend’s health and vigor appeared to quickly mend. By the end of the first week of my visit I felt he was sufficiently well enough for me to venture into London. I wanted to at last begin the research I had hoped this trip would enable. When I’d arrived his health had appeared so precarious that I was uneasy about leaving his side. But with each passing day he looked stronger. Equally important, his spirits seemed brighter.

I approached my friend, “Charley,” I said, “since you appear to be feeling so much better, I thought I’d pop into London to do a little research.”

His face grew suddenly pale and wan and he appeared near fainting. I ran to get him a glass of water, “Are you all right?” I asked.

He said, “Yes, I’m sorry,” taking the water, sipping it slowly. “It’s just that your proposal to leave caught me off guard. I know it’s silly, but I suddenly felt anxious. Alarmed, even, out of fear you might not return.”

Reassuringly I said, “Charley, I have every intention of returning. I promise I’ll be back this evening.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry for being such a pain,” he said, seeming genuinely contrite. “Might it not be possible to postpone the trip? You haven’t even visited the manor library.”

“Manor library? You mean you have your own library here?”

“Of course. It’s quite extensive, actually. In bygone times, it was quite common for rich aristocratic sorts to build their own private libraries,” he confided. “You could start your research here, until I’m a bit stronger perhaps, and then go to London.” He grasped my hand, “It would be a great comfort to me.”

“I didn’t realize you had a library, Charley. Of course I’ll wait to go to London, if you like. I’ve read that some of these old private libraries are quite extensive. I just hadn’t thought to ask.” His mood improved immediately.

That evening as my friend and I sat before a roaring fire, I inquired about the history of the manor, “This old place must have a lot of stories attached to it, Charley. Have you learned much about it?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he began. “The manor itself, although renovated, updated, and added to over the years, dates from at least the early sixteenth century—handed down father to son, generation after generation.” Somehow he sounded a little detached, like a bored tour guide, “The estate encompasses over 300 acres of woodlands surrounding the manor. Beyond that I’m afraid I know of no remarkable events having occurred in or around the estate.”

“Considering it’s age, that seems a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Not really. It’s pretty quiet in this area and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much over the years.” Again, I had the feeling he was hiding something.

At about nine o’clock I rose saying, “Well, I’m off to bed. I’m going to need a good night’s rest,” I yawned, “if I’m going to get an early start investigating your library in the morning.”

“By all means, Winston. And, thank you,” he said looking at me with sad eyes.

Looking up at the extraordinary painting of my friend, I paused for a moment as I was walking out of the drawing room, rubbed my eyes, and looked again. I asked my companion, still seated, “Charley, do you see anything different about this painting?”

He stood, walked over to where I was standing and gave the portrait a long look. I thought I could detect a glimmer of a smile come over his face, a smile originating not on his lips, but more in his eyes, then it was gone and he turned to me saying, “No, it looks the same to me as it always has.”

I mentioned, “I was under the impression that the painting was much more detailed, but now the face and figure appear less distinct than before.”

“I think you’re wrong,” my friend again insisted. “I’d say your memory is just playing tricks on you,” he said with a smile.

I relented, “I suppose that’s what it is.” But I was sure it had changed. And what’s more, I was sure Charley noticed it too. “Oh well, goodnight, Charley,” I said and continued to my room.

As I was walking to my room, through the corridors and up the stairs, I felt the air in the corridor rush past me, much like someone having opened a door on a blustery day, and I assumed my friend must have done that very thing, or perhaps a window. I thought to myself that the very house itself appeared to be drawing a breath.

The next morning I met up with Charley in the drawing room. As I entered, I was awestruck with how much better my friend looked. His face appeared fuller, with good color and he had begun to put on weight. “You are looking very well this morning, Charley,” I commented as we turned to go to breakfast.

“I have you to thank for it,” he replied earnestly.

As we turned to leave the drawing room, I glanced up at the portrait, stopping dead in my tracks. It had definitely changed. The face was undistinguishable. It no longer bore any resemblance to my friend whatsoever. Now it appeared as only a smudged mass of flesh-toned paint, blurred and out of focus, bearing none of the sharp detail it had possessed.

“Charley look,” I said. “You can’t possibly fail to see the change now.”

Charley took a long look. “You’re right,” he admitted stone-faced. “It’s certainly not as distinct as before. Perhaps the fireplace, or its smoke, has damaged the pigments. It is rather close.”

Had the entire painting suffered the same damage this argument might have been plausible, but it had not. The rest of the painting maintained the sharpness of detail about which I had first remarked. Resignedly, I feigned acceptance, “Yes, that must be it.” Wondering why Charley would offer such an obviously poor explanation and determining to inspect the painting more closely when Charley was not around, I proceeded in to breakfast.

The peculiarities of the painting faded from my mind as my excitement about the prospect of digging into the manor library grew. After breakfast, my friend led me down the main corridor to an oaken door at the rear of the manor. Behind the door was a narrow staircase. It led to the library.

As I entered, I was impressed with the size and sheer number of books it contained—there must have been several thousand in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. At the far end of the library was a massive, antique, and beautifully carved wooden desk, beside which stood a large wooden globe. I knew instantly it was the same globe as in the portrait.

As he turned to leave, my friend said, “If you should need anything, you’ll have to return to the main floor. The staff isn’t allowed access to the library. There are far too many rare and valuable books here.”

“I see. No matter, I’m sure I’ll be all right.” I barely noticed his departure as I began perusing the shelves. There were volumes dating back to the 1600s. Here was The Book of Urizen, by William Blake, circa 1818; and there was The Ornithology by Francis Willughby from 1678. Every shelf appeared to have a treasure trove of books in various languages. I gathered half a dozen and took them to the desk for further examination.

After about twenty minutes it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to look in the desk to see what treasures might be hidden within. Opening the six uniform drawers on either side of the leg well, I was disappointed to find them all empty.

Then I noticed that the bottom drawer on the left side appeared to be shallower than its counterpart on the right side. Pulling it out to its limit, a small notch in the bottom of the drawer appeared.

Excitedly I pulled out the drawer and turned it over on the desk top. A leather-bound journal fell out of the hidden compartment. Upon close examination, I discovered this was the journal of my friend’s late great-grandfather.

Stuck in the middle was an old photograph. It was of a portrait very much like the one of my friend in the drawing room, but the subject was bald and bearded. Scribbled on the back of the photo was the name of my friend’s great-grandfather and the date, 1917. A flash of dread came over me. Examining the photo more closely I became convinced that except for the central subject the portrait was identical in every detail with the one in the drawing room. I tried to convince myself that this might indeed be some quirky family tradition as Charley had said, but something deep within told me it was more. I turned to the front of the journal and began to read.

The first few entries in the journal were innocuous enough, detailing how he had inherited Harcourt from his father, who had become quite reclusive. It recounted some of the business and financial interests of the time. I thumbed my way toward the end of the volume, looking for more current entries. One of the last entries was dated 13 November 1938; it read:

It is with great satisfaction that I have taken this course of action. The curse of Harcourt Manor will end with me. Once I’m deceased, so will it cease to be. What I was unable to do during my lifetime, I will accomplish after death—the total dismantlement of Harcourt, every last brick and stone. My regret and heartbreak is at having to banish my only son to the foreign shores of America. This is surpassed only by my joy of not subjecting him to this curse. My time, I feel, is near. I’ve only to wait.

 

The final passage was written by a hand less sure, but undoubtedly of the same person, dated just last year. It read:

 

My beloved son, grandson or whomever this cup must pass,

 

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

You will find within the contents of this library as complete a history of Harcourt Manor and its former residents as exists. Once you have familiarized yourself with it, I’m sure you will add this journal to the many you will find on the shelves here.

 

These portfolios are compilations of the preceding owner’s statements of apology, lament, or revenge to their unwitting successors. A great many have been from father to son, but on occasion the ownership has changed from one family to another—or rather I should say the manor’s occupancy, for no one truly owns the manor. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

In this most recent entry, while I await your arrival, I shall attempt to relate a synopsis of the history of Harcourt, derived through long years of reading and re-reading the aforementioned journals and regional histories. My own journal will not be concluded, I’ve come to accept, until after the manor has changed hands once again.

 

I had hoped to let the manor and the curse die with me, but at one hundred thirty-seven years of age I have come to accept that the manor won’t release me until I release it.

 

The origin of the curse dates from the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century when the manor was held by the first Baron of Wexley. A cruel tyrant, he was renowned for the evil he visited on the serfs who worked his land. Very much hated, the baron levied taxes so steep the only way the peasants could survive was to hide at least part of their crops and livestock from his equally cruel tax collectors.

 

On those occasions when they found a peasant cheating on his taxes, the collectors burned the offender’s crops and homes to the ground. Then the head of the household was tarred or killed. If there were a young girl in the family it was not unusual for her to be raped and savaged before the eyes of her family. Should a peasant protest or dare even to cast a scornful look at the baron he would feel the sting of the baron’s “cat”, a stiff handled whip with three barbed tails.

 

Frequently as entertainment for himself or friends, the baron would summon the prettiest of the young girls in the neighboring villages to the manor. On one particular occasion a young orphan girl was brought to the baron. She was taken from her grandmother’s hut while the grandmother was away. A particularly beautiful and virtuous young girl, the baron was pleased and dragged her to his quarters.

 

It is said she put up a valiant fight. At the last, rather than surrender her virtue, she jumped to her death from the baron’s window high in the manor. The baron, untouched by this, had his servants carry off her body to be dumped at the doorstep of her grandmother’s hut.

 

Upon seeing her dead granddaughter, the old woman, who many claimed to be a witch, shed not a single tear. Instead, she retrieved a hollowed-out gourd from her hut and a knife. With the knife she opened a vein in her granddaughter’s arm, collecting her blood in the gourd.

 

After walking all night, she stood outside the manor the next morning, the gourd of blood, not yet coagulated, in her hand.

 

Murmuring in an incomprehensible tongue, she dipped her fingers into the gourd of blood and slowly walked around the manor. As she walked, she flicked droplets of blood along the ground. When she’d gone full circle, approaching the point where she began, the baron emerged from the front of the manor and demanded to know who she was and what she was about.

 

As the old woman completed her circuit, she obliged the baron, telling him it was her own granddaughter that had died by his hand the previous night. The baron reared back and laughed mightily saying the old woman was better off without such a worthless harlot.

 

The old woman’s eyes flashed. Her toothless grin became a grimace. With a voice strong and clear she swore, telling the baron that since he was so proud of his riches and his manor, she would see to it that they would never be parted. Intoning a short curse, she looked at the baron, spat on the ground, and said, “It is finished.” Without another word, she turned and walked away.

 

The baron, unused to having anyone turn their back to him, started after her, his “cat” aloft his head ready to tear into her back. But once he advanced to where the blood of the old woman’s granddaughter had been sprinkled, he could advance no further. His feet were unable to cross the line formed by the droplets. The old woman turned back toward him. As the baron cursed and ranted, she laughed. Finally, she said, “You shall remain always a prisoner of your own evil deeds,” and then she vanished. No one ever saw or heard from her again.

 

The baron spent the rest of his life within the confines of the manor. When he died, his body was removed, but his soul remained, inhabiting the manor.

 

Empty for many years, its grand style eventually attracted a new owner, a man named Ezra Harcourt, by whose name the manor has since become known.

 

Ezra Harcourt had of course heard of the curse. But over a hundred years had passed since the death of the baron. Fear and curses fade with time.

 

When he moved into the manor, he was astounded by the painting on the far wall of the foyer. The similarity between the likeness of the baron and Harcourt was uncanny. This surprised Harcourt because he had always heard the baron was tall and thin with dark wavy hair, but the baron’s portrait showed him to be portly with thinning hair. Harcourt had the painting moved into the main drawing room and made certain all who visited observed the resemblance.

 

Harcourt, who had always been an active, outgoing man of business began, shortly after moving in to the manor, to become reclusive and withdrawn. He was never seen outside its confines and his behavior began to become erratic, even paranoid. He lost weight.

 

Within six months after taking occupancy, his once robust countenance took on the look of a skeleton, a mere shadow of his former self. He appeared to have aged twenty years.

 

His worried son moved his small family into the manor to care for his father. So frail was the elder Harcourt by this time that his son was unable to leave his side. The elder Harcourt survived another three decades with his son by his side throughout. By the time the father died, the son was well past his prime.

 

This pattern of the hermit-like occupant of Harcourt passing the manor on to his son, who in turn becomes a hermit, repeated itself, with few exceptions, for nearly three hundred years. It appeared that the curse the old witch had put on Baron Wexley was passed on to whomever inhabited Harcourt Manor.

 

I spent many years studying the bounty of rare books in this library before I happened upon two of the journals. After having read them, I began an earnest search for others. All totaled I found 37 such journals. There may be others. From these journals, I discovered that rather than a curse on the manor, it was Baron Wexley himself that turned the occupants into hermits.

 

The evil that is Baron Wexley gets its sustenance from the inhabitants. Like a blood-thirsty monster, he feeds on the very life-force of the imprisoned occupant. If one listens carefully enough, one can hear the baron’s voice within these walls.

 

I determined to end the curse, my life, and the manor all at one time. After preparing the necessary paperwork with instructions to tear down the manor after my death, I took poison, enough to kill ten men. Although I lingered near death for nearly a month’s time, I did not die. Several other attempts to end my own life also failed. Finally, I resigned myself to live out the remainder of my days at Harcourt. In the end, I judged, I would win the fight. No one lives forever.

 

Or do they? At one hundred thirty-eight years, I’m no longer so sure.

 

I also discovered something else that was very interesting. I discovered the painting, that so delighted Ezra Harcourt because of its resemblance to himself, takes on the image and likeness of whatever occupant from whom the manor feeds…

 

As I read these words, my heart stopped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I leapt to my feet, flying down the stairs through the long corridor and into the drawing room. As I ran, I felt the air in the hallway moving first with me, then against me as the house inhaled and exhaled. I ran to the portrait and stood there. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I gazed upon it. There I saw staring down at me my own image.

The scream that tore from my throat echoed throughout the empty manor. To my surprise, it was answered by the whisper of a baritone voice I didn’t recognize laughing as it called my name, “Winston… welcome home…” it said, over and over, laughing maniacally. My knees suddenly became weak. I reached for the chair by the secretary near the portrait.

As I sat, I noticed a letter addressed to me, written in my friend’s hand. With trembling fingers, I took it and tore open the envelope.

 

My dear friend,

 

 

Please forgive my hasty departure. I came up to the library to see how you were getting along and noticed that you had found my great-grandfather’s journal. Although I didn’t think you’d come across it quite so soon, I was gratified that I had the foresight to prepare for the eventuality.

 

You will find in the drawer of the secretary beneath my, or should I say your portrait, a signed deed giving you complete claim to Harcourt Manor and all lands in title. I’m sure you will find all is in order.

 

I can only hope and I fervently pray to God that you will find it in your heart to forgive me for what I have done to you. I am certain that once you know the full truth you will, if not forgive, at least understand that I had no choice in the matter. Please know that as I live and breathe I am heartily sorry.

 

I’m sure you recognize those words from my great-grandfather’s journal. Don’t be fooled; I was. What my deceased predecessor did not tell you about the curse of Harcourt is that the sustenance and life the manor derives from the occupant flows both ways. Evil is infectious. I neither expect nor ask your forgiveness. What I’ve done to you is unforgivable.

 

If you are so inclined, you will find my grandfather’s journal on the shelves of the library, secreted there by him before he ran away to America. Undoubtedly, my great-grandfather didn’t know it was there or he likely would have destroyed it. My great-grandfather was preparing to pass on the manor to his son when my grandfather learned of the curse. He ran away before the portrait had transmuted. Because of my great-grandfather’s advanced age when he passed my “inheritance” on to me, the manor began sucking the life force from me at a startling pace, which is why I was so emaciated when you arrived.

 

Now you know the true curse of Harcourt. I’ve no idea if I can truly escape. If others have escaped by foisting this curse onto some unsuspecting tenant they have left no written record. But I am determined to try. I pray that the evil that allows me to pass this curse on to someone for whom I once had such genuine affection will eventually dissipate as I distance myself from its source.

 

I earnestly wish you all the best.

 

Your devoted Friend,
Charley

 

After reading the letter I spent the next three weeks in bed, suffering from an acute case of depression. Finally I determined there was no use crying over spilled milk. I knew what I had to do.

I ordered my solicitor to give me a full accounting of my newfound wealth, which is considerable. A good deal of it is in perpetual trust to the Harcourt Manor Estate, but there was enough liquidity for me to provide myself with a hefty bankroll to live for the rest of my days, once I am rid of the curse. I also had papers drawn up to transfer the estate.

But you’ll please forgive me now, Ted, if I continue this explanation a bit later, as I believe the limo bringing you and Susan to me has arrived.

 

The Astronaut’s Lament

The Astronaut's Lament

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bryan Carrigan

 

Harlan activated the airlock and waited for the light to cycle from red to green. His ears popped, his jaw ached, his skin felt brittle and dry. His suit was bleeding atmosphere into the vacuum, and the gauge on his wrist said he was already down to less than twelve PSI. Jets of CO2 blasted away the regolith dust, letting the negative pressure sweep it out of the chamber. He knew the sequence: the airlock wouldn’t begin pressurizing until the scrubbers said he was clean. He held his arms out away from his body and tried to mentally smooth the creases in his suit. Dust was the enemy. Once it got into the station, there was no getting it out. It moved like a living creature: choking the air filters and shorting out electrical boards. Water recycling operations were already down to eighty percent efficiency and the station’s reservoir had a murky tint to it. Harlan held his hands under the jets and watched the caked lunar dust evaporate into nothing. At ten PSI, the suit’s life-support alarm started chirping in his helmet. There was an emergency override—Joker called it the “mommy button”—that would immediately seal and pressurize the airlock, but nobody had ever used it.

Harlan focused on the com chatter coming in from the dig site.

“…at depth… extracting core sample…”

“…copy that…”

“…spinning up to two thousand RPM…”

The voices sounded indistinct and far away, as though he was trying to listen to the boarding announcements in a crowded airport lounge. It was snowing outside. He wasn’t sure if his flight had been cancelled.

“Harlan, give me a status check on your life-support systems.” Pitcairn’s voice cut through the wireless static in his helmet. She was in the Hub, monitoring the team’s EVA activities. “Mother says your heart’s doing the whacky and you know how she worries.”

Harlan glanced at his wrist-gauge: it was in the red. Pips of white light danced in front of his eyes.

“Systems nominal: everything checks out green,” Harlan answered. “Tell Mother to stop making such a fuss.” He knew the rate of decompression would slow as his suit lost pressure, but he thought about opening the safety cover on the panic button anyway. It was Henry’s Law: at seven PSI, embolisms would begin forming in veins. Tiny bubbles of nitrogen and oxygen. If the pressure dropped much below that, his blood would boil.

He closed his eyes and slipped back to that night in Minneapolis. He drank a vodka tonic at the Sky Bar. He called Sara to let her know that his flight was delayed. She sounded apathetic about the whole thing. When he called her back to tell her that it had been canceled, she sounded relieved. He bought a bottle of Smirnoff at the duty-free shop and mixed it with orange soda from the Marriott’s vending machine until he couldn’t see straight and felt like throwing up. The hotel was right across the parking lot from the Mall of America; Northwest Airlines was footing the bill.

Metal clicked against metal, a rush of air brought back the sense of ambient sound, and the airlock’s control panel flashed green. Harlan leaned against the latch and fell into Hub 1’s main operations bay.

“All systems nominal?” Pitcairn asked as she cracked Harlan out of his suit. There was an electric edge to her voice that cut through the haze.

“I might’ve picked up a micro-tear in the lining somewhere,” Harlan said. “No big deal.”

“Yeah, and how’s it gonna look in my mission log when I have to report you dead in an airlock for being stubborn?”

“I’d try to make it sound more heroic,” Harlan answered evenly. He slid out of his HUT, hooked it onto the rack, and puked on the deck plating.

Pitcairn sighed and said, “I’m not cleaning that up.”

* * * * *

Harlan carried the latest core samples down to the science pod. Warwick was out on the polar maria with Team 2, but Mother was keeping an eye on them. Three weeks on station and he was still getting used to the moon’s weak gravity. Each bounce down the ladder sent a jolt through his legs. His muscles were cramping up from lack of use. The flight surgeon, a Canadian named Stone, said it was the after-affects of Caisson’s syndrome and prescribed a course of extended rest and oxygen therapy before he’d clear Harlan for EVA duty. Harlan just thought he needed more time on the elliptical. There was nothing wrong with him that a good workout couldn’t cure.

Kim sneezed into a handkerchief, glanced at the core sample, and blew his nose. “What have you got?”

“Slugs from 252 mark 43.”

Kim checked the coordinates on his map and blew his nose again. “Depth?” he asked.

Harlan checked Joker’s handwritten note on the case and answered, “Two hundred and fifty-seven meters.”

“That’s an odd one,” Kim said disinterestedly. His nose was red and his eyes were bloodshot. Harlan thought he looked like a man trying to kill a cold with a hangover. “Dump it in the meat locker with the others. I’ll get to it at some point.”

There were twenty-seven core samples in the cooler tagged and ready for the geologist’s inspection. Each core had to be broken down into millimeter-thin wafers, fed through the mass spectrometer, and catalogued into the computer. They were looking for water; more specifically, they were looking for ice. Bistatic radar showed there were veins of ice hidden under the dense regolith that covered the south pole’s lunar maria. The idea was simple enough: they would mine the ice and use it to get to Mars. Its component hydrogen would fuel a vessel’s ion engine, its oxygen would sustain the crew, and the sun would provide the energy they needed to make it there and back again. The geeks at NASA said there was an abundance of ice on the moon—all the drill team had to do was dig it up—but finding it was tricky.

Clementine’s radar imaging identified packets by density but the changes in density were relative to the surrounding matter; Prospector’s neutron spectrometer mapped out hydrogen concentrations, but there was no guarantee that any of that hydrogen was bonded to oxygen. All the drill team really had to go on was a vague sense of where the ice should be and a mission critical sense of urgency to get it out of the ground.

It proved to be slow going.

“Mother, bring up Team 2 on the monitors,” Harlan said once he was back in the Hub.

“One moment,” Mother replied. She woke her monitors and brought the rover’s streaming video online.

“Location?”

“Fifteen degrees off relative north, range two thousand meters.”

Harlan clicked through the control screens and checked the crew’s vitals. Pitcairn’s heart rate was slightly elevated—no doubt that was due to the excitement: it was her first EVA on the lunar surface—and Joker’s blood pressure was running a little high, but otherwise the five-member crew checked out in the green.

“…holding steady at two thousand rpm…”

“…depth two-thirty-three… two-thirty-four…”

“…contact…”

“…she’s bucking…”

“…grind it out…”

“…slowing to one foot per minute…”

Harlan leaned back in the controller’s chair and put his feet up on the console. Team 1 would be on station in forty minutes; Team 2 was doing fine. All he needed was a cup of coffee and a copy of the Post.

“Mother, any chance you can pull up the box score from last night’s game?”

“The Astros lost five to—”

“Harlan,” Kim’s voice cracked through the Hub’s speakers, “I need you to come down here. I think I’ve found something.”

Harlan bounced out of his chair and back down to the science pod. “What have you got?”

Kim nodded towards a microscope and said, “You tell me.”

Harlan looked through the scope and adjusted the eye-piece. At first, all he could make out were dark blobs of dust suspended in a liquid. And then something wriggled from one dark blob to another.

“What the hell?”

“If this is your idea of a joke, let me tell you, I’m not laughing.”

Harlan adjusted the focus and another wriggle darted across the slide. It looked like a microscopic tadpole: a spherical head with a long streamer of a tail.

“Where did this come from?” Harlan asked.

“That slug you brought back from 252? Solid ice. I mean, it’s loaded with debris and it looks like the usual compact regolith,” Kim sneezed into his hand and wiped his hand on his coveralls. “But the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, they all say the same thing: two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.”

“Okay, jackpot,” Harlan said. “What’s with our little friend here?”

“See, here’s the thing: my knowledge of microbiology ends at the word microbe. But I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at.”

Harlan looked through the scope again. He told himself he was seeing things. He was tired. His mind was playing tricks on him.

“Mother, flash an emergency action message to all team personnel: ‘Abort EVA, return to base.’”

“Message away,” Mother responded.

Kim fished a box of tissues out of the storage locker and blew his nose furiously. Harlan looked away; the last thing he needed was a cold. Kim died seven hours later.

* * * * *

Stone zipped the body bag shut and evacuated the air. The black plastic closed in around Kim until it stretched against the contours of his face. Joker handed Harlan a cup of coffee and asked, “Since when do we have body bags?”

“Those NASA geeks think of everything,” Harlan answered quietly.

Stone sealed the medical pod and snapped off his gloves. He looked tired and lines of worry etched the corners of his eyes. Harlan knew it wasn’t the dead body. He’d read Stone’s file: the man had served two combat tours in Iraq; he was no stranger to death.

“What can you tell me?” Harlan asked.

“We won’t get an official cause of death until they perform an autopsy back on Earth,” Stone answered.

“Give me the unofficial version.”

“His lungs were full of mucus.”

“Wait, you’re telling me the guy drowned? In space?”

“He asphyxiated,” Stone replied.

“He had a cold,” Harlan said. Something in his voice snapped and he heard his anger echoing off the hull.

“Like I said before: we don’t have the proper equipment to run the necessary tests. But his lungs are full of mucus; his sinuses are impacted; his eyes, ears, nose, and throat all show signs of a systemic infection. He had a cold; it killed him.”

“Great,” Harlan sighed. “That’s just great.”

“Has anyone ever died out here before?” Joker asked. “I mean, besides Challenger and Columbia. Has anyone ever actually died in space?”

Stone ignored him. The duty roster said he was supposed to be in his rack until 0400 and he headed down the connecting corridor to crew pod. Harlan envied him and turned his attention back to the mission.

“Mother, ping the beacon at 252 mark 43.”

“Beacon 252 mark 43 is active,” Mother replied. Her voice sounded soothing. Nonplussed. As though the thought of death didn’t phase her. Kim’s passing meant nothing more than an adjustment in their oxygen consumption. If the dust knocked out one of the scrubbers, the eleven-man team could now survive one-twelfth longer.

“We need to get back out there,” Harlan said. He knew the procedure by rote and his mind started assembling the necessary checklist. “We’ve got one solid core. Imaging suggests an ice-field three kilometers wide. We’ll start at 252 and work in a spiral pattern radiating outward. Soundings at every ten meters.”

“What do we do with him?” Pitcairn asked. She nodded towards the medical pod; her voice sounded froggy.

“We’ve dug enough holes on this rock,” Joker said, “I vote we drop him in one and kick some dirt over his head. One small step and he goes from being the man who discovered alien life to the first human buried on the moon. They’ll probably name a school after him: Young Li Kim Junior High or some shit like that.”

Harlan dropped down the ladder to the prep bay and slid into his HUT. Joker checked the seals on his gloves and boots. Harlan’s breath closed in around him. The speakers in his helmet amplified the sound of his own breathing.

“Give me a com check,” Harlan said.

Kowalski, Warwick, and Pitcairn sounded off; Joker flashed a thumbs-up.

“We don’t have anyone to run the mass spectrometer,” Warwick said as the airlock cycled from green to red. The air pressure dropped and the light over the outer hatch strobed yellow. “Even if we hit an iceberg, there’s no way we’ll be able to give Houston a positive confirmation.”

“The thing about ice,” Harlan said, “it melts.”

* * * * *

The lunar maria stretched away in an endless plain of soot-gray ash, broken only by the rims of eons-old impact craters, rounded down and worn smooth by the gravitational friction that held the moon in synchronous rotation around the Earth. From the south pole, the Earth looked inverted: upside down and alien. The horn of Africa and the Straits of Magellan. There were clouds over Australia. It was winter there. Harlan wondered if it was snowing. The rover’s drive motor spun the drill shaft deeper into the maria. The tachometer was pushing yellow. Something down there was biting at the bit.

“Better ease back or you’ll burn out,” Pitcairn said.

“Roger that.” The rover’s on-board computer could give him a diagnostic reading, the automated programming could tell him what to do, but he preferred to do the work himself. He could feel the drill’s vibrations through the rover’s chassis. The vacuum of space muted out the sound, but there was a whine there that didn’t belong. He throttled back and the whine faded to a dull hum.

He listened to it, listening for the familiar strains he’d felt on thirty-seven other digs. But the tenors were off-key. The altos weren’t carrying the base notes the way they should. And it sounded like the sopranos were just mouthing along silently.

“Give me a depth reading.”

“Seventy-two meters,” Pitcairn answered. Her voice sounded stuffy and Harlan could hear the congestion building in her sinuses and throat. She’d picked up Young’s cold; there was no doubt about it.

“I’m bringing her up,” Harlan said.

“Did we hit something?”

“I don’t know,” Harlan answered. “Pull the core. Let’s set a beacon and get back to the Hub.”

“Copy that,” Pitcairn said. She sounded relieved. Harlan wondered if the geeks at NASA had thought to pack them any chicken noodle soup. The nearest twenty-four hour pharmacy was 384,403 km away and the Earth was nothing more than a blue mirage that barely crested the horizon. In a few minutes, it would set. And they would be alone under the starry sky.

* * * * *

Stone and Hagerman both died during the night; their bodies were resting in the medical pod beside Kim’s. Pitcairn, Kowalski, and Warwick were all showing signs of infection. Harlan had quarantined them in the crew pod. He swallowed a pair of antibiotics and told himself the twinge he felt in the back of his throat was from breathing too much of the lunar dust. The atmospheric scrubbers were scheduled to be replaced in three days; the Hub’s air had a haziness to it, like a bar scene in an old black and white movie. He watched Bogart hand roll a cigarette and strike a match as though lung cancer was something other people had to worry about.

Marshall held a test tube up to the light. The centrifuge had stratified the liquid into two layers: forty milliliters of clear water sat on top of ten milliliters of gray sludge.

Joker whistled and said, “Look at that.”

“Yeah.”

“Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars later, and we’ve got enough water to fuel a shot glass.”

“We’ll need to find a more efficient method of purification before we can begin operations on a large scale,” Marshall said, “but at least now we know it’s possible.”

Harlan nodded. They’d mapped the edges of the ice-field, and based on their imaging and core samples, they had a rough idea of its total volume. Somewhere in the back of his head he knew conversion rates: how many metric tons of ice they needed, how many liters of water, moles of hydrogen, and days of breathable oxygen. It was a numbers game.

“NASA wants us to continue excavating,” Harlan said.

“That’s a joke, right? There are barely enough of us left to keep up with housekeeping operations.”

“There’s another shuttle scheduled for lift-off in three weeks.”

Joker said something else about mission control and where they could stick their mission objectives, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was lost in his thoughts, watching The Maltese Falcon at the drive-in with Sara. Spade was tough-jawing a pair of detectives. They’d woken him in the middle of the night. His partner had been shot dead; Spade was their prime suspect. Harlan inhaled the soft, soapy scent of Sara’s hair. Let his hand caress her cheek. She was twenty, still a sorority girl at the University of Iowa; he was twenty-three and fresh out of the Air Force Academy. They had their whole lives ahead of them and in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, it seemed like their entire lives had been compressed into a single night. That long caress under the stars. They’d made love for the first time. Harlan didn’t want the night to ever end.

“There’s a possibility we need to consider,” Marshall said. “Suppose the microbe Kim found in the ice isn’t a microbe, suppose it’s a virus.”

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

“Yeah? That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? ‘Yeah.’”

“I spent six weeks in quarantine before I came up here,” Harlan said. “Every piece of equipment, every packet of food, everything that comes aboard station gets run through the sterilizer. Mission control thinks we brought it aboard during an EVA.”

Joker grimaced as though he’d been stomach punched. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair and glanced out the porthole. The lunar maria stretched away like a smooth black sea. They were becalmed.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Follow procedure. Quarantine those infected. Dose ourselves with antibiotics and soldier on as best we can.”

“How… how is it this has never happened before? I mean, Armstrong, Aldrin—all those Apollo guys—it’s not like we’re the first team to Moon.”

“It’s the maria,” Harlan explained quietly. “The conditions that make it ideal for ice formation… the lack of direct sunlight, limited radiation exposure… the working theory at mission control is that a virus could survive out there.”

“And our survivability? Do they have a working theory on that?”

Harlan didn’t answer. He didn’t bother. They all knew the reason NASA sent men to the moon: they were cheaper than robots and more easily replaced. It wasn’t something that needed to be said. Not out loud.

* * * * *

Harlan twisted the barrel of the atmospheric scrubber and slid it out of its housing. Soot and grime had collected on the bottom half of the cylinder. He wiped it clean with a wet rag. In principle he understood how the scrubbers worked: a lithium ion cell overcharged the molecular bonds between the carbon and oxygen, the carbon atoms remained trapped inside the ceramic lattice while the smaller pairs of oxygen leaked out as breathable O2. The ion cell still had seventeen days of life in it; Harlan decided to replace it anyway.

“Suppose we vent the whole station—blow our atmosphere and everything straight into the vacuum,” Joker suggested mildly. He was working on the other side of the Hub, pulling the charcoal filters from the main ventilation duct.

“Our little friend’s proven that it can survive hard vacuum,” Harlan answered. “Besides, we don’t have enough reserve air to re-pressurize, and even if we did, there’s no way of knowing whether our reserves have been contaminated.”

“It’s worth a shot, though, right?”

Warwick and Kowalski were dead. Marshall had lapsed into some sort of coma. Pitcairn was hanging on, but she was so weak she could barely suck fluids through a straw. Joker had tried to fix her up with an IV, but after failing to hit a vein five times in a row, they’d given up on the idea.

“And what happens to us when you blow the atmosphere?” Harlan asked. He stripped the bubble wrap off a fresh ion cell and locked it into the scrubber. The meter adjusted and showed a full stripe of green. It had enough juice to keep them pink for thirty days.

“That’s the beauty of it: we hide out in the EVA suits,” Joker said. “They’ve got their own atmospherics. We could last eight, ten hours. I figure that’s plenty of time to re-pressurize the Hub. We could hold out here until re-supply brings us some fresh tanks.”

Harlan loaded the scrubber back into its housing and screwed down the cover plate. There were four scrubbers in the Hubs. Two in each of the pods. He decided to change out the power packs on all of them. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave him something to do.

“So what do you say?” Joker asked.

“There isn’t gonna be any re-supply.”

Joker lifted the screen out of the air filter; it was choked with lunar dust. He scraped it off with a putty knife, letting chunks of impacted regolith collect in a plastic waste bag. They’d shoot it out of the airlock later.

For a while, he didn’t say anything. He just focused on his work. Once he’d scraped off the caked on layers of dust, he suctioned off the screen with a vacuum hose.

“What happens to us then?” Joker finally asked.

“The ice-field’s marked,” Harlan said. “Houston says mission accomplished.”

“Let’s pop some champagne.”

They filled the hours with the menial housekeeping chores necessary to keep the station operational, but the day passed slowly. Finally, Joker settled into the rover’s pilot seat and thumbed through a worn-out copy of Playboy; Harlan tuned the station’s antennas to ESPN’s Game of the Week. The Yankees were in Detroit, playing the second of three against the Tigers. He wasn’t a fan of either team in particular, but the nonstop patter from the announcers made it easy to forget the eight-and-a-half minute lag that separated him from the signal’s transmission.

The Tigers were down three going into the bottom of the seventh, with the core of their batting order due up, when the signal cut out and the screen filled with static.

“Mother,” Harlan said.

“Yes, Harlan?”

“Do you mind? I was watching that.”

“We are unable to establish a signal lock,” Mother replied evenly. The station’s artificial intelligence sounded not the least bit bothered by the loss.

“Ping Leonardo,” Harlan said.

“What’s up?”

“We’ve lost transmission from Earth.”

“Oh, no.”

“Leonardo is not responding to ping,” Mother answered. “However, there is no cause for alarm. We have experienced previous signal interruptions. Mission control should have the problem corrected momentarily.”

Harlan waited for the game to come back on but it never did. Leonardo was their lifeline to Earth. NASA used it as a relay to maintain a constant uplink with the station at the south pole. Without it, they only had a four-hour uplink window—while the Earth was above their relative horizon—when they could send and receive signals.

“They’ve cut us off?”

“Looks that way,” Harlan replied.

“So much for the geeks at the CDC coming up with a cure.”

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Mother said, “but crewmember Marshall no longer displays any cardiac activity.”

Harlan tried to rub the exhaustion from his face but it wouldn’t go away. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep until it was over. But he was in command; there was still work to do.

“The scuttlebutt is they’re putting together another expedition,” Harlan said. “They’ll drop a new Hub somewhere well north of the maria and used a nuclear-powered excavator to harvest the ice. It’ll melt the ice to steam and collect it in a condenser. The new thinking says the reactor’s radiation should be able to kill off any viruses or microbes trapped in the ice.”

“Wish they’d thought of that six years ago,” Joker sighed.

“Yeah,” Harlan said.

He didn’t bother with a body bag; he wasn’t sure they had any left. He just carried Marshall’s corpse to the airlock and let the system cycle from green to red. A rush of air swept the body out onto the maria.

“You know the first men Spain sent to the New World? They weren’t explorers; they were conquistadors—literally, Spanish for ‘conquerors’—and they kicked the shit of the Aztecs because that’s what they were good at.

“Magellan, Scott, Raleigh: they were pirates.”

“I’m with you on Raleigh and Scott, but Magellan…”

“The Lapu-Lapu killed him in the Philippines and it wasn’t because he was preaching the Gospel. Exploring a new world’s supposed to be dangerous—men die, I get that—but not like this. Not because we caught a cold and nobody thought to pack any NyQuil.”

Harlan put a pot of coffee on and waited for it to brew. Pitcairn had rallied somewhat. She’d asked when the bunnies were going out for pickles. He had no idea what she was trying to say, but he took it as a good sign.

“I tried calling my ex-wife,” Harlan said. “I got her voicemail.”

“You were married?”

“It didn’t stick.”

Harlan poured himself a cup of coffee. He still wasn’t used to the taste of instant and he couldn’t understand why the geeks at NASA hadn’t thought to install a proper Mr. Coffee. The microgravity might’ve posed a challenge, but they’d come up with pens that could write upside-down. The old joke came back to him: the Russians called them pencils.

“We can hold out, what? A month without re-supply?”

“Thirty days,” Harlan answered.

“Thirty days. And then what?”

“They name high schools after us.”

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

Little Green Men in Black

Little Green Men in Black

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

As he walked across Peachtree Street in the Lenox district of Atlanta, en route to his job as a security guard in Phipps Plaza, Atlanta’s ritziest mall, Malcolm Allaby sipped a cup of coffee that he had purchased in the little cafe that sat across the street from the mall.

Malcolm was distracted by what had happened the night before. He had gone to one of Atlanta’s more upscale restaurants, Davio’s in the mall, where he was supposed to meet Jennifer, a petite knock-out who managed the Phipps Plaza Anne Fontaine store, a high-end fashion boutique. But Jennifer never showed. What’s more, it was the first anniversary of Malcolm’s divorce. On top of that, Davio’s was a restaurant he and his wife had always talked about checking out “some day,” but never did. And even worse, who showed up on the arm of a hunky date? None other than Malcolm’s ex, Teresa.

And Teresa was looking good, too. Malcolm had to admit that Teresa, who had always seemed kind of thick around the waist when they were married, now gave Jennifer a run for her money. Of course, that was an easy race with Jennifer a no-show. Teresa could walk to the finish line.

She wore a little black dress and black heels. At five-five she was able to show off just enough leg to be sexy without looking like a hooker. She looked like a million bucks. Seeing her made Malcolm wish fervently that Jennifer would show up looking like at least two million. But by the time Teresa arrived at the restaurant Malcolm had been sitting there for an hour nursing a plate of room-temperature calamari and a beer. The odds were against Jennifer making a spectacular entrance and redeeming him.

Teresa spotted Malcolm before he had a chance to duck out. She smiled, waved, whispered something to her date, and, to make matters infinitely worse, came over to Malcolm’s table.

“Hey you,” she said, which was classic Teresa when she saw someone whose name she couldn’t recall.

“Hi,” Malcolm said, which was classic Malcolm whenever he ran into someone at a restaurant.

“In the back of my mind I wondered if I might run into you here,” Teresa said.

“Ah,” was all Malcolm could muster for a response.

“Are you with someone?” Teresa asked, purposefully eyeing the untouched second glass of water at Malcolm’s table.

“I was,” he lied. “She left a few minutes ago.”

“And you’re still here?” Teresa asked, her expression made it apparent that she didn’t buy it. He’d never been able to lie to her.

“Obviously,” Malcolm said, intentionally attempting to be sarcastic, which he was usually not very good at doing. He did, however, have a habit of sometimes being unintentionally, and successfully, sarcastic.

“So how are you?” Teresa asked, giving Malcolm an almost imperceptibly narrow window of opportunity to be sincere with her.

“Never better,” he said, being decidedly insincere.

He was hoping Teresa would get that he did not want to talk to her. She got it.

“It was nice to see you,” she said, forcing a smile.

Malcolm did not smile back. He said nothing. Seeing her was the opposite of nice. He’d been trying to get over the fact that she had left him, and not even for another guy. For no one. That had hurt, a lot.

He thought about it during the drive home, thought about it some more as he watched the news at eleven, and thought about it as he lay in bed alone, and as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke thinking about it. He showered, ate breakfast, drove to the cafe, had his coffee, and read a copy of Entertainment Weekly and thought about it the whole time. So as he crossed the street, he was distracted thinking about Teresa out on a date on the first anniversary of their divorce, at the restaurant they had always talked about going to, but never did.

He didn’t see a rip form in the fabric of space-time just ahead of him. He didn’t see two long, thick, green tentacles reach out towards him. They grabbed Malcolm and yanked him through before he knew what was happening. He found himself being held aloft by the tentacles in a brightly lit room. A beautiful, young woman smiled up at him. An older, black man peered grimly at him. And something that looked like a cross between a giant spider and an octopus held him in its tentacles. Malcolm opened his mouth to scream, but before he could he felt a sharp pain in his chest, and blacked out.

* * * * *

Actually, he died. But he was revived. When he opened his eyes he saw the multi-tentacled creature again, and promptly died again. He was revived again, opened his eyes again, saw the creature again, and this time only passed out.

The next time he opened his eyes he saw the beautiful, young woman smiling at him.

“Hello, Malcolm,” she said. “I am Adra.”

“Where am I?” Malcolm asked. He had no memory of the creature, just a persistent dread in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite figure out.

“You are in the Recovery Room,” Adra told him.

“How long have I been here?”

“Eight hours.”

A sickening feeling passed over him as he suddenly realized he was probably late for work. Or worse.

“Is something wrong?” Adra asked.

“I need to call my boss,” Malcolm told Adra. “I’ll get fired.”

Adra shook her head.

“You never showed up for work again,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have something much more important to do,” Adra said. “Much more important.”

“Like what?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity.”

Malcolm blinked, not quite getting it.

“Excuse me?”

“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity,” Adra repeated.

“Is this a joke?” Malcolm asked. “Is this, like, a new reality show or something?” He looked around for miniature cameras or Howie Mandel.

“It is not a joke,” Adra said. “It is not a reality show. It is reality.”

“So I’m supposed to save the world,” Malcolm said, attempting sarcasm.

“Not the world,” Adra corrected. “The world will still be here. You are to save humanity.”

“Humanity,” Malcolm repeated for clarification.

Adra nodded, smiling. In fact, she had been smiling the whole time and it was starting to freak Malcolm out a little. Just a little, though, because she really did have a very nice smile.

“And what will I be saving humanity from?” he asked.

“You are to save humanity from itself.”

“I already joined Greenpeace,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”

Adra shook her head.

“And I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.

“Humanity will become extinct within the next seventy-two hours if you fail,” came a male voice from behind Adra. The wall behind her shimmered and through it stepped the older black man whom Malcolm had seen before.

“If I fail what?” Malcolm asked. He did not believe the fate of humanity rested on his shoulders. Who was Malcolm Allaby? Just a security guard at a mall. What could he possibly have to do with the fate of humanity?

“All your questions will be answered soon enough,” the man said. “Well, perhaps not all of them, but most of them.”

“Who are you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am Corbin.”

“Not your name,” Malcolm said. “Who are you with? What group? What are you going to do with me?”

“We are merely a collection of humans and nonhumans who wish to save humanity from destroying itself… again.”

That was a lot for Malcolm to absorb in one sentence. First, he wanted to know what Corbin meant by “nonhumans.” Second, he wanted to know just what Corbin meant by “again.”

“Humanity has destroyed itself before,” Corbin continued without Malcolm’s prompting. “Three times now. Each time we have let it happen without doing anything to stop it because we believed it was the right thing to do, despite our misgivings. But now… we cannot let it happen again.”

Seeing the confusion in Malcolm’s expression, Adra stepped forward.

“Allow me to explain,” she said to Corbin, who nodded.

“Please do,” Malcolm said.

“Planet Earth is actually Museum Earth,” she said. “And human civilization is actually a controlled reenactment of events that first transpired over one hundred thousand years ago.” Her smile did not falter or fade one bit.

“A reenactment,” Malcolm repeated. “You mean like Civil War reenactments?”

“Something like that,” Corbin said.

“Museum Earth was created to illustrate to the Galactic Community how a seemingly advanced civilization can destroy itself if it cannot transcend such institutions as the nation-state and organized religion, and overcome such problems as racial and gender inequality.”

“What about the environment?” Malcolm asked.

“Any truly advanced civilization recognizes the obvious benefit of balancing the integrity of a world’s environment with the needs of progress.”

“That’s what I thought,” Malcolm said smugly. His ex had laughed at him for joining Greenpeace, calling it a lost cause.

“Museum Earth tells a cautionary tale, which every advanced civilization knows. There is not a citizen of the galaxy who doesn’t know the tale of Humanity.”

“So…” Malcolm was hesitant to ask, but he wanted to know. Even if these people were simply bonkers or part of some Doomsday cult, he still wanted to know. “What happened?”

“An airborne super-virus developed by the United States military-industrial complex,” Corbin said grimly.

“It was accidentally released,” Adra added.

“Accidentally?” Malcolm asked. “It wasn’t terrorists or anything like that?”

Adra shook her head.

“The lesson Museum Earth teaches all peoples is that the development of such weapons begets their use, without fail, whether intentionally or not.”

Malcolm absorbed this, and nodded thoughtfully.

“But some of us feel that humanity should be given a chance to continue, this time,” Adra said.

“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Malcolm asked. “I have nothing to do with the military-industrial complex.” Although, he remembered, the security agency he worked for also supplied contractors to the military for prisoner interrogation and convoy escort services in various so-called “hot spots.” So, in a way, he worked for the military-industrial complex. However, unless this super-virus was somehow accidentally released in the Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, he didn’t know how he could stop it.

“You are among those individuals whose lives intersect with what is known as an Omega Moment, which is a point in time when events are sent in the direction of humanity’s self-destruction. There are many Omega Moments. If any one of these is disrupted, humanity could be saved.”

“And what is my Omega Moment?” he asked, deciding to play along.

Adra and Corbin exchanged a look.

“It could be anything,” Corbin said. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as bringing your ex-wife flowers.”

“Bringing my ex-wife flowers will save humanity?” Malcolm asked.

“Merely an example,” Corbin replied, waving it off.

“The truth is, we do not know,” Adra said. “That is for Jik to explain.”

“Jack?” Malcolm asked.

Jik,” Adra repeated, saying it with more enunciation so Malcolm would get it.

“We will go to visit him now,” Corbin said.

* * * * *

They helped Malcolm, who was still feeling a little unsteady, get out of bed and get dressed.

“Stay close to us,” Corbin told him. “And whatever you do, do not look the little green men in black in the eye.”

“Little green men in black?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes. Avoid eye contact with them, no matter what.”

“Riiight,” Malcolm replied, not meaning to be sarcastic but successfully conveying a bitingly sarcastic tone that made Adra momentarily frown with her eyes (her smile remained intact).

The wall shimmered, which Malcolm had to admit was an incredibly cool effect, and they stepped through it and onto a walkway as wide as a street. Going this way and that were creatures that walked slithered, fluttered, crawled, danced, spun, slid, glided, and rolled. Some were reminiscent of snakes, some spiders, others birds, but most were impossible to find an Earthly analogy for, at least not one that Malcolm could dredge up. He put his hand to his heart. Adra looked at him, showing concern.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Malcolm couldn’t reply. He could barely breathe.

“Maybe it is too soon,” Corbin said.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Adra said. “He is still conscious. That’s good.”

“I’m okay,” Malcolm said, forcing himself to breathe. Whatever had threatened to immobilize him, he shook it off.

“Then we should go. Look.” Corbin tilted his head to the left. Adra and Malcolm looked.

A squad of six little green men in black were marching towards them in lockstep with one another. They were definitely green, the dark green of an old lime, and they wore identical black suits. They looked like stocky children, or more appropriately like midgets, or dwarfs. Malcolm couldn’t remember which one, midgets or dwarfs, had limbs in proportion to their height.

Corbin reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walnut-sized, silver ball.

“When I throw this,” he said, “run the other way.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Adra asked him.

“We have no choice. If they catch us…”

Whatever he left unspoken had the desired effect on Adra. She grabbed Malcolm by his right arm.

“Ready?” Corbin asked.

Adra nodded.

Corbin waited a couple seconds more, until the little green men in black were close enough for Malcolm to see their eyes, which were silver slits.

Malcolm made the mistake of looking into one of those pairs of silver slits. He saw nothing but unrelenting resolve to hunt him down and—

Corbin threw the silver ball. The little green men in black immediately scattered and drew weapons, little wands that looked anything but dangerous.

Even as the silver ball arched through the air, one of those wands emitted a blast of lightning that exploded into the wall behind them, knocking them down.

The silver ball exploded into a rapidly expanding silver mist that overcame the little green men in black, instantly turning them into silver statues.

“Let’s go!” Corbin yelled, scrambling to his feet.

Malcolm still couldn’t move. Adra and Corbin each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him to his feet.

“You must try to keep up,” Adra told him. They started down the wide hallway, which had become eerily clear of anything that slithered, crawled, spun, fluttered, et cetera.

Malcolm did his best to keep up, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The eyes of the little green men in black haunted him, though. He knew he’d been paralyzed with fear.

“The String,” Corbin said. “Up ahead.”

The three of them walked alone down the hallway. Malcolm wondered if he’d imagined all the different creatures from earlier. But as they walked he saw movement out of the corner of his left eye, and turned just in time to see a tentacle slide through a shimmering wall. A renewed feeling of dread came over him.

“Can I go home now?” he asked.

“Soon,” Adra said. She and Corbin still had Malcolm by either arm, and they maneuvered him to the right, through the shimmering wall, and down a ramp.

“First we have to disappear,” Corbin said.

“Where?” Adra asked.

“Random selection,” Corbin told her. “Just grab the first one and go. We’ll connect with Jik later.”

They now stood on a platform across which hummed large tubes that looked to be made of pure light. The tubes were different colors, and crisscrossed like hamster tunnels with no apparent rhyme or reason. Within the tubes, which were transparent, Malcolm saw different colored bubbles darting to and fro. They walked up to a blue tube and Adra placed her hand on it. Moments later a bubble shot towards them and stopped where her hand rested.

“Like this,” she told Malcolm, and simply stepped into the tube and the bubble, as if passing through a liquid membrane that immediately sealed up behind her. Corbin shoved Malcolm towards the tube.

Malcolm did as Adra had done. He found himself facing Adra in a gelatinous seat that fitted perfectly to his form and held him snugly. Corbin didn’t follow.

“It is better if we go separately,” he said. “We’ll meet at Jik’s.” Malcolm marveled that he could hear him perfectly through the wall of the tube and the bubble.

Adra nodded. She placed her hand in the middle of the bubble.

“End of the line,” she told it.

The bubble suddenly sped away, leaving Corbin behind. Malcolm did not feel the motion, though. For all he knew, it was Corbin who had sped away.

The bubble conveyed them smoothly along through the blue tube, beyond which Malcolm could see nothing once they left the platform.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Adra asked. “Would you like me to find out?”

Malcolm nodded.

Adra lifted her right hand, and poked her index finger into the space between them, in the center of the bubble. The space shimmered, and then a holographic projection of the Earth appeared. Only a greenish hue outlined the continents, or the oceans, depending on how one looked at it.

“This is Museum Earth,” Adra said. “And this is the Observatory.” A filigree of interconnecting lines—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white—overlaid the image of the Earth. A pulsating dot moved rapidly along one of the blue lines towards the center of the Earth.

“Is that us?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes.”

“We’re moving through the Earth?”

“Not really,” she said. “We’re moving through the Observatory, which is in a different universe than the Museum, but very close.”

Malcolm shook his head.

“I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Think of the universe we are in now as less than one billionth of a millimeter to the left of the universe we live in. It is so close that events in either universe can affect things in the other. They are conjoined.”

“Like Siamese twins?” Malcolm asked.

Adra frowned for a second, as if not getting the reference, then smiled and nodded.

“What did you do just then?” he asked her.

“What did I do?”

“Yes. You didn’t seem to know what I meant, and then you did. How?”

“My computer explained it to me,” Adra said, tapping her head.

“You have a computer in your head?”

She nodded.

Outside of the bubble, pitch black had taken on an orange hue, Malcolm noticed.

“We are passing by the Earth’s core,” Adra explained.

“Is it safe?” Malcolm asked nervously.

Adra nodded.

“We cannot go directly through it. We are going around it, although we are very close. The energy given off by the core seeps into this universe. The Observatory taps into it for power.”

The orange tint was getting brighter by the second. He was actually feeling warmer. Or was that his imagination? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip.

Adra wasn’t sweating at all, but her features looked like they were starting to droop. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. Adra still looked like her features were drooping, even more so now.

“What’s happening to you?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry,” she said, “but it is difficult for me to hold this form in extreme warmth.”

Not worry? This woman with a face and body like a supermodel was literally melting before his very eyes.

His expression must have made it quite obvious that he was on the verge of totally freaking out.

“It is fine,” Adra said, her voice slurring. “I am a shape-shifter. Extreme warmth causes me to lose control of my shape-shifting abilities.”

Outside the bubble the darkness had given way to a flickering red, orange, and yellow glow. It seemed as if they were passing through the heart of Hell, and Adra was turning into some sort of misshapen demon. Malcolm’s heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest. Sweat poured from his face and arms.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Malcolm asked.

“The cooling system does seem to be having some difficulty,” Adra said. “Not everything works perfectly, even with our technology. But don’t worry, it won’t be long.”

Until what? he thought.

Malcolm closed his eyes. The heat was sweltering. He felt like he was being smothered alive.

“Not long,” Adra repeated, although Malcolm could barely understand her now. He didn’t want to open his eyes and look at her. He was afraid of what he might see, so he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.

After a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer, the heat had subsided. He still didn’t dare open his eyes, though.

“Are you asleep?” Adra asked, as if from far away.

He opened his eyes. She smiled at him. She looked amazing again, like a supermodel only more so.

“No,” he said.

“Did you think we would not make it through?” she asked.

“I had my doubts,” he replied.

“It is an unpleasant route to take when the cooling system malfunctions,” Adra told him, “but it is really not dangerous.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Malcolm said, trying to sound sarcastic but sounding sincere instead.

“Does that mean you trust me?” she asked.

He didn’t know how to answer that. On the one hand, everything she had told him seemed ludicrous and ridiculous. On the other hand, he had seen things that made him wonder. Was it all real?

“I hope you will trust me,” Adra said.

“I trust you,” Malcolm told her, not sure if he really did, but realizing he didn’t have much choice at the moment. They were still in a bubble cruising through the Earth’s innards, even if they weren’t technically inside the Earth itself but a billionth of a millimeter to the left of their universe.

“I hope you really do trust me,” she responded. “Because if you do not, humanity is… phhhht!” And then she snapped her fingers.

Phhhht, Malcolm thought.

* * * * *

They arrived at a platform just inside the Earth’s crust below Hong Kong, according to the holographic map floating in the center of the bubble. The platform was deserted. As soon as Malcolm and Adra stepped out of the bubble it whisked silently away.
Adra placed her hand on a yellowish tube.

“It will be a few minutes before a bubble arrives,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-way platform.”

Malcolm looked around him. The platform was huge, though not quite as large as the one from which they’d just fled the little green men in black. “How can something as massive as this so-called Observatory exist without being detected by anyone on Earth?” he asked Adra.

“Sometimes things are detected by humans,” she said. “When that happens… it is dealt with.”

“Dealt with how?”

“Humans who see a nonhuman for the first time usually suffer a trauma as a result,” Adra explained.

“What sort of trauma?” Malcolm asked.

“They die.”

Memories surged to the fore of Malcolm’s brain.

“Is that what happened to me?” he asked.

Adra nodded.

“So how…?”

“We knew it would happen,” she said. “We were prepared to revive you immediately, before you suffered any brain damage. Both times.”

“I died twice?”

Adra nodded.

“But now…?”

“You have been acclimated to the sight of nonhumans,” Adra said. “More or less.”

“I guess that’s good,” Malcolm said, sounding sarcastic without intending to.

“It is very good,” Adra added, not detecting the unintended sarcasm.

“But if I had died for good?”

“We would have had to start over with someone else.”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at that.

“Someone else?”

Adra nodded.

“Why didn’t you just start with someone else to begin with?”

“Because you were the safest bet.”

“Why was I the safest bet?” Malcolm asked.

“Because you’re dead.”

Malcolm felt as if his blood suddenly froze.

“Is this the afterlife?” he asked.

Adra laughed, and shook her head.

“You are not really dead,” she told him. “We saved you. You were about to be hit by a truck and killed instantly. We opened a space-time hole right before it happened, and pulled you out of the universe. The truck crashed and the driver was killed.”

Malcolm didn’t remember any truck.

“How does being dead make me the safest bet?” he asked.

“The Observatory stops monitoring you once you are dead. If you go back to Earth you won’t be noticed right away. This gives us an advantage, for a little while.”

“But those little green guys saw me,” he said.

“It wasn’t you they were after,” Adra said. “It was Corbin and myself. We are considered fugitives because they know we are attempting to prevent an Omega Moment.”

“And preventing an Omega Moment will save the human race?” Malcolm asked.

“Not necessarily. Each Omega Moment is different,” Adra explained. “There has been much research into the effects of the Omega Moments. The one associated with you has a very large Element of Uncertainty. All Omega Moments have Elements of Uncertainty, but some are very small, while others are so large that they make the Omega Moment practically, but not completely, irrelevant. The Omega Moment associated with you—your personal Omega Moment, if you like—had an Element of Uncertainty well above the Threshold of Probability.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means that even if your Omega Moment didn’t occur, there was still a very high probability that humanity will still destroy itself.”

“How high?”

“Ninety-eight percent,” Adra said.

“Ninety-eight percent?” Malcolm asked. “Why bother?”

“Jik developed a theory that saving you would create a second Omega Moment for you, which is more of a Reverse Omega Moment. And it did, according to his rough calculations. It created a Reverse Omega Moment with a miniscule Element of Uncertainty.”

“Which means…?”

“If we prevent this Reverse Omega Moment, humanity will die. If the Reverse Omega Moment occurs, the Threshold of Probability that humanity will be saved is ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent.”

Malcolm scratched his head. All Adra’s talk of Omega Moments, Reverse Omega Moments, Elements of Uncertainly, Thresholds of Probability… it gave him a throbbing headache just above his left eye. It was all too complicated.

A bubble silently whisked into the platform inside a yellowish tube.

“So what do I have to do?” he asked. He wanted a specific goal to focus on. That would help. Adra climbed into the bubble, and he followed.

“That’s why we must go to Jik,” Adra said, as they took their seats. “To find out. Don’t worry, we won’t go anywhere near the Earth’s core this time.”

“Where are we going?” Malcolm asked.

“Orbit.”

* * * * *

As the bubble shot through the Earth’s crust and then into the sky, Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder how the bubble transit system worked. How was it able to go from the Earth’s core and into space? He pondered the question and then asked Adra.

“I don’t know,” she replied.

“How can you not know?” Malcolm asked.

“Can you describe to me how an airplane flies?” she asked back.

Malcolm thought about it, then shook his head.

“This technology is everywhere,” Adra told him. “On every world that is part of the Galactic Community. Ever since my childhood.”

“It’s just so… amazing,” Malcolm said.

Adra shrugged.

“I have never really given it much thought.”

She gazed outside as they ascended into orbit. At that moment, yet again, she looked amazingly beautiful. Malcolm had to remind himself that she wasn’t even human.

“You’re a shape-shifter, then?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Do you have a normal shape that you use when you’re not… shifting?”

She nodded again.

“Can I see?”

Adra shook her head.

“That is only for family,” she told him.

“Why did you pick the shape you have now? Malcolm asked.

“Jik instructed me to do so. He determined that this shape would be appealing to you, and you would respond more positively to it than another shape.”

“Is it someone’s… do you look like someone…?”

“I am mimicking a human being who is alive, yes,” Adra said.

“How do you…?”

“There must be an exchange of genetic material,” Adra explained. “The other must not be aware of what is happening, or must consent to the process.”

“What does the process entail?”

“I believe you would call it… sex,” Adra replied.

Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say about that. He did wonder how that would work, if seeing an alien was basically fatal to a human being.

“So if you and I… then you could look like…?”

“If you and I had sex, then I would be able to mimic you down to your genetic code, temporarily.”

Malcolm absorbed this, then wanted to change the subject.

“Why did you come to Earth?” he asked.

“I have always had a morbid fascination with civilizations that destroy themselves. Yours was the first one that had been transformed into a living museum. Your entire civilization, your history, your science, your arts, your wars… it was all re-created so the Galactic Community could figure out how to prevent emerging advanced technological civilizations from destroying themselves.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, there are those who believe that civilizations ought to be left alone until they achieve interstellar travel capabilities on their own. The theory is that any civilization that achieves interstellar travel has passed the threshold of self-destruction. Humanity was different, through.”

“How so?”

“You had already achieved interstellar travel, and then you destroyed yourselves.”

“But… you said we have seventy-two hours left. I haven’t heard anything about any kind of starship being launched.”

“It wasn’t in this version of your civilization,” Adra told him. “It was only in the original. There was no Omega Moment associated with the launch of the starship, so that element of your civilization was omitted.”

“Omitted?” Malcolm asked. “Who decided what to omit?”

“The Board of Directors,” she said. “And primarily the Chairman of the Board.”

“And who is that?”

Adra smiled.

“Corbin has been the Chairman since the beginning. Museum Earth was his idea.”

Malcolm blinked.

“How is that possible?” he asked. “How old is he?”

“I do not know,” Adra replied. “Age is relative. He has been alive for over one hundred thousand Earth years, at least.”

“He doesn’t look a day over forty!”

“Individuals within the Galactic Community have access to the best life-extension technology,” Adra explained.

“If everyone on Earth is supposed to die, how did Corbin survive the first time?” Malcolm asked.

“During the original time of humanity’s civilization on Earth, a ship was launched into space with Corbin and other humans on board. It was intercepted by a Galactic Community probe that was investigating that quadrant of the galaxy after having detected evidence of human civilization. By then, however, it was too late. Humanity had wiped itself out. Those on the ship were the only survivors.”

“How many are there?”

“Originally there were two hundred,” Adra said. “Now, he is the last one.”

Malcolm blinked, stunned.

“What happened to them?” he asked.

“They died.”

“What about all that great life-extension technology?”

Adra shrugged. Malcolm wondered if that was a normal, natural gesture for her, or if she had learned it. She was, after all, an alien.

Their bubble was well beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, yet Malcolm did not feel weightlessness, which he thought was odd. He asked Adra about that.

“The universe we are in does not recognize the laws of gravity,” she said. “There are no stars in this universe. Only shadows of stars.”

The bubble pulled into a platform with invisible walls. Beyond, like a gigantic blue and white and green and brown wall mural, slowly rotating, was Earth. Malcolm stepped from the bubble and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at his home.

“It is a beautiful world,” Adra said.

“Yes, I think so.”

The platform was deserted, just like the one within the Earth’s crust.

“Where is everyone?” he asked.

“This platform is not used very often,” Adra said.

“How far can one go in the bubbles?” he asked. “Is that how you travel from star to star?”

Adra laughed.

“No, it would take far too long. We use lightships that travel in superluminal space throughout the galaxy.”

“Superluminal space? Is that like another universe?”

Adra shook her head.

“It is an aspect of our universe, a dimension that exists on the other side of the lightspeed barrier.”

Malcolm nodded. It seemed to make sense, although he didn’t quite understand it.

A bubble suddenly slid into the platform, in a greenish tube. A moment later, a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus climbed from within. Malcolm felt himself become faint, unsteady.

“It is Jik,” Adra announced.

To steady himself, Malcolm reached out, touched her shoulder. He quickly moved his hand, however, worried that she might have lied about what it took to mimic someone.

“You probably will not die this time,” Adra said.

“It is almost time,” said Jik, in a voice that sounded exceedingly pleasant and calming. Malcolm immediately felt better.

“Where is Corbin?” Adra asked.

“He has not yet arrived,” Jik said.

“Shall we begin?” she asked.

Jik paused a moment.

“Yes, let us begin.”

Adra’s smiled vanished, and her expression now seemed less friendly.

“Begin what?” Malcolm asked.

“I am sorry I have not been completely honest with you,” Adra told him. She pulled a wand from somewhere, Malcolm wasn’t sure where, and pointed it at him.

“What are you doing?” Jik asked her. His tentacles moved towards Adra. She turned the wand on him, and a bolt of lightning sprang forth and right through his center. Jik collapsed to the platform floor, immobile, his charred center smoking.

At that moment, dozens of bubbles, of every color, zoomed into the platform, stopped, and from within issued forth dozens of little green men in black, all holding weapons. They surrounded Malcolm and Adra. Moments later a silver opaque bubble slid into the platform, and Corbin emerged from within. He strode through the ranks of little green men in black until he stood before Adra.

“You are hereby charged with attempting to disrupt the mission of the Museum,” he said to her.

“Not me,” Adra said. “You.”

Corbin shook his head.

“I knew there were those who would attempt to prevent humanity from destroying itself, therefore I pretended to be one of them in order to attract others to me.”

“That is precisely what I was doing,” Adra said ever so calmly.

Corbin shook his head sadly.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it’s that you aliens can’t lie worth beans.”

“Beans?” Malcolm asked, frowning.

Corbin looked at him.

“It’s an expression,” he explained. “It’s one of the reasons I can’t believe the civilization on Museum Earth is worth saving. What’s the expression you use? Hill of peanuts? In your version of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says ‘our problems aren’t worth a hill of peanuts.’ I can’t accept that. Humanity was real the first time around, but we screwed it up. Now it’s an artificial creation, a tool the Galactic Community needs to prevent other civilizations from screwing up the same way.”

“But that is exactly what I believe,” Adra said. “I was going to sabotage your attempt to save humanity.”

“You were?” Malcolm asked.

She nodded.

“You must understand,” she said. “The lesson of humanity has prevented many other civilizations from developing weapons of global destruction. Museum Earth has proven that a civilization that goes down that path will destroy itself. It has happened with other civilizations, as well. Many believe the entire galaxy could succumb if such civilizations are saved and permitted to expand beyond their home worlds.”

“I would like to believe that you did not intend to save humanity, Adra,” Corbin said. “I really would. But I can’t take that chance.”

He nodded to the little green men in black, two of whom produced wands, which they aimed at Adra.

“You are making a mistake,” Adra said.

“Perhaps,” Corbin said.

Adra dropped her wand, and the little green men in black took her to a yellow tube and aboard a bubble, which quickly whisked her away.

“What will you do to her?” Malcolm asked.

“She will be put into suspended animation for ten thousand years.”

“And what about me?”

“You will be returned to Earth.”

“Aren’t you worried that I’ll do something different now, and mess things up? Humanity might not destroy itself.”

Corbin shook his head.

“You do not know what, or what not, to do. The chances that you will do anything to save humanity are well beyond the Threshold of Probability.”

“I see.”

“Or, you may remain here in the Observatory with us,” Corbin said. “We could use another human on our team.”

Malcolm didn’t even need to think about it.

“Thanks, but I’d rather die with everyone else,” he replied.

Corbin smiled and nodded.

One of the little green men in black held up what looked like a remote control device, and pressed a button. A window opened before Malcolm, a portal in the fabric of space-time, opening to Peachtree Street between the cafe and the mall. He stepped through.

* * * * *

At home there was a message from work that if he didn’t call in by the next day he’d be fired. Since it was now well past the next day, he assumed he needed to look for a new job. But then he realized that humanity had a deadline for extinction that was rapidly approaching, so why bother?

There was also a message from Teresa, saying she had something that belonged to him and wanted to give it back. She wanted him to meet her that morning at her office.

He wanted to see her, but at the same time he didn’t want to. He still both loved and hated her. Loved her for who she was: the woman he had married. And hated her for who she had become: the woman who had left him.

Ultimately, curiosity and fatalism won out. What did she have of his that she wanted to give back? And why not go see her if she, and he, and everyone else was going to be dead soon? He got dressed and headed out. Since her office wasn’t too far away, he decided to walk, which would also give him time to prepare himself emotionally to see her again.

As he walked, he couldn’t help but think that what had happened had all been a dream. But he knew it had been real. He tried to think, what could he do to save the human race? Nothing came to mind.

He crossed a street with a gas station on one corner that had a flower shop inside it. He remembered something that Corbin had said about the simple of act of giving a woman flowers having the power to change everything. Malcolm stopped. Teresa loved flowers, and he had never given her any. He had always thought of flowers as a waste of money, really. Money meant nothing to him, now. He went into the flower shop.

The woman behind the counter turned around, and Malcolm’s felt his heart nearly stop.

It was Adra.

“Oh my god,” he said.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I thought you were gone,” he told her.

“Excuse me, but do I know you?” she asked.

“Adra, it’s me, Malcolm.”

“My name isn’t Adra,” the woman said. “It’s Heather.”

Malcolm frowned. Then he realized something.

“Did you have a strange experience recently?” he asked her. “Where you found yourself walking down the street and then suddenly you woke up in a room, and you were surrounded by these… creatures?”

Heather’s face went pale, and she nodded.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Same thing happened to me,” he said.

“Did you also find yourself making love to yourself?” she asked.

Malcolm blinked. So Adra had not lied.

“Uh, no,” he said.

“Too bad. It was amazing.”

“I’m on my way to see someone now,” Malcolm told her. “I want to bring her flowers.”

“Is she someone special to you?”

Malcolm nodded.

“Behind you,” Heather said.

Malcolm turned around and saw a bouquet of red and white roses.

“She’ll like those,” Heather told him.

“I’ll take them.”

He left the flower shop with more of a spring in his step. It was amazing how buying flowers for someone made him feel so much better. If nothing else, he could now say that he had brought his wife flowers, even if she was no longer his wife.

As he walked, he saw the air shimmer before him. It took a moment for him to remember what that meant. But as a portal opened up in the space-time continuum, there were no tentacles lashing out to grab him.

What he saw, instead, were six little green men in black. He remembered Adra’s warning, and averted his gaze immediately. Malcolm sidestepped the portal and ran across the street, forcing cars to skid to a halt as he bolted past.

On the other side of the street he paused to look back. Six little green men in black were coming after him. They were fast, too. But so was Malcolm, whose longer legs propelled him ahead of them. Three broke off and went down a side street. Mentally picturing where Teresa’s office was and where he was at that moment, he realized they were going to cut him off at the pass, so to speak.

Maybe seeing Teresa again was the Reverse Omega Moment, and that’s what they were trying to prevent. And he had wasted time by stopping to get flowers. Damn! He could imagine it: I’m sorry, I could have saved the human race from extinction, but I had to stop and buy flowers for my ex-wife.

He wasn’t going to give up, though, not when he was so close.

He rounded a corner and saw the bank ahead. At that moment, three of the little green men in black rounded the other corner, and now stood between Malcolm and the bank. They lined up, blocking his way. One of them pulled out a wand. Malcolm didn’t slow down.

Malcolm, running at full speed, got close enough before the wand could be aimed, leaped into the air and sailed over the little green men in black. He went up the steps of Teresa’s office building, two at a time. Without pausing to look back, he pulled one of the large double-doors open and went inside.

“Malcolm,” Teresa said. Her office was immediately off to the left of the lobby. She sat behind her desk with her door open. He walked over to her as she watched with a stunned expression.

“Here,” was all he could say. Out of breath. He held the roses out to her.

“What are these for?” she asked.

“They’re for you,” he replied.

Teresa closed her eyes for a second, then opened them.

“Why did you bring me roses?” she asked. Her voice sounded stern. He could tell right away that Teresa was not pleased.

“I thought…”

“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t think.”

“You like flowers,” he said.

“I love flowers,” she responded. “And you never brought me flowers the whole time we were married. And now…” She shook her head, then continued. “Malcolm, seeing you the other night, I thought maybe it would be nice to, I don’t know, re-connect with you… on a different level. As a friend, I guess. But, obviously, you’re not ready for that.”

She sighed heavily.

“Anyway, here,” she said as she opened the drawer of her desk. She pulled out a ring. Malcolm recognized it immediately. It was Teresa’s wedding ring.

“I don’t want that,” he told her.

“Take it,” she said. “Maybe you can sell it. I know you need the money.”

Malcolm remembered that he didn’t have a job anymore. He took the ring from her.

“Bye, Malcolm.”

He turned to go.

“Please take these with you, too,” Teresa said, holding the roses up to him.

He took them.

Outside, Corbin stood at the bottom of the steps, and behind him stood the six little green men in black.

“You did it,” he told Malcolm.

“Did what?”

“You saved humanity.”

“I did? How?”

“The flowers,” Corbin said. “Had you not brought flowers to Teresa, she would have taken pity on you. She would have given in to giving you one more chance. And that would have done nothing to prevent humanity’s demise. But now she’ll put more effort into her new relationship, which will disrupt the Omega Moment of her lover.”

“I thought you wanted to stop anyone from saving humanity.”

Corbin shook his head.

“A ruse. I knew Adra was trying to stop me. But they didn’t know I knew. So I used my resources as Chairman to make it look like I was stopping her. I had no choice, I had to fool the little green men in black, too.”

“Yeah, what about them?” Malcolm asked.

“Now that humanity is saved, their job is over.” He turned around to look at the little green men in black. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, now.”

“We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant,” said one.

With that, they opened a portal in the space-time continuum and went through, one at a time. The last one turned to Malcolm, and gave him a thumbs-up.

“It’s been real,” he said with a wink. The portal started to close around his arm, which he yanked back through at the last second.

“What about you?” Malcolm asked Corbin.

“Oh, I think I’ll stick around, grow old, and see what happens.” He turned and started walking down the sidewalk. But there was something nagging at the back of Malcolm’s mind, and he called out Corbin’s name. The very, very old man who looked less than forty years old turned and regarded Malcolm patiently.

“There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Malcolm said. “You told me that I would’ve been hit by a truck if you hadn’t saved me. How could I have had an Omega Moment, or a Reverse Omega Moment, if I was dead?”

Corbin smiled.

“Ah, yes… you see, your Omega Moment was actually what we call a probabilistic Omega Moment. Basically, had you lived, your Omega Moment would likely have happened, and therefore your Reverse Omega Moment was also determined.”

“Oh, okay, thanks,” Malcom, said, smiling and nodding and not really getting it at all. Without another word, Corbin turned and walked away.

Malcolm decided to go home. When he passed the flower shop, he paused, went back inside.

“Changed your mind?” Heather asked.

“Yes,” he replied. Then, “These are for you, Heather.” He handed her the roses.

 

The Worthless Man

The Worthless Man

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Spilled neon wallows as usual around the watery blackness of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling night markets; it’s a special night for those who are Chinese, when firecrackers follow dancing dragons into Buddhist temples, and the well-to-do sit unafraid in good restaurants that rotate on top of tall buildings, all the better to see the New Year bursting over the night sky of Chinatown. And in the sky above the Malay district the spotlights of FDS search the muggy streets with the wide white beams of their silent helicopters, hunting for three old men on the run.

* * * * *

I’m told this is the seedy side of town. For our purposes, that is both good and bad. I’m afraid of the place and I’m afraid of FDS, Fujimoto Digital Shadow. My thinking for now is it’s better to die on the run than to die their way. My newfound friends are Shandar and Dutczak. I wear stolen dark glasses on top of my head. My skin is pale and noticeable. Shandar is darker and can probably avoid detection for a longer time. Dutczak is paler than I am, with a thick face and he’s too tall to be hiding alongside of us. Luckily for now we have dark alleys and crowded places to hide, places where the authorities prefer not to go. Besides, they don’t like FDS any more than we do.

Shandar seems to have surfaced as our temporary leader. I don’t mind, as he speaks some Malay and can pass for a local. They had not yet processed us when we made our escape. Between us we have some yen and some dollars and the clothes we wear. As a further disguise, we each bought a batik shirt on the corner, Shandar saying something in Malay to the effect, “Give us three shirts, a small a medium and a large.” Mine makes me look like a turtle.

I was kidnapped in Singapore not two days ago and auctioned off on Saturday. I’ve not been here in KL for forty hours. Shandar was taken near the Thai border and was brought by bus. Dutczak, our Ukrainian, was in a German nursing facility writing his memoirs when they snatched him. I know them hardly at all, except we happened to be using the restroom at the same time when the supplier opened the outer door, and so here we are, out of breath, confused and scared to death.

Predatory taxis glide through the aftermath of heavy rain looking for fares. Their tires calmly unzip the watery ways as they slow, and we wave them by. Firecrackers pop nonstop in the distance, and the streets are filled with the smell of cooking and burnt pyrotechnics. There’s no sign yet of FDS foot patrols.

“Shouldn’t we find a bar or something,” I say, “hide somewhere inside?”

Shandar agrees and Dutczak agrees too, saying, “I’m six foot six. Maybe you’d be better off without me.”

Shandar says, “That goes without saying; two old ferengi with pale faces… but, no, no one should bother us inside. They’re afraid in this part of town. We’re safe here for now. Look, I see a place on the corner.”

Indeed, I see it too, where he’s pointing, lettered in Chinese, red on yellow, and in English as well, China Doll; there’s a silhouette of a cocktail and a girl. Tattooed teenagers hang outside with big teeth grinning and nodding, slouching against graffiti in at least three languages. They look as if they would kill you for a few yen, or just for a good time, but they only smile with vacant eyes when we pass through them; and so we three, an American, a Gypsy, and a Ukrainian walk into a bar in Kuala Lumpur, the China Doll—but it’s no joke and we’re wet with sweat and rain, and are more scared probably than at any time in our lives. Our most common thread is that we’re old, in the winter of our lives, where comfort should be primary on our minds. We’re very old and useful for only one thing. It’s the footprint of our souls that they paid for, the shadowy distillate of our DNA, the who-we-were that they want… That much we know and very little else. Once past ninety there are few legal rights—if not in law, then in fact—since the monster octopus that is New Japan has the long reach of its yen.

A Chinese girl smiles, understanding we’ve not come for massages or companionship, and she seats us in the back where Shandar orders us three coffees in English. We say nothing until the coffee comes.

We’re tired, possibly in shock, and finally I say as the pretty girl serves us our coffee, heavy with sugar and lightened with milk, “What now? Do you really think their patrols will stay away from here?”

“Their scanners will find us. Eventually. Whether they’ll attempt to take us here in such a heavily Malay district so soon is another thing. We might as well get to know each other, for better or worse.”

This I already know: Shandar and Dutczak in their past lives have been in some way notable. Or illustrious. Their lives have been somehow exceptional. Or else they would not be here now.

So, as to who we are… “Let’s keep it short,” Shandar says, scanning the room of dancing chaos, smothered in the din of laughter and western music. It seems to be true that we’re safe for now. The club has welcomed us into its loud belly and remains oblivious to our presence, and so I take my turn. “My name is Paul. I’m American. I was chief global attorney for North American Affairs when I was younger but turned to writing later in life. No family to speak of. Never married. I have bank accounts in three countries and could maybe get some of it, but I don’t know if FDS controls the money supply here…”

“I don’t know either,” Shandar interjects. “We’ll plan that next. So what is your special talent, that which they want from you? Surely, attorneys are common enough.”

“Well… probably my creativity… my faculty for persuasion, my gift for gab. You might say I can build castles with words. I’m a poet and that makes me, as you say, special. My poetry has been called… uhm… unique… There were awards… I was very well received in certain circles…”

“Whatever. Never heard of you,” Shandar says.

“But you don’t even know…”

“Never heard of you,” he repeats, “And what about you, Mister Dutczak? What talent is it that they seem to want from you?”

I shrug and sip the sweet brown coffee as Dutczak speaks, in perfect English with a Slavic voice that chews his words, “I’m in mathematics,” he says. “I taught Theoretical Mathematics and Computation at the University of Berlin. I’ve contributed to journals; of course, some of it was groundbreaking. I’m an avid chess player. My wife has been dead many years now, but I have a son living in Massachusetts.”

Shandar has chosen the seat with his back to the wall; he looks around the room, his eyes unblinking, “I can understand why they would want you. But I am next. The name Shandar is a Gypsy name of Hindi origin—and I am nobody. I do not have any of these talents of which you speak. I am Romani, perhaps a bit of a magician as are many of my people. I’m an insurgent, a dissenter… and, naturally, I sing. But I’m in no way extraordinary. They have no reason to have use for my common talents. Perhaps their files have become crossed with some Interpol file. Anything is possible.”

“What is it you’re fighting?” I ask.

“Are you joking? I fight this new world, this complacency, this ugliness. Open your eyes, man. I fight this modernity that has made us all part of some mass brain…” He begins to sputter, as if the day is not long enough to explain his quest. “It’s a long story. Still, I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. Certainly my magic is commonplace. I’ve spent the better part of my life in a special prison where the guards are also trained in the magical arts, making it nearly impossible to escape.”

“But you did escape,” I say.

“Perhaps they were not paying attention. In any case, I have no intention of behaving well. Anyway, gentlemen, I suggest we leave the city as soon as possible. I know this part of the world quite well, and it’s a matter of time before they offer a reward. These scoundrels here will happily accommodate them if only for a chance to participate in some new drug study.”

Dutczak says, “I’m not well. I won’t be able to keep up if our journey is too strenuous.”

“At least,” adds Shandar, “they didn’t send us to one of their experimental moon colonies, where there’d be no hope of escape.”

I shudder at the thought and I notice his words slowing as his eyes look in the distance to the entryway, and I begin to see why… “I thought you said we were safe in this part of town,” I say. A uniformed man is inquiring at the entrance and scanning the cavernous room with a small instrument.

“He doesn’t look Japanese,” Shandar says. “A contractor perhaps, a collaborator, but not Japanese. When he approaches, do not move or speak.”

The uniformed man has replaced his scanner with his weapon, and approaches our table. “He’s possibly Malay, perhaps Baba,” Shandar says, almost whispering to himself, as if estimating the man’s abilities.

The man wears the FDS patch on his chest. “Stand up you three,” he says in a strong voice, and chairs fall and the docile drugged faces of the partiers flutter away softly like bats readjusting in a cave. “You three, stand,” he says again. He points the short weapon midway between us and Shandar simply looks him in the eye, reaches out slowly, and holds the barrel as if it were a jewel to be inspected, and with his other hand he makes shapes that seem to dazzle the poor man, whereupon the man’s eyes seem to shut down, peeping through the tiny confused slits of his eyelids—petrified in some way. And Shandar says, “Let’s go; my little trick is fleeting.”

* * * * *

“I told you I was a magician,” he says later. It’s a simple thing, to seemingly freeze time while I adjust my props. It’s common among my people, a primordial talent, I suppose.” We sit in a taxi, Shandar sitting in front telling the driver, “Take us out of here, out of the city. Go east. We can pay.” And the driver pulls away from the curb adjusting his mirror, not to the view behind us, but to Dutczak and me, squeamish and huddled in the back seat.

He drives away from the big city towards and into the heart of the peninsula, where it is said tigers still roam… “Where modernity is hardly fed,” says Shandar, “and, god willing, may die in its present form before it is too late for us all.”

There’s little conversation. We’re exhausted. The night is moonless and quiet, more so in contrast to the din of the celebrating city, and at last Shandar says, “This will do fine,” as he collects our money and pays the driver what he asks, plus extra for his silence.

The little kampong has no more than thirty huts, almost all on stilts to keep them dry in the monsoon rains, and I smell spices cooking. As it is late, jungle noises surround the kampong. They are disquieting to me, their shrillness stopping and starting in unison like some ancient squeaky machine. “Can we hide here forever?” I say.

“No, of course not,” Shandar says. Dutczak only looks at us both, knowing he has no choice but to follow—or kill himself to avoid the end provided by FDS. “We will move further into the interior soon enough. We’re bound for a place more primitive still.”

Tea all round. Chicken curry and rice, a squishy vegetable of some sort in a simmering liquid. Thankfully, the village welcomes us. In the distant past it had endured the Japanese, it had hid itself from the communists, and now it hides from the world at large. Pointing to an elderly woman in a sarong, Shandar says, “I’ve spoken to machi over there. She knows of places where the scanners are not likely to probe, where people live simpler lives.”

“My god,” I say. “Simpler than this?” There are late-night village noises, most are asleep. As we sit, our creaky legs bent on the floor, we exchange helloes.

“We’re honored that the imam would sit at our table,” Shandar says. He’s an old man, possibly as old as us. “It’s especially kind that you prepare food so late at night.”

The imam has heard my mocking words about the simple life, and says, “Our ways may seem old to you but we are happy.” And then, “Why are you running from the law? Or if you are not running, tell me why are you here?”

Dutczak and I defer to Shandar, “It’s not the law that pursues us,” he says, “but FDS.”

“FDS?”

It’s my turn to speak, “Fujimoto Digital Shadow. They make educational tools, teaching machines for one thing, for those in advanced learning. It’s a Japanese company, but there are others, mostly Japanese; there is also a big one in Brazil, I believe. Simply put, they want to steal our souls… I don’t know how else to say it.”

The imam shakes his wide palms in front of us as if not to allow such demon ideas into his head, “I do not understand. You cannot steal one’s soul. My people go back very far, we are Orang Asli, People of the Soil, and even in the old times we understood a soul cannot be stolen, only one can give it freely to good or evil.”

I say, “You see, imam, out there in the world there are few rights given to those older than ninety. We are dispensable…”

“Dispensable?”

“We do not own our own lives, and especially so if there is something we can give back to the world. It’s not really our souls they want, but… well, I’m not a scientist, but it’s the memory of our lives, our natural… I suppose talents that they want.”

“Well,” says Dutczak, “I am involved in the sciences, and it’s a difficult concept to describe. I know they have isolated the aura surrounding our DNA, the imagination, the memory that has built up over a lifetime… that which makes us who we are.”

“I do not understand what you say. How could it be of use to these people, these FDS people?”

“They’ve learned to re-engineer the product, or rather the byproduct of our DNA. To make it useful. At first they used it to create interactive studies by which the best and brightest minds are used as sort-of devils’ advocates in the teaching process. You know, us more gifted ones, our canned experiences against the students, the young learners in the thought process…”

Alah-mah! I don’t understand, but it seems frightening what you say. Are you to say they capture your being and put it into a machine that is used to teach?”

“Basically, yes,” I say. “And we’re free to hand over our bodies for the good of mankind if we so chose. Most do not choose that path and so they hunt us down and sell us in their so-called marketplace. We’re old, as you can see. There are laws, but our leaders often look the other way. Those of us who have special talents are most valuable, of course, to graft onto their equipment.”

“And they kill you when they do this… this transfer?”

“No. Well, actually we don’t know,” I say.

“And that’s the worst of it,” Dutczak adds, “Whether there is some sort of lingering consciousness, we just don’t know.”

“This is a terrible thing. It is evil. It is worse than I thought. Is it truly a help to those who wish to learn? I mean is it truly an aid to those who wish to learn from your experience?”

“Ah. If it were so,” Dutczak says, “then I may even make the sacrifice. You see, sir, they also make video games, games of reality no longer virtual, but real, to give the bright children only the best against whom to compete.”

“Surely, this cannot be so,” the imam says. But when there is no response from us, he says, “Yes, we will help you. But where I will take you there are not many… how you say… enjoyments.”

* * * * *

Kidnapped and now free. For the time being. Freedom without comfort or familiarity. As the vehicle grunts through the mud we sit under cover of a tarp, not talking but for the silent conversations in our wandering thoughts. I’m thinking how better we could have explained this new technology to the un-schooled imam. None of us really can, for even we three know only what we’ve read in the cursory, often forbidden, explanations given in the underground periodicals: round the double helix there being this halo of our thoughts, a lifetime of conversations and those accruals of imagined debates that go on inside the brain, each a fiction played out with a different outcome; there are footprints in our brains, even unconnected thoughts yet to find creative meaning.

Or simply, for us, call it experience of the gifted. Or call it the nuts and bolts of the soul. Though Shandar claims to have never heard of me—which I doubt—I sadly take secret pride that I am among the chosen of FDS—as they too must feel a certain pride. All I know is that as for me they have chosen well. I assume Dutczak has heard of my work. He has not said so. Surely he must have some knowledge of the arts. “Say what you want,” I mutter as the ancient vehicle grinds into another gear, “but I’m good as gold. And the Japanese want me. They want me . . . They want me.”

* * * * *

Bukit Piatu is small even for a village, but is surrounded by like-size kampongs and, in all, they form a larger community of farmers and hunters. Our new-found home is welcoming and the imam has come along to introduce us. We will have to earn a living even though we are old. I suggest we could teach, but the imam tells us before he departs that he thinks that is not such a good idea, that perhaps we might think of something more useful to provide.

I’m wondering if I can survive the heat here for the remainder of my life. It is a wet heat. I can see Dutczak is breathing heavily. Shandar seems to be adapting just fine though he is old as well. English is rarely spoken. We’re told what we hear is an ancient dialect of Malay, and Shandar seems to get by adequately with it. We have sat for two days telling tales, Dutczak and I—perhaps competing in a friendly way—but mostly just bragging of the fact that we were after all chosen by the FDS for our special talents, and as I put it, being a few diamonds in a bed of broken rock. I’m an artist first and foremost. Although I accept that my talent is god-given I fantasize how FDS would use my gift. It is my guilty pleasure for surely one cannot teach the kind of splendor that lies within me, that breathes in my work. We’re old enough to brag and not feel uneasy by it. At least I am open as to who I am.

We three have come to know each other well, but are perhaps too old and too familiar with the loss of those we’ve known and loved to admit to liking one another.

“There’s an old woman in the far hut who will act as our advisor,” Shandar says. “She’s quite old. She says she even remembers as a child the Australian camp in Malacca. She grew up there and speaks English quite well.”

* * * * *

Introductions all round. Tea of course, and rice cakes. We squat on bamboo mats. Dutczak and I have already learned the Malay art of eating without utensils.

Latifah’s hair is long and gray and loose. She breathes slowly and deeply, making her wide nose flare rhythmically as she speaks. The drooping eyelids show wisdom. She smiles with large white teeth and shiny gums that show health. She believes we should all be able to work out quite well in the kitchens, which we snicker at, but then see we really have no choice if we are to contribute. After all, it’s not likely that we will hunt monkeys with blow darts or trap armadillos. She’s a kindly old woman and on this my third evening in my new home I say, “Ma’am, what is it you do for entertainment here? Don’t the children become bored?”

“Our amusement? Oh, there is wonderful entertainment,” she smiles. “Not of your world, but much better. I have seen your toys and it makes me want to… spit. Excuse me. That was not a kind thing to say.”

“Then show us. Show us what your people do in their leisure time.”

“Oh I shall. Tomorrow night is our gathering night. You will see the beauty of it, the simplicity. You shall see that which we call the wayang kulit.”

I look at Dutczak and he shrugs. I look at Shandar and see he’s smiling at the old woman and nodding his head in knowing appreciation.

I’m concerned about Dutczak’s health. He’s coughing more now. I think his run is nearly over. I see his lips moving in prayer when he doesn’t think we’re watching.

But he’s fit enough the following evening as the surrounding jungle comes to life. Torches are lit and the surrounding villages comprising maybe a few hundred people gather round. They give us three front row seats of straw mat. There is a screen backlit by a dozen torches. It’s a puppet show we are about to see, and Shandar smiles when he sees my look of recognition, and says, “They are the shadow puppets, the wayang kulit. It has been their way for centuries.”

Drums silence the jungle long enough for the introduction, in Malay of course, and then the shadows that are cast onto the white cloth act out their parts, easy enough to understand. There is drama, and there is humor which I don’t understand, but I laugh just the same because it is contagious. The play goes on for a very long time and I’m aware there’s no reason to care about the time or how many hours have passed. It’s a feeling of freedom as I sit, thinking, only momentarily, that somehow I possibly have led a poor life. I see Dutczak spellbound in delight, his blink-less eyes flickering in the night, but upon further observation, I realize he’s dead.

We bury him around noon on the following day. He was in his nineties after all. This big adventure I think added to a worthwhile life. Latifah knows prayers and we allow her the honors. I don’t understand the words but she clearly sets him adrift in a different world, perhaps with a letter of reference; to which I conclude, “He seemed like a nice fellow.”

* * * * *

Some weeks pass before the boredom sets in. Shandar keeps to himself and disappears for long periods of time. I have taken a liking to Latifah and we spend more and more time together. I think she enjoys my company. If her memories are true, then she is older than anyone I have ever met. And I sense her stories are true. Not all years ripen into wisdom, but I sense in Latifah wisdom and kindness. I think she finds me vain, and refuses to admit that I am a somebody in this life. At first I was offended but have come to appreciate her honesty. At one sitting we eat rambutans fresh from the tree behind her hut, and she smiles with those large protruding teeth, and she says, “I should think a poet such as you would know his inner self.”

“Clearly, one cannot be a true poet without such an ability,” I say. “I would agree, if I don’t know myself then I am not the artist I am said to be. But the world knows differently. And wouldn’t it seem to you that FDS wanting me should be proof of something?”

“Then you believe what the world says and not what your heart says. That would make you a false philosopher. Oh, it is sad, my friend, that you take pride in such things, that you only look to the tip of your nose to see the meaning of life. And immortality.”

“Ouch,” I say, oddly finding myself at a loss for words.

And I admit: This common life does not fit me well. Some are born to greatness; some are not. I seem not fit to peel potatoes or mince garlic; curry does not suit my palette or my stomach. I miss the new world from which I came, and by god I miss the accolades. I freely admit it; at home I was a king; here I’m but the village idiot. In time I may become accustomed to hiding from the helicopters that occasionally pass overhead like giant quiet pterodactyls. But I doubt it. When they come at night the beams of light are blinding. I continue to wonder why their sophisticated sensors don’t find me.

* * * * *

But in the fourth week they move in quietly like the fog, and not from the air as I’d learned to expect. It is one evening after dinner and my hands are blistered and perhaps infected from the primitive knife I’ve used to peel the tapioca. “Run! Run! They are here!” It’s the voice of a child whose name I don’t know, and there are other villagers running too, and screaming to each other. Five men in green uniforms fire as they go. Each wears a sensor on his helmet. It’s as if the scene is in slow motion as they round up whomever they can catch. Not a few are faces and bodies I recognize, some lying on the ground either motionless or groaning.

But it’s not FDS who searches, but government authorities. I’m among those they herd like cattle up onto the puppet stage. One by one, a soldier scans us with a wand. When they come to me, the man says, “You are not Malay.”

They have found me. “I’m not Malay. I‘m American,” I say proudly, and he scans the area around my chest and head, and pushes buttons on his little apparatus. “Where is Shandar the Magician?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him.”

“You stupid old man,” he says, and pushes me hard enough that I fall backwards onto the ground.

And then he moves on, leaving me to wiggle back to a standing position unharmed.

They’ve posted a guard on the road. I sit and talk with Latifah. Her face is bruised from the slapping they gave her. I’m clumsy but try to dab at the cut above her eye without causing too much pain. She flinches and being so far from modern medicine I fear the worst. It would be my fault for bringing them here, but she seems resolved, and utters some such-is-life triteness in one of the many Malay proverbs she uses when she is frustrated with me.

A woman takes the damp cloth from me, which relieves me a great deal, and Latifah says, “It’s not you they come for. It’s obvious. They’re looking for Shandar our humble magician.”

“They have come for us three. I have put you in danger.”

“I don’t believe so, even if you wish it were true. Shandar is a leader in the movement,” she says.

“I wish I could talk to him. Is he okay?”

“I’m here, my friend. Behind you.”

Shandar’s voice sends a chill up my spine, but when I turn to see, there is nothing. “Here, here I am,” the voice laughs; and his image slowly materializes from the bamboo walls of Latifah’s hut.

“You crazy magician,” I say, rising. “It’s good to see you.”

“I will be moving on, of course. I’m dealing with fools out there, the ones keeping watch, but it’s only a matter of time before they send reinforcements with Gypsy talents. What is it you wish to ask before I go?”

“There’s so much. Everything! I want to know everything!”

“Well, firstly, I lied. I escaped from a prison in Bangkok and was able to evade Interpol by reassigning myself to the FDS facility in KL. It was my trickery that got us out of there, not luck as you and Mr. Dutczak were led to believe. But I’m never far from capture. I’ll be moving on later tonight. There’s still work to be done.”

“But what work? What are you fighting against?”

“I have told you, a return to a simpler life.”

“That’s it? But that’s impossible, Shandar. You can’t go back.”

“I can try, and I will try.”

Even I can be noble. “Do you want my help?”

“It would be difficult for you to contribute, my friend. Perhaps you should return with the authorities. FDS will make you comfortable. I fear you are not meant for this simple village life.”

“Let us drink tea,” Latifah says, dismissing the woman who tends to her. “And then we shall send Shandar on his way. As to whether you should return to this FDS, it is your decision. Apparently they have not detected you, even with their scanners… Ssshh.”

“What is it?” I say. But my question answers itself as they burst in, kicking and shouting and once again knocking me to the ground.

“Where is he? Where’s the Magician?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And it’s true. He’s gone as sure as the shadow of a puppet when the light dies. “I… I need to ask you something,” I say.

“What is it, old man?”

“I’m wanted by FDS. I’ve escaped and wish to return to Kuala Lumpur.”

The soldier pulls his scanner from his chest plate and scans my eyes. “I see,” he says. “There was a reward for your capture, but it has been withdrawn. You are free to go about your business.”

“Withdrawn?”

“They no longer need you, old man. They don’t want you.”

He starts to leave the hut, but I find the news suddenly intolerable, “How dare you say that! Are you saying that I’m worthless?”

“Get out of my face, old man,” he says, and he shoves me yet again. And for the third time I fall back on brittle bones, hitting my head on a table.

Latifah sits, taking it all in, shaking her head, and I’m suddenly ashamed, seeing behind those wrinkled folds a hundred years of wisdom that has somehow eluded me. And sadly eludes me still.

When the village is quiet again I sit with Latifah on the stoop of her stilted hut. I think she will be okay. She has lived through worse. I will be returning home, I suppose, to live out my days. Outside the hut, children play with little monkeys and kick at a wicker ball; there are signs of rain to the west Latifah tells me.

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

In the Dark Woods

In The Dark Woods

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Laura Davy

 

The girl vomited on the bloodstained floor as she idly wondered how hard it would be to clean up the mess. Maybe after they got the wolf’s corpse out of the house they’d be able to start tidying up. But despite how clean the house got she knew she wouldn’t be able to look at her grandmother’s floor without seeing blood. She felt like giggling and then she felt sick, but this time she didn’t vomit. She silently savored her victory and went back to trying not to think about anything.

The girl wiped her mouth clean with the corner of her soft red cape and her grandmother came over and rubbed her back. It was a comforting and familiar gesture, but the girl tried not to flinch at her grandmother’s touch. The girl reminded herself to forget that Grandmother had been swallowed whole by the wolf.

The hunter shifted his grip on his axe as he walked over to a window and looked out into the dark woods.

The girl wanted to ask what he saw, but now knew that when she asked a question she might not like the answer.

The girl’s grandmother spoke softly to the girl, “It’s alright.”

But it wasn’t alright. She was the one who talked to the wolf and told it where she was going. Because of her the wolf came to the house and swallowed her grandmother and attacked her. If it wasn’t for the hunter they would both be dead. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or cry. Instead she did nothing.

Her grandmother stood up and said (more to herself than to her two guests), “How about a cup of tea? Would anyone like tea? I think we need some nice hot tea.”

The girl wanted to say that her grandmother should wash herself of the wolf’s saliva before she started worrying about tea. But she didn’t say anything.

The hunter walked across the room and looked out a different window. He frowned.

The girl had always been talkative and curious, and despite what had happened today she couldn’t change who she was in just an afternoon. The girl gave in to her curiosity and asked the hunter, “What is it?”

He didn’t answer for a moment and continued to look out the window. At first the girl wasn’t sure if he heard her, but before she asked again he spoke.

“Wolves travel in packs.”

Her grandmother dropped an empty tea cup and clutched her chest. She started mumbling a prayer under her breath, forgetting lines but continuing on despite the gaps. The girl didn’t react. She didn’t feel anything. In a clinical way she knew she should be afraid, but that didn’t matter to her. What mattered is that she should stay quiet. That she shouldn’t ask any more questions or say anything else. No more comments. No more questions. No more answers. She gripped the hem of her red cape tightly. No more.

The hunter spoke despite the silence.

“The better to hunt you with.”

 

Dolly’s Coffin

Dolly's Coffin

Illustration by Taylor N. Bielecki

by Wade Newhouse

 

When my daughter Julia was born, she immediately stuck her thumb into her mouth, began to suck on it, and refused to be placated with anything else. We have a few photographs of her as a baby, thumb in mouth, looking new and innocent.

Julia got Dolly for her first birthday. Dolly is a soft pink doll, basically just a puffy stuffed shapeless torso with nubs for arms and legs and an oversized head with a smile painted on. Somewhere inside her squishy middle there was a tiny rattle of some kind, and we knew that Julia had picked Dolly to be her special toy when we could hear the muffled rattle in the middle of the night.

For the first few years after that, Julia carried Dolly everywhere with her, and invariably when Dolly was in one hand the other hand was shoving its thumb into Julia’s mouth. Whatever comfort doll and thumb provided seemed to be magnified by the other; just for fun we would sometimes pull Dolly away from Julia’s arms, and as if they were connected by a magic thread the thumb would pull out also. As soon as we released her, Dolly would snap back into Julia’s embrace and her thumb would pop back into her mouth.

By the time Julia started talking, Dolly was still cute but the thumb was not. We started to ask her when she might be a big enough girl to get through the day without sucking the thumb, but that line of questioning led to silence and a tighter embrace of both doll and thumb.

Are you going to suck your thumb in first grade?

Do you ever see any of your friends sucking their thumbs?

The more you suck that thumb, the longer you’re going to have to wear braces when you’re older.

Of course our talking did nothing. Whatever compels a child to suck their thumb is beyond the reach of language. It was not something she would talk about or try to negotiate; it simply Was, before and beyond all consciousness like St. John’s Word in the Beginning. But we began to decide that the thumb-sucking was becoming psychologically inseparable from Dolly, who by now had lost her ability to rattle and was limply, flatly, threatening to come apart.

When Julia was in third grade, Dolly and the thumb-sucking were becoming rarer parts of Julia’s routine, but in those most shadowy moments between stages of consciousness—falling asleep, waking up, hiding after a particularly traumatic confrontation with authority—she would clutch Dolly and suck her thumb as heartily as when she had been an infant. We decided at the end of that summer that it was time to give Dolly up, and we decided to give Julia as much ownership of the process as possible.

“It’s time for Dolly to go away,” we said one Saturday morning.

“You’re going to throw her away!” Near-hysteria, with some hammy overacting.

“We’re not going to throw her away. We’re going to put her away, someplace safe where she can stay forever. And then when you get older and don’t need her anymore we can take her out and you can see her again.”

The hysteria became a blank stare.

“Now,” we continued. “You should make a box and decorate it however you want, and that’s where we’ll put Dolly.”

Julia considered this idea. Decorating boxes was a favorite activity, one that we had found useful to attach to all manner of otherwise unpleasant tasks. So she looked down at Dolly for a few moments, then went into her room and reappeared with her box of markers. I showed her the empty shoebox that we had already scrounged from a closet, and with a quick glance to indicate resignation, determination, and a fair amount of loathing aimed in our direction, Julia took the box and began to sort through her markers on the kitchen table.

Falling back into the routine we had established for artwork at the table, Julia reached for the day’s newspaper that she could spread out underneath her work. I got to it first and handed her the unread sports section, taking care to keep her away from the large headline on the front page. The oversized typeface announced starkly that the police were searching for the body of a third girl missing and presumed drowned in the lake behind our neighborhood.

* * * * *

Hillman Lake looks, in the early morning and at dusk, as if it might date back to prehistoric times. It is not roundly pond-shaped like those deep swimming holes carved out by glaciers in New England. Instead, it has that skeletal, graspy shape that is so typical of muddy waterways here in the south: long and narrow and winding, with fingers of water that curl in and out between jutting teeth red clay banks studded with pines and live oaks. To look across it at any point is easy, but to turn toward either side and imagine what torturous route it follows from here to somewhere further makes your head spin. Its tendrils snake off from the main body in almost untraceable tentacles of brown water that eventually appear under every secondary and state road north of Raleigh; you mount a strong bridge, believe that you have “crossed the lake” and then three hundred yards later cross another bridge. And then a mile further the trees thin out to your right and you see it over there as well. Occasionally narrow tracks of gravel lead off from the roads to those areas of the banks that have been cleared for fishing, but if you follow one and enjoy that location you might never find the same one again. Weather-blasted gray trees emerge from the shallows, showing their tangled roots above the water and then ending, broken off as if by some silent catastrophe. Up from the red earthen banks the land rises quickly into ridges and swales covered over with forests of white pine. When the water is low you can see the strata of the earth revealed in bronze and coral layers.

But Hillman Lake is not prehistoric. In truth, it is barely historic. It was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to control the course and flooding of the Neuse River and to provide drinking water for the city of Raleigh, which canny planners were beginning to predict would soon burst out of its sustainable postwar growth and into something potentially unmanageable. We have arrived there now. Great care has been taken to ensure that the entire endless perimeter of the lake is well screened from the development that creeps, amoeba-like, endlessly outward from the city. The closest neighborhoods, like ours, are a half-mile away from the water and built to seem organic, entirely and naturally part of the tall leafy forest that, on good days, disguises the very fact of so many people living in such proximity to one another. Numerous paths tumble their way down from our back yards, into the screen of trees and ridges and eventually down to the shoreline.

When I was fourteen my family lived in a small house on a gravel road on a different part of the lake. There were no subdivisions then; houses and streets simply sprang up in one place or another, and ours was one of several two-bedroom red brick ranch homes that had somehow been built in a sort of row not far from SR 98. Back then that was how you got from Wake Forest to Durham, and in the course of five miles you crossed the lake four times. Our road was just out of sight of two of those crossings. Without a neighborhood we had no real neighbors, but in the summers the kids from dozens of houses like mine would drift down to the water’s edge and we would get to know one another. We pursued adventures in the trees and in the water, but none of us ever grew particularly close.

That summer Emily appeared. I don’t know where she lived; I had the impression that she came quite a distance along dusty roads and through thickets to get to the part of the lake where I spent my time. Parents are always exasperated when kids can’t answer simple questions like where someone is from, but it really just never came up. Kids become just summer friends, together as time and opportunity allow. Emily came out of the brush one day and offered to help me build some floating contraption I had pieced together out of logs. Sometimes she joined the other kids in the water; other times she was fishing with one or another. Many times there was just the two of us, playing and growing through the summer the way everyone does.

She had strawberry blonde hair and dark eyes, and at fifteen she was shedding her tomboy angles and starting to soften around the edges. As the summer wore on her legs seemed to grow longer and smoother; the white strap that fell down from her shoulder seemed to grow tighter as her breasts began to be noticeable under her shirt; when she stood in the shallow water with her hands on her hips I began to see curves there. She tossed her hair back from her forehead and laughed at me, and I had to turn away or be caught staring. The other boys I played with noticed it too, and one by one they seemed to drift away in little groups of two or three, not sure what exactly she was good for or how they ought to treat her.

Eventually she realized this, and finally (more brave than I) began to talk about it.

“You ever been skinny-dipping?” she asked me one afternoon.

“No way. You?”

“No. You afraid of some girl seeing you?”

“More afraid of what might be in the water.”

She threw a stick at me. “You think some fish might mistake your thing for a worm and take his chances? You got a hook hidden in there somewhere?”

I jumped up from the water’s edge to the line where the erosion ended and the bank rose up in a sudden jutting line of red clay layers and exposed roots. “You don’t know anything about it. There’s a lot of stress involved in packing all this equipment in the water. What if—” I struggled to find a ribald joke that might sound appropriately grown-up. “What if I got it all tangled up in some roots underwater and got pulled under?”

Now we were both laughing. “I’d come down there and pull you out.”

“Maybe I’d rather stay stuck than have you pulling on me.”

She came up out of the water too and started pulling off her t-shirt and shorts.

“Good lord! Are you really going to try it?”

“No, stupid. I’ve got my suit on.”

She wore a white and yellow one-piece swimsuit. I usually just swam in whatever shorts I was wearing that day, and I always found it fascinating that girls had to change from one look to another in order to be right for swimming. I was sitting on a dead log that had fallen from the eroded ledge down to the water, and Emily sat beside me. It was brutally hot, and the far side of the lake shivered in a filmy haze. I often looked across from here and wondered how long it would take to swim across. At that time it never occurred to me to fear what might hide beneath the surface, or to wonder how deep the water ran.

“We should go skinny-dipping some time,” she said. “Just the two of us. Then we’d know what it was like, but no one else would have to know. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, would it?” She looked at me, not quite. “I mean, you wouldn’t be shy around me, would you? You know I wouldn’t look at anything.”

I shrugged. “Whatever. It’s just looking.”

I was looking somewhere down—not straight down at our feet but kind of halfway down, toward where the waterline began, and I turned toward Emily just as she hooked a thumb into the elastic legband of her suit and snapped it free from wherever it had stuck. In that brief moment the material pulled away from her torso and I saw, unbidden, a glimpse of porcelain untanned skin and a dark tuft of hair. I turned away, pressure rising up into my chest, and then I stood up and took a step closer to the water.

“Are you going in now?”

“No,” I said. “I’m just standing here.”

She hopped down from the log and joined me, then went the few extra steps and into the water up to her thighs.

“You’re not afraid to go out there?” I said.

“I got nothing for the fish to try to grab onto.” She held out her long arms and turned her hip sideways to show me.

“My dad said two girls have been found drowned. Both in like the last two weeks.”

“Boys can drown too, you know.”

“I’m not in the water.”

“Come on in, then. Keep me safe.” She smiled at me, and the complexity of her face then has returned to me endlessly over the years since. I have seen many smiles from many girls, and then women, and each new time I try to figure out how they work, what muscles they use, what emotions they connect between eye and lip and heart. I suspect Emily’s was simply honest, but I had never seen anything like it before.

A breeze came up, and I saw the point of Emily’s nipple stiffen beneath the fabric of her suit. “I think I’m going to go home,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in with me?”

“Not today.” Then, stupidly: “Maybe tomorrow.”

She laughed, and I think there was some sadness there. “I might not be here tomorrow.”

“Eventually?” It was the most complicated time scheme I could imagine back then. “Eventually.”

I pushed my way back through the brush and up the hill away from the water, and I thought that she might be close behind me. At some point I turned back, and I could just make out the gray glint of the surface through the trees, but she wasn’t there. When I was back on my street, with the chunks of gravel uncomfortably real beneath my feet, I felt the full weight of my foolishness. With the straight line of the road and the sight of those tiny houses tucked under their green and yellow canopies, the realization that a pretty girl had asked me to come into a lake with her pushed down on me so crushingly that I felt dizzy and out of all time and space. I turned back, but the trees had pulled over the path I had taken, and it suddenly seemed that I had been here between the mailboxes and driveways forever.

When I heard the next day that Emily’s swimsuit had been found at the edge of the lake, my first hurt, ignorant thought had been a lashing indignation that she had actually dared to go skinny-dipping without me. Even moments later, when I realized the true import of this discovery, I could not escape the mental picture of my own water-pruned fingertips touching some part of her just under the glassy green surface and how she might have smiled at me there, in secret, just the two of us.

After a day with no sign of her, the police and groups of volunteers began to descend on our corner of lake to search, dredge, and speculate. I lurked at the edge of the treeline, not far from where I had surrendered to my particular stupid fear, but after a time the police said they had enough men for the search and any more would be in the way. A Baptist preacher, his hair platinum-blonde above dark-rimmed eyeglasses, prayed with members of his congregation and explained the duality of grace and free will while middle-aged women sat in the shallowest water and clenched their hands and eyes tightly shut.

Closer to me was a plump woman of uncertain age, wrapped in thick brown and gray cloaks and blankets. She looked as if she herself might have been pulled from the water recently, with greasy brown hair half-plastered and half-frizzing around her round white face. Her skin was leathery, and a smell like old smoke lingered near her. By the time I realized how close together we were standing, she had noticed me.

“They won’t find her,” she said, as if we had been having a long conversation.

“Why not?” I had not then developed my habitual reluctance to talk to people I had not been introduced to and had no reason to trust.

“Some things just happen. Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be. That’s a whole different kind of gone for a girl to be.”

“Maybe she’s not gone,” I said. “Maybe she’s just lost.”

Now the woman turned to look at me, and I wondered if I had said something insightful or irredeemably foolish. “And now you tell me,” she said, “just what would be the difference between being lost and being gone.”

“She wanted me to swim with her,” I said, and in the strange comfort provided by anonymity I felt the enormity of the horror and my own place in it sweeping around me. The sky seemed invisible beyond the huge blackness created by my smallness being driven away on inconsequential winds. “But I didn’t go.”

“Of course you didn’t go.” If the woman knew about the choking guilt that I was only beginning to realize, she did not betray her knowledge. Instead, she smiled thinly at me—my second memory-corrupting female smile in as many days.

“Some things,” she said, “happen because they do. Some things you accept, or you don’t. That’s your choice to make. You can only react. But you can react well.”

Over my shoulder someone made some kind of strangled cry, and their foot splashed in the shallows, and the Baptist preacher was going on. “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

That night I dreamed that Emily came to me in the dark. I could not see her in the dream, but her voice was talking to me in my head, telling me things. She sounded very far away, but moving closer, and her voice was sad while she talked about being lonely and about how her skin felt when it was touched. When I opened my eyes she was asking me to please swim with her. I lay there breathing for a moment, staring up at the dark ceiling of my bedroom. Then I turned my body to the right and she was lying there beside me.

I closed my eyes to make her go away, and in the darkness of my head I smelled lakewater and sunscreen and wet swimsuit, and I wished that autumn would come.

* * * * *

Her brow creased in concentration, Julia was painting the inside of the shoebox pink. She had dug our miniature hot glue gun out of the drawer where we kept small tools and had plugged it in to warm up. On the table she had gathered a pile of small pebbles. She mumbled something to herself, fragments of a song, while she set the pink box down to dry and inserted a glue stick into the gun. Then she spread the pebbles out and searched for some that might match in size and general shape.

“Can we go swimming later, Dad?”

“I thought you were making a box for Dolly.”

“It will take time to dry. That leaves, like, hours.”

I could imagine the scene at the lake: police, concerned neighbors, television news teams.

“I don’t think today’s a good day to go to the lake, honey.”

Julia stopped her painting in mid-stroke and looked up at me. “What lake? I’m talking about going to the pool. Like yesterday? And the day before that?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Already she had forgotten me. “I’m going to put these little rocks all around the edge of the box. And then I’m going to put some words on the sides, so Dolly will have something to read while she’s in here. Then when I get her back she can tell me what she thinks about all of it.”

An eight year-old’s concept of time is much less absolute than ours. In our minds, we saw Dolly going into the box, then the box going onto a top shelf in a closet somewhere, hopefully to be forgotten until some distant moving day when we might, as a family, open the lid and remember how cute it was all those years ago when Julia needed Dolly by her side. But Julia was thinking not in months and years but in moments: there would be some bedtimes and some morning cranky times without Dolly, and then sometime Dolly would come back from her long sleep and they would start over again as if no time had ever passed. In short, I viewed the pink box studded with pebbles as a coffin, while Julia saw it as an elaborate drawer that could be reopened at our whim, provided that she could pressure us into having such a whim.

“You work on finishing up Dolly’s box. I’m going to take a walk for a few minutes. When I get back we’ll see about the pool.”

Of course she never swam in the lake. Our backyard was a thick forest; we had chosen the house for this very feature, and Julia complained constantly that she was the only one among her circle of friends without a real backyard. A few yards past our property line the rules of the development ended, and as the boulder-studded ground began to slope downward toward the lake you could see where primitive paths had been cut into the woods before the development had been placed here.

I walked through our leafy wooded yard and, as if crossing a magic barrier at our property line, found the end of one of the paths. From here the walk was all downhill, and I remembered a thought I had had when we first bought the house, that autumn would be a fine time to take this walk, free from buzzing insects and with a smoky gray bite in the air. Now it was hazy and steaming; the ground was dusty beneath me.

The path ended on a rise of ground, one of those thrusts of land that stretched out into the lake and made boating a matter of some skill here. As I made my way down from the high ground to the beach, I felt for a moment as if I had discovered something secret, for in the thirty years since I had last played here the summers had grown hotter and the rains less common; the lake was slowly drying up, and the waterline had pulled itself down and back from where my memory told me it should have been. The beach was now some ten to fifteen feet wide from eroded cliffside to gray lapping foam. Bony stumps and branches poked up from the earth that had once been the shallow bottom, now streaked with deep gore-like fissures as the sun had baked the clay and it had shrunk in upon itself, cracked, and split open. Each year, as the parching summers and the growing thirst of the city pulled more water from the lake, more of the bottom was being revealed. Old losses were coming to light, old discarded remnants waking up from watery graves. The lake no longer seemed prehistoric, for no Jurassic waterhole would be found with a plastic doll’s head jammed into its hot dry earth, or broken bottles and rusted cans wedged together beside the shattered remnants of a Styrofoam cooler. These things had been safely invisible, but the water was retreating and taking secrets with it.

As I had expected, I was not the only local with a mind to visit this increasingly archeological site. There was a public beach not far from here, just around two more of these narrow escarpments, but the media had chosen this stretch for their background because it looked more bucolic, more like the kind of mysterious No Man’s Land where a teenaged girl might disappear. A pretty blonde reporter stood with her back to the water (though where she was standing would have been four feet deep when I was a child) while her cameraman adjusted his position relative to hers to get the best framing of water, sky, and treeline on the far bank. Several families’ worth of fat children gaped on the sidelines.

The whole scene was strangely noisy, and people kept coming and going through the trees in groups of two or three. Curious college kids holding beer cans, mothers in large sunglasses trying to keep their toddlers from the water’s edge, an oblivious old man with a fishing pole and tackle box who appeared to be irritated that his chosen spot had been set upon like this. A man with bright blonde hair was holding a Bible and leading a small group of older women in prayer.

“Like Your son, we ask that this cup of sadness be taken from us. But also like Him, we bow to Your awesome will and ask for the strength to endure whatever You ask of us.”

Sitting on a sun-bleached log, a very old woman in a shapeless and colorless dress watched the movement of society around the waterline. Her greasy gray hair lifted itself in the humidity, half-plastered and half-frizzing around her wrinkled white face, but her leathery skin was dry, as if she had been sitting here in the sun for eons and had given up all the moisture of her body to the air. She held a stick, broken from a dead branch. I could smell faint smoke dissipating with the briny odor of the evening water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked her.

“Two other girls drowned, two other girls found. Third one won’t be.”

“Some things just happen.”

She started to turn toward me, but stopped herself, tired from the effort. “That’s right. Some things just happen.”

I heard someone mutter an Amen, and then someone said, “We can take comfort even in grief, because the scriptures show us that we can.”

I looked back up the path that snaked through the trees and back to my neighborhood. “And in thirty more years? Will we be here again?”

The old woman poked at the ground with her stick and drew something there. “Some things you accept, or you don’t.”

I remembered that it would not take Julia long to finish Dolly’s coffin. I started to scramble back up the embankment with the exaggerated quickness of someone who pretends to believe that a few extra quick steps will change the amount of time needed to get from one place to another. I did not look back to the people by the lake, but as I went into the trees the smell of old smoke thinned out and I smelled instead something like youth: suntanned skin and wet swimsuits. I picked up my pace and it stayed with me. By the time I came out from the path into the sculptured landscaping of my backyard I found myself squinting into the sun, almost dizzy with the certainty that someone was just behind me, reaching out to upbraid me for my inability to be where I was needed.

The pink shoebox, decorated with pebbles and lined with scraps of paper bearing quotations from some page-a-day calendar of aphorisms by great thinkers, was waiting for me on the kitchen table. Glued in the very center was a square of paper that read, “Put Dolly Here.”

* * * * *

That night I had to tuck Julia in without Dolly. Julia put on a brave face and pulled her covers up tightly around her. She gathered up a menagerie of other stuffed animals and placed them ceremoniously around her.

“Dolly will come back, right, Dad?”

“Dolly will come back. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

“But you can’t be sure. Sometimes things just happen.”

“That’s right. Sometimes. But we’ll take care of her.”

She considered. “Maybe I’ll write her a letter. Just to let her know that I still love her.”

“I think that would be very nice.” I kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sweetpea.”

“Night.”

I do not know exactly where Dolly was put; by the time I had left Julia’s bedside my wife had placed Dolly in the box and hidden her somewhere. We agreed that, since I was weaker at resisting Julia’s entreaties, I should not know where the box had been placed.
Sometime after midnight, when everyone else was asleep and the house was dark, I opened Julia’s door to check on her one last time. She was sleeping peacefully, but the gaze of the damp and gently curving body of the teenaged girl in the bed beside her met my eye passively. I smelled distant sunscreen and wished for winter.

 

Warp Monkey

Warp Monkey

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by James Maxey

 

Jimbo Williams caught up with Alex Pure in a parking lot in Fanta, Texas around three that morning. Pure was passed out on the roof of his station wagon, using a brightly colored box of fireworks for a pillow. Sleeping inside the station wagon didn’t look like an option. The back seats were stuffed with camping gear and the front passenger seat was a wall of empty fast food detritus. A dumpster aroma seeped from the cracked windows.

Jimbo cleared his voice, but Pure didn’t move. Jimbo stepped closer, touching Pure’s shoulder. Pure didn’t respond. Up close, Pure smelled worse than the car, like a refrigerator gone wrong. His long hair was tangled, streaked with gray, and he wore a full-length navy blue wool coat that was completely out of place in the 85 degree Texas night.

Jimbo poked Pure’s shoulder harder and said, “Hey.” Pure remained immobile. Only a soft snore indicated that he was even alive.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. As science reporter for National Weekly News, Jimbo had been chasing down the fringes of truth for ten years. He’d spent endless hours on telephones having back-engineered alien technology explained, driven countless miles to look at the newest cold fusion set-up, and, to be blunt, had wasted nearly every moment of his working life talking to kooks and nut jobs. Usually, the weirdos he dealt with maintained the veneer of normalcy, building their perpetual motion machines in well-organized garages attached to nice, middle-class, picket-fence houses. Jimbo wasn’t in the habit of interviewing deranged homeless guys. How had his instincts been so wrong on Pure? Why was he wasting his time?

But, of course, he knew why. Despite all the kooks and weirdos and nut-jobs, Jimbo believed. He believed in Bigfoot and alien abductions and zero point energy, and he carried on his quest for proof with a pilgrim’s faith.

He jabbed Pure one more time, hard. The sleeping man’s eyes fluttered open. Jimbo got up-wind, lit a cigarette, and said, “Good morning. Dr. Pure, I presume?”

Pure nodded, but the rest of his body remained inert as he studied Jimbo. At last he said, “You must be Jimbo Williams.”

“Ace science reporter for the National Weekly News,” Jimbo said, pulling out his notepad.

“The bottom of the supermarket tabloid food chain,” said Pure. He sighed. “So it’s come to this.”

“You’re the one who contacted me,” Jimbo said, speaking through a halo of smoke. “I didn’t drive down here to be insulted. Let’s cut to the chase. Your e-mail said you had some evidence of black-book ops.”

Pure nodded, then sat up, his long legs dangling over the side of the station wagon. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, and took a deep breath.

He said, “There’s a door on Dover Air Force base in Delaware that opens into a room in Houston, Texas.”

“Old news,” Jimbo said. “The warp door. We broke that story two years ago. One of the night watchmen told a friend who told a friend who told me. What do you have new on this?”

“I’ve been through the door,” Pure said.

“Sure. Why not? Your e-mail said you were a scientist with the project. But why should I believe you? How do I know you didn’t just read my article about the warp door?”

“Funny that’s what you called it. ‘Warp door’ isn’t bad, but it’s not as poetic as what we called it on base.”

“Which was?”

“The spook door. It was named after the quantum mechanical concept of ‘spooky action at a distance.’”

“Sounds more like supernatural than high tech,” said Jimbo as he scribbled “spook door” onto the notepad. “I don’t really do ghosts.”

“It has nothing to do with ghosts,” said Pure. “It’s serious physics. Einstein coined the phrase. In the twenty-five-words-or-less dumbed-down version, spooky action at a distance describes the connection between a pair of entangled particles. Theory says that if you change the spin of one particle in the pair the other will instantly—and I mean instantly—change its spin also. This happens even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. Since the instantaneous, faster-than-light transmission of information seems to violate relativity, Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ and believed, eventually, it would be explained away.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty-five words, but I think I follow you,” said Jimbo. He didn’t bother to jot down any notes.

“I doubt you do,” said Pure. “Like I said, even Einstein couldn’t figure it out. He never worked out the math that shows that spooky action at a distance is possible because at the tiniest scale, space contains more than three dimensions. Even though most of the extra dimensions are invisible to us, the two particles respond instantaneously because they are actually connected by these hidden dimensions. They are each three dimensional extrusions of a parent particle existing in a higher invisible realm.”

“This sounds over the head of most of my readers,” said Jimbo. “They don’t care about the theories. They want to know the nuts and bolts. Tell me about the warp door.”

“Okay. I guess theory isn’t important right now,” said Pure, with a shrug. “Here’s the practical spin off. The Air Force sunk about three billion dollars in black budget funds into capturing entangled photons, and they used these entangled photons to build two identical laser matrixes, forming two manhole-sized portals of light. Now, no matter how far apart the portals are placed, when you put something into one, it instantly comes out of the other. At least, that’s how it works with baseballs, video cameras, and mice.”

“And how about people?”

“When they built the door, they wanted to do tests before sending a person through. Even though the portals are made of captured light, they are opaque—the lasers form a perfect grid that keeps any outside photons from passing through. You can’t see through to the other side. So, the first test was a baseball. They broke out the champagne when they tossed the ball into the darkness in Dover and it instantly shot out the door in Houston. Then they sent a video camera through to try to capture images of the hidden dimension, but got nothing but static. Finally, they decided to try sending a mouse through. That’s where my specialty was called for.”

“You’re physicist who specializes in mice?”

“I never said I was a physicist. I’m a veterinarian.”

“Ah,” Jimbo said. He’d jotted the word “physicist” down and now had to strike it out.

“My job was to examine mice in Dover that came through from Houston. When I dissected them, everything seemed normal.”

Jimbo didn’t really care about the mice. He wanted to steer Pure into something a bit more juicy. He jotted the word “conspiracy” onto the notepad. “So the government has perfected instantaneous transit. Something like this could put airlines out of business. Hell, it would shut down the oil companies too. I doubt the President and his buddies are happy about this.”

“Actually, the oil companies don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“After the mice, we tried capuchin monkeys. Some of the physicists on the project weren’t sure how something with a higher intelligence than a mouse might react to the spook space. Maybe the higher dimensions could drive you crazy if you were smarter than a mouse. Plus, they were concerned the warp might respond to intelligence. Many effects in quantum mechanics are changed by the simple act of observation. So we had a hierarchy of tests. If monkeys made it through, we’d send chimps. And if the chimps did okay, we’d try a man.”

“But something happened to the monkeys,” said Jimbo.

“We sent them into the darkness,” said Pure, “and they never came out.”

“Any idea why?”

“Lots of ideas why. Which is why we kept tossing in more monkeys. We’d send them through asleep, we’d send them through with helmets on to block all sensory input, we sent them through with steel weave tethers to pull them back out, but it didn’t work. None ever came out of the darkness. When we pulled the tether, we would reel in empty line. We’d sent in fourteen monkeys before halting the experiments and going back to the drawing board to figure out the flaw.”

“I assume they fixed it, since you say you’ve gone through.”

“Bad assumption. Here’s where my story gets, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.’”

“I believe you so far,” said Jimbo. In truth, he had his doubts.

“You might not once you learn one important fact about me.”

“And that would be?”

“That the whole time I worked for the Spook project, I was stoned,” said Pure. “One of the nice things about being a DVM is you get to write prescriptions for things they won’t put into people. I experimented a bit in college, and liked the results of the experiments, and have spent the better part of three decades controlling my brain via daily manipulation of its chemistry. The fact that I’m alive and sane today is testament to my skills in self-experimentation. Until I went through the warp, no one suspected a thing.”

“Admitting this does make you easy to dismiss as a kook,” said Jimbo.

“I understand. But I need to tell you this because I thought it was a drug side-effect when I started seeing the monkeys.”

“‘Seeing the monkeys?’ That some kind of drug slang?”

“No, I mean the warp monkeys. It started a month after we sent the first one through. I was shaving, and in the mirror I saw something move. It was behind the wavy glass of the shower door, but it looked for all the world like a monkey. Yet when I pulled the door open, nothing was there. Except… except I could smell wet monkey. Trust me, that’s not a smell you can mistake for something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jimbo. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.

Pure nodded. “Later that day, driving, I thought I saw two more monkeys playing in a big oak tree in front of a church. But when I turned and went back, they were gone. These were only the start. It went on for weeks. I’d be drifting off to sleep and I’d suddenly feel a weight as one jumped onto my bed. I’d sit up and find nothing. I’d hear monkeys chattering in the closet, but when I’d open the door the voices would fall silent. In room after room I’d notice the smell.”

Jimbo asked, “Did the scientists on the base have any theories?”

Pure rolled his eyes and chuckled. “What, you think I talked about this with them? ‘Hey guys, I’m seeing monkeys. Have drugs fried my brain or is this guilt-induced psychosis?’”

Jimbo jotted the word “guilt” down and underlined it. “Why did you feel guilty?”

“I didn’t at first. I specialize in caring for animals that will be used in experiments. Almost every animal I’ve touched in thirty years has been fated for dissection. But the capuchins were always a tough one for me. They have very expressive faces. Still, I didn’t lose sleep over the first few that were lost. But after a dozen, sure, it bothered me. It started to have the same scientific value that cooking a kitten in the microwave would. The last one didn’t make it, let’s do one more to be sure.”

“And you think the guilt you felt caused the hallucinations?”

“That was one theory,” said Jimbo. “Until what happened in the supermarket.”

“What happened in the supermarket?”

“This was six weeks into my monkey visions. I was a nervous wreck, sleeping maybe three hours a night. I’d been dosing myself more and more radically, trying to get back to an even keel, but nothing was working. On one of my days off I walked to the supermarket, hoping the exercise would help. I’m in the produce section, in front of some bananas, and I start weeping. Just out and out bawling. I mean, how could I look at bananas and not think of monkeys, and how could I think of monkeys without wondering if it was all over for me, if I’d finally fried my synapses and was one slip-up away from jail or the funny farm?”

Jimbo jotted the words “funny farm” onto his notepad.

“But what happened next proves my sanity. It’s on tape. I began to hear monkeys screaming, distant at first, growing louder. Then the smell washed over me, a wave of odor. And then, they were all around me. Everywhere I looked, there was some part of a monkey. Monkey paws were materializing from thin air, grabbing at fruit, lifting tangerines to teeth that seemed unconnected to any body. A tail wrapped around my neck and I felt the weight of a monkey on my shoulders. When I put my hand up I couldn’t feel anything there, until orange pulp started pouring down on me. This was no hallucination. Other people saw it. It’s on the store’s security video. In about 45 seconds flat those monkeys tore the produce section to shreds. It looked like a bomb had exploded. I was drenched with pulp and juice.”

“Wait a second,” said Jimbo, suddenly excited. “I know about this. I’ve seen the tape. The ghost guys at the office won an award for it last year. Biggest poltergeist story of the decade. Supermarket-built-on-Indian-burial-ground stuff.”

“I’m not surprised you heard about it. I knew lots of people would hear about it, including my bosses on the base. So I ran to the base immediately, still covered in pulp. It was Sunday, the lab was practically deserted, and I still had all the necessary clearance and biometric keys to get into the lab where they kept the spook door. From the supermarket to the door on base, maybe fifteen minutes passed. I had a very small window of time if I was to act.

“For a moment, standing in front of the door, I froze. The door is pitch black, like a perfect hole punched in reality. I was scared to go in. But then I heard guards shouting in the hall, and I made my decision. I dove into the door.”

“Why?” asked Jimbo.

“To get the monkeys out, of course.”

“Really?”

“Look, I’m not claiming I was at my most rational at that moment. When the monkeys showed up in the supermarket I could see that they were scared and hungry and confused. They were haunting me because I’d once cared for them. They wanted me to help them. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was guilt, or maybe it was some tiny spark of decency left in me. I can only say that at that moment, it was imperative for me to go inside the spook door and bring the monkeys out.”

“Did you?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve tried telling a lot of people what I’m going to tell you now, and not one has believed me. Please keep an open mind.”

“Hey,” Jimbo said, taking out his pack of cigarettes once more. “I haven’t walked away yet, have I?”

Pure shrugged. “You write for a publication that is the last bastion of the freak show. Maybe you think I’m an interesting enough freak for a cover blurb and a two-page spread. But what I’m about to tell you is bigger than this.”

“Pure, I’m sick of your attitude,” said Jimbo, searching for his lighter. “I didn’t get started in this business to write about freaks. I do this because I believe deep down in my heart that some of the wilder stories are true. I think the world needs to know about the truth on the fringe, things that are real but get dismissed because they shake up the orthodoxy. Is it my fault that the people telling me the stories always turn out to be kooks?”

“Maybe it is,” said Pure. “Maybe there’s something about your personality that—”

“Screw it,” said Jimbo, throwing up his hands. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait,” said Pure. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I… my people skills aren’t all they should be, you know?”

“Fine,” said Jimbo. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
“Thank you. When you step into the door, you don’t come through the other door. You enter… a higher dimension. It’s huge in there. Look up at the sky. Looks pretty big, right? What lies in between those doors is so much bigger than that.”

Jimbo grew impatient. “Did you find the monkeys?”

“I found something even more important. I found myself. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you what it’s like in there. My body and my mind were two separate things inside. It’s a vast, endless void, and yet everywhere I looked I could see my body. Only, it wasn’t the surface of my body, the shell. It was like I was unfolded. I could see the pattern of my body, and I could see the actual materials. My blood was spinning all around me in a fine haze, and I could count individual blood cells, the red, the white, and all the chemicals I’d put in there. My bones fascinated me—the knot of tissue where I’d broken my leg skiing years ago, the way my vertebrae didn’t line up correctly, the wear along my joints. And I could see… I could see my liver. It wasn’t healthy. It was a mass of lesions and scars. But the worst thing…”

Pure grew silent for a second, composing himself, then said, “The worst thing was my brain. I could see my synapses firing, could see the brain chemicals slipping into receptors like the most complex jigsaw puzzle ever assembled. But some of those jigsaw pieces of brain chemistry weren’t going into their proper slots because I’d jammed them full of gunk. The lesions in my liver were echoed in my brain tissue.

“It wasn’t a surprise, really. Looking over my body, I could see all the abuse I’d put it through. There was cholesterol build up in my arteries, there was inflammation in my lungs, and my whole torso seemed wrapped in a coat of puss-yellow fat. Stepping outside my body, looking back inside, made me realize what I had done. I’d treated my body the way rock stars treat hotel rooms. If I’d examined a lab rat with this much damage, I’d assume it was being fed industrial waste meal after meal until it died. I’d killed myself and hadn’t even noticed. With luck, I’d have another year or two. Such a waste. In that higher space, it was easy to see how wonderful my body should have been. It’s an amazing machine, carefully balanced and calibrated. It looked like it could have lived forever with the proper care. Instead I’d run it into an early grave.”

“Bummer,” said Williams, jotting the words “rock stars” onto his notepad.

“I didn’t see the monkeys in the spook space,” said Pure. “I was understandably distracted. But I did spot the door to Houston, and the door back to Dover. They seemed a million miles apart, yet only an arm’s reach away. By now, both rooms were swarming with guards. If I went back, I wasn’t going to get a pat on the back and a handshake for my daring journey. I’d be arrested, or worse. We’d planned on dissecting the monkeys. Wasn’t I now just a big warp monkey? I wished there were a third door to go through. And suddenly, there was. A window opened before me and I was looking into my apartment. I stepped through, back into my bedroom. I grabbed the keys to the station wagon and have been on the road ever since, going on thirteen months now.”

“Because you think the Air Force wants to dissect you?” asked Jimbo.

“Even if they didn’t, they’d keep me from finishing if they caught me. I don’t have much time. Lately I’ve been going days without keeping food down. I’m living on sheer momentum more than anything else. But my work isn’t done.”

“What work?” Jimbo said, exasperated. Pure was easily the most incoherent person he’d ever interviewed. “What would they keep you from finishing?”

“Rescuing the monkeys,” said Pure, sounding equally exasperated.

“How are you going to rescue them?”

“Here’s where even I think my story gets weird.”

“Really,” said Jimbo.

“Even though I’m here, I don’t think I ever really escaped the warp. I don’t think I’m me any more. I think that, just like a particle can exist on a higher dimension with only its reflection being seen in our world, the real me, the higher me, is still in the warp. I’m just his reflection, or maybe his shadow. All I know is, he communicates with me from the higher dimension.”

Jimbo folded his notebook closed and put it back in his pocket. He’d done his best, tried hard to take Pure at his word. But despite knowing a little physics mumbo jumbo, Pure was obviously crazy. Jimbo had wasted another night.

“He sends me messages in subtle ways,” Pure said. “I’ll go into a convenience store and pick up a map and unfold it to find that a town has been circled in red pen. I’ll drive to that town, sit on a park bench, and find a paper bag under it with a wad of twenty dollar bills inside. Two days ago I checked my e-mail at a Kinko’s in Nebraska. I found a badly punctuated e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that a restaurant in Fanta, Texas, makes the best ceviche this side of the Rio Grande. It said I’d meet a reporter there named Jimbo Williams, and I should tell him my story.”

“Bad punctuation, huh? The e-mail you sent me would have made my editor’s head explode.”

“Don’t you get it?” said Pure. “I never sent you an e-mail.”

“Whatever.” Jimbo took out another cigarette.

“The monkeys die when they escape,” said Pure.

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“When my higher self finds a monkey in that infinite space, he opens a door back into our world. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I’ve done a dozen so far. They always die when they come back. I don’t think they can die in the warp, even though they don’t get enough food or water. I think the warp keeps them in a kind of stasis that holds death at bay. But when they come back, the accumulated stress kills them. It’s for the best. They’re suffering. They’re scared, and hurting, and lost.”

Jimbo lit his cigarette. “Pure, let me ask you the $64,000 question. Do you have any proof? So far all you’ve given me are wild tales by a self-admitted drug addict. Can you supply even one tiny shred of evidence to verify your claims? I know we have the supermarket video, but like I said, vengeful Indian poltergeists got the credit for that one. Maybe you read that story and decided to work it into this little fairy tale of yours.”

“Snowball will prove it,” said Pure.

Jimbo rubbed his temples. “Snowball?”

“We called him Snowball because he had a white scalp. He was actually the second monkey we sent through, the first one with a tether. I was listening to the static between stations last night and I heard the words ‘Snowball tomorrow.’ It was 3:24 in the morning.”

Jimbo looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 3:23 right now. But hearing a statement on the radio isn’t quite the kind of proof I’m looking for.”

Pure sniffed the air, staring into the distance. Jimbo stepped back as Pure scrambled into motion, rising to stand on the roof of his station wagon, breaking into a loud shout as he waved his arms over his head.

“It’s time,” Pure howled. “Come home! I’m here! Come home!”

An acrid stench rose on the night breeze. A zoo smell, a barn odor, manure and piss and something else, like the aftermath of a storm, like ozone, as the air began to spark near Jimbo. He jumped backward as all around him the ground began to screech and gibber. He stumbled over something soft that spun through the air behind him, tangling his ankles. As he hit the pavement, the sky above him swirled with teeth, with fur, with blood and meat, a whirlwind of gore that zoomed away as quickly as it appeared, gathering next to Pure. Pure dropped to his knees on the station wagon. The bones and flesh coalesced amid a shower of sparks as Pure extended his arms. The monkey voices focused into a single piercing shriek.

“Shhh. You’re home,” Pure said, as a white scalped monkey fell against him. He cradled the emaciated animal in his arms as the monkey stared with frightened eyes, its breath ragged, wet gasps, until it at last fell silent, and its eyes lost all focus.

“You’re home,” Pure whispered.

“My god,” said Jimbo, staring up from the pavement.

“And now you know,” said Pure, looking at Jimbo. “You believe, like he knew you’d believe. You know what he wants.”

“There’s only one monkey left in the warp,” said Jimbo, rising. He walked to the station wagon to put his hands on the monkey. It wore a harness from which a steel cable about a foot long trailed. The bag of bones and skin was still warm, slightly damp, and strangely beautiful.

“And after he gets the monkeys free,” said Pure, “he wants to come out.”

“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” said Jimbo.

“You understand,” said Pure.

“I can’t do this,” said Jimbo. “Why would anyone choose me for something like this?”

“He can see things, in the warp. He wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t do this. He must know something about you, maybe something you don’t even know.”

“This is too much to ask. I can’t—”

“I know,” said Pure, still cradling Snowball like a baby, rocking slightly. “It’s a crazy world. Sometimes we have to search for help in the most unlikely places. All I know is, no one should be alone when they fall out of the warp.”

Jimbo shook his head, looking for a way to say no. But it was too late. In his heart, he knew he’d carry through with this. The Pure in the warp had picked his target well.

After all, Jimbo believed.

 

When We Were Jung

When We Were Jung

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Bud Webster

 

“Good Taste?’” The woman at the table was well-dressed, if a bit perky for my liking.

“Yes, that’s right, and this is my wife, Sophisticated Wit.”

She gave us our name tags with a bright smile and waved at the double doors behind her. “Go on in, and I hope you have a wonderful evening.”

“Thanks,” I said, peeling the paper backing off the tag and sticking it carefully to the lapel of my tailored tuxedo jacket. My wife shook her head ruefully and put hers in her evening bag; nobody really needed the damn tags, but most of us at least made the gesture.

We pushed through the doors and into the ballroom. It was full: we were, of course, fashionably late—tastefully so, you might say. There was a string quartet in one corner, sawing their way through something unutterably poppish. I’d hoped for Mozart, or perhaps even Beethoven, but no one else seemed to be bothered.

I felt a touch at my sleeve. “What-ho, my lad. Damned good to see you.” It was Insincere Joviality, whom I detested, not that it mattered to him. He grabbed my hand and pumped it three times, then said loudly, “Can’t stay and chat, I see someone over there I really must speak to. See you later on, perhaps?” And then he was gone, much to my relief.

I looked around for my wife, but she’d been spirited away by the Humor twins, Droll and Dry. They were standing with their heads together talking in low voices, then all three leaned back and laughed airily. Well, she’d be happy for the rest of the evening.

I moved through the crowd, heading for the bar. I passed Conspicuous Consumption in her Dior original and insanely flashy jewelry, and smiled at the sure knowledge that she would never wear any of it again. If I knew her at all (and I did, we’d dated in college), she’d have been driven to this do in a gold-plated Rolls. She was so predictable. But then, weren’t we all? Wasn’t that our single defining characteristic?

“Wine cooler, sir?” It was the bartender. I blinked at him and then moved so that my name tag was visible. He had the… well, the good taste, I suppose… to look abashed. “Sorry, sir. Would you care to see the wine list?”

“Thank you.” I took it and glanced at the glossy pages. “I’ll have the Pinot Blanc 1974, please.”

He smiled. “An excellent choice, sir.”

“Yes,” I said, a bit more tersely than I’d intended. “It is.”

While he opened and poured the wine, I nodded to the man next to me, whose name tag bore the name Recovering Alcoholic. He was sipping a glass of club soda morosely. “Will this bother you?” I asked, holding my wine glass up.

“Not in the least,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.” He waved his glass towards the dance floor. “Look at him. That’s my older brother, you know. Ancient as hell and still going at it.” I looked where he was pointing.

There was a line of dancers, moving noisily and awkwardly against the beat of the quartet, led by the oldest of us, Drunken Sot. He’d been around forever, it seemed, showing up at all the parties and meetings; plump, red-faced and jolly, with the remains of an ancient laurel wreath still caught in his hair.

At least, I thought to myself, he has the good taste not to pick fights like his younger nephew, Drunk and Disorderly. We’d finally had to simply stop telling him where and when the Gatherings were. Of course, he still showed up as often as not, and whenever he did, there was trouble.

“Yes, he always seems to have a good time,” I said, a bit inanely. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?”

Recovering Alcoholic just looked at me. “Do any of us?” I didn’t answer him; it was, after all, a rhetorical question. I smiled at him and made my way through the crowd.

Off by herself in a corner—as usual—was Paranoia. She sat and watched, sat and watched. She’d been around a long time, too, but not as long as Sot. Used to be she would come with her sister, Wisdom; as a pair they were mainstays of almost any Gathering they came to, bringing an engaging perspective to conversations about current events or art. Paranoia had even managed to be sociable when Wisdom was with her, but no one had seen her sister for years. Without her, the younger of the two never danced, never spoke, never did anything but sit and watch. But she always came, afraid of missing something, no matter what. I bowed slightly to her and raised my glass, but she just looked alarmed, so I didn’t press it.

I thought back to my first Gathering, when I was just out of school. At first, I was daunted by the sheer magnitude of power and majesty the other, older ones represented. I remember how impressive War was, larger than life and so graceful; and how struck I was by Seduction’s beauty, even if I could never quite tell if it was a man or a woman. It was overwhelming, and I felt quite lucky to be part of it all.

But over the years, it became painfully obvious that all that they were, down to the last and least of them, was what was written on their tags, neither more nor less. I include myself in that, of course.

It may seem that I’ve been listening to my cousin, Wry Cynic, far more than is probably best, but that’s not the case. Why else would Wisdom leave us? Or Prudence? Or so many of the older ones? Foolishness, I remember, took me aside a few years ago and said quietly, “Taste, this is no place for me. There’s plenty of foolishness here already. You, you belong here, and you’re welcome to it.” He grinned at my expression. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish you well. But it’s time I was going.” And I never saw him again. The next time the rest of us gathered, there were three new faces present; the Humor twins and Sophy, my soon-to-be-wife.

I felt a hand on my arm and knew without looking that it was her. “So many new faces,” she said quietly. “I hardly know who to speak to these days.” She smiled tightly, and I noticed for the first time the lines at the corners of her mouth. She sipped her drink. “Earnest Zealot was holding forth on literature a moment ago, and I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s comment about the wallpaper as he lay dying.” She shook her head. “Do you know, he’d never heard of Wilde? What are we coming to?”

What, indeed? Patience, Trust, Intelligence—all gone now, or seen so rarely that their presence was like a walk-on in an old film; something to be marveled at, but of no real importance. I missed Wonder most of all, I think. He told the most breathtaking stories, made up right on the spot. They were… well, wonderful. War had gone, as well (although I suspected he was simply busy elsewhere), and no one at all knew what had become of Seduction.

I picked at a bit of lint on my lapel. We had to be here, I supposed, just so that our presence would be felt, but I sometimes wondered why? What exactly was the point? In the old days, we were clearly influential. We were there because people needed us to be, because they couldn’t navigate the treacherous reefs of their lives without us. Was that true anymore? Did we have an influence over anyone but ourselves, if we even had that? The idea was discomfiting at best.

I looked around the room, trying to enjoy the bouquet of the Pinot. When had the trivialities snuck in? When had Joy and Honor been replaced by Instant Gratification and Situational Ethics? War was off somewhere, his place taken, bizarrely, by Right-Wing Gun Nut; and most degrading of all, perhaps, Teenage Prostitute stood across the room surrounded by men, a sorry substitute for Seduction. It was a cruel, surreal jest—or so my wife and her friends would think. I had a disturbing thought: how soon might my wife be replaced by E-Mail Joke?

It was undignified, to say the least. I drained my glass, unwilling to dwell on the idea for too long. Instead, I headed back to the bar.

There was a small crowd there, most of whom I knew. A man I didn’t recognize stood to my left, wearing what might have been an exaggerated knock-off of my own formal jacket, deliberately frayed at the seams and worn over a black T-shirt bearing the logo of a rock band. Instead of dress trousers, he wore jeans. I knew without asking that they were pre-washed, pre-stained, pre-aged. Pants without an honest past, only a present. His hair was spiky, thick with some kind of preparation, and there was some kind of tribal-looking tattoo on his wrist. His name tag read “Post-Modern Chic.” I turned away, suddenly cold.

“Yes sir, Mr. Taste,” the bartender said with a smile. “Another glass of the Pinot Blanc?”

“No,” I answered wearily. “Not this time. Just a wine cooler, please.”