Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.

 

If I Could Take You With Me

by Yancey Malachi Cates

 

A young girl stands on a train platform. She is waiting for a train that will never come. The hour is well past for it’s arrival and she knows the engineer is a stickler for promptness. He has a timetable to meet and it’s the whole of his existence, he would never be late unless… And so another train, an eastbound train, not a western train, like the one she is waiting for, roars past, it doesn’t even slow as it approaches, it has no business with the likes of us.

Her train will not come and she knows this. And so she steps out in the path of the on-rushing velocity, the impact is sudden and stunning and it’s done.

I weep, and eventually Arn puts his hand on my shoulder, asks me what is wrong. I shake him off, wipe my face… I hadn’t seen him walk up, I was enthralled with the pretty, strawberry-haired girl with the huge blue eyes made red with her sadness.

The station is small, almost unused. Amtrak only stops here when I buy a ticket to New York. I’d been alone here for several hours, Arn and I got our signals crossed and he wasn’t here to meet me. I was returning from Paris, my weeks with my daughter Jasmine, who was showing her first signs of womanhood. I’d taken the train to New York then a plane to Paris, and when my trip is over, I’d do it all in reverse. The train relaxes me, it’s my favorite way to travel.

I came back a day late, stealing that day with Jasmine to wander the Louvre and talk about nothing in my favorite company. When I called Arn to explain, the overseas connection failed us and Arn thought I was coming in much later then I actually was. And so I sat in the darkness of the rural night, a million stars watching me, wishing I’d recharged my cell phone on the train.

The girl and I waited alone together, each lost in our own painful reveries. At first I mistook her for a member of the living, and we waited in silence together. I didn’t think, in this day and age, a woman alone would want to talk to a stranger in a lonely corner of the world. But as my eyes attuned to the darkness, I realized that what I had thought was fog swirling lightly around her was the halo of the deceased and I knew what she was.

I decided to speak.

“I’m Yancey,” I offered. Her shoulders stiffened with a little trepidation and I waited.

“Pansy,” she replied, her polite Southern upbringing overriding the situation. It always does in all of us. A Southerner will offer a polite “how do you do” to a man with blood on his face before he runs away screaming murder. It’s just how things are done.

The stars became brighter, more luminous and I knew I’d moved into the magic of my gift. All things happen for a reason, at least in my life.

“Who are you waiting for?” I asked, trying to sound casual. I didn’t want to frighten her.

“My husband, John Earl Hambry,” she said, a swell of pride in her voice. She was a newlywed, I could tell from the tone. “He went to Charleston on business.”

“How long have you been waiting?” I asked. I needed to know if she understood that she was dead. Ghosts have no sense of time and this troubles them.

“Seems like forever,” she said, with dismay in her voice. She turned to face me, I guess she’d decided I was harmless.

“You don’t know how long you’ve been married either, do you?” I asked. I’ve had this conversation a hundred times in my life.

She shifted nervously from foot to foot and finally turned away from me. I could tell she might suspect I could answer all those questions she’d so long avoided, but she wasn’t quite ready. I waited, gave her time.

“The train never seems to come,” she finally sighed.

“Not many people take the train these days,” I responded, and she looked at me.

“I’m so cold,” she offered and I stood, took off my coat and wrapped it gently around her shoulders. I held it in place to make sure she had the corporeal energy to hold it herself. “Thank you. This place is always too quiet. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.” I nodded, smiled at her. “You’re a handsome young man. Are you married?”

“Widower.”

“What a shame. I’m truly sorry. And so young. I think if anything happened to John Earl…”

“You’d kill yourself?” She looked at me with large, blue eyes, haunted eyes. “Truth is, you did. There’s a story around here about the Ghost of Pansy Hambry. Seems she married the man of her dreams and he went away, on a business trip. The train was late, and Pansy decided there was a train wreck and John wouldn’t be coming home, so she threw herself under a train. And some nights, if you go to the station in the evening, you can see her ghost, waiting for the train.” She didn’t take her eyes off me, she stared and didn’t move. My coat fell to the platform, she no longer had the energy to hold it. “What she didn’t know was that there was a train wreck, a huge train wreck and John was injured but he didn’t die. He never remarried and some nights, they say, he still comes here hoping to catch a glimpse of her.” I reached out and touched her cheek, it was icy.

“Are you saying I’m dead?” she asked. I nodded. “Well, that is just the craziest thing…” She turned back to the tracks.

“Pansy!” I heard a voice call and turned; an old man had appeared. He was standing near the station, barely visible against the white clapboard. He was a ghost, too and she turned, saw him. He looked old, very old, and he had the weak signal of a newly made ghost.

“Who are you?” she asked, troubled, confused.

“It’s me, Pansy. It’s John!” He was getting weaker, transitioning to the next place.

“My John is young and handsome!” The tears touched her cheeks again…

“It’s been a lot of years. Come with me Pansy! Come with me! I don’t have much time.”

“YOU’RE NOT MY JOHN!!!” she screamed, putting her hands over her ears and closing her eyes.

I watched him, the look of horror on his face. He looked at her, I could tell he wanted to come to her but he couldn’t. He had to go.

“Go with him,” I said. She moved to the edge of the platform to put some distance between us. “You’re just stubborn!” I said and walked back to my bench.

He faded then, she didn’t turn to look at him. He changed, got younger—if only I could have made her look at him but I was locked out.

“Is he gone?” she said, finally.

“Yes.”

“That wasn’t my John.”

“It was. And you’ve lost him again. Here’s a piece of friendly advice. In a few years, I don’t know how many, an angel will come for you. Go with it. End this.”

She nodded sadly and turned back. I heard the phantom train on the tracks barreling for us. She cast me a look and smiled.

“Come see me again?” she asked.

“Of course. Nobody should be alone…”

“I wish I could see the world just once more. All I’ll ever see again is this…”

“If I could take you with me…”

“That’s what all the boys say.” And she turned and fell, like an angel from the walls of heaven into the path of the train.

I turned back to Arn. “I just met Pansy Hambry,” I said.

“Odd. I just came from the hospital. John Earl was real sick and they didn’t…” He looked at me and I shook my head.

“John Earl passed about a half hour ago,” I said.

Arn nodded. He sat beside me.

“I take it she stayed.” He sighed. I nodded again.

“Well, Yancey, leastways she’s got us.” I grinned a little.

“Yeah,” I heard her voice on the wind. “At least I got you…”

“At the very least,” I agreed and Arn took me home.

 

Frank’s Boat

by Scott J. Holliday

 

The two girls must have come from the woods. I never saw or heard them until they were right next to me, standing underneath the yellow Road Ends sign staked in the grass at the dead-end. I was kneeling by the ditch, shoeless and shirtless, when I saw them. I wanted to run home and get dressed, but I didn’t because I knew they’d be gone when I got back.

I pulled my hands from the flowing water and stood. I had a boat—a newspaper section that I folded up and waxed—in one hand and a GI Joe in the other. GI Joe had been about to take a newspaper-boat ride in the ditch, but here were these girls. And here I was, a chubby kid playing with a doll.

They were wrinkle-nosed and pale. Freckle-faced girls. Flowery shirts and jean shorts. I felt like I’d seen them before. Maybe an old photograph? One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Obviously sisters. They stared at me for a long moment. I squirmed.

“Hi,” Pigtails finally said.

Ponytail smacked her arm and gave her a don’t-talk-to-him look. Pigtails made a pffft sound to her sister and said to me, “I’m Katie. This is Brenda. What’s your name?”

“My name’s Frank,” I said, careful not to say Franky. I hated it when girls called me that. I stuffed the GI Joe into the back-pocket of my cut-off corduroys. A week before they’d been full-length cords, brand new for school, but Danny Yolan pushed me down at the bus stop. I fell and the cords ripped at the knees. My mom sighed and cut them into shorts. Now I could wear them anytime.

I stuck out my hand to shake. Brenda rolled her eyes and I noticed they were bloodshot. Katie took my hand and shook it exactly once—up, down, release. Her hand was cold and pruney. It sent a shiver up my forearm, it got itchy and I had to scratch it.

“Whatcha doin’, Franky?” Katie said.

“Nothin’,” I said. And don’t call me Franky, I almost said. My scratching hand moved up to my elbow, crossing my arm over my gut to cover my chubbiness. My foot rolled nervously around. I was ten years old and ashamed of being fat. It was all the spaghetti sandwiches. “No girls are attracted to a fat kid,” my dad would say on spaghetti night, smacking my hand away from the loaf of garlic bread.

“You weren’t gonna float that boat?” Katie said.

“Nah,” I lied and put the boat behind my back, “I just found it laying here. I was gonna burn it.” It was the coolest thing I could come up with.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “We could have raced.” She pulled out a pinewood derby car with the lead weight taken out and the tires removed. It was all black with a red number four on each side.

I felt my eyes widen. It was my car. I thought I’d lost it. Two days before, the car had taken last place in the Annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Yesterday I stripped it and floated it down the ditch. It had thunderstormed the day of the derby, so yesterday the ditch water was deep and moving fast. Lots of crayfish and minnows. The car really cooked. I couldn’t catch up to it. It slid through a gap in the mesh cages over the mouths of the big culverts under Orchard Lake Road.

I could have crossed the road to catch the car on the other side, but crossing Orchard Lake was forbidden. Mom said that years ago some kids were killed crossing the road. “Mowed down by some maniac,” she said, then she stood there shaking her head.

“Where did you get that?” I asked Katie.

She just wiggled her nose and winked at me. I noticed her eyelid was bruised. She dropped to her knees and held the car in the gurgling water.

“You gonna race me or not?” she said.

I looked down at her feet. Weird, one of her shoes was missing. Her foot was tinted blue and black, calloused like it hadn’t been in a shoe in years. It looked cold and dead, like a detached body part in a Saturday Afternoon Thriller.

I looked at Brenda’s feet. Both were shoeless. I looked up. She was shaking her head, disapproving of her sister. When she moved her head it sort of rolled to one side, like there was something unhinged in her neck and she couldn’t keep her head straight.

The newspaper-boat would be no match for the derby car. The race would be a joke.

“Let’s do something better,” I said. “I know where there’s a stash of old orange juice cans in the woods back there.” I pointed to the woods past the field at the end of my road. A week before I’d discovered an abandoned trailer in the woods, right at the edge of McPherson’s swamp. It was filled with stacks of old newspapers and a crate of orange juice cans with sticky tabs that you peeled off. The tabs snapped when you got to the end; it was hard not to spill the juice. I declared the trailer to be my new fort and I’d left some of my stuff underneath it, including the sweatshirt my mom made me take with me. When I got home that day, my mom said I was stupid because I sat around making stuff out of newspapers and drinking orange juice until I got sick.

If I could get the girls to the trailer, I could put the sweatshirt on and cover up.

Brenda turned her head to follow my finger to the woods. I heard crack-crack-crack as her neck moved. Katie stood but didn’t look to where I was pointing. She kept her eyes on me. I could see her from the corner of my eye, watching me. I looked down and crossed my arm back over my gut.

“Cans like this one?” she said, and shoved a muddy can of orange juice into my line of vision. It was blue with a white bird on it, identical to those at my fort.

“Where did you get that?” I said.

“From that same trailer,” she said. “We were over there before we came here.”

Brenda turned back from the woods and looked at the can. She made a sucking sound through her teeth. I reached for the can, but she smacked it from her sister’s hand.

“What’d ya do that for?” Katie said. “I wasn’t gonna let him touch it!”

Brenda gave no response. She folded her arms across her tiny chest.

I bent down to pick up the can, but it wasn’t there. I looked left-right-left, no can. Where did it go?

I stood. The two girls were locked in a stare-down. Katie had her hands behind her back like she was hiding a candy bar.

The three of us stood silent for a moment.

“Where’s my car?” I finally said, trying to break the tension between them.

“You mean this?” Katie said, thrusting the car at me but holding her sister’s stare.

I reached out for my car but she pulled it back.

“You can’t touch it,” she said.

“Why not?” I said. “It’s mine.”

“Finders-Keepers.”

She was right. I’d lost it, and by rule it was hers. I played by the rules. I was the proud owner of a handle from a broken umbrella I found in the field last summer—currently it was at my fort with my sweatshirt. It was one of those that had a push-button to eject it and make it longer. The umbrella part was gone, but the handle was good for launching GI Joes and things. Should anyone make a claim to my umbrella handle, I was prepared to use Finders-Keepers.

“Are we gonna float boats or not?” Katie said, turning to me. Brenda smirked, happy to have won their stare-down.

“Okay,” I said, and knelt down to the ditch, fully aware that my gut looked extra fat when I knelt. Katie knelt down next to me and thrust her hand into the water, holding the derby car in place. I moved in and set the newspaper-boat in the water beside the derby car. Our arms touched. I closed my eyes to the sensation. It was the first time I’d ever touched a girl. She moved closer. Her ribs touched my back. I flinched. I opened my eyes to meet hers. She smiled, giggled.

Snap.

It was the sound of my umbrella handle ejecting. I turned back to see Brenda holding it up like a starter’s pistol.

“Go!” Katie said. She dropped the derby car, it sped away so fast that I never saw it. She was up and running down the dirt road.

I released the newspaper-boat and chased her. My feet stung as they pounded the rocks. The county maintenance trucks had graded the road that morning, it felt like I was running on spikes. Katie seemed unaffected. She was fast, way ahead of me already. It looked like the back of her head was covered in maggots. The current was fast, too, but it had slowed since yesterday and I was able to keep up with my boat despite the pain in my feet.

“You’re going too fast!” I called ahead to Katie, assuming she was way in front of the derby car.

I looked back to see if Brenda had kept up with us. She had. Her head bobbled to the side as she chased. She’d pushed the umbrella handle back into itself and was holding it out like a switchblade.

I checked the boats. The derby car was gone. It must have been really cooking. It would surely win the race, just as I thought. The newspaper-boat struggled along, bouncing and spinning off the ditch banks.

“C’mon,” I yelled at the newspaper-boat. Then I saw their faces in the folds of the paper. There they were, in black-and-white, along the top triangle of the boat. One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Grade school photos from picture day.

The boat spun in the current and their faces were gone again.

I looked up. Katie was no longer running, but waiting for me just past the driveway to my house. Hands on her hips, smiling wide. Her teeth were gone.

Brenda gained on me. How could the rocks not hurt her feet?

I looked back to my boat, it had spun again and their faces were back, smiling at the little birdie. The boat bounced off a rock and twisted back around. The headline above the two girls had been folded over to the other side. Only part of it was there. I read it.

Two Sisters Killed in Tragic—

Snap.

A round dot of cold metal stung my back.

“Gotcha!” Brenda said.

I turned and leapt over the ditch. My feet sunk into the mud on the other side. I jumped forward and popped my feet loose with a slurping sound. I rolled over my head and stood. Up and running again. My front yard. The grass was cool on my feet. No more sharp rocks.

I saw my mom standing behind the screen door, looking at me the same way she looks at the dog when he runs around like crazy by himself, muttering that he must be insane or just plain stupid.

I turned and ran across Mr. King’s yard. I caught a glimpse of Katie. She hadn’t moved. She was just watching me and smiling with her empty mouth. Brenda slammed into her and pushed her along.

They both started running again.

After Mr. King’s was the Burrell’s yard. They never did yard work. Sticks cracked under my feet as I ran past their huge willow. Dad said he hoped it would get struck by lightning someday. He said that everyone hated the Burrell’s.

I looked back. Brenda had crossed the ditch and was running behind me in the yards.

She was getting closer.

I could feel my fat jiggling as I ran. I hated it. “Look at your bitch-tits,” my dad would say if he saw me running.

I was starting to lose my breath.

There were only two more yards before Orchard Lake Road—the Wilson’s and some new people that just moved in a few weeks ago.

Katie was parallel with me now, still on the road. She was pointing my umbrella handle at me. Had Brenda given it to her? She didn’t stab it at me like her sister. She looked like maybe she wanted to give it back.

I crossed from the Wilson’s to the new neighbor’s yard. I could sense Brenda behind me, but I couldn’t hear her footsteps.

My thighs ached. My throat burned.

A car zipped by on Orchard Lake. I could feel its wind.

I wasn’t going to stop.

I was stupid and fat and I was going to cross Orchard Lake Road. I was going to the other side to find my pinewood derby car. It was somewhere over there, where I could do whatever I wanted. I could float boats and eat spaghetti sandwiches and drink orange juice all day long.

I looked for Katie. She’d stopped running. She’d passed me and was now kneeling in the middle of Orchard Lake Road. It looked like she was picking up a penny.

A cold hand touched my shoulder. I tried to pull away, giving all the energy I had, but something kicked my leg. I tripped and slammed down on the gravel shoulder of Orchard Lake. I could smell the asphalt.

“No!” Brenda said.

I lifted my head and watched her run across the shoulder of the road. She crossed the yellow line and caught up to her sister.

They both turned in time to see the truck. Their eyes were wide as can lids. The truck never slowed down. Its wind was cold against my sweaty body. The girls screamed, but were suddenly silent.

The truck passed and they were gone.

I sat up. There were rocks and pebbles stuck to me. I brushed them off. They left red dents on my skin where they’d been stuck. I rubbed my face and my hand came away bloody.

I got up. I could see something on top of one of the culverts. Something small and black. It was my pinewood derby car. I picked it up.

I’d made the car myself. It took last place. Danny Yolan told me it was sucky before he pushed me down. It was sucky. The worst derby car ever made.

But it wasn’t a derby car anymore. It was a boat.

 

The Dawn of Timeliness

by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

 

Being dead has a way of altering one’s priorities.

Okay… so he was fixated on the “dead” bit, but what else would you expect? It was a big thing to get used to.

Anyway, it was a frigid fall night and all the undead were wisely tucked away somewhere warm and sheltered, anywhere but the middle of the Guy Donnelly Memorial Park. Even the cats and the homeless had found a place to hole up. Frank was certain of this because in the middle of autumn, in the ugly hours of the night, he was strolling in the rejuvenating sun of a spring day. It was nearly idyllic: beautiful, peace and quiet all around, the rebirth of nature as he’d never taken the time to enjoy once upon a lifetime ago. He was lucky to remember such a day as this; he certainly hadn’t bothered to pay attention to them when breathing had been both unconscious and necessary.

But that was the problem. To enjoy what he had once squandered he must do so alone. Or maybe with a cat, he had yet to experiment with that. Anyway, the moment one of the undead happened along his glorious spring day would give way to the actual fall night. This was one of the first things he had learned this side of the afterlife, which briefly reminded him of Nutjob, the one who had taught him the fact. But Nutjob was gone to whatever came after the afterlife, and in a particularly gruesome way, at that, his spirit re-experiencing the death he hadn’t taken note of the first time around. Since he’d gone, Frank had poked and prodded the little knowledge he’d gained before the end, testing the boundaries and discovering the rules of his new existence. Among the things he had learned was that his memory of a place was a fluid thing. When the undead—or the living if you wanted to be picky about it—when they were around Frank experienced the uninterrupted flow of time that made up the other life, with all its changes and actions the majority of people (including Frank) took for granted. When he was alone or with others like himself he saw what he expected to see and only then if it was a place he had been, in this life or the other. This much he had learned from Nutjob. On his own he had figured out that he could decide what and when to see of a particular place. If he remembered it, he could experience it, in every detail, right down to the second. A detective’s dream, actually. Too bad it came now when the job was the last thing on his mind. The other thing he had learned was that his vision had no effect on his fellow haunts. He could see them and he presumed they could see him, but it was obvious by their actions and the expressions on some of their faces that they weren’t enjoying a balmy spring day. Whatever they did see, he was just as glad they kept it to themselves, because some of those faces were testament to suffering and torment he did not care to think upon.

Useful to know, but that wasn’t the purpose of this nighttime jaunt.

Frank put all practical concerns from his mind and lost himself in communion with the memory of a world he’d left behind. One he hadn’t appreciated when it mattered. He slipped off his loafers and ran his bare, deprived toes through the green, green grass, as he hadn’t done since he was a child. The sensation was singularly astounding; the brush of the blades of grass was like a gentle caress from the earth, the dew a moist kiss. The birdsong he could hear must have been a part of the memory, because there was nary a feather in sight, let alone a full bird. Just the same, the sound was like heaven’s chorus and a sense of peace wrapped him like a cocoon, protective and comforting. It was a part of his metamorphosis from unappreciative jerk to, well, something else. He didn’t have a name for it, but he had a conviction that it was a state vital to his eventual transcendence from the limbo he was trapped in. It had taken him he didn’t know how long as a dead man to figure out that his previous life had been just another kind of limbo, an unconscious one and all the more an offense for it because it hadn’t needed to be that way. He had taken the wonders of life for granted. A part of him suspected one of the reasons he’d overlooked the ending of his life was because he’d never really bothered living it to begin with, if not before Maya’s death, most certainly after it. Now was the time to make up for it, because let’s face it, he didn’t have much else he needed to do, and more than enough time on his hands.

Wandering the park and his memories was a way of regaining what he’d squandered, but he couldn’t help remembering at the same time what had brought him here to begin with that long-ago day; a case, of course… on a balmy spring day, a frozen corpse, of all things, was discovered in a grove of trees in the park. The case had never been solved. Murder was a given when the body had obviously been stored in a deep freeze somewhere before being dumped. The autopsy had been inconclusive though, and the dumpsite also revealed no clues, something that had always bugged Frank.

The victim had been Last-Leg, a homeless guy with an IQ of about 75. He had been an institution in and of himself here in town. No one knew his name. They all called him Last-Leg because let’s face it, that’s what he looked like he stood on—yeah, that was cold and insensitive, but it wasn’t like people stopped to think about how a casual reference can follow a person for a lifetime, so the nickname stuck—yet year in and year out, he shuffled around town in all weather with a content grin on his face. He opened doors and helped the overburdened with their bags; he hailed cabs and held buses for those running for them. Last-Leg wasn’t crazy, he was simple. He didn’t yell and carry on, he wasn’t violent, and he didn’t make a nuisance of himself. Many of the city’s residents and all of its service personnel fondly looked out for Last-Leg, just like he looked out for them.

It was bad enough that such a caring soul had been singled out that way, worse to never know how or why. Once the investigation had begun it was discovered that Last-Leg was actually Guy Donnelly, former inmate of the Brooks Institute for Mental Health a few towns over, supposedly he’d been released to a half-way house when he had progressed enough to be reasonably self-sufficient. Further digging during the murder investigation revealed the truth of the matter; poor Guy had been cast out to fend for himself the moment his last living relative passed away and the funds dried up. The institute might not have cared for him, but Frank and the others he helped every day knew how precious Last-Leg had been, so much so that the Mayor, in an effort to boost a faltering re-election campaign, had renamed the city’s park, the place where Last-Leg was happiest, after him. As far as Frank was concerned it was the only worthwhile thing the Mayor had ever done.

In that crystalline moment Frank realized two things: he was fed up with not knowing, and now more than ever he stood a chance of finding out what had happened to Last-Leg. Dare he do it, though? He thought back to the case and the little that the investigation had uncovered; there had been no injury or sign of violence and no discernable cause of death. By all indications, he hadn’t suffered before hand, which meant what Frank was about to do should cause no harm.

“Guy Donnelly?” Frank called in a breath of a whisper. He was drawing closer to where Last-Leg had been found. It wasn’t like he would see a repeat of that day. There wouldn’t be a body on the ground or cops milling around, but the place drew him anyway. Only, he was still alone. Had the man been fortunate to skip this limbo Frank was caught in? Or had he somehow found his way out of it? Either way, Frank could only think one thought: Lucky stiff! Of course, maybe he hadn’t waited long enough, or… or maybe the name Guy Donnelly didn’t hold any meaning or connection for the man.

Frank tried again. “Last-Leg?”

Slam! A violent impact threw Frank to the ground just before he reached the shadow cast by the trees where Last-Leg’s body had been found. He didn’t have the breath to yell. His mind was screaming more than loud enough though. Fortunately the lessons ingrained by over a decade of self-defense training and active duty had him rolling with the impact while throwing his attacker over his shoulder in one fluid move. He didn’t exactly bounce to his feet, but he did manage to gather himself into a crouch, his eyes tracking the threat. Or at least, where he thought the threat was, in the direction he’d sent the other person flying. That was why he tensed even further at the sensation that a thousand spiders were running down his neck… spiders with very cold feet.

He hadn’t spent years on the force and as a detective without developing a healthy set of instincts. They were telling him he was facing the wrong way.

With one eye on Last-Leg, Frank pivoted and stared into the trees. He shivered, or maybe it was a tremble, but either way it was unconscious. Something wasn’t right. His warm spring day was beginning to mutate, something his brief experience had taught him shouldn’t have been possible. Okay, so he wasn’t an expert, but there was that whole instinct thing again and Frank’s “Oh, shit!” alarm was going off big time.

Something drifted below the canopy of the trees: at first lightly, and then not so. On the fringe of the glade it was just random motes that looked like mere dust… or maybe pollen. But deeper in reminded him more of pictures he had seen in National Geographic. Pictures of blizzards in Antarctica.

He hadn’t realized he’d moved forward until a tight grip upon his shoulder hauled him back.

“No, ’Tective Frank, no! Must not… must not!”

Last-Leg backpedaled and nearly pulled Frank back on his ass. The poor guy continued to inch back and Frank let himself be drawn away—again with the instincts—but only to the edge of a nearby fountain.

There was no visible sign of threat. No sign of anything beyond trees and snow. That was enough, as far as he was concerned. Nothing couldn’t explain the localized blizzard, though—even if it weren’t the spring day Frank was remembering, or the fall night actually taking place, in the city’s long history there had never been more than a dusting of snow. There was something ominous and primal about the display before him. The threat and violence it projected; winds justifiably categorized as cutting and snow falling in solid sheets to blanket the ground, and most amazing of all—or shit-inspiringly terrifying, if you wanted to touch closer to the truth—all of it was contained within the grove.

Shaken, Frank pivoted back to eye Last-Leg. “Hey, Leg, it’s been a while.”

The man smiled despite his obvious agitation. “While, while, crock-dial.”

Frank actually laughed. Sometimes being dead wasn’t too bad. It was good to see his friend again. The guy’s innocence was a touchstone, a forgotten way to keep grounded when life exploded around you, or in this case, death.

“So, what’s up, buddy? You took me out like you were the Fridge.”

Last-Leg grinned like an… well… an idiot at the compliment. The Fridge was his favorite football player, though Frank suspected that was due to the misconception that the player opened up to reveal shelves and shelves of food, rather than from any concept of the man’s rather impressive ability to take out the other team. Last-Leg wasn’t saying a word either way. He also wasn’t offering much of an explanation on their current situation but he was looking more uncomfortable.

“Hey, don’t sweat it.” Frank tried to keep it light but Last-Leg was fidgeting and darting glances toward the freak storm. Frank knew how he felt.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I, buddy?”

Last-Leg shook his head without taking his eyes off the trees, slowly crab-walking away, only to bounce back to Frank’s side. Apparently the fountain wasn’t far enough away. Only his concern for Frank kept him there. His expression was troubled and his hand continued to dart out as if he would draw Frank away, but was afraid to touch him.

What was going on here? He had never known Last-Leg to get this worked up about anything. That in itself should have been a sign, freak weather or not. There was no way they should be seeing what they were. This region hadn’t had snow like this since the Ice Age, and Frank certainly hadn’t seen it then, unless you counted CGI images on television or in movies. That left one possibility that he could think of; he was caught in some other spirit’s vision, or something like that. He didn’t understand how, but what else could it be?

A shiver rippled from Frank’s gut all the way out to his extremities and back again. He couldn’t be sure if it was the thought of being snared by someone else’s personal hell, or a psychosomatic response to all that snow, but either way, Frank didn’t like it. His first impulse was to put his arm around Last-Leg’s shoulder and lead the guy further away from the place. Of course, that wasn’t a plan, considering how flinchy Last-Leg was. Settling on playing follow-the-leader, Frank started moving slowly off, knowing his companion would be right on his heels. Still, he looked back just to make sure.

That was his mistake.

Sure, Last-Leg was right behind him, but so was the glade. Frank caught a flicker in that near-whiteout zone. There was someone in there. My God! There was actually someone in there, and they were stumbling deeper in, not out. Even if Frank hadn’t made a career out of public service he would have been compelled to go after the person. No one could survive those conditions long. There was no way he would abandon someone to freeze to death. What was worse, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to him the person stumbling around in the glade was too small to be an adult.

“Hey,” Frank tried to get his companion’s attention. “Hey, buddy. Last-Leg… listen, I need you to listen.”

With an extreme effort, Frank finally got the guy’s attention.

“I have to go back, there’s someone there,” Frank went on, trying to keep it simple and still say what he needed to say. “I have to help, okay? Wait for me… wait here and I will be right back.”

He wasn’t prepared for the violence of Last-Leg’s reaction. The guy started yelling and clinging to Frank, holding him back and losing precious seconds while whoever was getting lost in the grove drew closer to death.

“No! No, ’Tective! No! Can’t!” The look in Last-Leg’s eyes was absolutely frantic. Frank wasn’t sure if the guy had enough going on upstairs to grasped the concept of ‘for your own good,’ but he certainly seemed bent on practicing it. If they struggled any harder—Frank to head back down and Last-Leg to prevent him—one of them was going to come away hurt. And yet Frank could hear a note of frustration creep into Last-Leg’s voice as he continued jabbering and had to respect the effort his friend was going to, even if he didn’t understand what drove it.

“Bad! Bad to go, Frank, the ’nowman gets you. Can’t, can’t go!”

Frank thought he could make some kind of sense out of what Last-Leg was trying to say, but it only reinforced his determination to get down to the grove as fast as he could. If there was some kind of threat there, besides the snow, there was no way he could leave anyone, particularly what might be a child, to suffer in such a situation. With a quick move and as gently as possible, he broke Last-Leg’s grip and dashed past him and across the clearing. He’d lost sight of his quarry behind a wall of falling snow and trees. It didn’t matter. He knew where to head in and was certain he would quickly rescue the lost one and be back out before Last-Leg even had time to panic… further.

Thus speaks the confidence of the foolhardy.

Within seconds Frank was lost. Completely and utterly turned around by the solid whiteness of the air he had to admit, if only to himself, snow was not his element… He never even saw a tree unless and until he ran into it. So much for the rescuing hero… who would rescue him? And now that he thought about it, what would happen to him here? Being dead, did he wander aimlessly forever, or until fortune led him out? Or by a brutal twist of irony, could he die again, since he’d somehow missed it the first time? The implications were chilling. Where did the doubly dead go, if it were possible? Somehow he didn’t think the same place as everyone else.

A movement to his left interrupted Frank’s building panic. By chance he had gone the right way. Just a short distance… okay… a very short distance in front of him was a small, shaking bundle apparently trying frantically to merge with a tree or something.

Any shelter in a storm, right? Well Frank couldn’t blame the person… child. The wind was beyond bitter and the one thing he did know about snow, thanks to that National Geographic special, was that if there was enough of it and some air to breath, it made an excellent insulator. Not that Frank wanted to put that to the test. Struggling forward against the gale, he headed toward his intended rescuee. Or that was the intention, anyway.

Frank was forced to revise his plan when the child—for child it was—lifted its head and stared right at him. The gaze was timeless and malevolent. How many had succumbed to the death in those eyes? Bitterness burned there with a heat that would hold off a hundred years of blizzard, or maybe just cause them. It was also enough to snare an unwitting soul motivated by nothing more harmful than compassion. Did the child understand compassion? Somehow Frank didn’t think so. That kid wanted company in misery.

More memories of that documentary surfaced… the one that taught Frank everything he knew about snow conditions in the Ice Age. It taught him something else, too… what a caveman may have looked like. The theorists hadn’t been far off.

In a moment of clarity they say only comes with near-death Frank’s mind made connections that he might never have picked up on otherwise. This child hadn’t wandered into the grove and gotten lost in the blizzard; the blizzard was here because of the child. Ancient and powerful beyond consideration now, the child must have frozen to death before his people even knew what that meant. Victim of what was likely the very first snow, he was trapped here just as Frank was, and thanks to the duel stumbling blocks of language and complex thinking, there was no way for Frank to help him move on.

Now would be a very good time to run. Really. If only he could. But no, endless cold was creeping through him, anchoring him to where he stood. Eventually—quite soon, actually—it would go so far as to do more than anchor, it would draw him down until he huddled like that poor lost soul across from him, forever doomed to Dante’s version of ultimate Hell.

Crap! Why hadn’t he listened to Last-Leg? (Like he’d ever thought he would say anything like that in his life! It was almost enough to make him laugh hysterically if his face hadn’t turned into an ice-sculpture.)

That was it. No way was he getting stuck here freezing his ass off for eternity! Frank fought the lassitude. Through an extreme effort he wrenched his gaze away from the cavechild’s and fought for his life. Stumbling steps turned into a pitiful crawl and heavy wet snow practically cemented his eyelashes closed, cold-drawn moisture providing the mortar. Betrayed by his own watering eyes, nonetheless, Frank struggled on, never quite sure if he was making progress, or even if he was going the right way. Again he wondered why he hadn’t listened? It only went to show that intelligence didn’t guarantee wisdom.

No one would come for him… Last-Leg has been too smart to come into even the shadow of this place. Frank was doomed for sure now. He hadn’t the energy to drag himself another inch.

He lay there in the burning snow dreaming of white-sand beaches and turquoise water, the tug of a warm sea breeze on his shirt and a cool, crisp drink to moisten his lips. What a dream. Um… a dream, right? Only far off in another consciousness, Frank felt rather more than the gentle tug of a breeze, more like the yank of a whirlwind. No, not the storm… Last-Leg, yelling and pulling, with ice dangling from his nose.

Well… that settled it. If the loony bugger could bring himself to come in here after Frank, he would just have to find the energy somewhere to help in his own rescue. How ironic… how humbling. Then another epiphany hit, one Frank would keep to himself until they were clear of the glade.

To Frank it seemed they struggled for forever, but gradually the snowfall thinned and the winds died down and finally they were out in the open, drenched in snowmelt and exhausted beyond imagination. He collapsed onto the frostbitten grass of late autumn, shivering intensely. His spring day was gone because he hadn’t the energy left to sustain it, not after barely escaping eternal winter.

Last-Leg landed hard beside him and Frank reached out to pat the guy on the back. Well… more of a thump actually, as he could only manage to bring his hand down and leave it there, rather than repeat the action in the prescribed manner of a true pat. It was pretty pitiful really, but they were both alive and he owed Last-Leg a debt of honor. One, ironically enough, he might be in a position to fulfill.

“You… you weren’t murdered, w-were you, Last-Leg?” Frank forced out through his exhaustion and chattering teeth. Last-Leg just stared at him dully. “No… it doesn’t make sense… I can’t explain how, but that… um… Neanderthal was strong enough to draw us into his memories. Was he strong enough to draw you in from across whatever divides the other life from the after life?”

Frank didn’t get an answer. He didn’t expect one. Mostly he was just working through the details out loud to try them on for size himself. He thought he was right, in which case, there was no reason for Last-Leg… Guy, to be trapped in this limbo.

“Thank you, my friend.”

Last-Leg managed a weak smile at that. He understood both thank you and friend; those were concepts he could grasp. Now for the rest…

“You are my hero, Last-Leg.” Okay… so that sounded a little hokey coming from a grown man, but it meant a lot to Last-Leg. Frank could tell by the smile on his face. “You saved me, even though you were afraid of those trees… of the snow. You saved me anyway, even though it meant going back into what killed you.”

Frank experienced a moment of doubt as Last-Leg just continued to smile and stare. “Last-Leg,” he whispered, not wanting to be wrong, “you weren’t murdered, you froze to death, because somehow you tangled with that ghost in those trees and he was too lonely or bitter to let you go.”

Was he right? Was a change taking place? It was so hard to tell, considering they’d just come out of the blizzard and still bore signs of its bitter cold effect. Frank held his breath, not sure what, if anything, would happen if he was wrong.

He wasn’t, though. Last-Leg’s smile grew wider. More of a grimace, actually and it was no illusion or wishful thinking that tinged his skin blue. Frank watched as quickly, gently, Last-Leg went to his final sleep until he dissolved into a swirl of glittering dust with a chilling resemblance to the blizzard they’d crawled out of.

Remembering the cavechild and the way the eons of bitterness had twisted its spirit, Frank made a supreme effort to diffuse his own. Not for the first time he thought of Last-Leg as a lucky stiff.

The Shadowcatcher

Shadowcatcher1

Illustrated by J. Andrew World

by Johnny Eponymous

 

Kiely Van Der Rotte walked the streets of San Jose in her riding clothes on Thursday night, June the 13th, 1916. She could hear the fights, the loud crashes from bars that closed when the last man passed out. Kiely rarely came into town, preferring her small barn and instruments among the orchards in Santa Clara to the bustle and brawls. For her plan, she needed the downtown emotions: energies that all could feel, but only she understood. The nearly full moon provided her safety as she continued, passing more drinkers and theatres, to the area surrounding the University where she could set her tripod looking down San Fernando Street. She could see a bloody fistfight in front of an Irish pub, just the sort of negative energies that would bring the images forward. She removed the Magic Lantern from her carpetbag, gently placed it atop the tripod. Kiely pointed it toward the square where fights and knifings were the rule and order came from the blunt swing of a truncheon. Kiely installed the small metal box, full of Audion tubes and wires, forming the machine she called the Shadowcatcher. Her hair fell into her eyes, causing her to pause and take a gathering of those on the street; no one paying any attention to her at all. She took the Comptometer from the bag and put the wire into the small metal box, turning it to complete the connection. Kiely turned the handle on the side of the controller for nearly thirty seconds, her arm hurting as it strained against the stiff handle’s movement. Kiely paused, thinking she had turned it long enough so the machine would have a full charge when she hit the proper keys.

Kiely looked down the street once more as she flipped the bar on the side of the Comptometer and pressed the nine numbers to bring the machine to its slow whir. She took a long step back, before flipping the bar once again, resetting the numbers to zeros and bringing the machine to life. A loud whistle began to echo on the inside of the wooden projector box. As the whistle built, she could see the gathering of light twelve feet in front of her, a faint but solid gathering lit from within. The glow gained form, took shape: a man’s shape. The man had a distant stare that Kiely could note, even though she could still see through it to the moonlit buildings on the other side of the street. The figure took more form, the torso dressed in the styles of twenty years earlier; the hat on the head a stiff bowler with a small feather, the pants long-striped and tattered at the top of expensive shoes. On his sleeve she could see a rip, and beneath that, dark runs of liquid. Kiely set the controller down, walking to the vision, her hair again falling, though she did not even blink.

“Can you hear me? Are you here?”

The image turned to her, the same stare going beyond her, beyond the small patch of grass behind, beyond the tower at the far end of the quad. Slowly, the image nodded, focused more, with a stronger glow coming from within his coat. Kiely took a step back, giving the stare full view of the battle of San Fernando.

“You’ll walk to the end of the street, turn around and come back to me.”

Without acknowledgement, the image moved, his expensive shoes disturbing the dust as he walked, but only in small traces that the wind would clear in moments. The figure took seven steps, began to fade, and went transparent. Kiely walked his path, noting the slight impressions on the street. She reached the point where the impressions stopped, the point where the image returned to cold chills and whispers in unbelieving ears. Kiely paced off the distance: seventy-seven feet across, more or less. The distance was far less important than the fact that she had done it, done what mystics and philosophers had failed to realize: she had touched the plane of the past and brought it to the present.

# # #

Kiely gathered the pieces, looked over the schematics on the table, and went about connecting the Audion tube to the innards of the camera she had traded for with Dr. Warburton. The system worked on incredibly simple premises: the wires create a field of energy captured from the environment around it and the Audion amplifies that energy before sending it through the projector, creating a field approximately one hundred feet across, though this test delivered a far smaller field than the design should have supported. The whole thing just needed the proper amount of energies from the environment to gain the power to bring those Away to the field.

Kiely heard the wheels of an automobile grinding walnuts into the packed dirt that led to the barn. Kiely walked to the window, looked out into the rainy night on Jason, the driver, and her youngest sister, Marcy. She had seen neither in several weeks, mostly because they chose to sleep during the night; the time when Kiely could get days worth of work done in hours. She wiped her hands and shouldered open the swinging door, allowing Jason to drive the car in, leaving only a foot between the table and the front bumper. Kiely steeled herself up to deliver the final sell.

“You know, you could try living in the house again, sis.”

Kiely tossed the rag into the bucket at the far end of the bar, waiting to be washed. She hadn’t slept in the house for almost a year, preferring to use her small cot or just pass out at the table in the barn. The large bags under each eye spoke to this tradition. Jason stepped down from the driver’s side, walked behind, and opened Marcy’s door. Kiely and Marcy could be no more different: Marcy’s eyes glowed green from under the red hair she spent an hour perfecting each morning, while Kiely’s simple brown hair fell about her shoulders and nearly constantly needed to be moved from in front of her grey eyes. Kiely stood a fair five inches taller as well, a fact that became apparent with the great bend whenever the two of them embraced in hellos.

“You know I can’t stand the quiet up there, much more texture out in the barn. Besides, the house has other problems.”

Marcy smiled lightly in dismissal, small runs of water dripping off the curls that framed her face. Marcy went to the table, looking at the boxes her sister had created.

“Are these them? The machines you told me about?”

Kiely pulled the nearest Shadowcatcher to her, turning it around so Marcy could see the tubes and coils. Kiely knew her amazement with things scientific and she knew the machine would confuse her. Marcy leaned in, as if in a museum of oddities where the barkers will send their cane to any foot over the line. She studied every wire line, every tube connection, every component, though she knew nothing of their operation. Kiely would have explained them all, though she did not, since she wanted the mystery to remain. Jason spoke first, after drying his head with the towel on the hook next to Kiely’s hanging saws and hammers.

“So, you’ve completed it, but why such urgency to get us to see it?”

Kiely opened the lid of the projector and pushed it toward Marcy while she spoke.

“Remember when you and Jason would bring people over to the house for séances? You’d invite the wealthy folks over and Jason would shill and then you’d bring out the gigs. Well, I think we should start it up again, only this time these will bring the greatest gigs of all time.”

Jason shrugged unhappily and Marcy pulled herself back upright. The look on Marcy’s face had touches of theatre and future money. Jason had a look of last resort in his eyes. Jason had been short of funds for nearly two years and the Shadowcatcher Project represented the only option for cash that he could see.

“Don’t worry, the Shadowcatcher is like that old Magic Lantern Papa had and I can control the picture with the box over there. I can make the images turn and even walk. All you have to do is provide the scene, I’ll take care of the rest.”

Marcy smiled. She had wanted to get back into the game as Madame Van Der Rotte, but Jason didn’t have the money to buy their way back in with the traditional ooohs and ahhs. Marcy spoke as if signing on to the project.

“Who will we invite, Kiely? When?”

Two more successful tests would follow. The men trapped in a mine walked past Kiely’s view on a small hill marked with seven weathered crosses. A young boy looking for his ball paused for a moment in front of the Shadowcatcher, turned and ran away out of the field. The tests brought her closer, allowed her to tune the specificity, clean the images brought out, widen the field. She had not yet tried the three in union but knew the result: each tuned to the same frequency, stronger coverage. Each machine bringing more energy forward, allowing for the perfect vision she had promised herself. Marcy could know nothing of the reality of the device. She had played the Spiritualist too long to find truth in the Unknown.

The day had come quickly for Kiely, though Jason and Marcy were always milling around, waiting as if the hours were days spent on a rack. Kiely made all the alterations in slow turns and gentle pulls, all adding up to time running away from her. As Marcy returned to the house to dress and Jason swept clean the path for the visiting autos, Kiely finished her adjustments, placed the Shadowcatchers on a small cart. One last look at her barn and Kiely wheeled the machines out the back of the building, onto the small packed path leading to the house. Marcy took a small fright as Kiely threw open the door. The house had been distant for the week spent in cleaning and preparations, lulling Marcy into expectations of fluid silence.

Kiely set the Shadowcatchers in an equilateral triangle, the table in the exact center of the machines, the focus of three energy projectors. While each was fully capable of bringing the Away forward to the field, combined the once translucent images would gain form, strength from the focusing. Kiely could hear the first auto pulling up the drive, crushing walnuts and throwing dirt. She went up the stairs to where her mother would sit and watch them play between cooking and cleaning and picking fruits. Kiely took a concealed seat, watching in a mirror, where all the guests and Shadowcatchers could be seen and the cord to the Comptometer would not pull taught as it ran up the stairs. The first footsteps fell on the front porch and Marcy opened the door on Ken Cooler and his wife, Narla. Sweet old folks who had lived in the valley, on the orchards, since birth. Each walked with a simple cane, his of hand-carved oak, hers of white fir, stained dark with painted bird’s-eye grain.

“Welcome, Mr. Cooler, Mrs. Cooler. Please, give me your coats and have a seat.

“You’ll find a few small treats and a bottle of red wine in the front parlor. Please, help yourself.”

The small pair made their way into the parlor as the thin couple called Barcells walked in, receiving the same greeting. Others arrived, invitees to make the marks feel comfortable. Kiely recognized a couple of them, dressed well but obviously in borrowed suits. Jason entered and closed the door, his hair full of kicked up dust. Marcy made her way to the chair closest to the stairs.

“Welcome to the séance, my friends. Each of you were invited for the purpose of contact, a contact you wish to make with a world beyond. I am surrounded by a great energy, the concentrators are increasing my awareness of the Away, the other side of our world. If you will all take hands, we can begin.”

Kiely turned the handle on the controller until the charge had been achieved. She then flipped the bar and held the keys. Instantly, those holding hands could feel something that Kiely had never experienced in her tests: the breeze. A stiff breeze, not of air, but energy: colder than any wind off an icy lake. The cold kept each of the séance participants in their seat. Marcy had been through this, typically a window would be opened, sending the chill through those in the room. This time, no shill had opened a window, the energies bringing the cold were real.

“Feel them enter, the powers flowing from the coldest realm. Close your eyes, feel the surge, resist the cold and find your inner strength.”

Madame Van Der Rotte’s experiences on the road came into play. The eye-closing usually allowed Jason to put ectoplasmic cheesecloth on her, or brush a kerchief across a ladies neck for a cheap shiver. But now, a real image began to take form on the table. All the eyes were closed, save for Kiely’s, who saw the dream reflected. The woman stood tall and proud but all she could see was a back with an apron tied, a familiar double bow holding the strings. She had none of the gauziness the other visions had shown. Just a solid light giving birth to something far.

“Open your eyes, my friends, see what our energies have brought forth.”

The eyes opened and all were pushed harder into their seats. No one heard a breath escape from the circle. Marcy could feel the effect of whatever Kiely projected, the grip on either side too fear-frozen to break. She kept her eyes closed as she spoke, adding to the image of her power over other worlds.

“Now, spirit, turn to me. Show me the face you wore in life. Show the circle who you are.”

The spirit turned counter-clockwise and Mrs. Barcells gave a slow, low gasp when it faced her. As soon as the spirit had gone fully to Marcy, Kiely could make out the vision she had wished to call. Many times had Kiely seen it, seen it from the corner of her eye in the days when she still lived in the house. Kiely had confirmed what she had always believed: the spirit of her mother still watched over them.

Marcy opened her eyes, took a moment to focus them on the solid light on the table. Her mother, dead nine years, stood there in front of her, the stare going beyond her, her once warm eyes lost. Marcy could not move, always having dismissed Kiely’s stories of ghosts and feeling mother’s presence. These eyes were not warm, these eyes were cold, beyond the world. Marcy spoke, an airy note coming from her throat.

“Mother?”

The image of their mother looked down. Kiely had lied: this was no Magic Lantern show. Her eyes lost all appearances of Madame Van Der Rotte, instead becoming the young girl scared of thunder. Marcy stood, shock belting her to her feet. A scream came to her lips, but no voice could be given. This image was not a faded photograph in time, but a spirit she would never wish to see again.

She reached back, the Shadowcatcher whistling under the padding Kiely had added to silence it. Marcy took it by the tripod and pushed it down, the crash of glass and splintering of wood echoing through the house. Kiely stood, pushing tears and hair from her eyes. She ran down the stairs as the others were gripped down by what they had witnessed. Marcy ran across, breaking the circle. She reached the second Shadowcatcher as Kiely made the bottom of the stairs, noticing the fading of the image. Marcy pushed it hard into the wall, the crash even more damaging than the first.

“Marcy, don’t! It’s all I have left of mother! How can you…”

Marcy had already set herself upon the final device, pulling the tubes and projector apart and throwing the metal to the ground as Kiely reached her. Kiely turned and looked at where her mother had been.

Nothing.

Not a trace of the once solid glow of the woman Kiely had needed to contact. Marcy fell to the ground, tears now flowing from her eyes. The chill wind rushed away as suddenly as it had appeared. Jason had thrown open the curtains, the sound tearing through each viewer. Kiely went to the first machine Marcy had attacked.

Destroyed. The tubes shattered, the projector unrepairable.

She quickly pushed her way through the lot, scrambling for the door.

The second, destroyed though the coils were probably still useable.

Marcy had thrown herself on the floor, tearing at the remaining pieces of the third Shadowcatcher. Her eyes throwing water down on the dark wood, sizzling on the tubes.

Kiely fell back against the wall. After less than a minute, only the three of them remained; Marcy still breaking the pieces with now bloody hands and Jason holding the stairpost for support. No one said anything. Each had been destroyed. Jason’s dreams of money, broken with crying fists. Marcy’s hopes of respect, dead by suicide. Kiely’s wish for her mother to return, in broken glass and wood around the parlor. No one would speak for almost an hour, though the silent tears were soon replaced with heavy sobs. Jason helped Marcy up, took her to the auto in the barn and then away, away from Kiely. As soon as she could stand on her own, Kiely gathered the pieces, tried to reassemble what she could, stayed up all night, rebuilding and failing, and trying again.

That year, Kiely only saw the outside once every day, when picking nuts or fruits. She stopped trading for milk, instead drinking water. She spent most of her days on the step, staring at the makeshift Shadowcatcher standing in front of the door. Sitting next to her, the faint image of her mother, staring beyond the hallway, looking back on days when she would watch her daughters play on the porch.

Shadowcatcher2

Illustrated by J. Andrew World