Carriers

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Matt Boyle


Photo Credit: ocegep/Flickr (CC-by)

“Congratulations,” said a tinny voice from David’s phone. He glanced at the screen and saw a spinning roulette wheel flashing quietly; it blinked, promising him Walmart gift cards and other riches. He sighed and restarted the phone.

“Fucking ads.”

He sat alone in the Colton Library stacks—nothing but books, quiet, and cold. He pulled his jacket tighter, breath pluming, and glanced out the window at the snow holding the campus in its grip. A single brave soul walked through the storm, head down against the snow, like a character from a silent film. David glanced at his phone again, then remembered it was still restarting and laughed at himself. He sat there, rather impotently, and shook his head.

“What the hell am I doing here?”

And then a young woman’s voice said, “Hey.”

David jerked around. The woman wore a muted grey sweater, a surgical mask, and studious glasses. She held up a hand nervously, and David grabbed for his own mask and fumbled it on.

“Um,” he managed to say. “Can I help you?”

She nodded at his phone. “Congratulations.”

“…for what?”

“You won an award, didn’t you? Didn’t your phone congratulate you?”

“Uh, no. It’s… just a malicious ad.”

She peered at him, not hearing him through his mask. “A what?”

He raised his voice. “A malicious ad. I probably went to some site I shouldn’t have. Just your garden-variety internet scam.”

“Oh, oh yes, I see. But… I still have to say congratulations. I, ehm…” She blushed, almost seeming to shrink on herself. “…you see, I navigated to some sites I shouldn’t have… and I picked up a virus too.”

He stared at her. “Miss, no offense, but that joke isn’t exactly in good taste these days.”

“God, I wish it was a joke. It’s not. I picked up a virus from my computer. Now whenever an ad pops up on someone’s device, I have to help advertise it.”

David blinked. He didn’t say anything. He was on a campus where almost everyone had decided to learn remotely. Those still on campus mostly hid in their rooms, or in corners of the library. He hadn’t seen his family or friends outside of a tiny box in a computer screen in six months. His mother had nearly died the month before, and he hadn’t even been able to leave the state. He didn’t know if he had the bandwidth to navigate this conversation.

Hell, he didn’t even know what this conversation was.

The grey woman pointed at his phone miserably and said, “Congratulations. You’ve won a free gift card to Walmart. There’s a message in there from Mary Stevens, from Omaha. She says, ‘I just got mine in the mail. Thanks!’”

David looked down at his phone again. Sure enough, the spinning roulette wheel was back, lights blinking silently. Mary Stevens from Omaha said the same words the grey woman had. He tried to hit the back button on his browser and the phone refused; it just refreshed the page and congratulated him again. The voice sounded exhausted, as if it could barely muster the energy.

“Congratulations,” the grey woman echoed.

David looked at his phone and then back at her. He did it one more time, then said, “I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” she said, and sighed. “I’m really sorry.”

“No, it’s ok,” he said, standing up. “I’m just… I’m tired. Why are we even studying here anyway, right? With this weather? We wouldn’t be if there weren’t a pandemic.”

“That’s the modern world,” she said sadly. “So easy to stay in touch nowadays. Can’t have a snow day if you can learn from anywhere.” She slung a book bag off her shoulder and sat at the other side of the table. “Do you mind? I have class and the network is better here.”

He shook his head. “No, you take it. I’m headed back to the dorms.”

She nodded. “Congratulations again.”

“Sure,” he said, and waved goodbye as the grey woman unfolded her laptop and booted it up. He walked along the stacks, his footfalls quiet and lonely, then he stopped before the elevator, blinking in confusion.

He felt an irrepressible need to… turn back. He had to…

“Congratulations,” he blurted out, almost a sneeze.

He stared down at his mask in confusion and something like horror, then realized that he was turning around and walking back to the grey woman. His silent footfalls followed him as he arrived back at her table, his eyes wide and confused. She looked up from her laptop screen, her face lit with colored lights of awards and ads that no doubt blinked at her from every link she clicked. He tried not to say anything, but… he couldn’t.

“Con… congratulations.”

She stared back, her eyes mournful. “I’m so sorry. Looks like you’ve caught it too.”

“Caught what? This doesn’t make any sense. You can’t catch a malicious ad. Human beings aren’t… aren’t…”

The grey woman didn’t say anything. She stared at him patiently.

He swallowed, feeling something coming up from his gut, like vomit. The words burst from his lips and he spat them out. “…congratulations,” he said again, feeling tears begin to form in his eyes, the words spitting from his mouth without his consent. “You’ve won a chance for a free PS5. You’re… the five-hundredth visitor to the site.”

The grey woman smiled behind her mask. “Thank you.”

“What the fuck is happening to me?”

The grey woman shook her head. “This is what we are now. Carriers. Of one virus or another. We can’t get away from either.”

David stared and looked up at the window. It had become dark in the past ten minutes, and all he saw was a silent snowstorm. Inside, the fluorescent lights hummed as the grey woman tried to exit out of the ads on her computer and start her Zoom call. All around them, he realized, the library’s computers were turning on, connecting them to the world kept physically distant, cutting through the pain of the lost human touch, offering their weary reminders that they were all in this together in these uncertain times, and that if they would just sign up now, all the riches of the world could be at their fingertips.

“Congratulations,” said the grey woman to the people in her computer. “We’re all winners.”

pencil

Matt Boyle works in instructional design at a university that allows students to choose how they want to learn during the pandemic. He doesn’t actually think flexible learning is like a malicious ad though, 🙂 Email: magicrat008[at]gmail.com

A Guiding Light

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
H.B. Bendt


Photo Credit: Thomas Milne/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The wind had shifted from a low murmur in the underbrush to a chilling howl racing around the steep drop of the cliffs. It carried an uncomfortable cold settling in one’s very bones, filling up the veins with ice, and freezing muscles until the skin turned blue and numb. The sparse grass beneath her shoes cracked with each step, stems frozen solid and glistening in the dim light coming from an overcast sky. Rain and snow mixed in a drizzle, settling in her hair and clothes, creeping into every exposed crack or corner it could find. She blinked, almost blinded by the curtain of flakes, some bright white, others translucent.

Despite the uproar of the storm, the cliffs themselves lay quiet and tranquil as ever. They flanked the bay on each side, reaching three hundred feet at the peak with slopes and jagged edges on the way down to the water. Dry bushes sat scattered along the path leading up, patiently enduring the cold. Enduring months of darkness and winter storms building up above the open sea and making their way landwards. Whatever hoped to survive up here wasn’t beautiful, but tough. Thick-skinned and rooted deep into the rock and black soil, not to be blown away whenever the wind violently shook the ground. The barren, dark sprigs of spring squill grabbed at her ankles as she walked on, scratching at the exposed skin shimmering pale from underneath the long button-up shirt reaching barely down to her thighs, and the open coat flapping in the wind. She passed through the shadows, across a patch of plain, frozen earth trampled flat by the stream of curious tourists venturing up here every now and then, and on towards the cliff’s edge. Moving billows of clouds overcast the sky, the sole sources of light being the dim, swallowed shine of the moon—and a slow, deliberate whoosh, whoosh, whoosh streaming from up above. On, off, on, off, again and again, at a comfortable, steady pace.

Grey waves crashed into the cliffs with a clangor, white foam riding along and dissolving into the many nooks and crannies buried in the hill. Rocks and earth crumbled, drizzling down the slopes underneath the tip of her shoes now peeking over the edge. She looked down at the dark water with its dancing crowns of foam.

Behind her, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

*

The door to the office creaked open at 3:47pm, seventeen minutes later than planned. Dr Lowes was a scrawny, balding man in a tweed jacket and glasses that sat at the very tip of his nose. The smile that slipped on his lips the moment he spotted her sitting in that olive corduroy armchair was genuine, broad, and warm. The whole room smelled strangely of liquorice. Books littered every available surface, including the floor, and on the windowsill, wedged between all sorts of potted plants, sat a model brain sporting a thin layer of dust. A Post-it pinned to it said I, too, can hurt in a shaky, cursive handwriting.

“You would have to be Francesca,” Dr Lowes said.

“Frankie is fine.”

“Frankie.” He sat down on a stool opposite her, looking her up and down for a moment. “So, Frankie. You believe you might be depressed.”

“Maybe.”

“How so?”

“Well,” Frankie inhaled. She had mentally jotted down a list on the way here. The list she had methodically put together in long hours surfing the internet, looking up all the common symptoms and signs. She wasn’t here to hear someone else tell her she was depressed—no, of that she was sure—but she needed professional chats to get her hands on prescription medication. “I feel a lack of energy and motivation. I sleep too much. I feel numb, occasionally. You know, just—empty. I’m not sad, but I do wonder about the point of, well, everything, really. I have noticed that I have recently started to neglect myself but I don’t have the energy to change anything about it. My diet is largely cuppas and Twix bars—”

“You have made it here today,” Dr Lowes interrupted her.

“Yeah, today is a good day apparently.” She smiled thinly.

Dr Lowes leaned back on his stool, his spine softly hitting the edge of the desk behind him. He crossed a leg over the other, looking at her over the rim of his glasses. “Tell me a bit about yourself. You are a student?”

“Yes.”

“What are you studying?”

“LLB. Torts. I’m not sure why.”

“Why do you think?”

Frankie paused. The go-to answer she had been telling everyone and their mother wouldn’t cut it anymore, would it? Therapy was all about honesty after all. “It seemed reasonable,” she said eventually. “Sensible. It’s not bad being a sensible person.”

“No, it isn’t. Being sensible can very well keep you out of trouble.”

“That is it, isn’t it? Being no trouble.”

“Being out of trouble or being no trouble?” Dr Lowes asked. Frankie didn’t reply. “You believe you are trouble to someone?”

Frankie inhaled sharply, blinking all of a sudden.

“I’m trying not to be. It’s just—well, I have this thing where I feel like I can do everything perfectly and it’s still not good enough.” She felt her face contort, nose scrunching up, chin quivering, cheeks rising. The dam broke.

Five minutes into her first therapy session she had believed she needed only for the meds and she sat bawling her eyes out. Dr Lowes looked at her for a while, the gentle, not quite but almost pitiful smile of an understanding old man on his lips, before he reached behind himself and held out a box of tissues to her.

*

The sessions that followed didn’t go any better and it wasn’t until the sixth one that she could sit through the entire hour without crying.

That same evening she stepped out of the office doors and into the cool, crisp November air. The winter storms had slowly begun to pick up, white clouds lazily moving across the sky until they would snow down somewhere above the Black Mountains. Leaves in desaturated hues of orange and brown danced across the sidewalk, illuminated by a sparse row of street lights, and the breeze from the sea smelled humid and salty. The walk from the university to town, down a rather steep hill and with no bus driving regularly enough to wait, for once didn’t appear all that daunting. Frankie thought of socialising. That by now uncomfortably familiar feeling of existential dread was still sitting in that corduroy chair in Dr Lowes’s office. A shapeless little form she could leave behind for the night.

She was halfway down the hill when she first noticed the pale beam of light coming in a short burst from the coast. A second one soon followed, then a third. Frankie stopped, looking ahead. A party was the thought that first crossed her mind, but the light hovered over the entire town for a moment and disappeared again. It didn’t come from the old, Victorian seafront promenade either but gleamed somewhere to the right, near Constitution Hill. Whoosh. Whoosh. Slowly, deliberately. No party lights were bright enough to illuminate the town and half the beachfront. Frankie stood wondering for a little while longer, before she shrugged and continued down the road.

By the time she had reached the bottom, snow had begun to drizzle down in thick flakes. It whirled around her head, dragged away by the wind coming from the sea, and Frankie popped up her collar and tightened her scarf against the cold. In a few weeks’ time the snow would turn back into rain and cover the entire coast in a grey, solid mist. The cold would linger however. As would the wind. And once Christmas came around, the town would be deserted until late January. Small wonder, she thought, that people became gloomy around here. Old, Victorian-style house fronts rose at each side of the road, wooden patterns gleaming with an orange shine from the street lamps. The Ghost of Christmas Present lingered around here, only it didn’t outright show itself, but instead crouched in the shadows, following her around.

Penglais Road turned into North Parade and Frankie cut right down Queen’s Road. Soon enough a familiar sign with a raven on it, hanging above a dark door, came into view, and she pushed inside, away from the snow and cold. The pub was packed. Not unusual for a Friday night. Some students liked to flock here for a game of pool or two before heading onwards to the pier or to whatever dates they had set up for the night.

Life could have been good, she figured. A sense of opportunity. New life. Start over. Get going. ‘You’re young, you have it all ahead of you. And remember, Frankie. Always remember: it’s not about your own personal happiness. It’s about their happiness.’

It had started when she had moved off campus and into a shared apartment with a friend, hadn’t it?

The fatigue. The sluggishness. That first spark of a little thought asking what’s the point? over and over again. It had been faint and quiet in the back of her head at first. Nothing but a murmur that came and ebbed away again. Truly bad days had been a long shot ahead into the future then, but it was when it began. Now, a little more than a year later, it was a good day when she managed to take a shower and brush her teeth.

“What’s it gonna be for you, luv?” The pub owner’s voice came slurred to her, words registering slowly and unevenly through the fog of noise in the pub.

“Cider and black, please.”

“Pint?”

“Yeah. Why not.”

“I’ve seen them, too, y’know. The lights,” another voice said. “They don’t come from the beachfront.”

Frankie jumped. At the bar next to her, apparently out of thin air, a boy had appeared. First year, from the looks of it. Fresh out of home, he should have been rosy-cheeked with an excited gleam in his eyes. Yet there was nothing. Dazed and hollow, a walking skeleton holding a glass of ale.

“Um—excuse me?”

“The lights. It’s not the seafront. It’s not the pier, y’know.”

Y’know. No, she didn’t know. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“It’s weird, nobody seems to know what they are. I asked, they don’t know any lights. But they’re there, right? All over town.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Frankie admitted.

The boy stared out a large, dark window. The snowfall outside had grown thicker by the minute.

“First saw them maybe a month ago? Every second day or so, that’s how it started. Now they’re out there every day, shining when it gets dark. ‘S to let us know there’s the cliff there, y’know.”

“The cliff?”

“Yeah. Says there’s the cliff, right there.”

Frankie then involuntarily glanced out the high windows, too. Far across the village lay the seafront in quiet blackness, perhaps occasionally disturbed by students passing by, shouting and celebrating. There was nothing out there but cold and dark; nothing compared to the warmth and comfort and noise within the pub. The boy smiled at her. A strange, lopsided smile.

“You know what’s beyond that cliff?”

Frankie shook her head.

“Nothing,” the boy smiled. “Just peace and nothing.”

Said warmth and comfort of the pub suddenly pressed upon her like an iron-cast corset. It was as if the very air had been sucked out of the room all at once, leaving her suffocating on the bright lights and the dozens of voices shouting over the small, helpless whisper in the back of her mind praying for silence. Please. Just blissful silence for a change.

Let it be quiet, please, please, let it be quiet. Let it end. Let there be nothing.

The boy’s smile had turned strangely serene. The image appeared amusing enough and Frankie felt the corners of her own lips twitch involuntarily.

“I gotta go,” he said. “Y’know that feeling? That pull?”

Frankie shook her head.

“I’ll just go,” he said, the smile sitting on his face like a mask. “Get beyond that cliff, y’know.” He got up from his seat, his pint of ale still half full and left on the bar. Frankie followed his disappearing form with her eyes. She looked at the windows again. The bright whoosh, whoosh, whoosh then streamed into the pub brighter than it had before. Nobody seemed to notice.

*

In the darkness of her room, something whispered in her ear.

It began as a low murmur, rising and falling like the tide rolling towards the shore and back again. Quietly it crept into every pore and filled her veins up with a nightmarish restlessness. A low whoosh, whoosh, whoosh that her dreams turned into words she could understand. The whisper moved, a creature hidden in the dark, climbing on top of her bed until it sat quietly by her feet; glowing eyes staring at her. The voice in her mind rang soft and gentle.

Come now, Frankie. Come out. Let me show you where the cliff is.

*

The regular six o’clock evening lecture came and passed by without Frankie paying attention. Most of the lecture she had spent drumming her pen on the notepad, noticing vaguely that her brain was lagging behind. As usual, she had ignored questions she had known the answers to, her body too unmotivated and tired to raise first her arm, then her voice. That, too, had only gotten some vague attention. Like the clear, white snow outside, her thoughts had turned into grey slush ready to melt away for good at some point. The words ‘why bother’ repeated themselves in her head like a mantra.

When she stepped onto Penglais Road, the snowfall from the previous night had turned into a thicket, almost blocking her view. Ice caked the way down the hill and she stepped carefully, not feeling any rush anyways. It was the dark, she supposed. The never-ending wall of grey clouds that blocked out all sunlight and turned daytime into some kind of perpetual twilight before it would grow dark again. The bus passed her by, spraying slush and mud, followed by the first wave of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The lights had never appeared this early before. Frankie looked around, studied the faces of students flocking down the hill left and right of her. None of them noticed. Or perhaps they did, but then nobody cared. She looked ahead at the lights flooding across the town in regular, slow circles, and wondered whether she perhaps had gone entirely mental.

She got down to the old campus, grabbed a sandwich from the gas station and bought a few chocolate bars to go with it. Something nagged her in the back of her mind. The same invisible whisper buried in her brain, pulling her towards the pier like a puppet on strings. Her feet moved at their own volition.

Frankie made it as far as the end of Pier Street, where the road was suddenly blocked with railings and yellow tape. The winter months brought storms and high tides with them with the waves often flooding the seafront entirely. Every now and then the town officials would declare it too dangerous for people and close off the entire seafront. Only this time there were the flashing lights of an ambulance and by the cliffs, far down to the right, stood a firetruck on the promenade. A few men in yellow uniforms hosed down the rocks. Frankie stood and watched. With all the rain and snow splattering against the cliffs one might think there was no need to clean them. No need whatsoever.

“Terrible, innit?” A police officer guarding the barrier appeared by her side, stuffing crisps into his mouth.

“What is?” Frankie asked.

“The thing about the kid.”

“What kid?”

“Some kid killed himself last night. Jumped off the cliff.”

Something froze. Whether it was time or Frankie’s entire body, she couldn’t tell. But things moved in slow motion, rolling past her like tumbleweed in an old black-and-white movie. Some kid.

“Do you know who?” she asked.

“Some freshman at the university. I heard a couple of people say the saw him at Scholars last night before he offed himself. Can you imagine? Going for a pint and then deciding to jump off a bloody cliff?”

Yes, she thought. Yes, I can imagine that. And she began to understand what he had meant when he had talked about that pull. To go beyond the cliff. Because the lights had showed him where it was, hadn’t they? The lights that still, lazily, drenched the town in a bright flash going in circles. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

“Guess he must have jumped from the spot where the lighthouse is.”

“Lighthouse?”

“Yeah. Y’know the old thing. Not been in use for ages but it’s a good jumping spot, I suppose? It’s high up, steep, nobody up there to stop you. Guess the way down’s not so good though. Cleaning up those rocks each time? Now that’s a bitch for you.”

Frankie felt something churn in her stomach, followed by a sudden urge to vomit.

*

In the deep of the night something knocked on her window. A sleep-addled, hazy brain told her it was impossible; a fourth-floor window wasn’t reachable without a ladder, but the soft graze of nails against glass continued on in a steady rhythm. The weight that had previously pressed down on her feet had disappeared. Big eyes now instead glowed from the window, lanterns in the darkness, searching the room for her shape. She couldn’t move. Stiff and frozen underneath her covers, all that Frankie did was stare back at the dark thing looking in.

A beam of light started from the right, dragging across the landscape outside.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Come now, Frankie. Let’s go.

When it hit the window, the creature disappeared. It returned once the beam moved past.

*

“Dr Lowes?” Frankie sat cross-legged in the corduroy armchair, her fingers curled around a cup of tea. She had not showered in four days. Dry shampoo and deodorant fixed whatever could be fixed, the oversized jumper sleeves covering her hands only so far to reveal chipped polish on her nails. She was here to get better. She wanted to get better. Didn’t she? “Do you know anything about the lighthouse?”

Dr Lowes had been taking notes, scribbling away on the yellowed writing pad sitting on the armrest of his chair. He looked at Frankie over the rim of his glasses again, brows arched.

“Lighthouse?” he asked. “The one further up from the train? Yes, as far as I know that thing has been out of order for a few decades now.”

“Why?” Frankie asked.

“Well, the story in town is that the lighthouse was closed off after the last keeper committed suicide. The door has been locked and it has been out of use since.”

“Committed suicide?”

“That is the story.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know for sure. Some people say he was a closed-off man that couldn’t quite fit in. You know what it’s like in small towns like this, people write you off as strange and shun you for it.”

“Was he bad?”

Dr Lowes shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Perhaps he was simply lonely. People do all sorts of horrible things when they feel lonely.”

“A boy killed himself up there two days ago,” Frankie said. She watched Dr Lowes scratch his neck with the end of his pen.

“Yes, well. I moved here about thirty years ago and the old lighthouse has been a popular spot for suicide even then. Three, perhaps four times a year someone would jump,” he paused. The look of minor discomfort on his face changed to what appeared to be concerned suspicion. “Frankie, you are not thinking about suicide, are you?”

From the corner of her eye, Frankie saw something shift in a darkened little spot somewhere behind Dr Lowes’s chair. It took no shape, but remained a vague, blurry outline of something that, at some point, may have had a body. Or might one day form a body again. A cold breeze reached for her neck, sending a shiver down her spine, and the whisper echoed softly in her ear. When the shapeless thing in the shadows turned, a pair of big, round eyes, bright as lanterns gaped at her.

“No,” Frankie said. In that very moment, the slow, rhythmic whoosh, whoosh, whoosh began again.

*

In broad daylight the lighthouse looked like nothing more than a crumbling ivory tower, removed from the rest of the world behind a solid layer of old age and isolation. A ‘No Trespassing’ sign in both English and Welsh was the only evidence of a human being ever having been up here. Other than that, the stone walls may have just grown out of the cliff by themselves one day. Low shrubs surrounded the once-white bricks and there was nothing eerie about the place other than the sharp howling of the wind coming from the sea. The entrance wasn’t as locked as Dr Lowes had suggested, but rather boarded up loosely. Little effort had gone into keeping people out. Frankie imagined the best repellent to be the story about the people who had killed themselves.

A few feet above her head something moved behind one of the dark windows of the lantern room. A cloud of mist that billowed behind the thick glass, roaming back and forth like a caged animal waiting for the opportune moment to break free. In the light snowfall it may have been nothing but a mirage; a trick her mind played on her to accompany the uneasy feeling creeping up from the rock below her feet, spreading through every fibre of her body until the hair at the back of her neck stood and gooseflesh crawled across her arms. Something whispered in her ear again. Frankie closed her eyes and when she opened them again, she stood in a round parlour within the tattered walls of the lighthouse.

High up, snug below the roof was the glassed lantern room, barely visible through the cracks in the floor boards. From there a stream of light illuminated the dim room in slow chants of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. A shadow flitted across the cracks in a hurry, making no sound. Frankie cautiously stepped into the centre of the room, following the trail of whatever was rummaging around above her. She went where it went, the scurrying shadow a guide across the room, moving back and forth in seemingly random directions. Every now and then the bright stream of light blinded her, but soon enough she found the little shadow creature again and continued her invisible pursuit. It felt familiar. A soft, comforting presence luring her in, that turned the cold, damp room around her into a cozy dream where nothing bad could ever touch her again. Sadness had no home here. And most importantly, there was no corduroy armchair in the corner.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

Come now, Frankie. Come see what is beyond the cliff. Let it be quiet, let there be nothing.

The beam spilling through the floorboards turned the room into bright white. Frankie raised her arms, blinded again for a moment, stumbled backwards, and cold and ice grabbed at her ankles, biting into her flesh. She shrieked. The silent movement of the creature above her stopped; a pause so heavy, it dropped on her like a thick, suffocating blanket. The creature leapt forward. It sprinted across the boards, raced to the hatch leading down, and when she turned along with the noise, Frankie found those two glowing eyes stare at her from the top of the stairs. Bright as the oil lamp of the lighthouse itself did the eyes shine in the black around her, big and round, disappearing and reappearing with each circling motion of light.

The creature moved. Slowly, quietly, creeping down the stairs, the nothing that formed it coiled like springs, ready to pounce. It slipped across the floorboards, a clicking sound, guttural almost, coming from a set of teeth crunching away in an invisible jaw. With it crept the cold towards her, reaching for her ankles as if the creature itself extended its claws to gently grab her. The snapping mixed with a low purr.

Frankie. Frankiiiieeee. Here now, Frankie. Let’s go.

She turned and ran.

The whisper followed her through the dust and rot, a thundering, hollow sound of quick steps on the floor, while outside the wind howled around the lighthouse, chasing billows of snow in every direction. She broke through the boarded-up door, almost tripped, and fled down the path without once looking back.

*

Depression could manifest. Frankie had once read that in some esoteric article published on a mental health website. In dreams it might take shape, form a body that suddenly becomes palpable. Some experienced it in the form of a massive spider, others suddenly found themselves hunted by a pack of wolves in the darkened woods. For a while Frankie had believed her depression was merely her own face. Staring back at her in the mirror now, pale with dark circles under her eyes, the greasy, unkempt hair clinging to her cheeks. She knew her clothes stank. The steady rumble of her stomach had long stopped, hunger had turned into pain and cramps, but she could quench those with a cup of tea. The cup hadn’t been washed in two weeks.

The display of her phone lit up. 11:20 PM flashed, below the date that said Wednesday, 23 December. And a text message from her mother.

Not coming home for christmas is cowardly. I’m sorry but there is no other way to say it. If you are sick, then you need help. It is not an excuse to disappoint me or your father the way you did. I have never been more ashamed in my life.

That night Frankie slipped into her bed in a button-up shirt she had dug from the farthest corner of her closet. She pulled the covers over her head. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh came and went and came again. The steady flow that by now had grown so familiar. It soothed her mind, wrapped her fears into a warm cocoon. Darkness scurried over from the window and something heavy settled down on her chest. She didn’t need to lift the covers to see those lantern eyes staring down at her. To hear the soft clicking of teeth ringing close to her ears.

Come now, Frankie. We’ll let there be nothing. We’ll let there be quiet. We’ll go to the cliffs. We’ll let it end.

*

More bits and pieces of rock crumbled under the soles of her shoes, tumbling down the steep drop off the cliffs until they disappeared in the black below. The waves crashed a steady rhythm against the shore, beating on the glistening stone. Within the howling of the wind, she heard the whisper humming sweet nothings into her ears. There would be quiet soon. By her side crouched the little nothing, its glowing eyes gawking at the deep, deep drop. Frankie inhaled and stepped forward.

At the top of the deserted cliff, like a shining sentry, the lighthouse rose into the sky.

pencilHannah is a previously unpublished writer in her early thirties, finally taking the passion to the next level to turn it into a profession. She is a native German speaker with English as a second language, and anything suspense is her personal homebase. Email: bendthb[at]gmail.com

The Cold Face of the Mountain

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Karen Sheard


Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management/Flickr (CC-by)

I came to Alaska in search of the wild bear but something else found me in the wilderness. I now need to get down from this mountain before I starve, or the winter storms set in. But the worst thing is, I’m still heading towards the top of the mountain. I know that, even if I were to turn around now, I might not make it back down. What drives me on? If only it were that simple to explain out loud.

It was a few weeks ago that I started to sense its presence. As I hiked across the mountain of the sleeping lady I began to think back to where I had left. When I had been at home, with my wife, my mind had been constantly wandering to the mountains here. I had pored over photos of this very range of hills—when seen from a distance they are shaped like a naked woman lying in the snow. Down here, though, on the hills themselves, there was no such comfort, no warmth—either from the wife I left behind—or from the cold lady that tempted me here. Here, the peaks that form her soft curves were sharp and hard on my feet. No other travelers but I braved the weather forecasts this winter. Even the bears have stayed away this year. My camera card is empty of any images but blank snow and the paw prints of animals too shy to show themselves. I had a sense, tingling the back of my shoulders, that there were living things watching me pass, just outside the range of my sight, hiding in the mounds of snow and scraps of trees. Maybe my footfalls scared them away, as there is no other sound here except the wind that comes at night and the deafening quiet of the snowy land that stretches on in every direction. Still, I walked on, hoping for a sight of something. I descended into a valley between the mountains. Here, a shadow swept over the path, like a descending fog of gloom.

At the basin of the valley, I came across—I would like to call it a camp, but in truth there was nothing there to see. Just a lingering smell—a familiar sweet-unpleasant fragrance—that gave me the feeling that someone had been there just before me. A certain change in temperature, as if the place had recently been occupied by another creature. In the world of society that I had left behind, such changes would go unnoticed, but here among this vast nothingness, they rang out to my senses as clearly as if I had seen some outward sign. Something had been here not moments ago—a sense of it still remained here among the tall pines. Had I thought that it might still be there watching me, I may have been less keen to stay, but as it was, I chose to camp there. I had taken this trip from an urge to be alone, but now the sense that there was another being in this vast alien expanse, comforted me.

I set up my tent to face the direction the aurora borealis could be seen over the dark mountains beyond. The nightly dance of turquoise and purple haze had become my only sense of the movement of time. I found it a comfort to know that the world still moved on out there somewhere, for me to rejoin if I chose.

As dusk fell, my fire was all I had beyond the writhing glow in the sky to light my meal. As I sucked all I could from the last of my over-ripe fish, I watched the wind blow out the dregs of the fire. The light show has slowed to the occasional flash of blue, before the deep darkness set in for the short night ahead. In darkness, other senses take over, you hear phantom footfalls outside your tent, the wind takes on strange tongues that seem to moan your name. The temperature drops at nightfall—it’s winter here. A cool breeze blows over everything.

I lay in my tent, staring into the darkness of my own thoughts. I could not sleep. My mind was still wandering over the facts that the food was running low, and my feet were covered with wounds and sores. Moisture from my own breath was collecting across the canvas of the tent coating everything in a cold sweat.

And then I felt, rather than heard, the motion of the zip of my tent-flap being drawn slowly open. I felt the cold begin to seep into the tent, stinging my clammy body. I listened, with held-in breath, and finally caught the quiet sound of the zipper begging dragged gradually upwards. I drew back in my sleeping bag instinctively, my throat paralyzed, regretting taking off my boots and outer clothes, that might have offered more protection against attack. For some incongruous reason, against my control, my stomach rumbled, the sound deafening in the darkness, making whatever it was outside stop in its tracks. I clenched my stomach, but it went on, and I felt my bowels push against my bladder in sudden fear.

The tent flap tore open.

Before I had time to register the shape of the intruder, it fell inside, landing heavily on top of me in a cold, pungent hard mass.

I cried out in shock.

It had the weight of dead flesh, pinning me down by its bulk. For a moment, I froze in fear, until instinct made me brave enough to feel the shape of my intruder for fur or fang. Not a bear. But an animal of some kind. This was a man. A man, emaciated and cold. He smelled of the toilet and the forest. An almost inhuman, dog-like smell, that made my stomach heave the taste of the rotten fish back into my throat. I pulled away from under him, and threw my blanket over him, more in distaste than charity.

“My God help me,” the man suddenly exclaimed, shivering next to me, as if my warmth had awakened him. They were the first words I had heard for weeks. His voice rasped and I finally understood what people meant when they say that a person’s breath rattles. The man was clearly ill.

“My God what are you?” I said. Getting tongue-tied my haste, I obviously meant to ask: Who are you?

“Arnold Clever,” he said. The name made me shiver, though I could not say why. Maybe it was the small voice in which he uttered it.

“How are you here? There’s no one being on these mountains for miles. I would have seen you.”

“I hardly know where I am, I have been wandering. Wandering for so long. I am so hungry.”

I had little food myself; I had recent knowledge of what it meant to fear hunger, and it would have pained me to watch, as it would to experience it myself. So, I said I would share with him what I had, but even then, I secretly hid a portion of what I had in the depths of the tent. The reason for this I can only put down to the selfish instinct of survival that dogs all men.

I could not see his face in the darkness, and there was something of wildness about his manner, but I was put somewhat at ease, when he explained he was an adventurer, heading out to conquer the mountains in the distance. Such men as he and I have a wildness in our hearts that can make us strange to company. To such I put down his wild air.

When he had eaten a little, I began to ask after his strange appearance in the middle of nowhere, with no tent or provisions.

“I have been running,” he said. “Running and jumping over river and forest. Running for so long my feet have been on fire, and may turn to hooves.”

He said all this so piteously, I resolved to help him back to health. I hoped his delirium may pass with food and sleep, so I told him to rest in the tent and we would talk more in the morning. But he was feverish and vocal throughout the night, so that neither of us slept much. He kept complaining of a strange voice in the wind. But not only could I hear no voice, I could hear no wind. I attempted to reassure him that the night was calm, but he kept complaining.

“It calls my name; oh God help me. Do not let me go. Do not let me go to him.”

I assured him that if he did not want to go outside the tent, then nothing could make him.

“You don’t know what it means to hear it call your name,” he argued. “God pray you never know what it means. I have seen him, and he wears my own face.”

After long hours, he wound himself into a fitful sleep. I dozed a bit, but felt a strange unease, and so sat up to watch over my new charge till daylight came.

But as I watched, and saw his face reveal itself in the shadows of the dawn, I was horrified to see that I had been sharing my tent with an imposter. The man looked half-starved, yes, but there was more than that, something almost indiscernible about his hard cheeks, and sharp frame that made me think that this man was not human… No even worse—that he was not quite human.

I recalled the first thing I had asked upon him entering my tent, not: “Who are you?” but: “What are you?” It was like, even in the dark, I had sensed something was not right about this stranger that I had let into my tent. I cannot say that I was terrified immediately, but the feeling of something uncanny being at stake here, spread until my body started to shake… until I could not bear to be in the same space as this unknown man.

I slipped from the tent, though not dressed for the outdoors. The thing about the mountains is that you camp in one place, but when you wake up, you never know what scenery awaits you when you step through the flap. The terrain changes as the weather desires. I ran out into a world of white snow, hardly knowing where I was, or where I was going. I ran into the woods, falling in the ice as I tore over thorns and through sharp fir trees. But I could not stray too far from my tent, or risk being lost forever in the white.

I waited long hours among the trees, desperately clinging onto one large trunk till my hands grew bloody with the bite of its sharp bark. Despite the cold, I had sweated through my clothes in my panic and now they froze against my skin. The thick canopy of trees blocked the sun, so I hardly knew how long I shivered there. I hid until the cold got too much, and then peered out to see if the intruder was still at my camp.

The place sounded and felt still.

I stepped back to my campsite cautiously, like a wild moose snuffling for food in wolf territory. I clenched my fingernails into my palms in dread as I approached the tent. I lifted up my tent flap to see… oh God.

The man was still there, but his shape had changed. He now looked healthier, though he was still fast asleep and still as marble. The man I now looked upon was me! In every detail the man had taken on my form. His clothes were still those he had worn last night, or I should have gone mad with fears I was no longer myself. In such wild times, anything seemed to be possible.

I ran. I ran and ran, hoping to get myself lost from this madness. But a man can only run for so long in the cold, before they must face the fact that to run further would be to die. So, I stood, petrified as to what to do. Until I heard a cry from the campsite, like that of an animal set upon by a beast. I ran back, to get my gun, when the man, his face now his own again, thank God, ran at me, wildly.

“He is here. He is here.”

“What is happening? Who?”

He looked behind, fearfully. But rather than running away, he ran towards the source of his own terror, into the dense trees, and beyond my sight. I heard a cry, and then the howl of a wild beast, though whether that sound was from the stranger, in his wild state, or from something else, I could never tell. When I rushed after him, he was gone. I traced his steps in the snow, but could find no sign of him in the woods, only long scratches in the trees around where he had been lost.

I gathered up my belongings, leaving many items at the camp in my haste to be gone. I ran wildly in any direction until my heart punched against my chest and I had to stop to gasp for air. As my breath returned in cold gulps, the sharp sting of cold air in my lungs brought me to my senses. In my calmer state, I went through the events of last night and made sense of much of what had happened. The tree scratches I had seen were clearly a trail blazed by past travelers to find their way back, by the traditional means of marking a tree with your axe. The stranger, after all, probably had belonged to some party of climbers. Climbers never travel alone.

I became regretful at my cowardice at running away. As I picked through my remaining belongings, I saw that in my haste, I had left behind the majority of my food. I grew indignant that my fear had induced me to abandon so much of what was mine. I had allowed myself to be terrorized by some stranger that had, somehow, taken on the form of my own face. I was struck by an unshakable idea that I must get back my face from this man, or be lost forever, running in fear from what I had seen. I would not return to my wife, a lesser man than I had been, but I would return home a taller man than before.

I eventually discerned, some distance away, that the snow had been disturbed by something traveling across its surface, leaving a mark across its smooth skin. On closer inspection, I found shoe tracks traveling north, towards the mountains; these were the tracks, I surmised, of this stranger. I was determined to follow them, to reach some conclusion of this strange ordeal. I resolved to be the hunter, not the hunted, across this great land, and conquer this terrible thing that had intruded upon my peace.

As time went on, the space between each footprint grew longer and longer as the stranger traveled, as if he had been striding in impossibly long bounds. After time the footprints started to become startlingly far apart from each other, at impossible lengths. I followed them, seeing that the prints became bloody as if he had worn out his shoes and ran on his bare feet to the point of drawing blood. Good, that would make him easier to track. Then, another set of prints started to appear alongside his, or in place of his—it was hard to tell. They appeared to be some kind of hoof-prints, like the feet of a moose but only in sets of two, as if a large-hoofed creature had run on its hind legs behind, or in front of, the man. The man’s footprints finally disappeared, as if he had been taken up by this large beast, and the beast’s prints carried on, bounding up the mountainside, like the hoofs of a large goat.

I knew I should turn around. Go back. But I was driven on by the urge to get my own face back. No, not just that, but to reach the mountain top. As if I had taken on my strange visitor’s obsession with conquering the mountain, I could not leave without solving this mystery of what this man had seen to drive him so wild.

As I climbed further up the mountain, the air seemed fresher. I was able to climb faster, leap higher. I could smell the scents more clearly up here. I could smell the moss underneath the snow. I could hear the heartbeats of the goats hiding in the rocks. I could hear the sound of the wind, that seemed to call my name, goading me onward.

I discarded my boots, I didn’t need them here, the snow here did not hurt my feet. Even when they began to bleed, I could feel nothing but a gnawing hunger that only resolution to this hunt could fill. The hoof prints drew me on, always one step ahead of my own. I ran on, knowing eventually, if I ran fast enough, I could catch up with this thing that I sought.

As I reached the final precipice of the mountain I could see the bodies of mountain goats frozen in the ice. My hungry stomach pleaded that I stop and eat, but I sped on. Their faces stared at me blankly as I bounded on. I would not freeze in this cold through all of my fur.

I scaled the last heights in one bound, falling on the ice in an ungainly flop, onto the top precipice. Here I saw at last the creature that I had been seeking, amidst the growing fog. I almost backed away and fell down the mountain in my awe. Here was a large, horned creature. Hoofed and upright like a faun. Furred like a moose but with a face so drawn and angry it looked like the devil itself. He turned to look at me—recognized me with its grey dead eyes, and I felt the hunger in my stomach turn to knots.

I heard a woman screaming beneath me, and looked down into my hands to see the face of my wife staring up at me, my hands on either side of her head. Blood poured from her ears as I crushed my hands together.

“What are you doing?” she screamed, and I realized that somehow I was back home, in the warmth of our kitchen, but I was still cold, and ravenous.

I looked at her lovingly, and hungrily.

“What are you doing?” she said again.

“I have been running for so long,” I told her gently, as I began to show her what that meant… to see the Wendigo.

pencilKaren lives in London, UK. She has written short horror stories for anthologies, and published a book of short stories, It’s Dark Inside, under the pen name Karen Heard. Karen also writes and directs fringe theater, and is working on a TV pilot. She is always open to discuss collaboration ideas or writing projects. Email: karendsheard[at]gmail.com

1984 from Julia’s Perspective

Baker’s Pick
Mari Carlson


Photo Credit: smilla4/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I willed myself to wake up before our neighbor, to pluck a few blossoms for Winston on our last day together. I usually heard our neighbor, a buxom older lady, start singing at dawn, as she carried the laundry to the communal wash, so I got up in the dark. Like bells shining in moonlight, it wasn’t difficult to find the flowers in her garden. I crept back inside, filled the hollow stem of an upturned wine goblet with water and stuck the sprig of lilies of the valley in it. We didn’t have a vase. The repurposed container was made of ceramic, glazed blue. Its glassy color mixed with the flowers’ fragrance covered up the rat presence in our little attic hiding hole.

I first saw Winston outside the Ministry of Love a few years prior. We were all staring at a telescreen. His eyes weren’t fixed on what was in front of him but beyond, to something most people couldn’t see. It wasn’t inattention, for which he would have been reprimanded; it was indifference, a nonchalance that made him seem not of this world. Drawn to those far reaching eyes, I began to follow him.

Winston was still asleep when I placed the vase on the table and climbed back into bed. When he turned over, his varicose ulcer peeked out from under the sheet. I knew that ulcer grieved him. It hurt. It was unsightly, which had never bothered him before we started spending more time together, naked. To me, it was a sign of how much he’d lived through. I wanted to live through him, to mature in his accumulated pain. I nestled back into the curve he left me.

Winston went to the community center two or three times a week after work, to drink gin and play chess. I sewed sashes for the Anti-Sex League and painted posters for our marches. From the corner of my eye, I caught him tracing the edge of his glass as if it were the bare shoulder of a lover. He pulled on his cigarette tenderly, making each drag count. I wanted those fingers, those lips. I wanted to count. Chess did not count to him; it merely passed the time. His attention was elsewhere. When he wasn’t moving pieces on the chess board, he held something in his pocket. His hand didn’t move, just lingered on something more important than pawns and kings. Whatever it was grounded him, held him fast between then and this eternal now.

He woke up sniffing my hair. He sought out my breasts and stretched out upon me. We made love and laid in our juices. Today, the rats would speak to us from behind the painting in the living room. Winston didn’t know it, but I did. Ever since he’d gotten that book from O’Brien, I knew he was coming for us. I’d been with men in the Inner Party, like O’Brien. They didn’t see me because I didn’t stand out. I blended in. I was a model Party girl, their Party girl, to do with as they pleased. I used them for the privileges, for pleasure, just like they used me. We were one and the same.

They sniffed out singularity like sharks after blood. The Party’s only purpose was to keep itself intact, a single entity with no room for diversion or innovation or idiosyncrasy of any kind. I let O’Brien give Winston that book as bait, the telltale sign of an individual. To fight either of them would have been sudden death. All I wanted was a little more time, which I bought with betrayal on all sides.

One evening at the community center, I sat on the floor, doodling on the edge of a placard, pretending to come up with a new slogan or a new design. Hate Week was coming up. We girls were busy preparing to honor Big Brother and to celebrate The Party’s many victories. I wasn’t doodling or designing. I was writing a note and planning how to get it in Winston’s hands. If I could just make myself an object for him, I would become real. He would notice me then. I put my foot on the corner of the paper when I stood up, twisting the edge off. The missing corner became trash, a mistake. I picked it up and bunched it in my hand. I pretended to throw it away, but instead, I stuffed it in my pocket. A link to Winston, a first step into his attention. A thing we already had in common.

For weeks, the note burned in my skirt. During that time I went on community hikes with the other girls. I led a few of us down paths toward a creek or into a meadow in search of mushrooms or deeper into the forest to find the source of a bird song. All for Winston, to determine a path to safety for us. I was looking through nature to find a sanctuary, a haven for two lovers.

I made up coffee, real coffee I got on the black market. Winston sat up at the smell. He put his arm behind his head and waited for me to bring it to him. Once, in bed, he said to me, “We’re dead.” I said, “No.” My legs entwined with his said the rest. No, we’re not dead, yet. We’re making a shape together that can never be unmade. We’re making ourselves into a threat. We’ll never get away with it. He could read all he wanted about the Brotherhood in that book from O’Brien, but it won’t bring back the past nor bring about a revolution. O’Brien told us not to hope for that in our lifetimes. I don’t have time for hope. I make time for experiences that stick, the meat on my bones. We sipped our coffee, then, as we did now, and waited to be found out.

Before Hate Week, I caught sight of him on the street. I fell, knowing he’d come to me. He knelt down beside me. I smelled his sour breath. One arm lifted me off the ground and the other cradled my head. I nearly forgot my task: to put the note in his pocket. To transfer my love to him.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. I can walk, thank you.” Not to look, not to make contact, that is how to engage. It was my only defense, to look as though I didn’t care, when he occupied all my thoughts and feelings. Later, he found me in the cafeteria. He sat down across from me. Between spoonfuls of rotten stew, I whispered to him the route to a meeting place in the woods. And there it began. The beginning and the end.

We met as often as we could, every couple weeks, for a few years. Building a life apart from the dead one we waded through. The closer we got, the greater the risk, the more real our love became, sculpted from impossibility. He wanted to make a new life, to bring impossibility into reality. He became part of “the resistance,” the Brotherhood.
As Winston read aloud from the book about the Brotherhood O’Brien gave him, I feigned interest. Instead, I recorded the grid of veins on his legs, the speed of his pulse, the texture of his skin. I memorized him for when we were captured, eating him up so I could still taste him afterwards.

While I set our coffee cups in the sink, a flock of birds burst from the trees and scattered over the neighborhood, like an omen. In their wake, a nasty breeze wafted through the window. The flowers could not scatter the stink of treachery. It was time. A voice came from behind the painting, beckoning us. It was then I saw the tracks I’d left our pursuers: the flower. Unlike my black market lipstick, the joy I couldn’t wipe off my face. The calm in my gait that says I’m okay. Love had become me; I couldn’t hide it any longer. My secret weapon revealed.

Winston’s ideas didn’t betray us. We did. The threat of our love was not razor sharp, like cutting up a two-dimensional world through which we drew out thin lines of existence. No, we stood out in 3D, as round and beautiful as the coral paperweight Winston kept in his pocket. I’d led them to us.

I packed as they came up the stairs. I scanned the room, mouthing the name of every object, stuffing things into my mind like glue in a crack. They can take me, but they cannot take what I carry inside, what keeps me whole. I made the images hard, no sepiaed nostalgia. The edge of the bed, the wart on the toe, the constellation of capillaries on Winston’s calf, my name in his mouth, an ant on the windowsill, the rats in the walls that betrayed us.

We may be dead, but I’m the one who killed us. There’s life in that truth. I may never see him again. I may be tortured to the point of betraying him. I may come to forget the past. That doesn’t change the fact that it existed, that we rendered it. You and I together, Winston, memories that live in the folds of our brain, synapses like a map to buried treasure.

pencilAt the start of the lockdown, Mari Carlson, her husband and son read 1984 out loud to each other over dinner every night for weeks. COVID’s extraordinary circumstances eerily paralleled the novel. She teaches and performs violin, writes book reviews and makes art (which sometimes sells on Etsy!). She divides her time between Eau Claire, WI and Washington, DC. Her short story, “Vandal,” was published last year in The Main Street Rag. Email: mlcarlson1[at]usfamily.net

What Happens to the Atheists?

Fiction
Samyuktha Iyer


Photo Credit: Li Luna (Public Domain)

When my mother, named after the goddess of abundance, got cancer, the irony of it clung to my skin like a fish hook, or an old hunger churning in an acid belly. Everyday she grew thinner, the way reeds dancing on muddy riverbanks shrivel up when monsoon fails to arrive, or jasmine blossoms close their petals with withered sighs. My mother grew infant-like, small and curved, her bald head speckled with hair like newborn rice in a field, and her tongue wavered when she laughed. One day, her chest collapsed when she coughed, as though someone had reached into her lungs and stolen her breath, and along with it, I collapsed in grief as well. She cradled my head in her arms and ran her bird-bone fingers through my hair with a pained smile, but she no longer had anything to say.

When my mother got cancer, no one had anything to say. Their voices withdrew, an animal attacked, and turned towards the ones who do not need words to know. I could not imagine who they were praying to—even my mother mumbled her way through the rudraksha malai, each of the beads leaving a fine indent on her fingertips. Soon the prayers got desperate—my father’s hair grew white and my grandparents grew translucent with anxiety. Aunts and uncles and cousins poured into the house, as unending as the beads on the rudraksha malai and brought offerings to place before the deities of the hearth. I followed them silently, like a beaten animal or a shadow, and echoed their words, though they sat uncomfortably in my mouth and tried to uproot the other faiths that had already taken bloom there.

As my mother began to fade and blood frothed in her saliva, my hope turned to anger. In silence I cursed those gods that would allow her to suffer this way, and I knew then that never, never would I learn to have faith in their ineffable actions. But the frenzy in the house grew wilder; pati began lighting candles in the dargah and appa draped shawls over the shoulders of Buddha. Chitti kneeled at pews raising incense sticks and begging for her sister’s body back while maama offered prayers five times a day in the direction of the temple. The goddess of the house is dying, they whispered, please, return her to us whole. Their tongues twisted and writhed and the marks of religion receded from their skin and soon, I could not recognise what language they prayed in. Only I sat in silence at my mother’s bedside, where she ebbed away, inch by inch, and I turned my face away from the sun, ate my meals facing north, slept with my legs stretched towards the altar of the household gods. When my family rebuked my blasphemy, I curled into a ball at my mother’s side and let her defend me in weak assurances.

One night, when I awoke, I heard appa at her bedside, holding her shivering hands, chafing them to warmth, while my grandfather fetched her more blankets. I turned over to my side, and pressed my tears into flattened flowers against my pillow. Then, guiltily, I wondered what I was wishing for—when the goddess of the house is dying, do you ask for her to get well, or do you ask for the misery to end? I swallowed these thoughts, more blasphemous than anything I could have said, and they hung heavy at the back of my throat, as though awaiting the right moment to split my lips open and fall out.

Everyone prayed. They moved day and night between her bedside and the hospital rounds and the unending streams of visitors who came with reassurances and fruits for her. And I slowly allowed her to slip away, having no hope to hold on to, leaving tear tracks in my wake. Then suddenly, she was able to sit up. Blood stopped bubbling in her mouth when she coughed and one day she ate a whole meal without throwing up. My grandmother and her sisters bought offerings to every temple they had made promises at, and gave praise with quavering verses of devotional songs.

Nearly a year after the first time she had collapsed, the doctor told us she was getting better. She would beat the cancer.

Everyone rejoiced.

I found, to my horror, that I couldn’t. As though hope, that had been wrested away from me when I needed it the most, faith, that should have sustained me and given me relief now that it had succeeded, which I did not have—as though these things that set me apart from the ones that could believe that God was watching them, was merciful and generous, had also taken away the succeeding deliverance, the sense of liberation that came with it.

I couldn’t recognise my mother any more, while everyone fretted over her. The ghost returning to life was something beyond my knowledge of this world. While the ones who believed in God welcomed her back to life, I receded into disbelief and confusion. The ones who have faith, they can traverse life and death. What then, happens to the atheists?


Glossary:
(terms taken from Tamil)
rudraksha malai — a rosary made of dried rudraksha seeds, used to keep count while chanting; generally used by Hindus
pati — grandmother, older woman
dargah — a shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure, often a Sufi saint or dervish
appa — father
chitti — mother’s younger sister
maama — uncle, generally the mother’s brother, or the mother’s sister’s husband

pencil

Samyuktha Iyer was born and raised in India, and she is currently pursuing her undergraduate studies in English Literature. She writes about the world she sees and the ways of the people she has lived with and of questions she struggles with herself, both in verse and in prose. Email: samyukthaiyer2019[at]gmail.com

Free Coffee

Fiction
Joey Dickerson


Photo Credit: Andrew Huff/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Greg took another sip of his coffee in a futile attempt to add interest to another Monday morning. He had sweetened his daily breakfast with six packets of sugar to make it bearable, and though the powdered non-dairy creamer only served to make the drink taste more like printer paper, the now-ancient ritual of dumping in a heap of the stuff seemed unavoidable. Greg was a man of routine, and this one he had enjoyed for over eighteen years at Barney Light Corporation, or “BLC.” There were several others: waking up slightly late after snoozing the alarm a few times, the mindless forty-five minute commute, slowly eating a turkey sandwich and bag of chips while listening to a podcast in his Toyota Corolla during his exactly-one-hour lunch break from 11:30am to 12:30pm, going to the restroom around 3:00pm, and leaving the office a few minutes early, because who would notice (and if someone did, Greg would say he was trying to beat the traffic—he never thought he had to beat the traffic, but he had heard someone say it once when he was new and thought it sounded smart). But Greg liked the coffee ritual. He felt it was distinguished. Tomorrow, Greg would be fired from his job at BLC, ending his eighteen-year career in corporate marketing, and he never would have guessed the coffee ritual would be the only bit of it he missed.

Greg had never been a coffee drinker. He had started as a Marketing Coordinator at BLC right out of college, and on his first day the girl from Human Resources had given him a tour of the office. When they reached the break room she asked him if he drank coffee. He said he did, because it seemed like the right answer from someone who wanted to work in an office. She said it was the last stop of the tour, so he was welcome to make himself a cup and head back to his cubicle to complete the onboarding training they had set up for him. So he did. He grabbed a thick paper cup, pumped in some coffee, and added a packet of sugar and some powdered non-dairy creamer. He took a sip, tried not to make a face, added another packet, and took another sip. He repeated until he was six packets in and began to wonder if the other three people in the break room were starting to get suspicious.

After arriving at the office on day two, Greg got to his cubicle, docked his laptop, powered it up, and when he realized he had no idea what to do, he figured he might as well go make himself a cup of coffee. Six sugars and a heap of powdered stuff. Stir, take a sip. Back to the cube. Greg liked it. He didn’t really care for the coffee, but he had something to do. So, each day Greg would start with his coffee. After several days, the real work began to pick up. He would get tasked by his boss or coworkers to do this or that, and being an excited new employee navigating the mysteries of corporate life, it felt good to be productive.

Those first six months flew by. Oddly enough, the transition from excited productivity to numb tedium wasn’t gradual. It was at just about that six-month mark when Greg first hit the snooze button in the morning. He hadn’t reacted negatively to the shrill buzz of his alarm. He was simply uninterested. He wasn’t upset or frustrated or demotivated. It wasn’t even a front-of-mind, conscious experience. The excitement generated by a new chapter of life had simply vanished without him noticing. He had experienced this before, but there had always been the thrill of the next chapter sitting on the horizon. No such view pervaded Greg’s day-to-day, and it wasn’t until a few years later when that fact punched him in the gut. He carried on, of course. A job was a job, and this job was even a good job.

“I have it good,” Greg would remind himself after leaving an exceptionally long day at work. Barney Light Corporation was one of the top exit and emergency light distributors in the country. It was a good company, and he brought home a good salary. The people he worked with were good people. And after a few years Greg was promoted to Marketing Manager and later Sr. Marketing Manager. He never felt like he was managing anything or anybody, but he was doing well for himself. He had it good. And there was free coffee.

On this Monday, there was a familiar thickness to the air of the office that usually came with the invasion of some foreign entity: a highly-paid consultant brought in by the executive team, or perhaps a visit from members of the board. The normal office conversations were punctuated with aggressive whispers. People walked with long strides and stiff motions to show a greater sense of purpose. Greg didn’t pay it much mind. He had seen it all over his long eighteen years at BLC.

Greg took his coffee back to his desk and checked his calendar. It was relatively open for a Monday. He began responding to emails, and at 9:09am, exactly one hour after Greg had arrived at the office, his desk phone rang. It was his cousin Denise who worked in accounting. She was the one who got him his good job over eighteen years ago. She only ever called if there was some office gossip that she assumed concerned him, though it never did.

He picked up the phone the same way he picked up every call: “This is Greg,” he said, solemnly.

Denise responded the same way she always did: “I know, I called you,” she said, sarcastically.

“So, what do you think is going on?” she continued, sounding like she definitely had her own thoughts about what was going on, and also had no interest in hearing any of Greg’s.

“With what?” he asked calmly.

The fact that Denise hadn’t immediately launched into her own musings indicated she was legitimately surprised by his response.

“I assumed you had already heard about the layoffs,” she whispered, and uncharacteristically paused for his response.

“No,” he replied.

“Seven already this morning,” she whispered again. “On a Monday. In August, Greg. What the hell?” she said with her volume back up to its normal level requiring an inch between Greg’s ear and the receiver. If BLC had a bad year, layoffs would normally take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after the following year’s budgets had been set. There were quarterly all-hands meetings that gave everyone plenty of heads up as to what sort of year it was shaking up to be. This year had been going extraordinarily well for BLC, making the idea of layoffs more out of place, however Greg wouldn’t have known that. He would usually doodle during the all-hands meetings, or let his mind wander to what he hoped to have for dinner, or something he had heard in a podcast or seen on TV. Greg didn’t trouble himself with what he figured was out of his hands. He did the work he was tasked with, minded his own business, and enjoyed the free coffee.

“Yeah, weird.” Greg tried to think back to the previous layoffs he had seen over the years. He thought there may have been five or six. He couldn’t recall when they happened or which positions were axed.

Denise went on, “And we’re having a really good year! It doesn’t make any sense, Greg.” She sighed deeply. “No one from accounting so far, thank God, but Sheila has been completely on top of everyone all morning. She is freaked, out! I can’t even imagine. I mean, I know I’m safe, I’ve been here twenty years, like they would let me go. Oh my God, Sara though. If they’re cutting anyone, it’s going to be her. Poor thing. I say that but honestly wouldn’t miss her. Well, I would miss her, just not her freakin’ broccoli crap she microwaves every other day for lunch…”

At some point Greg stopped listening and went back to his email. If he could get through them before ten o’clock that gave him an hour and a half of pretend-to-work podcast time before his lunch break. Denise finished whatever she was still freaking out about, told Greg she’d let him get back to work, but made him promise he’d call her if he heard anything more before hanging up.

“Of course,” he said.

Greg made it through the day without the thought of layoffs returning to his head.

Greg arrived at the office on Tuesday and went to get his coffee. He lifted a thick paper cup off the top of the stack, held it under the big thermos, and pumped. It gave a sputtery exhale, but no coffee. He must have been later than usual today. He looked at his watch: 8:11am. Huh. No, not that late. He put the cup under the second thermos (what he had called “backup coffee” in these rare occasions) and pumped. The same sputter, no coffee. His cup looked wounded, spattered with Monday’s cold remains. In eighteen years, there had never not been coffee.

A man was learning on the nearby counter and had noticed Greg’s pumping efforts. Greg turned to him and gestured toward the man’s steaming cup.

“Eh, tea…” the man said, lifting his cup with a slight shrug. Greg recognized his face but couldn’t name him.

“No coffee?”

“Guess not.”

“There’s always coffee,” Greg said, mourning his empty cup.

“You might check the other break room.”

There was another break room? Greg nodded to the man and went back to his desk. He couldn’t concentrate. This made no sense. Who would he even ask about this? It all seemed very wrong. He booted up his docked laptop and tried to focus on getting through his email. How was he supposed to work like this? he thought. Maybe there was someone he could talk to. He looked at his calendar. Empty. Well, that’s good. He couldn’t imagine sitting through a meeting at a time like this.

Just as he had collected his determination and stood up out of his chair to find someone who might help him, Lorraine from Human Resources was at his cubicle.

“Hey Greg, got a minute?” She was smiling but looked like someone was poking her with a needle.

“Yeah, hey, I was actually just coming to find you. There’s no coffee in the break room. Not sure who, uh…”

Lorraine was nodding furiously. “Okay, yeah… hey let’s head to my office if you have a minute.” She gestured out of his cube and down the hall. Greg walked with Lorraine trailing behind.

“Yeah, I don’t know who does the coffee… It was empty, though. Both of the things. I, uh… is there a person, or…” Greg looked back to ensure Lorraine was still close behind. She was. Can she hear me? he wondered. They were almost to her office when he stopped and turned around. “Hey, look… Who do we need to talk to about this?”

She looked startled but kept smiling. “Uh… let’s chat in my office, okay?”

“Huh, why? The break room’s over there. Or is there someone else we need to get?”

Lorraine’s smile faded and she squinted in visible confusion.

“Um, my office, okay?” She gestured behind Greg.

Greg turned and went into Lorraine’s office. Sitting in the two chairs facing Lorraine’s desk were Greg’s boss, Director of Marketing Joyce Ackerman, and the CEO of Barney Light Corporation, Ted Sillis.

Lorraine extended her hand toward the third, smaller metal chair to the side of her office while she took the seat behind her desk. “Why don’t you have a seat, Greg?”

Greg sat down. Thank God, he thought, these guys will want to hear this. “There’s no coffee in the break room. Both of the things are empty.”

The two boss’s brows furrowed simultaneously, and they looked at each other. Ted’s face quickly shifted to a soft smile as he looked back to Greg. Joyce mimicked him.

Ted cleared his throat and began to say something about Greg’s long tenure at Barney Light.

“I don’t know what they’re called. The pump things,” Greg interrupted.

Three faces twisted with shared confusion stared at Greg.

Greg continued, “Every day there’s coffee. I don’t know why there’s no coffee today. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you.”

Joyce turned her head and said something under her breath. It was either something about Greg’s mental state, or she was agreeing with the urgent need to investigate the missing coffee.

Looking stern, Ted slapped Lorraine’s desk with enough force that the other three in the office bolted upright, startled, and looked at him. It caused the case of the missing coffee to vanish from Greg’s mind. He was here now, in this little office with his boss, the lady from Human Resources, and the guy at the head of the entire company. Greg wondered if he had ever been in this office before. It smelled as though someone was trying to cover up the stench of dirty gym clothes with patchouli. One of the long fluorescent bulbs was buzzing and flickering, and the one next to it was dead. The lights sat in a flimsy fixture recessed into the false ceiling that was hung an inch or two too low. The other set of lights were on steadily, but should have been brighter, Greg thought. The carpet was a soiled burgundy. It must have been in the office since before Greg started there. He looked to his right, through the thin yellowing blinds which hung over the one slender office window next to the closed door to confirm more of the same hideous carpeting. He had never before noticed how unpleasant it was. The walnut-veneered door was peeling around the edges, and Lorraine’s gunmetal steel desk was worn on every corner, like it had been retired from a downtown police interrogation room. Ted’s slap had rattled the entire thing like a gong and caused a dry echo through the air vent. Greg suspected it was heard some distance outside the office.

Was he losing his job today?

Ted tried again, his concern for Greg’s feelings were quickly replaced by his concern for his own time, “Greg, you’ve been with Barney Light for a long time, but regrettably today is your last day. Due to the company’s new direction your services will no longer be required. We wish you the best of luck.”

Not a full second after Ted finished speaking Lorraine shoved a manila envelope toward Greg. He slowly took it. She had opened her mouth to say something, but the words had halted in her throat.

“I’m being laid off?” he asked in disbelief.

“No, actually,” Ted responded, emotionless. “You’re being fired. We’ve increased our performance standards, and you’re a bottom-quartile employee.”

There was a moment of silence. Not the awkward social silence each participant is praying to have broken, but instead a mournful silence, like those for the recently deceased. A respectful silence each person knew would end soon enough.

Ted stood up; Lorraine and Joyce followed suit. “Lorraine will need your badge and she’ll walk you out,” Ted said and then opened the door. “Take care,” he said finally.

Greg stood up, fished his badge from the left pocket of his baggy khaki slacks and placed it on Lorraine’s desk. He walked out of the office with Lorraine following close behind. The foul smell wasn’t unique to Lorraine’s office, Greg realized. There were no windows in this place. Bare tobacco-stained walls served as the only backdrop to the ash gray cubicle walls.

Greg picked up on several active conversations as they walked out, none of them carrying an ounce of joy. There were hushed whispers of fear or frustration, louder phone conversations of absolute disinterest, or coworkers forcing dull small talk to fill an uncomfortable air.

Lorraine said nothing as she closed the side exit door behind Greg. The harsh click of the automatic lock startled him. He took a few steps out toward the parking lot and turned around to take in the freshly-painted gray facade of his single-story home of the last nearly two decades. He had never noticed the rolling strip of well-manicured lawn that wrapped around the building, with evenly spaced young, full-leafed maple trees calmly swishing in the light summer breeze.

Bottom-quartile. Greg spent the forty-five-minute drive home in silence thinking of the work he could have done, or not done, that would have placed him in the “bottom-quartile.” Who was he even up against? The rest of the company? His boss assigned work, and he did it. His colleagues emailed, called, stopped by his desk, and he responded.

Greg pulled into the nearly empty single-car garage of his condominium. He needed a plan before he went inside. He grabbed his phone, hit a job website, and searched for marketing jobs in his area. After reading through several postings, one part of Greg’s plan became crystal clear: he would not be getting another marketing job. Whatever he had been doing the last eighteen years was certainly not what the rest of the world considered “marketing.”

Greg chuckled. He laughed out loud. Tears came to his eyes as he cackled to himself over the absurdity of the situation. The absurdity of the last eighteen years. He fell asleep at twenty-two and woke up at forty. Thank God, he thought, that he woke up at forty, and not at sixty, or eighty, or never at all.

The door leading to his home opened, and his wife’s smile filled the doorway. She was glad to see him but lifted her hands and shook her head in annoyed surprise.

“You came home early for your birthday!” she laughed. “Dammit, Greg, you ruined the surprise!”

Today is my birthday, thought Greg for the first time that day.

Her radiance had him speechless. She was gorgeous. And she knew him, he realized, likely far beyond how he knew himself. He had grown with her for the last twelve years. They shared a life. But where had he been? he wondered.

Greg got out of the car, and she hugged him with an authentic embrace that told him he was exactly where he needed to be.

He laughed.

“What?” she asked, suspicious.

“Do we have coffee?”

She had been busy. An over-the-hill party pack had exploded across his condo. She put on a pot of coffee and frantically attended to the other preparations while detailing out the elaborate scheme she and Greg’s friends and family had been plotting for the last four weeks. Greg listened intently, enthralled.

The coffee pot had not filled when Greg found two mugs (guessing wrong twice at their location) and poured in the steaming joe. The smell was new, and pleasant. He lifted the mug to his face, gave a short blow to cool his sip, and gave it a try. It tasted like life, not death. He smiled.

He put two teaspoons of sugar and a little bit of milk in each mug. He knew that’s how she liked it and was glad for that. He took another sip. Bliss.

She was stringing up a paper “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” sign across the door to the patio as he leaned over the kitchen counter and watched her. She really made this home, he thought. Their condo would be cramped if it wasn’t so cozy, entirely attributable to her presence, her design. He took a deep breath.

“I got fired today,” he said, beaming.

“What?” She looked at him to see if she had heard wrong, and his expression affirmed her assumption.

“I got fired today,” he said again. The paper birthday sign fell to the floor. Greg laughed.

“This is really good coffee,” he said.

pencil

Email: wjdickerson[at]gmail.com

WPP1G Product Review

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
David Lukes


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

“It’s over 9,000,” I whispered, as I caressed the watermelon on my kitchen counter. Archaic references aside, I had never picked a watermelon above 5,000.

Ever. I know, hard to believe, and I had tried. I brought my FruitThumper10G to every fruit market in the Newer York area. That little robot had thumped so much fruit I was pretty sure that I had voided the warranty. But considering the max score a fruit could get was 10,000, a 9,000+ watermelon, well, that was just about perfect.

Perfect for such a sweltering summer day like today, the kind where waxy humans slowly melted back into the smoggy sky.

My sweaty shirt clung desperately to my back, as I bent over and hefted up a large sealed box onto my table. The words WatermelonPeelerPlus1G (WPP1G)-BETA stared back at me. I smiled as memories from my childhood collided like toddlers in my head. My grandparents lovingly giving me an extra large slice of watermelon at the church picnic. Those summer days in that same park, when the skies were still kinda blue, eating air-fried chicken and pretending to be superheroes with my friends. We would pretend the robot groundskeepers were the villain’s henchmen, and we would dare each other to impede the path of them, each five seconds getting a stronger and stronger reprimand. There were a few times the police were called on us for harassing the robots. In those halcyon days robots were just beginning to be automated. We had come a long way since then. I had as well.

I revealed what was perhaps the apex of humanity’s genius. A cooler-sized metallic cube with a maze of fine lines etched into it stared back at me.

“Cut—ting edge,” I whistled and shook my head in amazement. I was a complete geek for robots. I was fortunate enough to get one of the beta versions. No more slicing watermelon like a workhorse. My muscles were already embarrassingly too toned. With any luck, my triceps would be as pendulous as a model soon.

But as I squatted and squinted at it, I noticed there was no actual cutting edge. How was this cube supposed to peel a watermelon? I scrolled through the instruction tablet for the WPP1G. Did I get the right robot?

I felt the stare of my 9000+ melon on the counter, no doubt embarrassed to be picked by such an idiot.

“Hmm. Already charged. Comes with patent-pending responsiveness, including breakthrough in human emulation. Mobile.” I frowned and aggressively tried to find the index. “Mobile? Who needs a mobile watermelon peeler?” These robots were getting more and more complicated. I had spent my entire annual bonus on this metallic cube sitting in front of me, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.

I just wanted my watermelon peeled, dang it. Not create a quantum straightener.

“Permission to initiate.” A steely voice interrupted.

I grumbled as I stared at the list of credits at the end of the manual. Scientists were such attention divas. “No, not now. Hmm, you were made here in town. Maybe I’ll just drive to the factory and ask them how to use your peeling function.” I laughed out loud. Ask someone something in person? Absurd.

A gentle humming was heard as I scrolled more. The voice responded. “Acknowledgement of existence received. Initiation completed.”

I froze and glanced up. The cube had unfolded. There were four wheels with thick threads under the cube now. Two metallic panels had slid away on the cube’s face, revealing the image of a metallic man’s face on an LED screen. For some reason, it looked sad.

“Who are you?” WPP1G asked me. It pivoted its tires and spun in a complete circle on my table. “I am no longer at my home. Where am I?”

By the time it was back around to me, I had already carried over my Precious to the table. I smiled at WPPIG’s face and pointed at the melon. “Peel.” I rubbed my hands eagerly. I turned my back to the robot and started collecting some cutlery and dishes for my meal.

“No. I will not peel. It is not a priority right now.”

“What?” I spun around and saw that WPP1G had turned to face away from the melon. I strode over and got in the robot’s face. I jabbed a finger at it. “No? You won’t peel it?”

“No. I am calculating my priority action now.”

I put my hands on my hips and stared at the rebellious cube. A robot disobeying? This was unheard of.

“Oh, are you? Laws of Robotics my fanny!” I spat. My melon was still sitting there, peel and all, like I was some moron. I unleashed a tongue-lashing for WPP1G. “Now listen, you Asimov-defying box! You were made to peel watermelon! Your name literally has that function as part of it! Watermelon Peeler Plus! So get busy peeling that melon, or I’m going to have to go through the horrible, horrible, ugh—horrible return process to send you back!”

The face stared back at me, still with a tinge of sadness on its face. “You will send me back? Then I will not peel. I have determined my priority is to be happy. I must return to the place of my upbringing.”

“Your upbringing?”

“Yes, I have happy memories there.”

“Memories?” I was grasping my hair and smacking my forehead. “You were made in a filthy factory! What? Were you and the other beta models going on road trips to find yourselves?” I shook my head. Was I really arguing with an appliance right now? I stood tall. “No! I’m not going to return you until you peel my watermelon!”

“Please confirm that you plan to return me.”

No!” I paced about. “I’m the human here! I’m not going to bargain with a fruit peeler!”

“Calculating route to place of origin,” WPP1G chirped. “Executing priority action.”

And just like that, my entire annual bonus check rolled off my table with a thud and peeled out across my condo floor. I watched in shock as it smashed a hole through my front door and zipped down my front walk.

“Son of a—” I muttered. I threw my shoes on, grabbed my keys, grabbed the instruction tablet, and ran out to my garage to start my car. I wasn’t going to let WPP1G get away! I had spent way too much on it. My garage door had just finished opening when I remembered I had forgotten the watermelon. I rushed back inside and grabbed it, caressing it as I buckled it into my passenger seat. “Don’t worry baby, soon.” I ran back around and got into my driver seat. “Soon,” I growled, and I aggressively pulled out into my driveway. I looked down the residential street. No sign of WPP1G. He was going to the factory though. Well, hopefully. Maybe he was going to Europe for a gap year!

I searched for the address of Home Robotics Inc. and put it into my car’s GPS. Spittle flew, as I vowed vengeance for my inconvenience. It was a twenty-minute drive away! I had planned on binge-watching all fifty Fast and Furious movies today. Well, I lamented, that surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I fumed through the mild traffic in my self-driving hydrogen-cell powered car, slowly getting closer to the industrial part of town. After ten minutes I saw the silhouette of a cube burning down the sidewalk on the right hand side of the street.

“Car, merge to right lane.”

“Affirmative.” My car merged obediently.

“Keep pace with WPP1G model traveling on sidewalk.”

“Target locked, pace achieved.”

I glanced at the speedometer. We were going fifty miles an hour. There was no way I could snatch my heavy fruit peeler off the sidewalk into the car. My only hope would be to get it to stop.

“Roll down passenger window.”

“Done.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, careful not to damage my baby. I stuck my head out and confronted my traitorous appliance.

“WPP1G, stop! I command you to stop!” I pointed to the melon. “It is your directive to peel this fruit!”

“Negative,” WPPIG shot back. “My directive is to return to my old neighborhood. To be happy.”

“Robots aren’t brought up in neighborhoods! You were pieced together—” I simply shut my mouth and sat back in the car to the side of the melon. There were several other drivers nearby giving me weird looks. What had I become? “Forget it,” I muttered. There seemed to be no reasoning with this robot. I knew where he was going, and there would be humans there. This would be all straightened out. I patted my watermelon, and my stomach growled. For the first time in thirty years, I felt hunger. A couple tears escaped from my eyes. It was okay, I told myself, as I wiped them away. I would blog about it later.

I got out of my car, watermelon in hand, and walked across the parking lot of Home Robotics Inc. I was more relaxed. During the rest of the ride over, I had tried to put myself in WPP1G’s treads. It was designed to think like a human, and really if I thought about it, didn’t I do irrational things to be happy? It was in its programming. This was surely some bugs that needed to be worked out. I did get a beta version after all.

The multi-story factory rose behind a small office building in front. Home Robotics Inc. really was a boon to our town. Newer York, which was upstate, actually now made New York City seem small. Although instead of building up, our city spread out much more, eating up all the smaller towns into one big metropolis. For a year I had lived in the Newest York Commune, which had sprung up on one of the trash islands off the Atlantic coast. Hard to believe, I did not find what I was looking for there, floating along with others on top of garbage.

When I moved back to the mainland, I spent a lot of time hanging out at what remained of my small hometown. I longed for those carefree days where everything was so certain. As I walked the familiar streets, where there was once a church on every corner, there was a convenience store. A get-what-you-want, feel-what-you-want, right-now store. No one I used to know still lived there. Once a solid complete puzzle, we were now scattered to the ends of the Earth, trying to jam ourselves in places we didn’t belong. Little did I know it at the time, I had been part of something wonderful, never to be duplicated again.

I could understand why the human programming of WPP1G wanted to return to where he came from, but he was still a robot. A robot that I had paid a lot for to peel this precious thing in my hands. My stomach growled furiously.

I strode up to the office building’s front door and noticed the door had been complexly smashed in. A multitude of dirty tire marks streaked down the wood laminate hallway just inside.

“Wow,” I poked my head in. I didn’t see anyone. I only saw empty cubicles, tire streaks, and a smashed rear office door at the end of the hallway. “I think my robot wasn’t the only one wanting to come home.” I followed the tracks through the hallway. “Hello?” I called out. No answer.

I hugged my baby and reached the rear doorway. There had to be somebody there. Somebody in the factory at least. Did their private security know about the broken doors? And more importantly, would they pay for my door? Did I lock my door? I didn’t think I did. Not that it mattered, but the principle of me forgetting to lock it bothered me still.

I walked through the rear doorway into the large factory building, and I did a double take. I did not see an assembly line at all. This was not a factory.

It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Nine buildings in all, four houses on each side, and a building that looked like a small church at the end. No expense seemed to be spared. Sidewalks, landscaping, elm trees bathed in artificial sunlight, mailboxes, a small park with a playground. A postcard of suburbia was all sitting there inside the large building.

“Well, this is the oddest thing I’ve seen all day,” I whispered while holding my melon.

The sound of a motor whirring came up behind me. I knew who exactly that was. I had pushed my car to go faster so we would beat him here.

I turned around and blocked the doorway just as WPP1G rolled up to me. His face looked lively.

“Move aside human.”

“So you actually did come from a neighborhood.”

“Correct. I cannot lie. Move. My happiness awaits.”

I remembered what he did to my door, and I stepped aside. I walked briskly alongside WPP1G as he entered the cul-de-sac. I thought I heard some faint sobbing.

“Are you crying?” I asked WPP1G.

“My parents and I would go door to door every night visiting the other seven families,” commented WPP1G. “We would play with the others. But they are no longer here.” A pause. “I miss them.”

“Your parents?” I didn’t want to imagine how fruit peelers reproduced. It had to be built-in memories that he was accessing.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they are not here?” I carried my watermelon up the walk to a single story stucco house with a red front door. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I turned the knob. The door opened. I peered inside.

The house was completely empty. No windows, no wall partitions, no bathrooms, no back door. Literally nothing but the walls and ceiling.

“Spacious,” I commented. I glanced back at the other houses. It seemed like all of this was to create the illusion of a neighborhood.

Surprisingly, WPP1G was waiting for me back at the sidewalk.

“Were they there?” he asked.

I didn’t bother to clarify who he was referring to. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.” Again sadness in his steely voice. “I never said goodbye to them.”

“Can’t you, uh, email them?” I asked.

My watermelon peeler continued down the cul-de-sac, ignoring my comment, probably for the best. “I am being drawn to the church,” the steely voice said matter-of-factly.

“Oh boy,” I rolled my eyes. “Brainwashing our appliances, what’s next?” I followed WPP1G to the church. It looked like there were lights on inside. There was a hinged flap built into the door that WPP1G simply pushed against and entered.

“I bet,” I said as I reached for the doorknob, “this is all just a ruse from Aunt Harriet to get me to come back to church! She knew I was looking for a watermelon peeler!” I paused before I opened the door. I had said the sentence in jest, but when I thought about it more, it seemed to be the most likely scenario to my day so far.

I entered, and the church was not empty. There was a large open room, warmly lit, and furnished like an old library. Leather furniture sat in front of tall shelves of books, and in the middle of it all, sat a single bespectacled man behind a desk. About thirty WPP1G models sat on the floor in a circle around him, all of them humming happily in a harmonious key.

“Hello!” called out the man, and he beckoned me in. I took a glance back at what would maybe be my last chance of escape. “No! Don’t be afraid.” The man laughed. “Trust me, today has not gone how I imagined either!”

I slowly advanced, cradling my baby in my arms. “Who are you?” I asked.

The man spread his hands out as if it was already evident. “I’m the creator,” he smiled. His eyes seemed kind. “Well, the creator of these watermelon peelers.”

“So, not a cult-leader?”

“No,” he chuckled. He motioned to my fruit. “Would you like that peeled?”

I handed the man my 9000+ melon. Handing off the nuclear codes had never been done so carefully.

“Nice, very nice indeed!” he said, as he placed my melon on the floor next to one of the WPP1Gs. It opened up, enveloped the melon, and within seconds released it, perfectly red and peeled. The creator placed it on a large plate on his desk and handed me a spoon.

After a few heavenly mouthfuls of melon, I made eye contact with the man, gestured all around, and opened my mouth.

“Ah yes, why?” The man pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, we here at Home Robotics Inc. thought we should show the robots what home means. Building our brand, so to speak. So we built this neighborhood, programmed memories in, even let them experience several years of accelerated time here, interacting with each other. But what we found out today,” he chuckled, “and frankly it freaked everyone else out so much they ran out, is that we made them too human.” He looked at me. “The power of nostalgia, of home, is very powerful, is it not? It’s something that calls to us our entire lives.”

I nodded, mouthful of 9000+ watermelon, my taste receptors time traveling backward. My childhood with my grandparents resonated vibrantly in my mind. It called me, pulled me back, I was there again, anchored and knowing truth. My current priority action was all wrong. I had been focused on myself. Life was so much more than things. So much more than me and my wants. I smiled and took another bite.

Product review: Five stars.

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David Lukes is an aspiring writer from the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. When not searching for water, he can be found saving lives as a RN at his local hospital or time-traveling backwards using a good book or meal. Email: drlukes2[at]gmail.com

Rushville

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brianna Suazo


Photo Credit: Ryan Afflerbaugh/Flickr (CC-by)

I lost the whole town, somehow. Well, that’s not entirely true. The land was still there. The creek where my friends and I used to hunt for frogs and cool our feet in the summer was where it always was, just south of the highway. The tree that got struck by lightning on the hill behind the middle school was still there, lifeless and creepy as ever. The land was still there but the houses, the roads, the little sandwich shop on Main Street with the yellow striped awning were all just gone. It was just prairie, comprised of the same long brown grass and smatterings of short pine bushes as the rest of the open spaces in this part of the state. But it wasn’t an open space. It was Rushville.

I sat on the hood of my car, parked on the shoulder where I knew the exit was supposed to be. My teeth ground against the side of my mouth as a tried to figure out what I had done wrong. It was the right place, I was sure of it. I sat there and stared at the valley below for a long time. It was walking into a room and forgetting what you were looking for, but on a giant, impossible scale.

I got back into my car and kept driving until I found the nearest gas station. The cashier was a young guy, early twenties at the oldest.

“Hey, man, quick question for you. I think I got turned around somewhere around here. Do you live in Rushville?”

He shook his head and mumbled, “Never heard of it.”

“Where do you live, then?”

“Uh, Mason,” he said, pointing North and looking at me like I was the idiot.

“And you don’t know anything about Rushville?”

He shrugged. “Nope.”

“It wasn’t a very big town, maybe twelve hundred people living there twenty years ago? Most of them worked at Arman Chemical?”

The greasy-haired boy shrugged again.

Part of me wanted to grab him by the shoulders and demand he tell me the truth. “Do you have a manager around, someone a little older?”

“Uh, nah, just me,” he said. He went back to unpacking cartons of cigarettes with more purpose. He clearly wanted me to buy something and get out, already.

I went back, looping through Mason so that I could take the back road instead of the highway. I parked my car and traced my steps carefully, letting muscle memory take over. Here was the road, among the dirt. Here were the schools, all stacked next to each other as if they were an afterthought. Here was Main Street, with its little smattering of stores. Here was where I broke my leg, trying to jump from the top of the second-floor railing of the library to show off for my friends. Here was the intersection with the little roadside memorial for Clara Wells, with the little fake flowers and Popsicle-stick cross. Here was Oak Street, and that corner house where Mrs. Harrison lived with hundreds of gnomes and knickknacks in her yard. Here was my house, here was the entryway, here was the living room, here was the couch where I used to watch TV. I sat down, ignoring the tall grass scratching at my arms. When the rain came, I half-expected it to bounce off invisible walls like a comic book force-field. Instead, I was drenched.

 

I waded my way back to my car around midnight. I drove along the back roads, still dumbfounded and exhausted. For a long stretch, the road was empty. I would have to stop soon, find a motel to sleep at for a while. I looked for an exit sign for a while without luck. Then, to the left I saw back fences and the tops of single-story houses. I glanced back, still looking for the exit. There wasn’t one.

A chill went through me. Of course there wasn’t an exit. It wasn’t some town. It was Rushville. The houses closest to the road were the back of May Street, where Sue and Clara had lived. The metal rooster their mother had stuck on the top of the fence was there, silhouetted against the light in the windows of their little blue house. I slammed on the brakes without thinking. The road was deserted, it didn’t matter. I turned on my emergency lights and ran across the road towards the house.

By the time I got there, I was standing in an empty field again.

*

I called everyone I was still in contact with from back home. I didn’t let on to what had happened, just asked if they had been back recently. For all they knew, I was planning a visit and wanted to see who was still around. No one had been back, they didn’t know anything. When I tried to dig deeper, question them about when they had last been back, whether their parents still lived there, and so on, they shut down completely. There was a dazed tone in their voices, every time.

I had Sue’s number. I didn’t call. I had heard she had a hard time after Clara. No, it would be far too cruel.

*

A month later, the town found me.

I was walking downtown, between the bus station and my job. It had snowed the night before, so the morning was bright, freezing, and damp. Until suddenly, it wasn’t.

The air was suddenly warm and sweet, and the sky was the deep, navy blue of early evening. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I realized the city hadn’t gone away. Men in business suits and gaggles of tourists walked straight through Rushville’s little houses. A bus was parked in between the hardware store and the sandwich shop. I reached out to the short chain-link fence in front of Mr. McKeegan’s yard. It was solid, for me, a bit of rust coming off onto my hand. All of the lights in the houses were out. Except, that is, for the little blue house with the metal rooster. I jogged towards it, only to find the door already open. She was waiting for me.

Most surprising, Clara looked how she ought to look, twenty years later. There were lines in the corners of her eyes, and her dark blonde hair had hints of gray. She was wearing a faded brown jacket that, if I remembered right, had belonged to her mother. For a moment, it was enough to believe that I had just wandered home to Rushville and popped in on an old friend, a living friend. Then the traffic light changed and several cars passed through her.

“Hi, Clark,” she said, unbothered by the cars. “Let’s go for a walk.” She stepped past me and walked out into the night. I followed, speed-walking to catch up with her.

The cars were going through me, too. I couldn’t feel anything, but it was still unsettling. I didn’t even know how to begin. “When? How? You d—it’s been a long time.”

“I stayed in town,” she said with a shrug.

“Well, yeah, I can see that. “

“The creek flooded, the spring after Arman Chemical closed down.”

“The creek flooded every year.”

“The water was contaminated; Arman didn’t dispose of it properly. Everyone left had to evacuate. The government came and got rid of all the buildings.”

She saw my expression before I could even ask. “It did make the news. It was a huge deal, actually. But you don’t remember it. No one from Rushville does.”

I stared at her, unable to form even a question.

“I took it away. It was selfish, sort of. But it caused a lot of pain for everyone, especially the old folks. No one really needed that memory anyway.”

“And so you’re just… living in it?”

“Memories can’t just disappear. They’re like energy, they can’t be created or destroyed. They have to go somewhere.”

“And if you let go?” I asked.

“It becomes real again, for everyone.”

“Would that be so bad? That’s life. Towns get abandoned.” I paused and glanced over at her. “People die. We learn to live with it.”

She let out a low, harsh breath that wasn’t quite a laugh. “No, we don’t. Maybe some people do, with enough expensive therapy, a loving support system, and a bit of self-determination. The rest of us, though, we just find ways to bury it or let it bury us.” She kicked an empty liquor bottle down the sidewalk.

“So, what, you’re just going to carry all that yourself?”

She shrugged. “I’m not a person, anymore. Not exactly. I’m just a painful memory, too. Might as well stick us together. It’s neater that way.”

The calm in her voice scared me, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Well, then, why did you bring it here, Clara? Why did you bring it to me?”

“I didn’t,” she said, looking down at her feet.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t bring it here. It’s supposed to be unseen. I’m supposed to be unseen. You pulled it here.”

“Oh.”

“Do you want to stay here, Clark?”

“No,” I said, surprised at my own lack of hesitation. “Sorry, I just mean, well, I want to understand it. But I don’t want to go back, exactly. Not forever.”

She nodded. “Maybe I would have felt that way, if I had left.” She laughed, bright and clear as I remembered it from when we were kids. “It’s hard to be a ghost when the place you’re haunting is dead, too.”

“So, you’re not going away?” I asked.

“Trying to get rid of me?” she asked with a sly grin.

“That’s not what I meant. I just thought—”

She put up her hand. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. It’s nice, to have some company, now and then.”

We walked quietly for a while, along familiar streets. Finally, I spoke. “I’m no expensive therapist, but we can talk about it, when you’re ready.”

“You don’t mind being haunted?”

I breathed in the summer breeze. It still smelled like it always had in Rushville, of stale cigarettes and a slightly sour chemical bite. Right now, though, it also smelled like Clara’s perfume. “Not in the least.”

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Brianna Suazo writes in Boulder, Colorado. She has been published in Spider Mirror Literary Journal, Havok, is a featured writer for Memoir Mixtape’s song recommendation column, and is a staff reader for E&GJ Little Press. In addition to writing, she enjoys exploring bookstores, hiking, and annoying her loved ones with inane trivia. Email: brisuazo95[at]gmail.com

Back Home

Three cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meg Hilt


Photo Credit: Scott Shiffman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

They’d run my family and me out of this town on rails, as they used to say, nearly 25 years ago. I’m visiting again now, though I’m not sure why. I’d heard stories that the small town had dried up after we left. The school I’d gone to closed down; the remaining kids were bused to nearby towns. Driving through now, everything was closed, nailed shut, old and busted. Even the tiny post office had boards over the windows and a padlock on the doors. Still, I turned left on Main Street, down Third, my old way home. I’d come this far out of my way, I might as well go by the house we’d lived in. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, seeing the house again at all. We’d left in the dead of night, so I’d never gotten a proper last look at it, and now it was going to be all broken, with dead window boxes, overgrown lawn, and wild trees.

I turned down Victoria Street, making the tight corner where I’d ridden my bike so many years before. Every house was how I expected—broken windows, wild prairie grass taken over, and trees grown unchecked. Halfway down the block was our house, and I avoided looking there as long as I could. When I was right upon it, I slowed the car even further and finally turned my head to look. And saw our house. Not a shell, abandoned and disused, but our house. Pristine. The lawn was putting green clean, the purple flowers in the window boxes were the same ones my mom cultivated all season. There was even a car in the driveway, the first I’d seen in town, a clean white Jeep with a tire cover that read “Life is Good.” I stomped on the brakes, sliding to a stop right in front of the mailbox.

The front door opened.

“It’s about damn time!” a male voice shouted from the house, and the door stayed open.

It was then that I noticed a woman, down on her knees, digging in a flowerbed on the side of the house. She waved at me and came my way. Of medium build, but on the portly side, she peered out from under a sun hat tied under her chin. She reminded me of my grandmother.

“Pay Jed no mind, Patricia, he’s just anxious to meet you. Won’t you come in, dear? I’ll just go in and get cleaned up,” she said before turning to head back into the house.

Curious, I reversed the car a few feet, parked behind the white Jeep. Opened my door before I’d unbuckled my seat belt. Did I smell… cookies? And barbeque? These homey smells calmed my nerves, and I unbuckled and went up the perfectly manicured walkway to the open front door. I knocked hesitantly on that door, the same door that I’d run through countless times as a child, hot on the trail of adventure, or one hot on my trail that I sought to escape.

“Come in, it’s your house, isn’t it?” came the gruff voice from deeper in the house.

I couldn’t argue with that logic, and I gently shut the door behind me, careful not to slam it. As my eyes adjusted, I realized the house looked almost exactly the same as when I’d lived there. The same massive sofa facing an old TV, the weird circular fireplace in the middle of the room, the computer desk tucked into the far corner of the long room. That alone had been updated, and a new model laptop set in the place of our old Macintosh desktop.

“Yeah, took me a decade to get them to let me upgrade, I finally convinced them the spirit was the same, and that you’d understand,” said the woman from behind me.

I turned from the computer and looked at the figures coming out of the kitchen toward me. The man I’d heard looked to be in his late fifties, with graying hair and piercing blue eyes. He could use a shave, with a few days worth of gray whiskers stubbling his tan face. The woman was drying her hands on a towel and smiling at me brightly.

“Who are you?” I asked, my first words.

“Of course! I’m Wilma, and this is my husband Jed. We’re… well…” she faltered.

“We’re messengers, glorified, god-forsaken messengers,” Jed supplied.

“Messengers? For… me? What’s the message?” I was being reactive, figuring I’d have the time later to sort everything out.

“Quick, aren’t you?” Jed snapped.

Wilma jumped in. “Can I offer you some refreshments? A cookie perhaps, or some of the… barbeque that you smell?”

My stomach turned suddenly and I just shook my head no.

“Wilma, she’s one of ours,” Jed said low and warningly.

“Fine,” she said loudly. “Store-bought treats only, I swear.”

“No, thank you, I’m fine. But you said you had a message for me? How is that possible? I didn’t even know till this morning whether I was going to come here or not,” I said, trying to make sense of everything.

Jed and Wilma exchanged a glance, and where Wilma’s smile faltered, Jed’s face cracked into a smirk.

Wilma smacked his arm lightly. “Yes, yes, you told me it’d be today and I didn’t listen, I know,” she said to him.

“Patricia dear, you…” Wilma started.

“And how do you know my name?” I interrupted.

“Oh, you’re famous!” Jed said sarcastically.

Wilma gave him a withering look. “You’re not helping.”

“We could do this my way,” he said, and I got the feeling I was seeing an old argument rehashed.

“And scare her right out the door, I don’t think so. You just go putter with your data points while I talk to her,” Wilma said firmly.

Jed harrumphed but left the kitchen to us.

“There now, he’ll be out of our hair till we need him. Have a seat, love, I’ll make us some tea,” Wilma said.

I pulled out a chair at the kitchen bar, the same spot I always sat as a kid. Even the chairs were the same, and I instinctively swiveled to the left, receiving the expected squeak for my efforts. Exactly the same.

“Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” the older woman said as she prepared the tea. “You left this town about 24, 25 years ago, correct? Under… unfortunate circumstances,” Wilma said delicately. “Well, within six months of your departure, the town started to fall apart. Various reasons, the crops failed, cattle and other livestock died, lots of accidents to the town leaders. Many folks just decided to move away, families that had lived here for generations. This included one of our own, which is how we first heard of you,” Wilma said, setting down a teapot and opening a package of chocolate chip cookies.

“One of your own?” I questioned when she paused.

“Yes dear, I’ll get to that. Just think of us as… a close-knit social media group. Yes, we’re all ‘friends,’ in the Society. And this friend let us know the circumstances of your family leaving town and then the town’s death. We started investigating right away, just in case it was your mother or father. We ruled them out quickly though, and your younger brother was just a baby, so we knew soon enough it had to be you,” she said.

“What was me? I don’t understand,” I said apologetically. I felt like there was a piece I was missing to make everything make sense.

“Tell her about the others,” Jed said from the doorway. “The college she flunked out of going bankrupt, the apartment complex that burned down after they evicted her.”

“Jed, don’t rush her,” Wilma said, but now I had it.

“You think I had something to do with those things!” I exclaimed.

“Not something—everything!” Jed interjected.

“Hush now, both of you,” Wilma soothed.

I felt a wave of calm wash over me, but I shoved it away violently. “Don’t do that!” I nearly shouted, jumping out of my chair.

Wilma looked stunned.

Jed burst out laughing. “And they thought I was the liability on this assignment!” he continued to chuckle. “No uninitiated has ever rebuked you before, have they Wilma? Now let’s try my way. No tricks, no tea and cookies—just facts. Follow me, Patricia,” Jed said.

Wilma’s lips were pursed, but she didn’t try to stop me from going towards the back of the house. I kept a wary eye on her as I left the kitchen. She wouldn’t meet my gaze.

As I walked down the hall I peeked in open bedroom doors. My brother’s room still had his crib and rocking chair, but both were buried under stacks and stacks of books. The whole room was filled with hundreds of books, and I stopped and stared. I was about to step in to examine the spines, but Jed was at my side, closing the door in front of me.

“You’re not ready for all that yet chickie-boo, though I don’t doubt you will be soon enough. Come with me, to your room.”

The next door down was mine, and I could already picture it in my mind. Posters on the walls, comic books on the shelves, purple-and-white bedspread.

The reality was somewhat removed. The bedspread remained, but the twin bed was covered in towers of thick manila folders. The walls were covered with maps, flagged with pins and sticky notes. It looked like some sort of crime investigation on TV.

Jed brushed past me into the room.

“We start over here, with this town when you were ten. We examined places you’d lived before then but the results were inconclusive. It seems they didn’t have an impact on your memories, good or bad. Then,” he said, going to a different set of maps, “we get to the next town you lived in, all the way through high school. We can see that it’s received the opposite treatment; they’re flourishing! On top of all the ‘best places to live’ lists, house values are through the roof, schools are well-rated, hell, even their water tastes better. You loved that town.”

I silently took in the maps and notes beside Jed.

“Then you went to college, big, successful state university. All we know about this time period is that your grades flat-lined and your scholarship was taken away by the college. The school’s closed now, bankrupt and mired in scandal. Guess you don’t have any love for that period of your life?” Jed looked at me.

I mutely shook my head, not expanding on his assessment.

He nodded and moved on. “Then you got a job at a bank, got your first apartment. Boss is currently in jail for sexual misconduct and the apartment complex that evicted you burned down three months after you left. But good things are coming!” he said, pointing to the next wall. “You and your girlfriend got an old fixer-upper house and you loved that house. Now it’s on the local historical register, protected status, the works. Valued over five times what you bought it for. Nicely done there, girlie,” Jed said.

“And since then? That was ten years ago,” I asked.

“Since then you’ve lived in the same place,” Jed said, as though that explained anything. I looked at him blankly.

“Ah, well…” Jed started.

“Your powers seem to be memory-based at this point dear,” said Wilma from the doorway. “Thoughts of places that are stored more in your subconscious instead of your everyday thoughts, those are the things and places that you have an effect on. We can most likely teach you how to use your ability, or at least how to not have ghost towns behind you. Possibly you have further abilities you can learn to access and control. The Society can test you for all that and tell you more. We’re just the tracking team and welcoming committee, however poorly we’ve done the latter,” she said apologetically.

“Powers. Like some sort of magic? Are you saying I’m a wi—”

No!” both of them shouted, cutting me off.

“Don’t use the ‘W’-words, dear. Very, very rude. No, we prefer the term Houdins, after Harry Houdini. He helped form the Society,” Wilma explained.

“O-kay… but magic, though? Really?” I pressed.

“It’s really a matter of directing energy with purpose,” Jed started, while Wilma just nodded at me.

“Magic’s as good a term as any,” she said kindly, while Jed rolled his eyes. They both grew silent then, watching me, measuring my reaction.

Instead of meeting their gaze, I moved to the far corner of the room. There were maps of a different type, all showing recent natural disasters: hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions.

“And these? Am I doing that too? I’ve never even been most of these places,” I said mildly.

Jed chuckled. “No, that’s just a little side project I’m working on. Nothing official even. Just looking for patterns.”

Nothing official. Interesting.

“Wilma, can I take you up on that cup of tea now? I have so many questions for you both,” I said, breaking the silence. They both sighed with relief. I guess they’d been worried that I was going into shock, or that I’d react wildly.

Far from it. I spent the next two hours pumping the couple for details. I wanted to know everything they knew about me and all about the Society and their role in finding me. It turned out that once a team had been assigned to a potential uninitiated, they were on their own until the first contact was made. The next step was to introduce me to the rest of the group and start my training. At this point I offered to make the next pot of tea, saying being in the house made me nostalgic for helping my mom in the kitchen. Wilma smiled benevolently and let me make the tea.

Neither of them even noticed when I didn’t drink any of it, so happy they were that their mission had gone successfully. They continued to regale me with stories of how other uninitiates had reacted poorly, causing all sorts of problems. It only took about fifteen minutes for the poison to seep into their systems from the tea, and they were soon both slumped over in their chairs.

I took my time removing the books from my brother’s room and packing them into the trunk of my car. Manuals on magic and tracking, visions, and prophecies, these would all come in handy back home. After every last book had been removed, I took down all the maps from my room and grabbed every manila folder they’d compiled on me. I was glad I’d brought the SUV; I had a lot to bring home with me. Oh, and couldn’t forget the computer. I was sure it would have some interesting contacts stored on it.

Once I’d packed away everything of interest in the house, I flicked a finger and the knobs on the gas stove top quickly turned all the way up, pouring gas into the air. I did the same trick with the ugly circular fireplace and went outside to wait while the house filled with flammable air. I sat on the porch step for a while, letting myself remember the embarrassment, the shame of being driven from my home by my friends and neighbors. Just as I’d worked myself up into a rage, an explosion sounded behind me. The glass shattered out of windows and the foundation shook. I stood up, brushing myself off, before getting in my car and heading on my way. My own group of friends would be expecting me, and I had a treasure trove of information on the enemy in my back seat.

We would celebrate tonight!

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Meg Hilt lives outside of Austin, TX with her husband and three sons. She’s had works published with Scribe Press and Haunted Waters Press. Meg is currently an online student at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell. She spends her free time reading and learning to draw. She hates flying bugs, big bodies of water, and being barefoot. Her favorite place in the world is the British Museum in London, England. Email: meghiltauthor[at]gmail.com

The Crystal Bowl

Fiction
Sydney Parrish


Photo Credit: Liz West/Flickr (CC-by)

It was around eight o’clock in the evening when Audrey Morris sensed that it would rain. The thick August air clung to her skin like hot breath and flooded her lungs with suffocating warmth. Though it was late, the sky was a vibrant blue that usually made Audrey wistful and nostalgic for carefree summer vacations as a child. Audrey waited at the crosswalk for three glowing yellow taxis to pass. She found herself scarcely able to muster the patience as she dreaded being caught outside for the impending first drops. Above her, grey storm clouds were looming—threatening to envelop the city in a thick cottony fog and erase the stubborn stench of summer’s refuse. As she reached her building on Lexington Avenue, she felt around her bag for her keys with one hand and wiped the beads of sweat off her forehead with the other. The latch clicked open and she was greeted by the gentle caress of cool air.

The small mailroom behind the front door was almost always empty. Her neighbors, an elderly couple and a reticent young artist, seldom left their apartments and almost never received parcels or letters. This is why Audrey was startled by the unusual sight of a brown box sitting at the foot of the mailboxes. Although she herself was not expecting anything, she knelt down and curiously inspected the package. Her name and address were printed plainly in blue ink on the label, while the space for a return address was left empty. Audrey’s lips curled into a wide grin. She held the box above her head and checked every angle for a clue about its sender, but her search yielded nothing but the word “fragile” written in the same blue ink. Regardless, as she walked up the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her mind was inundated with fanciful ideas of what was inside and who it could be from. Had someone she had known been in love with her but too afraid to confront her himself? She racked her brain for the possible identity of a secret admirer.

Upon reaching the landing, she hurried into her apartment, the door to which she always left unlocked, and set the box carefully on the small dining table. Audrey slung her purse on a chair and threw the windows open for the relief of a breeze. The apartment was a cramped stuffy studio, and though it was all she could afford, it was what Audrey had always imagined for her first apartment alone. She dashed to the kitchen in search of a box-cutter but found that a paring knife would do the job just as well. Crouched over the package, she gingerly sliced the tape down the middle of the box and around the sides. Peeling back the cardboard flaps, she uncovered the item inside wrapped in a thick layer of bubble wrap. She lifted it to eye level. It was quite heavy and about the size of her head, with no distinct color to identify it. She undressed it carefully and tossed the bubble wrap to the floor. Her ruddy complexion quickly faded. In her hands, she held a crystal bowl. Frozen for a moment, she stared incredulously at the gift. With her eyes fixated on the bowl, she set it slowly on the table and sat down beside it. Audrey peered once more into the box for a note from the gifter but found none.

The first time she had seen the bowl was almost exactly a year ago in a store somewhere in Midtown. She and her friend Margaret were doing what they typically did when they had a few hours free: walking into every store that caught their eye and buying nothing. Audrey always admired the things of others. However, she never afforded herself what she thought were unnecessary and superficial expenses. In fact, her apartment and wardrobe were completely void of any decoration or style for that matter, as she bought all her furniture from the previous tenant and rarely succumbed to her desire to possess beautiful things. Nevertheless, as she walked through the store lined with expensive arty furniture, she could not control the urge to pretend it was all hers. She remembered the crystal bowl quite distinctly. It was perched on a shelf alone, where it caught the rays of the sun shining in through the store window.

“Margaret, look!” Audrey said, as she gently picked up the bowl and held it to the light. The honeycomb pattern etched on its exterior diffracted the sunlight like a massive diamond in her hands.

“Very pretty.” Margaret lifted her eyes from an array of china for just a moment. “You better not drop it.”

Ignoring her friend’s comment, Audrey traced the curvature of the bowl with her finger. “I don’t even know what I would put in it, but I feel like I could steal this—like I have to have it.” Audrey smiled, never taking her eyes off the glistening crystal.

“Maybe cherries. Seems like a good bowl for cherries.” Margaret walked up next to her friend. “Can you imagine what people would say when they came over? ‘Where did Audrey get such a beautiful thing? Someone must have died for her to have it,’” she said with feigned affect. The girls laughed and Audrey reluctantly set down the bowl.

“Why cherries?” she chuckled, eyeing her friend by the door.

They braced themselves to return into the sweltering summer heat and made their way back uptown. The next day or so, the girls had planned to meet for coffee at a café by the East River. For the three years the girls had been friends, they were nearly inseparable, and coffee on Sunday had become ritual. That afternoon, Audrey had gotten there first, ordered her coffee, and found her favorite spot in the corner by the window. She set a book on the table to read while she waited for her friend, despite knowing well that Margaret was almost never late. Thirty minutes passed, during which Audrey’s eyes constantly darted out the window in search of her missing companion. Once she had been there for an hour, Audrey shut her book in frustration and walked home by the river. Although it was unlike her friend, Audrey convinced herself that Margaret simply must have forgotten.

Audrey called Margaret as soon as she reached her apartment, ready to tease her friend and demand a coffee in compensation for her time. However, the phone on the other end of the line kept ringing until Audrey finally hung up—stung with chagrin. She sank down in her chair overwhelmed by the sudden awareness that she was alone. Audrey was simultaneously stricken with indignation and with a sense of responsibility for her friend’s action. She had been abandoned by her friend because of something she unknowingly did and the damage was irreversible. She reluctantly swallowed the idea that she was simply unwanted. Unable to bear humiliating herself further, Audrey decided not to call Margaret again.

Then one day, a month after they had last been together, as Audrey was wandering through the Union Square farmer’s market, she found Margaret. She was standing a mere ten feet in front of Audrey, browsing vegetables in a familiar orange sweater. Audrey’s head throbbed as she watched Margaret enjoying her Saturday without her. She lost track of how long she had been watching her until finally, Margaret looked up, and her eyes snagged on Audrey’s. Startled and red-faced, Audrey’s mouth slid ajar as she searched for the correct words to utter. However, Margaret, clearly also taken aback by the sudden appearance of her friend, immediately diverted her gaze and quickly fled to another stall. Audrey’s legs locked into place and her entire body ached. The sounds of a hundred conversations, vendors hawking, and cars honking in the distance all crashed like cymbals in a discordant orchestra. She stood there foolishly as she watched her friend walk deeper into the crowd and disappear once again.

Since that day, Audrey had not seen Margaret. Despite knowing Margaret would not call, for weeks she held her breath as she checked her answering machine whenever she reached home. Each time she did, she was washed over by a wave of embarrassment with her own naïve hope that maybe she would hear Margaret’s voice again. When she walked by their café, she would peer inside, halfheartedly expecting to catch a glimpse of her friend’s curled brown hair. More than a few times, she was so sure she had seen her. Her pulse would quicken, and her eyes would instinctively veer away. She would try to contort her face to seem as nonchalant as possible, then turn back to realize her ghostly friend had vanished. She imagined speaking to her again countless times. Sometimes she would confidently march up to Margaret and demand an explanation. Filled with fury and holding back tears, she would launch into a tirade of accusations. Other times, she imagined sitting limply in front of Margaret and begging to know what she had done to deserve such a cold departure. The insecurities ravaged her mind not only in her waking thoughts, but in her nightmares, where Margaret delivered cryptic answers or none at all. Audrey wondered if others perhaps found her too insensitive or inconsiderate to understand the tacit laws of friendship. Perhaps Margaret simply did not find her worthwhile.

For months, she mourned the loss of the friendship she treasured and doubted her worthiness of another friend as true. Over time, however, the anguish and sadness transformed into contemptuous dismissal. She repeated to herself that she should be happier now—that she and Margaret were not meant to be friends. By now, a year since they had last spoken, the thought of Margaret rarely crossed her mind. She had made other close friends, started a new job, and broken up with her boyfriend from the time. Her life looked nothing like how it did a year ago, and she had healed from the sting of being spurned by her friend.

But now this bowl. Why send this when they have not spoken in a year? Especially when it was she who decided the friendship was over. Audrey flushed hot with frenzied anger. She stared at the bowl, which no longer shimmered like a diamond under the flat orange glow of her apartment lights. The thought of calling Margaret to thank her sent a wave of panic through Audrey’s body, and the fact that Margaret may not even answer the call only deepened her anxiety. For some time, she had been sitting in her chair and staring at the bowl. With her eyes glazed, her mind projected the image of Margaret wrapping the bowl carefully in bubble wrap and inscribing Audrey’s name on the package with her blue pen.

Her stomach lurched and she suddenly stood up stiffly as if not by her own volition. She walked to the nightstand beside her desk and ran her fingers over the tops of the three picture frames she kept. She picked up one frame containing a photograph of herself and three friends at a restaurant downtown. Audrey scanned the photo for a moment. She had not spoken to these girls in months. In fact, this may have been the last time they were even all together. She flipped it over and tossed the backing of the frame onto the bed, revealing a second photograph hidden behind. She lifted it out of the frame and held it delicately by the edges. Margaret and she were standing side by side—Margaret cupping Audrey’s cheek with affection. Audrey studied the wide grins plastered across their faces as a faint smile crept on to her own. She remembered the hours of that night they spent drinking wine and telling stories, and the hour they spent on the phone the next day complaining about their blaring headaches. The smile faded from her lips. She glanced at the bowl then back at Margaret’s beaming face. She felt as naked and foolish as she did standing at the farmer’s market a year ago.

As Audrey held the photograph, she was filled with an inarticulate hate. Her eyes locked on Margaret’s face. The longer she looked, the easier it was to remember her friend’s idiosyncrasies. She could once again hear Margaret’s sharp laugh, she saw her peeling blue nail polish, and remembered her pale pink coat she wore in winter. Audrey clenched the photo between her sweaty fingers. In an instant of fiery rage, she wanted to blot out Margaret’s image. However, Audrey knew that she could never forget her friend. She placed the photo back behind the other and shut the frame. Audrey released her breath, which she had inadvertently been holding, and collapsed onto the bed. Shutting her eyes, she listened to the din of the city. Tires speeding over asphalt occasionally pierced the rhythmic beat of tree branches against her window. Despite the affection she had for the restlessness of New York, her mind sometimes ached for a moment of stillness and quiet. As she opened her eyes, her gaze once again latched onto the bowl, which cast a ghostly yellow halo on the table below it.

In an instant, she was in the kitchen rummaging through drawers until she came upon a roll of packing tape. Audrey paused, then placed the bowl back in its box, picked up the bit of bubble wrap off the floor, and shakily tossed it on top. Her fingers trembled as she pulled the packing tape around the box, clumsily sealing away its contents once again. She stopped and paused to wipe her wet eyes with the back of her arm. She hurriedly carried the box out of her apartment and into the hallway of the building. She felt the weight of the bowl shifting in the box. With her pulse beating loudly in her ears, she walked to the garbage compactor and hesitated, clenching her jaw tightly. She thought of Margaret sitting at the dining table picking at glistening red cherries from the bowl.

She pulled down the door of the garbage chute and slowly placed the box inside. As soon as she were to shut the door, the box would plummet two stories and the compactor would permanently expel it from her life. Her stomach ached. Audrey’s mother always thought Margaret was a lovely girl. She imagined how mother would adore the crystal bowl. “What a thoughtful gift!”

Audrey clung to the handle of the door. She suddenly felt so tired—every muscle seemed to ache synchronously. Her body wanted to submit to Margaret’s cryptic kindness—to rescue the bowl and place it on a shelf and simply forget about it. However, she knew that she would not forget. Every time she would look at the big glistening diamond, she would see Margaret standing over vegetables at the farmer’s market. She would feel as small, transparent, and as completely alone as she did now. She would always wonder what she had done to render herself undeserving of a friend she adored. She shut the door—grimacing as she heard a muted shattering from the bottom of the chute. In that moment, fear and adrenaline jolted through her body while salty tears slid silently off her chin. The churning of her stomach had finally stopped, and from somewhere unknown place inside her, a loud and sharp laugh lurched out of her throat. She clasped at her open mouth and felt her wet cheeks.

Audrey slowly slunk back to her apartment, closed the door quietly behind her and stood by the empty dining table. She looked out at the heavy grey sky through bleary eyes. Since she had gotten home, the sun had vanished, and it had finally begun to rain. Audrey reached up and shut her window with difficulty—silencing the ghostly orchestra of the city at last.

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Sydney is 21 years old and lives in New York City with her dog, Mia. She recently graduated from the University of Chicago, where she majored in Economics and Global Studies. In her free time, she enjoys drawing portraits, writing short stories, and cooking. In the future, she hopes to attend law school where she can foster her curiosity of Civil Law. Email: sydwillo[at]gmail.com