Entertainingly Evil
1
Nov

EXPLORE THE STAR REALMS UNIVERSE WITH EVIL GIRLFRIEND MEDIA AND WHITE WIZARD GAMES.

Evil Girlfriend Media paired with White Wizard Games for an exciting new adventure in the Star Realms universe written by Jon Del Arroz.

Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to announce a new way to enjoy a beloved space game from White Wizard Games. The Star Realms universe has been novelized by Evil Girlfriend Media and is now available for pre-order!

star-realms-rescue-run-coverFrom the novel: The door terminal chirped an affirmative sound, sliding open. “Not a long wait at all,” Joan said to herself as much as her AI, then she stepped inside. Breaking and entering had been as easy as tapping the autopilot function on her ship. The mission couldn’t possibly go better, and she’d soon have a pile of credits for her efforts.
Dim lights reflected off the metallic flooring of the room, highlighting a single work console, two chairs and backup systems lining the wall. The place was as dreary as any station office Joan had visited before. “Can you brighten up the room? I can hardly see,” Joan said.

G.O.D., now fully integrated with Balibran Station’s nets, raised the lighting to the corridor’s level. At that same moment, Joan heard the unmistakable guzzah of a phase pistol readying a charge. She spun to see two Star Empire soldiers in riot gear pointing their weapons at her chest.
“Aw, scrap it, don’t sh—” her words cut short as the pulse beams engulfed her nerves, blasting pain through every inch of her body. She tried to scream, but her vocal cords tightened in shock. Paralyzed, the last thing Joan heard was the thud of her own body hitting the metal-plated floor. The room spun into a cloud of darkness.

14971700_10206492076733893_1935306410_oJon Del Arroz, first to pilot this adventure, is a science fiction and fantasy author and editor of several published short stories, including much of the flavor for the Weird West expandable card game, Doomtown: Reloaded. The novelization of Star Realms marks his debut for published novels. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two sons. “Star Realms is one of my all time favorite games and a large part of that is due to its classic Military Science Fiction theme. I’m extremely excited to expand upon the game’s many worlds and can think of no better publisher to do that with than Evil Girlfriend Media.”

star-realms-logo-whiteStar Realms was White Wizard’s runaway hit of 2014, winning SXSW Tabletop Game of the Year, 4 BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Awards, 2 Dice Tower Awards and more. Star Realms is a spaceship combat deckbuilding game designed by Magic Pro Tour Champions and Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and Rob Dougherty (developer and cofounder of the Ascension Deckbuilding Game). Star Realms is a physical card game and is available as a digital app at starrealms.com.

CEO, Rob Dougherty has this to say about the new Star Realms series. “The universe of Star Realms is super cool. I love the history of the expansion of the human race by the corporations, the rebellions on the fringe that led to the Star Empire, the first contact with aliens that led to The Blob, and the subsequent creation of The Machine Cult. We’ve got this really fascinating arc of what’s happening to humanity but we don’t have it on the human scale detail about what it’s like for a person to live in any of these societies. I’m really looking forward to seeing the history of the Star Realms universe fleshed out on a human level. Can’t wait to read the book, and I expect it will be the first of many for the thousands of Star Realms fans out there!”

“I’ve long been a big fan of epic science fiction and space opera. I think Jon’s entry into this realm is an excellent and compelling read. Fans of the Star Realms deckbuilding game will appreciate this look into the Star Realms universe, with its fast-paced story and intriguing characters. From his strong female lead to her amusing AI, I think Star Realms fans and sci-fi fans in general will be eager for Jon to write a sequel.” ~Darwin Kastle, Star Realms creator

EGM_logoEvil Girlfriend Media is a young and upcoming publisher that focuses on horror, dark fantasy and sci-fi. With titles like RACHEL, Apocalypse Girl Dreaming and Murder Girls they have a proven track record for quality publications. Expect this tie in novel to be nothing less than out of this world.

Katie Cord, president of EGM says, “Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to partner with White Wizard Games to novelize, Star Realms. We hope this book by debut author Jon Del Arroz is the first of many to come. Evil Girlfriend Media is and has always been passionate about creating high quality, innovative works in publishing. And who doesn’t love an awesome sci-fi book?”

The Star Realms novel is scheduled to launch November 15th, 2016. Preorder opens on November 1 at http://www.evilgirlfriendmedia.com/books/star-realms-rescue-run/

To learn more about Jon Del Arroz, you can follow him on his blog, or Facebook page.
Visit EGM’s home page for information on new releases and our new EGM Speculate! Stories released every month—or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

For additional information on Star Realms visit the web page, Facebook or Twitter.




21
Oct

“The Periscope” by Drew Williams

Speculate_blogThe train rattles around me. The sound is constant, unending. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’m not. I’d always found something vaguely funereal about the noise; like Jacob Marley’s chains clanking in Scrooge’s bedroom. I remember wondering if I was the last person alive who knew that story. For a moment, the thought made me feel unaccountably guilty. Mainly because I didn’t know it all that well; I might be the last person alive who knew about Scrooge’s three ghosts, but I couldn’t name his childhood sweetheart. Had she died? Was that why he was so miserable? I couldn’t remember at all.

I was the last person alive who remembered a Christmas Carol, and I was bad at it.

I should probably write it down. I did have that in my mobile prison; I had a typewriter. An old manual one with plenty of ink cartridges and plenty of paper. At first, I’d kept a diary, but there just wasn’t much to say.

 

Guess wildly at the date: diary entry # whatever. Today the train kept moving. I took my meals from a slot in the door again. For roughly an hour this morning—at least, shortly after I woke, which I guess qualifies it as morning—the quality of light coming through the angled window was more blue than usual, almost crepuscular. After that, it went back to being gray. During my two hours of exposure to the periscope, there was no sign of that blue light, nor of any survivors. When my time was up, I spent three hours trying to remember the name of young Ebenezer’s fiancé. Eliza? Paige? Beatrice? No, I think Beatrice is Poe. Maybe Dante.

 

My days were much the same, is my point. Still, that’s why I’ve started this document: not a diary, exactly, but more a… story. A chronicle, if you will. My life on the train. If we succeed and the world ever returns to normal, or at least gets a new beginning, it would be nice if someone remembered the small part I played in it all. So, where to begin?

The story of how I’d wound up in this train car, partially a prisoner, partially an honored guest, partially a kind of lab rat, was a long, involved one, and the particulars don’t really matter anymore. Not particularly, at any rate. That’s… that’s kind of a joke.

Suffice it to say the world had gone to hell, very quickly. Who was to blame? What, exactly, happened? How many had died, how quickly, in how much agony? I wasn’t sure. The first, I simply boiled down to ‘those in power,’ because even if they weren’t to blame directly, they damned sure should have stopped it. The answer to the second I shied away from even attempting to answer—if I had to refer to the terrible days before the train at all, I thought of them as ‘the coming of the plague,’ but that wasn’t what it had been, not really. The answer to the third was too big to contemplate without weeping.

How had I wound up on the train? That was a little easier. The world made people mad, you see. Just being out in it did. There’s a simple answer, or at least a simple statement. Not all people, but most people.

I wasn’t one of them, so far. Even still, my time looking out on the mad world was limited: two hours a day. No more, no less. That was my job: observation. It was also why I was locked in this train car. A kind of canary in a constantly moving coal mine.

The people in charge of the train—scientists, I think, though I’ve never met any directly—had several like me, locked in our own little cells, each with our own periscope. We took note of what we saw around the train, and if we saw anything, well, noteworthy (another joke; I’m sorry, I’m not very good at them), we typed it out and put it in a pneumatic tube, and whoosh, off it went, to somewhere else on the train.

The train itself was protected, somehow, from the madness. As much as my day-to-day life tried my sanity through purely conventional means, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the others further back, those who never saw anything but the inside of the train. At least I had the periscope.

I had been discovered shortly after the coming of the plague, wandering the countryside, unaffected—at least, directly—by the tatters of madness that clung to so many others. They’d sent out one of their groups of soldiers, specially outfitted to survive away from the train for brief periods, and bundled me into this car. And here I was.

They assumed my former resilience to the madness would keep me protected from exposure to what I saw through the periscope. So far, they had been right. If it didn’t, of course—the moment I put a note in the tube written in my own blood, or didn’t send any notes at all—I’m sure the soldiers would unlock the door and shoot me in the end.

Excuse me. I meant to type ‘head,’ but I typed ‘end,’ instead. I’m not sure why. A slip. You’ll forgive the mistake, I hope; I have no way to fix it. Manual typewriter and all.

Anyway, the instant my sanity is broached, either by the unknown force beyond my rattling walls or simply good old fashioned isolation, I would be… dealt with. For the good of everyone. Not just on the train, but everywhere. You see, we may well be the last people unaffected by psychosis in the entire world.

Like I said: so far, I have been unaffected by the madness. But that didn’t mean I was unaffected by what I saw at all. The world beyond the periscope was a true misery. What the mad did—not just to those not infected, but to each other, and to themselves—it wore on you. Like someone constantly rubbing at your mind with steel wool or sandpaper. I was torn between waiting for most of them to die out or kill each other, and desperate for that not to happen, simply because when it did, I would be out of things to watch. There would be nothing through the periscope but countryside, or cities being slowly reclaimed by vegetation.

Anyway: that sums up the train. As for my life—where I was born, what my parents did, what my childhood was like or where I attended university—those things no longer matter; not anymore. I am defined by my role on the train, and the train defines me. I am its eyes; the soldiers, its grasping arms; the scientists, its mind. I assume somewhere on board there’s someone monitoring a radio that would act as its ears, and a conductor controlling a throttle that would be its legs, but I don’t know how much either of them have to do anymore.

None of that, however, is why I chose to start this little chronicle. I was telling the truth above, yes, about how I wanted to leave a record of my contribution, however tiny it might be, just in case we succeed against all odds. But that wasn’t all the truth. There’s another story I want to tell, or, another part of the same story.

It’s about the girl.

05theperiscope1I first saw her during my periscope duty (I’m sorry, that’s probably redundant; of course I saw her during my periscope duty. When else was I going to see her, when I was staring at the blank gunmetal walls of the train car?). We were traveling through a rural area, the countryside, which I preferred. Depending on what you saw, there were days where you could pretend the world hadn’t ended at all. In the cities, you could have no such illusions.

I scanned the horizon; you learned to do that pretty quickly. Try to look at anything close up and it will just fly right on past. There was a bridge, a train trestle, one we would be passing over shortly, and I was using that as my lodestone, sweeping left and right of the arcs of sweeping steel that rose up against the blue sky. It was as I was passing back across the bridge—I had checked one side, nothing of note, so now I needed to check the other—when I saw her.

She was standing on the side of the bridge. Just standing there, a little girl in a purple jumper, no more than six or seven. One hand on the slowly rusting metal. You didn’t see many children on periscope duty. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen; some of the mad went mad in very specific ways, ways which told them to protect a child or to prepare it for something, even if it wasn’t theirs. Even if what they were preparing it for was awful. But this little girl… she was different, somehow. Just standing on the bridge, looking down at the water, holding some kind of dolly or teddy bear in her hand. Kicking loose pebbles from the trestle. Unclaimed. Unchanged. Not ruined by the world.

Then she looked up and she saw me. I mean she saw me. Somehow, through the periscope lenses and the prisms and all the angled mirrors, she saw straight to me. It wasn’t just that she was looking at the approaching train, or even that she happened to notice the periscope—she saw me.

Now, I know how that must sound, I know how it must seem. It must come across as painfully obvious what actually happened: that the solitude of my existence had worn away at my ability to read human expressions, that my desperate need for some sort, any sort, of human contact simply thought she was somehow looking at me, and that I simply saw what I wanted, what I needed to see. You can believe that, if you wish. If you chose to. I doubt that you’ll be able to sustain that belief throughout this entire story, but by all means, try, if you wish.

In the ordinary course of events, you understand, a single little girl would not be enough for me to send an order to stop the train. Yes, she appeared calm, but many of the mad do, until they come into contact with something—or, more likely, someone—that sets them off. The mere fact that she wasn’t covered in blood or scalps or strange tattoos did not mean that she was not mad, and it did not mean that she was not simply bait by a group of cunning marauders, either. Just the girl was not enough for me to stop the train.

I did anyway, of course. Even that early on, she had a hold on me.

Still, I was clever about it. I continued scanning. I felt it, when I moved the periscope off of her, a resistance, like a physical tearing inside of me, but I did it. I found the rusted hulk of a gas station sign. Gas stations were something I was supposed to be looking for; the train was equipped with some sort of machinery, or purifier, or something, that could reinvigorate old automotive fuel, render at least some of it useful to the train. I didn’t understand the process very well—I wasn’t a chemist—but I didn’t need to.

I could tell already that we wouldn’t find anything useful there; the corner of the sign was blackened and charred, clearly in the chaos after the outbreak, it had been destroyed, and in the normal course of events, I would have noted it, noted that charring, and moved on. But it was reason enough to stop the train, and it was close enough that if the little girl wanted to be found, she would.

I pulled away from the periscope, typed out a few quick lines—in a hurry; I mistyped the word ‘station,’ but they would get the idea—and send it through the tube. It was just as we were crossing the bridge that the brakes began to squeal. Perfect timing; with a week to plan, I couldn’t have pulled it off any better.

Then the periscope gave its telltale click, the noise that meant my time was almost up, and it would shortly retract into its housing. In the normal course of events, I usually was ready to be done by the time it did so; two hours scanning the desolation of the outside world was enough for me. Of course, by the time it appeared again, I was more than ready to stop staring at the inside of my car, too.

But this time, I was eager to keep looking, wanted to use every second I had left to try and find the little girl again. Her prior position was too close for me to see, of course—the periscope only had about a 180 range of motion, and where I’d seen her last would have been well outside of it by now—but I kept scanning the houses nearby, hopeful of finding some sign that she was safe, that she at least had somewhere to go. Buckets to catch water, clothes hanging on lines, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. I had to pull myself off of the periscope when it started retracting, fighting the urge to cling to it and continue my search. The periscope folded itself up and rose into the ceiling. I was alone again. I’d been alone the whole time, at least, but for a moment, just a moment, it felt like I had not.

The girl had seen me. She had seen me. I knew she had.

I threw myself onto my bunk, staring up at the ceiling. I’d long ago perfected the technique of sort of… projecting my mind’s eye onto the ceiling above me, making memories and fantasies like a cinema, turning the blank gunmetal gray above me into a sweeping panoramic screen where I could actually see my imagination play out. On that ceiling, and in my head, I watched the little girl, over and over and over again. She was looking down at the water, kicking at pebbles, watching them fall. She turned slightly, her wispy blonde hair drifting with the wind. She looked up, and she saw me. Through the train, through the periscope, down through the mirrors, she saw me. She knew I was there.

Had she smiled? Just a little, just a tug at the corner of her mouth? I thought so. No. I knew so.

Whether she had or not, by the time dinner had arrived, she most definitely had. At least in the movie screen of my mind.

I slept that night, and dreamed of the trestle bridge. Not of the little girl, despite how I had obsessed over her the entire rest of the day. She was not a player in the repertory theater of my subconscious. Not yet. But I dreamt of the bridge, and of the blue sky, and the green forests. I dreamt of walking out there. Just…. Walking. And being unafraid.

Even in my mind’s eye now, I can see that bridge. The way it rose up from the water; the green on either bank of the river; the blue and white of the sky stretching infinite above, dotted here and there with clouds. The shade of dull red rust that had at least partway covered it, and the metal sheen where it was uncorroded. If I listen hard enough, I could hear the cables singing.

*

I awoke the next day, and it took me a moment to shake off the dreams. This was often true: when I remembered my dreams, even when they were unpleasant, they became reality, at least for a while, and the train car confused me upon waking. That is, when I didn’t dream about the train car itself. I hated those dreams the most. Even more than more traditional nightmares of fear or phantoms or flight, because then, even my one respite from my penitent’s cell of a prison was taken from me.

I remembered the girl, and came wide awake. I scrambled over to the message tubes, to see if I had received any sort of response from the prior day’s activity. I had not. That in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Even after what I was sure had been successful stops predicated on my information, I often did not receive confirmation of what the soldiers had managed to salvage. Even if the little girl was safely aboard, I would not likely be told. All I could do was tell myself that I had done what best I could for her. I had done my duty, both to the train, and to my own humanity.

By the time breakfast was served through the slot in my locked door, I had convinced myself that it was over, that my little piece of excitement was done. I should be glad, I told myself she had been the most interesting thing I’d seen in months.

Still, as I waited for my duty to begin at the periscope, I wondered about the girl’s fate.

One thing I should clarify before this story continues: I hope that you don’t take my sudden interest in this lone girl as something sexual. For one thing, she was a child, for God’s sake. The world may have gone mad, but I had not. For another, before the world crumbled, my attentions in that direction were confined exclusively towards other men. For as long as I could remember, neither women nor girls had ever created even the slightest flutter in my pulse in that manner.

For a third, and to put the final nail in the coffin of that rather disgusting line of thought, the time I’d spent on the train had caused my sex drive to atrophy. You might think the opposite would be true, that forced celibacy with cause me to be blind with lust, and maybe that would have been the case for someone else, but apparently not me. I no longer felt such urges. Would they have returned, if I had found myself embraced by the company of humankind again? Possibly, possibly not. I simply wanted to make sure that was understood before we go any further: whilst my interest in the child, my need to know that she was safe, might have been unhealthy, might have even been an obsession, it was not an obsession in that manner.

When the periscope finally descended, I practically leapt at it. I forced myself to calm my racing pulse, my hands holding the rubber grips so tight the knuckles were white. You saw one living child yesterday, I told myself. That’s something you haven’t seen for months. You won’t see anything like it again for just as long, if ever. So look, but don’t expect, and above all, remember your duty. You are part of this train, part of its mission.

I told myself all that, and I believed it. I really did. Still, I trembled as I looked through the lenses, and scanned the horizon.

Something I likely should have mentioned earlier, for which I can only apologize: for whatever reason, out of some statistical probability or even a desire to safeguard our sanity through variation, the periscope never lowered at exactly the same time of day twice in a row. It lowered once in a twenty-four hour period for roughly two hours. But it wasn’t as though I was always scanning the horizon at noon, or always at daybreak. When we scanned at night, it even had a night vision filter, blurring everything into a kind of green fog. My shifts at the lenses were not exactly twenty-four hours apart, but sometimes eighteen, or sometimes thirty.

It wasn’t quite night when my shift began, but it was getting close, the horizon painting the world outside in hues of umber and orange. The rural landscape of yesterday was slowly transitioning into something at least slightly more urban—not exactly a city center or anything of the like, but more homes, more streets, more businesses. By which I mean, what had been homes, what had been streets, what had been businesses. Now, they were all mostly ruined.

Nothing notable appeared as I scanned the horizon while the day slipped slowly into night. A few buildings that came close to being worth a stop, but not quite. Something always just a little off, a little wrong—telltale signs of traps left by marauders, main exits left clear but side doors blockaded, a brief flicker of motion that might have been something dangerous, or might not have. It wasn’t worth the risk. I still had about an hour left in my shift when the night-vision clicked on, bathing what had been a cityscape dimming to gray into crisp green dimensions.

That very instant I saw her again.

I hadn’t even been scanning. I’d stopped moving the periscope when the night vision cut on, to let my eyes adjust to that verdant glow, so different than what I had been looking at. But as soon as they had, I saw her: she was standing on the roof of a squat, one-story concrete garage, one I’d seen in my periphery before I’d looked away, and she was staring at me. Again. Still.

Like she’d never stopped.

I ceased breathing. Not consciously, I mean; it just happened. For no reason I could understand, I was utterly terrified in that instant. Terrified she was some kind of demon, a manifestation of all the ills of the world come to haunt me. The night vision gave her eyes an unhealthy glow, like cats’ eyes in the dark. Terrified my mind had finally snapped, that she was a hallucination, I might have been immune to the plague of madness, but ordinary people had been going mad under far less duress for thousands of years. Terrified by something unknowable, unreachable, in the depth of her gaze. Just terrified.

I told myself it couldn’t be the same girl. It couldn’t. For one thing, I had no way of telling the colors of her clothing, or her hair; the night vision washed everything to the same neon green. For another, we had only stopped once since I had sent my note the day before, likely on the orders of a different periscope car. The train moved slowly, carefully, but it did move. We’d traveled two hundred miles, at least, since that trestle bridge yesterday. It couldn’t be her.

But it was. I knew it was. The way she looked at me. It was exactly the same.

I backed away from the telescope. Rubbed my eyes. Went to the tiny metal sink in my room and splashed water on my face. I was seeing things. I was hallucinating. Of course I was. The isolation, the monotony, the lack of intellectual stimulation—my mind was bored, playing tricks like a small child will in an empty house. Projecting the image of the girl from yesterday onto the back of my retina—the same thing I did when I couldn’t sleep at night, and ‘saw’ movies of my memories on the ceiling above me.

But I did that consciously. I hadn’t done this. I hadn’t even been thinking about the girl. I swear, I truly hadn’t. I had, the first few minutes I had been scanning the landscape, but slowly she’d faded as I focused on my duty. I had not been expecting to see her, I swear.

Yet I had.

Slowly, trembling, I returned to the periscope. I pressed my face into the profile, willing my eyes to only see reality, to only see what was there, and she was not there.

I was right. She was gone. Or, rather—she had never been there. It was simply my overworked, overactive imagination. That was it. That was all.

I went to sleep that night trembling, still. I saw nothing else of note during my duty.

*

I saw her again the next day. Of course I did.

Every time I saw her, she only grew more impossible. The first two sightings could have been a coincidence, my fogged mind stuttering if not breaking down, but the third meant something was happening. Either within my head, or outside of the train. This time it was daylight again, and we were closer to a city proper—what city, I knew not.

She stood halfway up a radio mast. There was no way she could have climbed so high. Even during the halcyon days before the plague, it took men with specialized training and equipment to summon those towering spikes of metal. She was just a child, and she wore no rope, no harness. She was simply standing, high up on the swaying, rusting steel. Staring at me through the prisms. Almost smiling.

I had been looking for her, of course. Ordinarily I never would have glanced at one of the dead reminders of our past world; there would be nothing of note up so high, and even if there was, the soldiers on the train could never have reached it. But I was looking. It was like poking at a bruise, or probing a loose tooth with your tongue—we value new sensation, even if the sensation is painful.

I alternately cursed and congratulated myself for finding her again. I knew it was likely my mind was fraying. At that point, I was exhausted with the terror of it all. If my mind wanted to break, I could at least find the breakage interesting, in an abstract, ‘if this was happening to someone else’ kind of way. It kept me from thinking too hard about what I was seeing.

I made it a kind of game. Every day, when the periscope lowered, I would begin my search for her. I no longer cared if I found buildings of note, or resources, or survivors seemingly undamaged by the rampant madness of the ruined world. Even if there had been a merry band of the sane, camped out on the train’s very tracks, I would not have noticed. I was consumed with chasing my phantom, the little girl in the purple jumper, who appeared impossible places. Who saw me.

By the sixth day—the sixth day in a row I had seen her—I had a moment of clarity. Not when I was at the periscope, but after. I was failing to do my duty. I was failing my responsibility. I was clearly going mad. I typed a note, fully intending to send it to my superiors:

 

For the past week, I have seen the same girl, staring back at me down through the periscope. I know she is a hallucination. I retain enough sanity for that. You can no longer trust any reports that come from this car. Whatever mechanisms you have in place to deal with this sort of… affliction, or dereliction, or whatever you chose to call it, you must engage them. I no longer have value.

 

I remember writing all that, and I remember fitting it carefully into the tube, and I remember setting the tube in the pneumatic device. I remember pulling the lever, and feeling relieved that it was done. One way or another, this would soon be over.

It was that day’s sighting that had finally broken me. Or, I should say, sightings. I had seen her not merely once, but three times, in three separate locations. Locations she could not possibly have reached in the time between when I lost sight of her behind the 180 degree arc of the periscope’s view, and when I picked her up again. I don’t know why that was the final straw—it’s not as though that was any less impossible than any of the rest of it—but was, all the same. I was mad, and I knew it. I set it all down, in writing, and I sealed my fate. All I had to do was see how the train reacted.

In the morning, when I woke—yes, by this time I was dreaming of the little girl, almost exclusively—I found the note crumpled up in the corner. The note I knew I had put in the casing, the casing I had put in the tube, the tube that had rattled as the casing and the note were carried to the back of the train. But the note was not gone; it was here. Still here. My terror returned, then, the game crumbling away.

I did not try to send the note again.05theperiscope2

More days passed, and each day, I saw her more and more—once, twice, three times, five, during my two hours on the periscope. Even though true fear gripped me now, I tracked her each time until I lost her from view. It was a compulsion. Then, as soon as she was gone, I would sweep the horizon for her again, driven by my own need to plumb the depths of my sanity. Or lack thereof.

She appeared in more and more impossible places. Sitting on the shoulders of a statue. Staring at me from a bombed-out floor of a building. Standing on the tracks themselves, the tracks that stretched forever out before me, but never growing closer. Once, I saw her eight times in a row. Her appearance never changed. Well, that’s not entirely true—her hair was always the same, her face, her clothing, but what she held in her hand was sometimes different, if I could see it at all. Sometimes a dolly. Sometimes a teddy. A few times a metal lunchbox, the sort I wasn’t sure children had even used anymore even before the world went to hell, dragging me with it. Once, a heavy wrench, its end bent, like she, or someone, had used it to bash something hard, over and over and over again.

But every time, the expression, her expression, was the same. She would look up from whatever she was doing, wherever she was, like she heard the train; she would stare instead at me. Through me. And she would begin to smile. She never seemed to quite finish that smile. It didn’t matter how long I looked. It would start, but never finish.

Except each time it came closer.

I barely slept anymore. I treated my meals, the needs of my person, with a bare, slapdash kind of care, doing the absolute minimum to keep myself alive. All I did was wait for the periscope to descend so I could hunt her again; my angel, my devil. My ghost. My Beatrice, my Lenore, my Belle. Except Belle wasn’t the key to Scrooge; that was what I had forgotten, not just her name. It was his sister; his little Fan. Dead too soon. I knew that’s where she was leading me. I didn’t care. I followed.

It occurred to me later, when I wasn’t looking, that she was growing closer. When it first started, beginning with the trestle bridge, I had always seen her just at the edge of the horizon. Now, each time I saw her, I picked her up closer to the train.

She was coming for a visit.

This went on. I do not know for how long. The train kept moving. I kept to the periscope, but I never sent notes down the tubes anymore. I did not know how long those in charge would let me last, let me remain, keep feeding me, when I was no longer of use. Their canary in the coal mine; all I could do for them now was die.

Finally, I received a message. It hissed down the tube, making the metal rattle as it came. I cracked it open with trembling hands. It read:

 

Your messages of late have grown more and more erratic. We no longer have faith in your ability to operate your station. You will be rectified.

 

That was it.

I had sent no messages.

The one I had typed, the one I believed I had sent, but later found balled up in the corner—it was still there. Do you understand? I had sent no messages.

Except I had. Apparently, according to them, the faceless ‘them’ further back in the train, those that controlled my life and the lives of all the others on board, I had. And they had been erratic. That was a word. That was one word.

I waited for them to come. I assumed my time with the periscope was over; I mourned its loss in my life, in the life I had built for myself, here in this tiny rattling cabin, forever in motion, forever the same.

The next day, however, it dropped from its housing.

It has since retracted. I have used the time between that last viewing of the outside world and now to write this… whatever this is. This chronicle. This missive. This story; my story. I meant what I said above, that I wanted to leave a record of what I did, how I helped, in case the others do manage to find somewhere safe, to begin again. But I also wanted you to know about her.

Maybe I am insane. Maybe it is that simple: maybe this is just a cautionary tale of isolation and dementia and creeping delusion. But maybe not. Because that last view through the periscope, something changed:

She finished her smile.

What lay behind her lips… they were not teeth. I do not know what they were. She is not human. She never was. She spoke, but I could not read her lips. I was quaking with fear. I understood the intent, though. She is coming for me.

I spoke before about the rise of the madness, the time of the plagues. I said I did not know why it had come, nor from where. I was lying. Or rather, I was dissembling, pretending I was the man before my apparition began approaching. Now I know. The root of this evil was never with us. It was with her. With her all along. She is the plague. She is the madness. Mine and all the others. We are the vine and the canopy and the leaf; she is the root.

Now, one of two things will happen. The first: the soldiers will enter, and either shoot me in the head, or drag me from the train and throw me outside—that is one option, with two endings. The second option is much simpler, and the one I fear much, much more: she will come for me. She will be here. When I lay my head upon my cot, when my eyes begin to drift closed from exhaustion—for I have not slept for days now—she will appear. Because she always comes when I am not looking. She will appear, and she will reach out for me.

I pray the soldiers reach me before she does.

I told you this chronicle was a memory of who I was, what I did. Let it also be a warning. To the next person who takes up my position in this car, or the person with a similar job in whatever new settlement the train eventually founds: if you see a girl on the horizon, unprotected, an impossible girl, with long blonde hair and a purple jumper—or anything, really. Maybe she changes. Maybe she becomes what you need her to be, at least at first—look away. Do not try and save her. Do not mount a rescue. She does not need rescue. She never has.

Do not look.

Whatever you do, do not look.

 


Drew Williams spent too much of his childhood reading pulp adventure stories and genre fiction; as a result, he thinks the world is much more interesting than it probably is. When he’s not writing speculative fiction, he works at an independent bookseller, trying to sell speculative fiction to people who might otherwise not have given it a shot.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Sep

“God Sends Meat But the Devil Sends Cooks” by Anne Bartles

Speculate_blogThey put a tiny bit of cocaine in the food, or so the rumors said. Even the biggest food snobs agreed that dinner at The Basement was worth the insane, nonrefundable, pre-paid price. In doing his preliminary research, Jeff had heard another rumor too. Some people thought the appetizer, “The Heart of the Sea,” was whale meat. It was all a publicity trick of course; one of several. As Jeff drove his packed, noisy little car to the restaurant, he wondered about the genius mind behind the marketing. Normally, Jeff would have found being in a car with so many women totally overwhelming, but he was so focused on The Basement, and the review he planned to write, that he almost didn’t care that they were there.

When he finally parked in the dilapidated strip mall, Jeff sat back in surprise and stared at their destination. It looked like a cheap dive, which he realized, with reluctant admiration, actually added to the appeal.

“This place,” his friend Tom asked as they pulled the last of the women Tom had brought out of the back of Jeff’s car, “they won’t tell you what you’re eating?”

“Right. That’s the big lure. They absolutely refuse to reveal what the food actually is. The waiters can’t be bribed to talk. The menu is just a list of the dishes of the night, without any descriptions attached. Everyone eats the same thing.”

“What if I want something different?”

“Then go someplace else, dude. Oh, and all first-time guests are required to sign a waiver. The Basement advises people with life threatening allergic reactions to stay away. It’s genius. Tell people not to come because it might kill you? Who could resist that?”

“That explains all the hipsters,” Tom sighed, gesturing at the line for the door. “I can’t believe they came all the way out here to, wherever the hell we are.”

“The crazy thing that I can’t figure out, is that everyone likes it. Like, actually everyone. That never happens. The bigger the food snob, the more they like to say they hate popular places.” He shrugged. “Maybe they do put something in the food.”

 “You said they really pressured you to take this gig? You try to do some local places anyway. Why are they so excited about this one?” Tom asked as they got in the line.

Jeff froze, for just a moment, his heart pounding. Had Tom noticed what he’d been doing? Wait, no, it was OK, he was just asking about work. He exhaled slowly, and tried to act natural. What he’d been doing was awful, he knew, but he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t think he could. He loved his job, really loved the travel, the exciting food, going to other countries. But then, there were the times he asked, no, pushed, to review restaurants closer to home.

His bosses seemed to believe him when he said it was because he liked to support local businesses. The truth: he got a terrific rush from deliberately destroying the most popular new restaurants, no matter how good they were. Having the power to close a restaurant made up for so much that was missing from his life. He couldn’t admit that to anyone. Hell, he could barely think about it himself. Although, he had to admit, he was damn good at it. He’d once triggered a foodie shunning by simply stating that a new bistro was better than a low-end local chain. He’d killed them with a compliment.

He hesitated to answer Tom’s question though. This was a little embarrassing. “I’ve been to Iceland…”

Tom thought for a second, then pointed at Jeff. “Oh, man! You ate whale!”

Jeff blushed. “I did. I ate whale. I went out in Reykjavik, and ate a lot of whale. They wanted me to write this place up because there’s a rumor that the appetizer is whale meat, and I’ll probably recognize it.”

Tom leaned in and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “How was it?”

“Gotta say, it was delicious.”

Tom was still laughing when they finally reached the front of the line. Heavily tinted windows blocked the view into the restaurant, which wasn’t in a basement at all, but on the ground floor. The strip mall probably didn’t even have basements, Jeff mused, as the large, forbidding bouncer checked ID’s, and produced the waiver on a tablet for each guest to sign.

“Why do you check ID’s?” Jeff asked, handing his over.

“Some of the dishes may or may not contain alcohol, and people under 21 are not allowed.”

He nodded. “Interesting.” He looked at his waiver. It was over 15 pages long. He guessed most people didn’t read it. Ignoring the bouncer’s impatience, he skimmed through the document. Everyone went in without him. Jeff smiled up at the man.

“I guess most people don’t really read this whole thing do they?”

“No.”

“How do you get to the footnotes section?”

It looked straightforward, but Jeff wanted to be thorough for his piece. If something shocking was buried in the waiver, that could make his article.

“Tap the numbers.”

The footnotes were extensive, more than Jeff could read before dinner started. He glanced at his watch and asked for a paper copy. The bouncer immediately agreed, in a tone that suggested that he should have asked for one up front, and saved them both a lot of time.

Jeff walked into The Basement, paused to let his eyes adjust to the room’s dim light, and was immediately struck by an uncomfortable feeling that something was missing. Inexplicably nervous, he examined his surroundings, and tried to ignore the pounding in his chest. The windows were so heavily tinted that when he looked outside he only saw shadows moving in a deeper darkness. Faded posters for dated tourist destinations—their turquoise and greens now bleached almost white—hung in random spots on the walls. The floor was unfinished concrete. Young, trendily-dressed groups of people filled every one of the white plastic patio sets that served as furniture. An unexpected, but lovely belly dancer twisted and writhed among the tables to the faint rhythm of finger cymbals.

Jeff realized that there were no food smells. That must be the absence he’d felt. He was used to restaurants that smelled of food. Here he only smelled floor cleaner and the belly dancer’s musky perfume as she twirled uncomfortably close to him. Because, he understood, in sudden clarity, they served only one meal a day, to everyone at once. That explained it.

04basement1The dancer spun around him with ever louder cymbals. She smelled of rich perfume and clean, female sweat. Her scent filled his mouth, his lungs. A bead of sweat trickled slowly down her belly; he couldn’t catch his breath as he watched it slide down her skin. The room shifted behind her as she contorted in front of him, indifferent to his discomfort. He blinked, and her soft belly, her breasts, were coated with bluish-green metallic scales. Again, he closed his eyes. She was human, and so desirable he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. Dizzy, he turned away, and in a moment of sweaty relief, spotted Tom, and the women he’d brought, at a large round table near the wall. Jeff hurried towards them, not stopping to apologize when he stepped on belongings, or shoved someone out of his way.

Tom had already ordered bottles of wine, and by the time Jeff finally sat at their table everyone was drinking and shouting cheerfully at each other over the noise of the room. So he wouldn’t have to try and interject himself into their fun, Jeff picked up his purely informative menu and feigned an intense focus. It read:

Appetizer:
Heart of the SeaSalad:
Green JealousySoup:
Sacred TearsEntree:
Forbidden DelightsDessert:
What the Sugar Plum Fairy Forgot.
~~~

Tom leaned towards Jeff, “So it’s the Heart of the Sea we shouldn’t eat?”

Jeff shook his head. “Did you tell them?” He gestured at the three women. “Don’t tell them. It will look weird if no one eats it.”

Tom looked at him skeptically, then shrugged and turned back to the conversation.

Within minutes, a small fleet of identically dressed waiters presented the appetizers. Served on a plain white plate, the Heart of the Sea was a simple slice of translucent burgundy meat, with a light sear on two sides. Jeff nodded. It looked like whale. He tasted it. It had the texture of exquisitely tender beef, and a similar flavor, but with a familiar, faintly oceanic quality.  Definitely whale. He sat back in his chair and grinned, as he surveyed the restaurant. This would be a hell of a write up. This place was going down.

Tom hadn’t touched his food, and when Jeff nodded at him he pushed it away. Then he looked at it, and with an embarrassed expression, pulled it back and began to eat.

The women were talking and laughing between themselves. To Jeff, they all looked the same: thin, with light flowing clothes, and lots of clanking, dangling jewelry. He didn’t understand them at all. But then women, always desired, always totally terrifying, couldn’t be part of his life. Impossible to think he could ever be that confident person, who could have…that. Anyway, it didn’t matter. He was one hundred percent devoted to his work, and didn’t have time for anything else. Except, really, one day, he’d like to meet a comfortable woman, someone nice. His stomach twisted, and it occurred to him for the first time ever, that he was deeply lonely.

His reverie was interrupted by the by the presentation of the salad. Eyes narrowed, he gave it a skeptical poke. It looked like an ordinary salad, with herbs and some unfamiliar field greens, tossed with crumbles of warm goat cheese and some chopped nuts. He tasted it. It was, as salads went, very decent. Disappointed that it didn’t contain anything shocking or unusual, he decided he would write that it was banal. Which, given the reputation of the place, was fair. They promise mystery, then give you a salad you could get practically anywhere. Yawn.

He looked around, and noticed how many of the men seemed to have beautiful women attached to them. The men would say something, and the women would hang on their every word. At his own table, Tom was telling some story. The place was so loud Jeff could only make out every third word, but the girls, laughing and listening attentively, seemed to hear Tom fine.

Tom. When had he started to dislike Tom? It felt like a truth that had always been there, under the surface. Sure, they’d been “friends” since freshman year in college, but really, how could he like someone who would happily let a group of girls he barely knew eat whale meat? What kind of an asshole would do that? And he was so selfish! It was just like Tom to keep the women to himself. Not that it mattered.

Lost in thought, he barely noticed when the swift, silent waiters replaced the salad plate with a small cup of white soup. Jeff picked up a spoonful and sniffed it, then let the liquid drip back into the bowl. He stared at the iridescent shimmer that danced across the surface while the noise of the room faded into the background. What made it play the light that way? It didn’t move like most liquids; it acted like a small cup of cornstarch and water. He tapped it gently with his spoon to feel it thicken. Finally, he tasted it. It was delicious, salty and sweet. With a smile, Jeff closed his eyes, and tried to identify the various flavors. Letting the soup roll over his tongue, he inhaled deeply. A version of white bean soup, it clearly contained a smoky bacon, and other familiar ingredients. But there was something else that he swore he’d never experienced before, which transformed the entire experience into something like…like a song.

Instantly mortified that he’d even thought something that trite, he forced himself to focus on his article, in which he would definitely not write that the dish was like a song. When his spoon scraped the last trace of the soup from the bottom of the cup, he had to grit his teeth to keep himself from wiping the inside of the cup with a finger and licking it clean. Frustrating. They should have used bigger cups. That could be an angle for the article, although a pretty complimentary one. ‘The soup was excellent, but the portion too small to really enjoy.’

With a sigh, he looked around for the waiters. They seemed to all be on a smoke break, or something. No one cared about him. No one. Some quiet part of his mind realized how odd and disproportionate that was, but the feeling was overwhelming. Just then, Tom laughed at someone’s joke. Of course, the others were having a great time without him. Yet again, he was on the outside. Tears stung his eyes. What was wrong with him? He bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to regain control, and wiped his face with his napkin. For the first time in his life, death sounded like it might actually be a comforting reprieve from the agony of day to day life. It would be like relaxing into a warm soft bed after a horrible day.

“Excuse me, sir.” A waiter at his elbow took away his soup cup, and almost simultaneously placed a large platter of red meat in front of him. He stared at it. It was some kind of a boneless cut, well marbled on the edges, but lean in the center. Rare and bloody, it looked like beef. He leaned forward, took a deep breath, and blinked in astonishment. Whatever kind of meat this was, it had a truly unique smell. To him, it smelled like memories of childhood, cut grass, and sunshine, but he could never, ever, write that, either. He took a bite, and felt the meat dissolve in his mouth. He’d eaten most exotic meats at least once, but nothing remotely similar to this. The flavor was clean, yet full, with a quality he couldn’t describe, other than saying it was similar to the soup. Looking down at the generous helping, Jeff relaxed in the knowledge that there was more, almost a full plate, of this amazing gift.

As he ate, he was easily pulled into the conversation at his table, and to his surprise learned one of the women loved to read old James Beard books too. Her name was Stephanie, and she was fascinated by what he did for a living. He slid his chair closer to her. Within moments, they were all a big laughing group of easy conversation. Stephanie laughed hard at something he said, and leaned closer to talk him. She smelled like cinnamon, and her arm was warm and soft against his own. How could it feel so natural? Had this always been possible? This was turning out to be one of the best nights of his life. Forbidden Delights indeed! He’d been an idiot. Tom loved him like a brother, and would do anything for him. It was crazy that he’d ever thought anything else.

Only moments after the last person finished the meat course, the waiters appeared with dessert. Jeff’s eyes widened at the artistry of what they were about to receive. Each diner got a unique, Cinderella style shoe made out of swirls of spun sugar. A fine dusting of iridescent sprinkles made them glitter in the light. Tiny crystallized violets rested on Jeff’s snow-white shoe, and dotted the plate. It smelled like vanilla and cardamom. Tom’s was blue, covered in candy hearts and, Jeff leaned over and sniffed, smelled like marshmallows. Jeff didn’t want to eat his yet. If he ate it, the dinner would be over, and he wasn’t ready to face that.

To forestall the inevitable, he decided to explore. He got up, and wandered towards the back hallway. Feeling perfectly intoxicated, but not drunk, he noticed his thoughts were beautifully, sparklingly clear. He wondered if he should have slipped a bit of meat into his pocket to take for analysis. Next time. He’d come back with a plastic bag and do it next time. And maybe he could take some for later, at home. What a comforting thought.

Near the restrooms, he noticed a third door at the end of a long hallway. The guy standing guard looked a lot like the bouncer from the front. This was the opportunity he’d hoped to find. If he could get into a food storage area, or an office, and find out what the mystery ingredients were, it would take his story from good to epic. The kitchen, of course, would be impossible. It was bound to be way too crowded. But, they were hiding something behind this door. He could just feel it. Trying to seem casual, Jeff approached the man and asked, “So hey, is that your brother outside?”

The guard was a large, bald man. All his skin, including his face, was covered with tattoos of snakes and mystical symbols. He stared straight ahead, and didn’t respond. Jeff decided to go for it. He pulled 3 folded 100 dollar bills out of his wallet and held them up in front of the tall man’s face. When he got no response, Jeff quickly added two more bills. Without a word the bouncer reached up and gently took the bills, stepped aside, and cracked the door open, displaying a sliver of darkness.

Slipping past the man, Jeff hurried to squeeze himself through the narrow opening. The door immediately closed behind him. His brows raised as he took in the vast, shadowed room before him. He was standing on a small metal balcony, set into a wall that looked like it had been chiseled out of stone. To his left and right, the wall faded away into gloom. For all he knew, it could be a giant cavern, but of course, that was ridiculous. He looked down over the metal railing. The room was so poorly lit that he couldn’t see the bottom, either. In front of him, attached to the balcony, was what looked like a free standing, tightly spiraled, metal fire escape. And wobbled like one, he noticed, as he took his first tentative steps. Dim, dirty bulbs sporadically lit his way down with small pools of orange light. Cautious step after cautious step, the bottom of the staircase, and indeed anything below him, remained lost in shadow. A faint dripping sound echoed off the walls.

After a few minutes, Jeff realized he’d already gone down at least two stories. An uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach when he looked up. He couldn’t see the top anymore.

“This can’t be right,” he muttered under his breath.

Just then, the steps abruptly ended at a dirt floor. Jeff stumbled forward as he took his first steps back on solid ground. This area was somewhat better lit, and once he’d gotten his balance, Jeff could tell he was in a basement. Spare white plastic chairs and tables leaned in reassuringly normal stacks against one stone wall, along with some cardboard boxes. He walked over and investigated those. They were full of paper napkins. To his right, the shadows grew darker where the walls pulled closer together into a narrow corridor. He hesitantly took a few steps in that direction. There was a sound, like whispering. He thought he heard a faint sob. Nauseatingly nervous, he made himself step forward, keep going, turned around a corner, and stopped.

At first he thought it was a woman, suspended upside down from the ceiling in the room. Then, he realized it was not a woman. Jeff stood, paralyzed, while his eyes continued to send a message that his mind, frozen in shock, refused to accept until, finally, it started to take it in, in pieces.

About ten feet in front of him, an angel hung upside down. It looked semi-conscious. Thick rope, tightly knotted around its ankles, held it suspended from a heavy wooden beam. It was nude. It was shivering. The ends of its long hair brushed the dirt floor. Jeff’s first coherent thought was that it was at least eight feet tall, and probably very strong. Then, he understood that it must be in agony from the weight of its limp, inverted wings, which had stretched its back muscles to what looked like the point of ripping. Finally, he had the dim, confused realization that something really awful had happened to the angel’s legs. Large chunks of flesh were cleanly sliced out of both legs, on both the thigh and the calf. In place of the angel’s muscles, massive square wounds oozed blood that glistened in slick streaks on white bone. Jeff gasped, and noticed a familiar smell, like fresh cut grass and summer. His scalded mind balked and stopped. Then the angel’s eyes opened. It looked right at Jeff. Jeff screamed and jumped back, almost falling into the man standing directly behind him.

“They’re incredibly hard to kill, you know,” the short man said conversationally.

Jeff gaped at him. About six inches shorter than Jeff, the good looking young man wore a dark tailored suit with a black tie.

The short man pointed at the ground under the angel. “See that circle with the symbols? We can hold it, and weaken it, but we can’t kill it. Not that we’d want to anyway, Mr. Monroe. After all, they heal so quickly that we can get a full dinner service off it every night.”

Now fully awake, the angel seemed desperate. It quickly looked around, and then focused again on Jeff. It stared at him with the pleading look of an injured animal, then opened its mouth, but no sound came out. Jeff could see the raw, red flesh where the angel’s tongue had been torn away. The angel cried silently, its body shaking with the force of its sobs. At the small man’s gesture, the bouncer, or someone who looked just like him, stepped out of the shadows carrying a bucket. He gently lifted the angel’s long, soft hair out of the way, and placed the bucket under the angel’s head.

“Angel tears,” explained the small man, “We use those as well. In the soup, of course.”

Jeff fell to his hands and knees, and vomited in the dirt. When he was done, he wiped his own tears from his eyes, and looked up at the man.

“Who are you?” he asked.04basement2

The small man shook his head. “My name isn’t important, Mr. Monroe. My job, my title, is Director of Marketing for The Basement.” He reached down and helped Jeff to his feet. “I, just like you, am a small cog in a much more impressive machine.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to Jeff, turning him away from the horrific scene in the process. “Here you go. Better?”

Jeff nodded, and tried not to think about what was happening right behind him. With all his energy, he concentrated on the man in front of him.

“I trust you enjoyed your dinner?” the good looking man asked, with what seemed like genuine concern. “We work hard to ensure our customers experience an exhilarating range of emotions. First, we bring them into painful intimacy with their own personal weaknesses, and downward into the depths of despair. Then we escort them through a magical removal of those failings, and on to the peaks of delight and joy.” With a light touch, he guided Jeff back through the basement.

“Of course, each diner perceives him or herself to be the only one going through this experience. If you could see it as our waiters do, you would be surprised. Now, had you eaten your dessert, you’d have been filled with the most satisfying contentment. You would have gone home, slept wonderfully, and awakened with the thought that you must plan your next trip to The Basement right away. But, instead, you chose to come down here.” He paused, and studied Jeff.  “Mr. Monroe, you’ve become aware of our trade secrets, which presents a little bit of a problem. Additionally,  you write for that website, sometimes quite viciously. I find that interesting.

“I’m prepared to offer you an exclusive arrangement. In exchange for your silence about our secret ingredients, and a series of appropriately glowing reviews, and an enthusiastic critique of the competition, should there ever be any, we are prepared to offer you VIP status at our establishment. You will never have to book your table in advance, and your meals will always be comped. You will always get the finest cuts. Your friends will delight in your company even more than I’m sure they already do. Their perception of you will be forever altered, for the better, by their experiences here with you.”

They reached the bottom of the staircase.

“You care about what I put in my review?”

“Mr. Monroe. This is the restaurant business where we, just like anyone else, hope to launch a chain of similar establishments stretching right across this glorious nation. And you are a nationally known reviewer, who, by the way, could have a TV contract in his future if he plays his cards right. Who knows? You may end up in a position to promote the restaurant of your choosing to nationally revered status. Yes. We care, Mr. Monroe.”

Jeff tried to think. He desperately wanted to feel that happy, belonging feeling again. It was what had been missing from his life, from himself, for as long as he could recall. He understood that now. And a TV contract? That would be, wow. Yeah. But the angel, it was too horrifying to even think about. His throat burned from vomiting, and he felt like he had a lead ball in his stomach. It would, he knew, take him months or years to really understand what he’d seen and what it meant to him. The look on the short man’s face told him he only had moments.

“Um, is this about my, uh, my soul?” Jeff asked, his hands twisting behind his back.

The other man snorted, “No, no. Don’t be stupid. We want to own your work.” He grinned encouragingly at Jeff.

“Oh. Right. So, the… Back there. Is it suffering much?”

“Well, not like you or I would suffer. No. I think it’s more of a reflex than anything else. They’re very bizarre creatures really. You noticed it doesn’t even have genitals? They’re as different from a human as, well, as a lobster is. Don’t be fooled by the outwardly similar appearance. They’re really nothing like us.” The man reached over to the back wall of the basement and pushed a button Jeff was fairly sure hadn’t been there before.

“Let’s take my private elevator back up, shall we? I’ll give you a tour of the kitchen. An exclusive.”

Jeff nodded eagerly, “That would be great, Mister….?”

“Really, just call me The Director. I prefer to remain incognito. It helps add to the mystery. You know,” he sighed, “my job, marketing, it’s so important. You can’t underestimate how necessary it is. You’re on board with our plan then?”

Jeff nodded, his stomach tight.

“Excellent! I’m so glad to have you as part of our little team.”

The tattooed bouncer from the upstairs hall abruptly appeared, holding a tablet.

“Ah, Gregor. Thank you, and good work helping Mr. Monroe find his way down here.” The Director winked knowingly at Jeff, who decided to add this to the list of things he wasn’t thinking about.

“Now, you’ll see that we’ve simply added a short clause to that waiver you signed earlier. Yes, there are some footnotes. Lawyers, you know,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about those. We understand you want a paper copy, and that will be provided by my assistant on your way out this evening. Just simply sign here. Well done! You now have VIP service for life. I’m sure if you ask her, that hot little piece, Stephanie, will want to come here with you again. And, I’m confident that you will get a call from some cable networks, in due time. Congratulations, Mr. Monroe, on joining the organization.”

They stepped into a small nondescript elevator. The interior was unmarked except for two buttons: UP and DOWN. The Director reached out a thin finger, and briefly hesitated. A mocking smile danced over his lips before he finally pressed the UP button, making Jeff’s legs quiver in relief.

“Now to the kitchen for your tour.” The Director smiled at Jeff.

“Oh, um, you should know,” said Jeff as the elevator doors closed. “The story’s already out that you serve whale meat.”

The Director burst into deep shaking laughter. His eyes shone with tears as he gasped, “Oh Mr. Monroe, we don’t serve whale.” He was still chuckling when the doors opened. They stepped out.  Jeff and The Director faced the kitchen door, with Gregor a silent, solid presence behind them.

“Would you like to see what we fed you?” the Director giggled, glancing sideways at Jeff. “I promise you, it’s not whale.” Jeff turned gray, but nodded.

The Director started to open the kitchen door, then paused to look at Jeff,  “Remember Mr. Monroe. You’ve signed a contract with us. That’s something we take… seriously.” He gestured for Jeff to go ahead of him.

As the kitchen door swung shut behind them, a young woman walked by on her way to the bathroom. Just for a moment, she thought she had heard a heartbroken wail, cut off when the heavy kitchen door slammed firmly closed. Must be her imagination, she thought. This was the greatest place. It was like they put something in the food. Whenever she and her friends came here, they had the most amazing time.

.

Anne Bartles is a writer and social worker who lives in San Antonio, TX. Some cats let her live with them in exchange for kibble, and her silence. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found knitting, making jam, and forcing her friends to test her food, craft and writing experiments. Anne has published two pieces on InfectiveInk and is presently editing her first book, a slightly supernatural mystery set on the Texas coast. She can be found at http://www.annebartles.com.
Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.



31
Aug

Are you ready to join our legion of 599?

KSCOVER

Evil Girlfriend Media is excited to announce that WOMEN IN PRACTICAL ARMOR is out today. This anthology is packed with stories of fantasy, fighting, and of course, women in armor that actually protects them. We already have a legion of 599 backing our Kickstarter, now, we want you!

Are you ready to take on the challenge of making WIPA one of the best-selling fantasy anthologies of 2016?! Do you have what it takes to earn your title in our legion?

Buy the book and spread the word, help bring awareness to this exciting new anthology.

Onward and upward in the fight for equality in age, sex, and practical armor!!

Buy the book here:

kindle

nook




21
Aug

“The Night Artist” by Brady Golden

Speculate_blogA single large painting hung on the otherwise bare wall. Tim didn’t need to check the signature to know that it was an Owen Steig original. It featured the artist’s favorite and, as far as Tim had been able to turn up on the Internet, only subject matter—the Earth’s moon floating in a night sky. The paint had hardened into gloppy chunks. The sky was a dull purple, heavy and oppressive. Within it, the stars appeared to be sinking, as though into tar. Only the moon stood defiant; a swollen yellow thing too alive to be pulled in. The brush strokes gave it the look of striated meat, of a single, spherical muscle, held aloft by its own strength, fighting and winning against the darkness sucking at it.

Owen himself had disappeared into the house’s depths with Tim’s suitcase, leaving Tim and his mother alone in the living room. She took a seat on the sofa and motioned for him to join her. He declined. Part of him hoped that he wouldn’t have to stay long, that his powers of persuasion would be enough to get them on the road before Owen reemerged. Unlikely, but not impossible. Claire had always been an agreeable woman.

“So, this is where you live now,” he said.

“I know how strange it must seem. You’ve probably got a lot of questions. I’m so glad that you came to see me. To see us. It means so much.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands in her lap. She’d picked up a deep tan since he’d last seen her, and the silver of her hair only set off its intensity that much more. “I need to know you understand that your dad and me—that our separation doesn’t have anything to do with you. It doesn’t change anything between us.”

“I’m thirty, not twelve. I think I can handle the whole child-of-divorce thing,” he said.

“How is your dad?”

“He’s worried about you. Same as me.”

That wasn’t exactly true, or if it was, Tim had no way of knowing. Upon discovering that he’d been kicked to the curb after four decades of marriage, Chuck’s exact words had been, I’ve got better things to do that drive down to the ass-end of nowhere to beg on the doorstep of the man who stole my wife. In the week since then, his feelings hadn’t softened. Tim had kept his visit a secret to avoid the conniption the old man would have inevitably thrown if he’d found out.

Behind her, a bay window gave a view of the landscape Tim had driven through to get here. Brown hills that looked like massive heaps of gravel rolled to the horizon. For the last hour of his trip, he hadn’t passed so much as a gas station.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “I’m wonderful. Really, really wonderful. The happiest I’ve been in a long time.”

“But this Owen guy. You met him, what, a month ago? You barely know him.”

“I know he’s passionate, sensitive, driven. I know he pushes me creatively. When I’m with him, I see the world through different eyes. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced that.”

It took an effort to keep his face blank. This didn’t sound like his mother. In all his life, he didn’t think he’d ever heard her use the word passionate in any context.

“What about Dad?” he said.

“Chuck is a good man, a good husband, a good father, but I think in my heart I always knew I’d leave him one day.”

Tim wondered how much of that she really believed. “I want you to be happy, and if you say you need a change, I’m on board. Anything I can do. But is it really out here? With him? Don’t you think you’re rushing into this?”

“I understand why you think that. But being at the colony, just me and my work for so long, it clarified things. I learned more about myself last month that in the past twenty years. This is where I need to be. And Owen is who I need to be with. This is my life now. It’s right. I know it.”

For two years, she had been taking art classes at the continuing education center, cranking out paintings of flowers in vases and charcoal sketches of middle-aged nude models for her weekly assignments. One of her teachers had told her about the Soledad Art Colony and suggested she apply for a spot there. Visits, which cost a small fortune, lasted for one month. Guests stayed in private cottages with desert views. At night they ate gourmet meals prepared by a resident chef, drank wine, and talked art. By day they did nothing but work, free of distraction. Real, honest-to-God professional artists were paid to hang around, offering critiques and advice.

Tim had heard the excitement in her voice when she’d first described it to him, even as she’d told him that she wouldn’t be applying. She could never, she had explained, leave her husband alone for such a long stretch. Ultimately, Tim had talked her into it. He wondered if his father knew that. He wondered just how much responsibility he bore for the fact that one of those artists-in-residence had, over the span of one month, launched into an affair with his mother, and then convinced her to come home with him when her stay at the colony ended.

She said, “I know you came here to rescue me, and I’m touched, deeply. It’s so sweet. But I don’t need it.”

The sound of shuffling footsteps signaled Owen’s return. He entered the room carrying a wine bottle in one hand and a trio of glasses in the other. The first thing to occur to Tim when Owen had greeted him at the front door had been a question, whether the reason so much of the painter’s work focused on moons was that he himself looked like one. The man was almost spherical.  His belly had a perfect curve to it. The top of his head was bald and shiny. A brown-grey hobo beard hid most of his face.

“I hope you two are all caught up,” he said. The smile he flashed never made it to his eyes.

Later, after drinks, dinner, and more drinks, Owen led Tim down a twisting staircase to the bottom of the house. It ended at a hallway with three doors. At the upper register of his hearing, Tim thought he detected a faint humming sound. If Owen noticed it, he gave no sign. In succession, he jabbed a finger at each door.

“That’s the guest room. Your bag’s already in there. The bed’s comfortable. I’ve slept in it plenty of times myself. That’s the bathroom. Use the green towels. This one’s your mom’s studio. Sometimes she comes down here late at night to work, so if you hear someone moving around, that’s what that is.”

Tim thanked him and tried to step past into the bedroom, but Owen took up most of the hallway and didn’t make any effort to move. His skin was flushed and shiny.

“How long are you planning to stay for, exactly?” he said.

“The invitation was for a week,” Tim said. “I got the time off of work.”

“Sure it was. But I think you already asked the question you came here to ask, and if I’m not wrong, you already got your answer.” He folded his arms across the top of his stomach and gave Tim a professorial look. “Your mom’s doing some important work here. Artistically, I mean. She could do without the distraction. And since you know she won’t be leaving with you…”

“Are you kicking me out?” Tim asked.

“Not at all. I just hate to see you wasting your time. And hers.”

“I think I’ll stay then, if it’s all the same.”

Owen’s mouth turned to a thin, hard line. He stepped aside to let Tim through. In the guest room, a twin bed with a knit blanket folded over it occupied one corner. Tim spotted his suitcase at its foot. Beside the bed was a nightstand, upon which stood a ceramic lamp, its base sculpted into the shape of a crescent moon with the wizened, wrinkled face of an old man. His nose was hooked, his grin mischievous. Another of Owen’s paintings hung on the wall above the bed, almost identical to the one upstairs. Across the room, a sliding glass door looked out onto a small wooden deck. As Tim closed the bedroom door behind him, he heard his host mutter something. It might have been “good night” or something else entirely.

When he woke up some time later, it was still dark out. A sound followed him out of whatever dream he’d been having; a piece of music, wordless, with a slippery worm of a melody. It called to mind memories he couldn’t place—the smell of wood smoke, the rustles and chirps of a forest at night, the feel of cold, damp air on his skin. He stared up at the ceiling, tasting the sourness of his own tongue, sensing the headache from all the night’s wine as it gathered in his temples. It took him a minute to understand that the sound—the song—was real. It was what had woken him up. At first, he thought it might have been that same hum he’d heard earlier, but after listening for a while he decided that it was coming from outside the house.

He got up, went to the glass door, and opened it. The music’s volume shot up. Wearing only his pajama bottoms, he stepped outside. The wood beneath his feet was rough and splintery. There were no clouds in the sky, just an immense dome of stars. The moon shone bright enough that the rocky hills seemed to glow silver-blue.

03NightArtist1Owen stood on a balcony two floors up. He had an easel and canvas set up in front of him, and he held a brush in his hand, but he wasn’t painting. His arms hung limp at his sides, and his face was lifted to the sky. Tim thought for a second that he might be the source of the strange melody. Tim wouldn’t have guessed it was a human voice, but it didn’t necessarily sound inhuman, either. The longer he looked, though, the more his eyes adjusted and the more he could see. Owen’s lips weren’t moving. His mouth was closed, turned up in a sleepy, blissful smile. He was the music’s audience, not its source.

Tim looked back out at the hills. What could it be, then? There was no wind, not even a breeze. It didn’t sound like any kind of bird he’d ever heard before. There were no trees, no other buildings. He craned his neck, looking up, up, up, until his eyes landed on what he knew with sudden and absolute certainty to be the music’s source, and his mouth went dry.

It was the moon. Impossibly, it was the moon. Two-hundred-and-some-odd-thousand miles away, it was singing. The meandering melody originated up there, traversed a silent vacuum, and reached all the way to this place, to him.

The sharp grind of metal sounded nearby, and Tim spun around. On another deck only a few yards from his own, a door was sliding open. He watched as a figure emerged. When he caught a glimpse of his mother’s silver hair, he ducked back inside and eased his own door shut. He slipped back into bed and shoved his head under a pillow, using one arm to hold it in place. It muffled the music, but didn’t block it out entirely. Eventually, he fell asleep like that, squeezing his teeth and eyes because he couldn’t close his ears.

In the morning, he dressed, washed his face in the bathroom sink, and started upstairs. Halfway up, he heard his mother call his name. If she hadn’t, if he’d made it up there without encountering anyone. He couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t have kept going, straight out to his car, out the driveway, and gone. She greeted him at the top step. She was practically buzzing with excitement. Tim glanced over her shoulder for any sign of Owen and saw nothing, just the empty living room.

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said.

“I bet you do.”

“It’s about Owen. Last night, before I went to bed—“

She shook her head and waved her hands as though shooing a bug.

“Listen,” he said. “He basically gave me a ‘Get out of Dodge’ speech.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

He wasn’t getting through, couldn’t tell if she was even registering what he was saying.

“Mom, he’s not a nice guy.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” She took his shoulders in her hands and leaned in close enough for a kiss. Her eyes were wide, unrelenting. “I know you heard it last night,” she said. “This changes things. I know Owen didn’t want you coming here. He’s a very private person. Very focused on his painting. He was convinced you would wreck what we have. I promised him and promised him you wouldn’t. You’re not like your dad. You’re like me. And I was right! Not everyone can hear it, you know. Owen says it takes a particular kind of sensitivity. And you have it. Once we tell him, we could put all these negative feelings behind us. You’ll be welcome to stay. He’ll want you to stay. He’s in the shower now, but he should be down soon. We can tell him together.”

“Mom,” Tim said. “What did I hear last night?”

She let her arms fall and motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen. There, Tim watched her assemble Owen’s substantial breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and toast. She offered to make Tim something, but his stomach felt like a pouch of hot oil. The cup of coffee that he nursed was the most he could handle.

“I heard it for the first time at the colony,” she explained. “It was the start of my second week there. I was enjoying myself—I loved all the time to myself, I loved all the painting I was doing—but I hadn’t gotten to know any of the other guests. They would get together at night to socialize, but I stayed away. I’m shy, I suppose. You know that. Instead, I took walks. There were these beautiful gardens of desert plants, and these little footpaths going through them. The way they had it set up, you could walk twenty feet and be completely alone, no one in sight. Especially when it was dark.”

She flitted from cupboard to counter to sink. “It was one of those nights. I was out there alone, and I heard this strange, beautiful sound. This music. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. Then I looked up and realized.” She looked at him. “It was the moon, Tim. The moon was singing. It was the strangest thing, but it was also sort of wonderful.

“Then Owen came along. He’d been with the other guests, but he was on his way back to his cottage. He saw me there, staring up at the sky, thinking I’d lost my mind, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘You hear it.’ Not even a question. Like, he just knew.” She paused to let that sink in. “He’s been hearing it since he was a child, and in all that time, he’s only ever met three other people who can. Now, with you, it’s four. He thinks only people with a real deep sensitivity can hear it, and only if they really know how to listen.”

“Why that night and not before?” Tim said.

She pointed at him with a spatula shiny with grease. “You and I have lived in the city for our entire lives. Owen says, ‘It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.’ It’s why he bought this property, because the music is louder here than anywhere else. Anywhere else he’s been anyway.”

“What does Owen think the music—what does he think it is?”

“You should ask him. He’s got theories. Lots and lots of theories. It’s fascinating.”

Eventually, Owen showed up, his skin still flushed from the shower. He kissed Claire on the cheek, but did not acknowledge her son, even as he sat down across the table from him. Tim watched his mother set a steaming mountain of food before him. Owen settled into his meal without speaking, and Tim thought about how familiar it all seemed. Three hundred miles away, in a different house with a different man, and his mother was still the unthanked servant. He wondered what the best way to point that out might be. She lingered beside Owen, though he was too focused on his meal to notice. For several seconds, the only sounds were of chewing.

She said, “We have something to tell you.”

Owen grunted a questioning noise around a mouthful of food.

“Last night, Tim heard the moon.”

The chewing slowed as Owen processed this. He swallowed with a tremendous bob of his Adam’s apple, swiped at his mouth with a napkin, and twisted in his seat to look up at her. “You told him? Do you have any sense?”

“I didn’t tell him anything, honey. He heard it. He told me.”

“Dammit, it’s a secret thing. Our secret thing.”

“And now he’s one of us, you see? It’s a good thing.”

“He is, is he?” He shifted his gaze to Tim. “Tell me, then. What exactly did you hear last night?”

Tim looked down into his coffee. The lack of a discernable melody made the music a challenge to recall. Already, it was slipping from his mind, like a fish escaping into darker water.

“I’m not sure what I heard,” he said.

Owen smirked and, to Claire, said, “He’s lying to you. He’s trying to get close to you so he can turn you against me, drag you back to your husband. Is that what you want? Your old life? Because he’s part of that. Your husband’s son. Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I got the impression you were pretty miserable then.” He gave Tim an appraising look. “He didn’t hear a thing. He thinks we’re crackpots. Small-minded, no imagination, just like his dad.”

It felt to Tim like he ought to say something, to get mad, defensive, something, but who was he going to stick up for? His father? For someone who’d never met the man, Owen’s description hit pretty close to the mark. Himself? Yes, he had heard something, and yes, he thought they were crackpots. The two weren’t mutually exclusive.

“He doesn’t need to get close to me,” Claire said. “He’s my son. He is close to me. And you’re wrong. He’s not like he’s father. He’s like me. He’s like you. You’d see it if you’d just give him a chance.”

Owen glared at her, then at Tim, working his mouth. He looked to be on the cusp of saying something, but he gave up on it. With a snort and a shake of his head, he said, “I’m going for a walk.” His chair squealed on the floor as he pushed it back. A moment later, he was gone. The house swallowed the sound of his footsteps. Claire made an attempt at a reassuring smile, but she couldn’t quite suppress the tremble in her lips.

Downstairs, Tim took his cell phone out onto the deck. The sky was cloudless and powder blue. The air smelled of warm dust. He placed his hands on the railing and listened hard for anything that might, in the light of day, offer an explanation for last night’s strangeness. Somewhere far off, a car engine was buzzing. It grew fainter by the second, until it was gone. After that there was only silence. He dialed his parents’ house, brought the phone to his ear, and waited for his father to pick up.

“Hello?” The voice was phlegmy and a bit bewildered. If it was anyone else, Tim would have guessed he’d woken the person up, but this was how Chuck always sounded. That he should ever be expected to interact with anyone was a source of bafflement and frustration for him.

“Hi, Dad. It’s me.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, during which Tim could easily imagine his father trying to puzzle out exactly who me was.

“Tim,” he said. “How are you?”

“I’m good. I’m at Owen Steig’s house.”

This time, the pause was heavier, charged. Tim waited, then realized that this wasn’t a pause at all, but a silence.

“I came to see Mom,” he said.

“Oh, yeah?” Chuck was trying for indifference, but the anger came through anyway.

“Yeah.” Tim chose his next words very carefully. “I think I can get her to come home. This Owen guy, he’s a real piece of work, and I think she’s starting to see it.”

“Don’t waste your time.”

“What?” Tim said.

He heard the creak and slide of his father shifting on his leather couch. “If she comes back, she comes back. It’s not like I’m sitting here on pins and needles. Don’t be so sure I’d even take her back if she came.”

“Come on, Dad. Who are you kidding?”

“I’m a forgiving guy, but that’s thirty-nine years of marriage she pissed on. That’s me and you. How thrilled do you expect me to be by the prospect of her crawling back with her tail between her legs just because the guy she ran off with turned out to be an even bigger piece of shit than me?”

“Jesus. This is your wife.”

“And look how she’s treating me,” he said. “Look, you do what you want, but my advice is leave her where she is. If it’s where she wants to be, she’ll stay. Otherwise, she’ll leave. It’s not my business either way, and it sure as hell isn’t yours.”

Leaving held a definite appeal, and his father’s permission to do just that made Tim feel lighter, more mobile. He almost did it. He started gathering his things and folding his clothes into his suitcase, then stopped himself.

The music he’d heard last night had unnerved him. If he was being honest, it had scared him in a way that he could no more explain than he could its source. Not for a second did he believe that the moon was humming tunes for the benefit of the world’s most creative souls, or whatever nonsense Owen had come up with, but he didn’t have an explanation of his own, either. He didn’t think he needed one. Some of life’s mysteries might be worth exploring, but this wasn’t one of them. It had his mother mesmerized, though. It didn’t occur to her to be scared, which meant that it fell to Tim to be scared on her behalf.

Owen worried him too. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since they’d met, and even that had been too long for the artist to keep a lid on the fact that he was possessive, jealous, and delusional. Tim didn’t know what someone like that might be capable of. There were no other houses out here, no neighbors. If something were to happen—Tim wasn’t ready to guess at what—who could his mother turn to for help? How many people even knew she was here?

It was simple. He couldn’t leave until she agreed to come with him.

Claire spent the day in her studio. Through the door he could hear occasional sounds of movement. The first couple of times he knocked, she called out terse instructions to leave her alone while she worked. After that, she stopped responding at all.

He took some time to explore the house. It was narrow and tall, with multiple staircases that wound up and down its interior. Nearly every room had its own deck or balcony. Most had at least one of Owen’s paintings on display. He found several bedrooms, a game room, and a room with no furniture at all, just stacks of audiocassettes piled up against the walls and no means of playing them that Tim could see. He never found a TV, but he didn’t open the doors to either the master bedroom or what he guessed to be Owen’s painting studio. He crossed paths with his host a few times. Owen never said anything, just got up and walked out of any room that Tim entered. Each time, he had a glass of something brown with ice that he carried with him. He kept it full throughout the day, and by the time they gathered for dinner, he was glassy eyed and swaying from the alcohol.

At the table, Claire tried repeatedly to start a conversation, but Owen ignored her, so for a while they sat in silence. She and Tim ate, but Owen didn’t touch his food. When he finally spoke, his voice came out as an animal bark. “Why don’t you tell us more about this whatever-it-is you heard last night?”

Claire answered for him, sweetly, but with a hint of a challenge in her voice. “You know what he heard.”

“Let him speak for himself.” To Tim, he said, “Was it like anything you’ve ever heard before?”

Tim was about to answer in the negative, but he stopped. It had sounded familiar, hadn’t it? His first thoughts upon waking—they’d been more like impressions, really—had been of a forest. He’d been unable to place them, but they’d had the feel of memories. His family had only ever undertaken one attempt at a camping trip that he knew of. He’d been five or six at the time. As far as he could remember, the trip had consisted almost exclusively of his parents arguing, and had ended prematurely in the middle of the night when Tim had pissed in his sleeping bag. Had there been anything else to it? Something he’d forgotten? A reason he’d not wanted to leave the tent to pee against a tree?

What had his mother said? It takes a special kind of place with a special kind of silence.

“Maybe,” he said finally.

Owen arched an eyebrow. “Maybe. Maybe he’s heard it before. He’s not sure what he heard.”

“You’re being rude,” Claire said.

Owen shoved his plate away, untouched. “Come with me, Tim. I want to show you something.”

“We’re eating dinner,” Claire said.

“This is important. I’d appreciate his insight.”03NightArtist2

“Owen, please,” she said, but he was already on his feet, walking away.

Tim hesitated. This could be the moment. His mother’s displeasure with Owen was simmering. He might be able to get her to leave. If he miscalculated, though, she would only remember that he was the reason her boyfriend was throwing such a snit, and then redirect some or all of that displeasure onto him. He pushed back his chair and stood.

Owen led them downstairs to the closed door of Claire’s studio.

“I told you that your mom’s been doing some amazing work,” he said.

Important work, is what you said.”

“That’s right. Important.” Owen levelled a finger at him. “And it is. I’d love for you to see it. I’d love to hear what you think.”

Tim’s mother started to speak. “Don’t—”

He did.

The door swung inward, revealing the room. A table stood against the far wall, its surface cluttered with half-crushed paint tubes and brushes soaking in jars of murky water. An easel held an unfinished painting. Other paintings in various states of completion were propped against walls and in corners. In all cases, the subject matter was the same. Claire had given up on her still lifes, landscapes, and figure studies, and had stolen her boyfriend’s muse. She was painting the moon, over and over again.

She didn’t have Owen’s talent, though. Her work was amateurish—flat objects on flat backgrounds, shading that didn’t make a lick of sense, everything just a little bit lopsided. Her work differed from Owen’s in one other respect. For some reason, she’d opted to paint her night skies with the darks and lights inverted, like a photographic negative—a navy circle against a periwinkle sky, plum purple against muted pink, black against white. The moons were all full, Tim noticed. Time didn’t pass in her paintings. The moon had no phases.

He followed Owen into the room.

“Do you hear it?” Owen said.

He did. The music, the meandering, high-pitched melody from last night, came at him from all directions, fainter now that before, but everywhere. It was the paintings. As it had come from the moon, now it came from the paintings.

Owen saw something in Tim’s face. “You do, don’t you?”

Claire hovered in the doorway, nibbling on her knuckle.

“You do!” Owen said. His eyes flashed. “Tell me, then. Your mom goes on and on about how smart you are, how insightful, how sensitive. So tell me, how is this happening? I’ve been hearing the moon’s music my entire life. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing it, trying to understand. I’ve devoted my life to it. My art? My career? That’s all it is. Just me, groping for answers. What does the music mean? Why do I hear it? What am I supposed to do? Decades. Sixty goddamned years. Then your mother comes along and does this.” He spread his arms wide, putting the whole incomprehensible scene on display. “What is this? What has she done that I never have? What does it mean?”

Tim cast about, looking from one painting to the next, but never for too long. Facing them directly sent pain spiking through his skull. Dark, sloppy circles stared at him like hollow eye sockets. A cold mass formed in his stomach.

“They’re not moons.” The timid voice didn’t sound like his own. “They’re holes.”

“No, Tim,” his mother said.

Owen snorted. He screwed up his face to say something derisive, then softened it again. “Holes,” he echoed.

Owen snatched the painting off the easel and regarded it. With his free hand, he swept the assorted jars, brushes, and paints off the table, sending them crashing to the floor. Glass shattered, and water splashed out in a violent V. Tim’s mother let out a yelp. She crossed the room to him, but Owen shoved her off with a twist of his shoulders. She stumbled backwards. Dimly, Tim knew that he should be doing something, that this was his time to intercede, but the melody twirled and spiraled, and he couldn’t follow it.

Owen set the canvas on the table. He grabbed another and laid it on top of the first. He took a lap around the room, picking up each painting, finished and unfinished alike, and bringing them to the table, where he stacked them into a squat tower, a dozen canvases tall. For several seconds, he gazed down at what he’d done. His beard twitched. No one spoke. He reached out one hand and held it above the pile, as though gauging the heat of a skillet on a stove. Then he brought it down. Reality squirmed away. When his hand should have landed flat on the top painting, it passed right through. His arm vanished up to the elbow. So assembled, the two-dimensional images had taken on a third dimension, like a gag in a Roadrunner cartoon.

“It’s a tunnel,” he said, his voice was breathy with wonder.

Claire started to say something. Owen cut her off with a scream. His face turned pale and the chords in his neck went taught. He snatched his hand back. Not much remained. His middle and ring fingers were gone entirely, severed at the knuckles. Strips of skin and stringy red tissue held his pinky together. Blood came in two distinct squirts. His voice weakened, and he collapsed. Claire rushed to catch him, and Tim stepped forward to catch her. They were no match for Owen’s weight, though, and all three of them went down together.

Tim heard Owen moaning incomprehensibly, heard his mother shouting something about an ambulance, but all of his attention was focused on the stack of paintings on the table, and on the music’s crescendo. From the ground, he couldn’t see the top of the pile, but he could see the thing that emerged from it. First there was a head, the shape and size of a garden shovel. Branches of purple-black veins ran beneath its scarlet skin. Its mouth was wide, smeared with blood, and crowded with teeth like shards of shattered black glass. Where there should have been eyes and nostrils, there was only smooth skin. The neck came next, three feet long and serpentine, then a lizard-like body. A dark growth sat on the creature’s back. Its tale was thick and muscular, and tipped with a hook the size of a thumb. Yellow fluid dripped from the point.

It crawled headfirst down the stack of paintings, inched to the table’s edge, and dropped to the floor with a meaty thud. Tim scooted back. Before he could muster a warning, another one appeared, identical to the first. It flopped to the ground. A third followed right behind it, landing on its companion and rolling off.

“Mom—”

She looked up, saw what he saw, and let out a whimper. Owen’s face was as gray as cigarette ash, his eyes half-closed. He didn’t see the three creatures. They lunged for his splayed legs, mouths gaping, and sank their teeth in. Blood geysered. Thrashing and bucking, he threw back his head and howled.

More came, clambering out of the paintings two and three at a time. They tumbled down, landing on their sides and their backs, and twisting to right themselves. They swiveled their eyeless faces, and then started toward the three people on the far side of the room. They moved fast, crossing the floor in seconds. As they moved, they sang.

It was the growths, the strange protuberances on their backs. They looked to have erupted from within the creatures. The skin around them was split and shredded. They looked inorganic, even metallic, like coarse iron. Tiny holes of varying sizes perforated the growths. As the creatures crawled, they forced air through the holes, creating the sound. There were a dozen of them in the room now, and more coming. The music spilled over itself, swelling.

Tim pushed himself to his feet and backed away. They covered Owen, tearing at him, effortlessly rending clothing and skin. Tim’s mother looked up at him, eyes wide with disbelief. He knew what she saw in his face, and he couldn’t believe it either. Owen’s massive torso lay across her legs. Those things surrounded her and were drawing closer. He couldn’t get to her, not without coming in reach of their teeth and lashing tails. She already knew it. He was going to leave her there.

He broke for the door. At the first sound of her cries, he tried to slam it shut behind him. One of the creatures launched itself at him and landed between the door and the frame. The force crushed it in a burst of black fluid. Another one appeared in the gap, clambering over the remains of the first. Tim turned and ran. He took the stairs at the end of the hall two at a time. Behind him, the door banged open. Music flooded the house. The floor vibrated. A hundred melodies came together to form a single overbearing, harmonic drone. Faintly, beneath it, like percussion, he could hear their feet patting along the floor, catching up with him.

Turning at the top of the stairs, he caught a glimpse of a wave surging up the staircase behind him. One of them scurried along the wall, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind it. Strands of hair dangled from its mouth. His mother’s. Darkness pressed at the corners of his vision. He willed it back, kept running.

Outside, the air was hot and dry. This time, he managed to the get the door closed after he’d passed through it. Something banged against the other side an instant later. It began to scratch and gnaw. Already, he could feel the wood giving way. He bolted past his mother’s and Owen’s cars to his own.

Digging into his pocket, he experienced a moment of despair—had he left his keys inside with his luggage, wallet, cell phone, and everything else?—that evaporated when his fingers touched metal. He climbed inside and started the engine. His headlights offered him a last glimpse of the house. A lizard-thing clung to the inside of a window. Others crawled along the walls and ceiling behind it. He watched as one knocked one of Owen’s painting first crooked, then to the ground. At that moment, the door gave way, and they poured out into the driveway. Tim reversed and sped away.

The road twisted and curved. His headlights shined on a cloud of dust that hovered a foot off the ground. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The hills were featureless shadows that loomed over him like a tribunal of giants. Framed above them, the moon looked deflated, flat, a collapsed Mylar balloon pasted against a paper sky. He didn’t need to roll down a window to know it was silent now. Its tunnel was built, its contents disgorged. It didn’t matter that he could drive for an hour and find a gas station, that he could drive for two and reach a town. The music belonged to the hills now, and they went on forever.

 


Brady Golden lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two daughters, and an indeterminate number of cats. His short fiction has appeared in Mythic Delirium, DarkFuse 2, and on the podcast Pseudopod.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Jul

“Whispers from the Sea” by Ryan Anderson

Speculate_blog“Don’t touch me, you freak!”

I didn’t have to look to know what had happened. Billy had offered to help carry her gear back to the car. Divemasters make their money in tips, and guests appreciate a hard working divemaster. But Billy had reached for her bag without waiting for a response.

As I looked over he straightened up, gave her smile, and mumbled, “Okay.” He turned his attention to gathering up stray weights and returning them to the crate.

That’s why I kinda hate teenagers; especially the rich pretty girls. They live in a perfect little sheltered world. Billy’s abnormality being a threat to their precious perfection, they have the capacity for serious bitchiness. I glanced over to the parking lot, though, and saw both her parents by their car, smoking and loading SCUBA gear.

Billy didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. He was just trying to be nice. I walked over and gave her my navy chief voice, “You can get the hell off my boat now.”

I suppose I should tell you up front that Billy has a rare genetic condition. It’s kinda like Down’s, but not, I’m told. I can never remember the long scientific name; doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it.

I met him years ago when I started teaching SCUBA diving at the pool of the local Y. He was in his senior year of high school, and someone had helped him get a job working there.  He’d hang around and watch, initially. After a few months he’d show up in swim trunks and be messing around in the pool before or after class.

I knew enough to realize he was unlikely to be successful with diving. But he was so intent on watching us that I eventually asked the other staff about him. One day when I was in the pool alone, about to get out and pack it up, I called him over. I offered to show him how to wear a mask. I figured he wouldn’t like it. A lot of special needs folks don’t like it when you start shoving stuff in their face. But I could at least say we tried, right?

Well, he got the mask on, and thought that was a hoot. I showed him how to breathe through a snorkel. He liked that too, which was promising. Getting a set of fins on him was easy enough. And he was thrilled to be snorkeling around the pool, shooting along the bottom occasionally.

I packed it up there, but the next session, guess who’s sitting by the pool at the end of my lesson? Long story short, I started walking him through SCUBA pool training. I figure he’d hit his limit pretty quick, flip out when his mask flooded or something. But he loved it, so I just kept going. Don’t tell PASI that part though, they’d be pissed that I didn’t have any waivers signed at that point.

I’d long since run him through all of the required pool drills before I ever met his mom. I was packing up my own gear a couple weeks later when a tall brunette came gliding through the door onto the pool deck. She circled around to my side of the pool gazing down into the deep end with a big grin. “Wow, he’s actually SCUBA diving.”

“Yeah, he seems to be getting a real kick out of it. And, I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said, offering her a hand.

She took it. “I’m Jacki Dalton, Billy’s mom.”

“Oh!” Well, this was awkward. Didn’t think I would ever meet his mom. She was the one who was supposed to be signing all those waivers. How does one go about asking for a waiver after the fact in a case like this? I decided on a different line. “Sorry, ma’am, I took the liberty of showing him how. At first I didn’t think it’d go far, but your son took to SCUBA like a fish. Next thing I know, it’s kinda become a regular thing. He just got so excited about it, I couldn’t say no.”

“I know, he’s been so thrilled about it. He’s been telling me for weeks that he’s SCUBA diving. Billy can see the world a bit differently at times, so I thought maybe he was just swimming around in fins or whatnot. But he was adamant that I come see him. He usually takes the bus, but I figured I’d come pick him up tonight. And here he is actually SCUBA diving. Is he really safe doing it?”

“Oh, he’s only in eight feet of water, ma’am. I doubt he could hurt himself down there if he tried.”

“No, I mean, do you think he could do it for real? Like, in the ocean?”

That was how it started. I played along, still figuring he’d probably not be able to finish training. There were a couple more sticking points that had me worried. Given that I’d already half trained him, I didn’t say a thing to his mom about getting paid. Figured it as SCUBA pro bono work. Good karma, you know?

Billy loved the ocean from his first dive. He came back up from the first open water dive glowing and grinning. I don’t usually do the big showy presentation thing when my students earn their certifications. But in Billy’s case I took the liberty of calling his mom and making arrangements. The kid was so incredibly proud when I showed up at his gym class to present his open water diver certification card to him. I suppose I kinda sealed my own fate in that way.

So, what’s a kid with it-ain’t-Down’s supposed to do after high school? He had his job at the Y, but guess where he started showing up when he wasn’t there. That boy was an expert at reading bus maps. It didn’t take him long to figure out which bus to take to get to my dive shop.

Didn’t take too many friendly visits before I called his mom and made a suggestion. An eager young body that likes to hang around a dive shop can be put to work. I paid him minimum wage at first. He was just unskilled labor at that point.

He was good with the customers, too. I was surprised how few ever gave him a second glance. His facial proportions kinda tell the story, you know. And he speaks well, but his occasional stutter leaves no doubt. Folks didn’t want to buy gear or book training through him though; and he kinda sucks on the phone. I couldn’t leave him to man the shop when I took a trip out on the boat.

Within six months of coming to work for me, Billy was a certified rescue diver with all kinds of specialty training. He was good out on the boat, and was learning to read my mind. He was delighted to discover that he got tips when he was particularly helpful. Happy clients leave big tips, and come back for more dive trips. Go figure, I quickly made him a regular part of the crew.

And well hell, if he’s gonna act like a divemaster I might as well get him trained and certified as one, right? Yeah, easier said than done. Billy is a great kid, but academics ain’t his strong suit. But damn, did he work at it. He pored over his materials for hours on end. His mom joked about missing her son during those weeks. He finally did it though, passed all his tests.

02WhispersFromTheSea1He was my best divemaster ever. Worked his tail off without being told. Kept the boat immaculately clean. Like, I served twenty years in the navy, and he managed to keep my boat cleaner than even I thought it needed to be. Damn near lived at the shop. Guests loved his friendly demeanor, especially on the days the captain was getting past a hangover.

But I’ll always remember that day with the bitchy girl. That’s the day things started to change. It was the second trip of the day, and we had a night dive planned for that evening too. All the makings of a long day.

I helped Billy haul the empty tanks through the back door of the shop, and left him to refill alone. I wandered down the dock to my favorite bar for a cheeseburger and a quart of beer. I bought him a cheeseburger and fries to bring back. He’d no doubt have the boat reset and ready to run by the time I got back. This was our standard MO for the weekends.

As I came back down the dock I saw the boat was all set. Tanks loaded, rental gear set up, clean as a whistle; Billy did good work. But Billy was nowhere to be seen. Guests would start showing up shortly, but I figured he was just sitting on the head or something. Setting his burger on the compressor, I leaned against a nearby post as I waited for guests to arrive.

I was considering if I could slip upstairs to my apartment for a nip of whiskey when I noticed the whispering. Over the sound of the water lapping across the dock, it was hard to pick up. But even my ancient ears could catch the sound of voices whispering.

I walked over to the corner of the shop. There was probably a guest or somebody in the parking lot. But it was empty, and as soon as I rounded the corner I heard a scuffling behind me. I turn around to see Billy standing on the dive deck right down by the water.

“Billy? Were you just lying down on the dive deck?” There’s no way he could sneak onto the boat with me standing there, and it was too far for him to have been hiding behind the pilothouse.

“Ah, yeah Dale.” It was a good thing he never played poker. “I, um, there’s a gr-great big tarpon under the props.”

“Really? Awfully shallow for a tarpon, he must be hungry.” Why the hell he’d been lying on the dive deck, I didn’t want to know. I hoped he’d been taking a nap, but we both knew the hammock was better for that.

“Yeah, must be.”

“First four lined up with nitrox, right?” I asked to change the subject.

Waving at the four clearly marked tanks at the guest stations, he said, “Yeah.”

“Okay, they’ll start showing up anytime now.”

The whispering was probably from my addled, inebriated old brain. Or, maybe I heard Billy shuffling behind the gunwale. Except, I kept hearing it. Most night dives thereafter, I’d hear whispering regularly. I ignored it. Denial is a powerful thing. If you’d pushed me about it, I’d have told you Billy was talking to himself, or the water was rushing past the boat. I’ve never been one to go looking for trouble.

I never wondered why Billy was in the water for every night dive. They can be challenging for many of our guests. Having only a flashlight to illuminate the darkness around you can be intimidating. We prefer to have a team member in the water with our guests at night, in case things go sideways. They’re easy enough to keep track of, and they usually appreciate the guidance of a divemaster to find all those territorial nocturnal creatures.

It must have been a year after the bitchy girl before I even knew Billy wasn’t being attentive on the night dives. A couple came out of the water at the end of their dive. They were all smiles but asked what had happened to Billy. He’d been with them, and then he’d disappeared; flashlight, strobe light, and all. They figured he’d surfaced or gone off to help someone. They didn’t think anything more of it, because they’d had a great dive.

It caught my attention though. That was a small group that night not many teams to attend to. That Billy had disappeared was interesting. That he was so far off that they couldn’t even see his strobe was doubly so. I casually inquired with the other two dive teams when they came back up. Billy hadn’t joined them either.

Now it’s hardly a federal crime for a divemaster to wander off on his own every so often. It’s even something of a trade secret. All the dive teams that night were experienced solid divers, so none of them really required Billy’s direct supervision. But Billy didn’t come back up that night with a story of some new turtle nest he’d found, or anything like it. In fact, he didn’t say a word when he came back up.

I knew Billy was always the last one out of the water on the night dives. I hardly thought a thing of it. He was probably just communing with the reef, enjoying the peace and solitude. I’ve been there myself, so it didn’t surprise me. But all together it got me thinking, and discretely asking questions.

I quickly discovered a pattern over the next few weeks. He’d always go in the water for night dives. Unless he had a really nervous set of divers though, it became quickly evident that he’d go lights out after few minutes. His light usually only came back on a minute before he surfaced, when he was right under the keel.  What was weirder was that he’d even pull that on overcast nights, where he’d need his lights to see anything. And he did this at all of the dive sites; it wasn’t like he just had a secret spot over on Hairy Reef.

I started checking his tank and computer after he went home for the night. Billy was usually a stickler for leading by example. Thus, he’d always be back on the boat with at least five hundred psi of air in his tank. Except on the night dives, he’d suck those tanks way down to one to two hundred. His computer told an even more alarming tale. On any site he could, he was finding deep water. You need to understand that’s usually a taboo thing for night dives. I never saw Billy being that cavalier during the day.

I started gently asking him questions. He always avoided them and when pushed gave me some of the lamest excuses I’d ever heard. Even at the time I didn’t think much of it. If the craziest thing my model divemaster did was get his wild on during some night dives, I could count myself lucky.  Obviously, I hadn’t thought to connect this with the whispering.

It came to a head though about three months after I first noticed his excursions. We moored a good thirty yards off Crack Ledge wall. Billy had briefed all of our guests that they were not to cross the edge of the wall, nor go past forty feet. That didn’t prevent him from going lights out quickly and bolting for the wall. His computer later told the story; that he managed drop all the way down to one hundred feet. He stayed way too long at that depth, and then, since his air was no doubt running low, he began a fast ascent. Despite the warning beeps from his computer, he continued ascending from the depths at a rate it objected to. In trying to figure out how to keep him from getting bent, it pitched a fit. Told him to stop at thirty foot for a decompression interval. He was probably low on air. In any case, he blew past the recommended stop, and when he did so, his computer officially told him where to shove it and locked up into error mode.

Now when a dive computer comes out of the water in error mode, it’s beeping, screeching, and generally making a pest of itself. So as soon as Billy was on deck I knew he’d done something to lock up his computer. I didn’t say anything in front of the guests, and thankfully none of them appeared to notice.

Once the guests had left for the night, I sent Billy to reset the boat and grabbed his computer. Downloading the data from his dive, I saw his deep-water flirtation with decompression sickness. From my own years in the navy I knew a young guy like Billy was in the clear for DCS. But, it was time for an intervention. This was how people really got hurt while diving.

I had to drive Billy home after night dives. We finished long after the buses stopped running in my part of town. Once we were both in the truck with sodas in hand, I began, “Locked out the computer tonight, Billy. I don’t need to tell you I’m not happy about that, do I?”

“No Dale, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Computer says you dropped down to one hundred and stayed there. What the hell?  It’s pitch black down there at night, and nothing is moving on the wall.”

“I know.”

“What have you been doing, big guy? You’ve been AWOL on the night dives for months now. I can turn a blind eye to the occasional wandering, but tonight’s little stunt was just reckless. What are you doing out there?”

Billy was silent, but a quick glance showed me he was nervous. He was sitting tightly, and doing that rapid blinking he does when his wheels are turning.

He finally found something to say, “Can we go out Monday night? I should show you. Would it be okay if my mom came too?”

“Monday night? We’ve got nothing planned for Monday night. And your mom doesn’t even dive.”

More quiet blinking proceeded his next answer, “She doesn’t need to dive. You’ll see. It would be better if we didn’t have any other guests.”

“What the hell?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“What… a turtle nest? A whole herd of octopuses bent on taking over the world? What?”

“I can’t explain yet. Can we go? On Monday?”

“I’ll talk it over with your mom, but sure. If she’s up for it, I don’t mind a night cruise. Just promise me you’ll be more careful on the night dives in the future, okay?”

“Okay.”

In hindsight it all sounds so obvious. How did I not see it coming? But I didn’t. I was wondering if he’d gotten himself a hellish case of nitrogen narcosis. I thought there was a decent chance we’d be chasing the hallucination of one narc’d-off-his-ass Billy. What else would he have seen at a hundred feet in the pitch black? Like I said, denial is a powerful thing.

I was considering if Billy’s genetics could make him more susceptible to narcosis when he spoke again, “My mom’s worried about me. We’re seeing the neurologist a lot more these days.”

“She’s just being a mom. That’s what they do.” A few years ago I’d asked Doc Cline to do some research on Billy’s condition for me. I wanted to know what Billy was in for, and Doc is one of my regulars. He said it’s pretty similar to Down’s, but physical and mental degradation is more aggressive. Billy was unlikely to see, or at least remember, his fiftieth birthday. I’d never discussed it with Billy, we were both happy to avoid that conversation. Until now.

“We both know I’m going to go downhill fast.”

“Relax, Billy, you’ve got time. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.”

“My knees are already starting to hurt,” he said.

“Welcome to the club, kid.”

He shook his head. “I’m thirty one. You’re–”

“Yeah? Figured that out yet?”

“No, but you’re older than my mom, by a long shot.”

“Long shot,” I scoffed.

“I’m going to start forgetting stuff. I’m going to be a hazard to the guests.”

“I haven’t noticed a thing, Billy. You’re still better than Randy, even when he’s sober.”

“It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Despite being the truth, I wasn’t going to enable this kind of thinking. “We all come with an expiration date, kid. Get used to it. ‘Sides, I’ll probably retire long before your mind starts going.”

“Nobody else will hire me when you do.”

“What’s with the morbid act, big guy? Is this why you’re getting all reckless out there? Is this some sort of midlife crisis?”

“No.”

I pulled up in front of his place and put it in park. I saw his mom was still up waiting for him. “What’s going on, Billy? Please, you’re starting to worry me. Getting morbid, getting reckless. Tell me I don’t need to worry about you, big guy?”

“You don’t. It’ll be okay.”

“You want to tell me what big surprise you have in store for us tomorrow?”

“I’ll show you tomorrow.”

Aside from confirming that we were still going, he didn’t say a word about the trip the next day. We passed a normal day at the shop. I allowed myself an extra two beers at lunch to calm my nerves. Maybe the denial was starting to wear off, but I was dreading that trip. Billy was never this dramatic with me.

I took him out to dinner that night down at the bar. He has to know about my drinking, so I wasn’t too proud to finish a couple more beers in preparation for whatever bomb he was about to drop on the boat.

We got back to the shop early, and he mumbled something about tearing down a regulator in need of rebuild before his mom arrived. As he stepped behind the repair bench to avoid a conversation, I slipped upstairs to my apartment to the same purpose. I threw back another shot of whiskey as I considered how wonderfully this night was going. As I came back downstairs I saw his mom pull into the parking lot. Billy however was nowhere to be seen, the regulator was on the bench in his typically organized part pattern.

The sun had set thirty minutes before as I stepped out the back door of the shop and locked it. I turned around to the boat and saw Billy lying on his belly on the bow, with his head hung over the side. It was then that my stomach first knotted up. The whispering, I finally connected it. I could hear the whispering again, but it wasn’t whispering tonight. It was more like singing. I couldn’t catch the melody, but it was definitely musical.

I was straining to catch the tune of the song when I damn near jumped out of my skin. “Dale, please tell me you know what this is about?” Jacki asked from right behind me. “Billy was both insistent and mysterious about it. He’s never mysterious. He’s got me worried here. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

I spun around. “Shh… You hear that?”

“What? No, hear what? Dale–”

“Shhhh! Billy is over on the bow.” I pointed. “But listen, you hear that? Kinda  like whispering?”

“Damn it, Dale! How much have you had to drink tonight? I can smell it on your breath. Aren’t there laws about how much you can have in you and still drive a boat? I’ve told you before I don’t want you drinking around him.”

“I’m fine, but really–” And the whispering song stopped. I glanced over and saw Billy get up off the deck. When he saw us by the back door he waved us over. I glanced over my shoulder at her. “I have no more clue than you do. So brace yourself. Here we go.”

We boarded the boat. Billy cast off the lines as I fired up the engines. As I idled down the inlet I turned to Billy, “Okay, young man, where are we going?”

“Straight out, right off the wall. We don’t need a site or a mooring,” he said confidently.

As we pulled out of the channel and caught the ocean waves Jacki held onto the overhead rail and asked tersely, “Okay Billy, you got what you wanted. We’re all out here on the boat. What did you want to show us?”

“It’d be better if we were in deep water first.”

Even consumed by whiskey and dread I still fell into my usual role as his surrogate dad. “Billy, your mom and I have been cooperative here. If we’re not going in the water, then we’re in water plenty deep enough to see anything we can from up here. Spit it out, kid.”

The nervous tense Billy that I knew re-emerged. He looked down at his sneakers and hung from a hand on the rail by the door. “I ahh– I wanted to sh-show you– No, I w-wanted to… introduce you–” He took a deep breath and looked up at us. He said very slowly, “I w-wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend.” He then promptly spun around and ducked out the rear hatch of the pilot house.

His mother and I stood there in shocked silence for several minutes. I was the first to find my voice, “Shit, this isn’t good, Jacki.”

“Is he taking us to meet another boat? Do you have a radar?”

“No, there’s nobody out here. They’d have running lights on.” And the best alternative to meeting a boat was that my divemaster was delusional. By that point, I didn’t think he was delusional though. I had no idea what was really happening, but I was honestly scared to find out.

“Has he got some girl stowed away up there?” she asked waving at the bow.

“I really hope so.” She’d at least come up with a more bearable answer than I had.

As we pulled out over the drop-off and into deep water, I pulled back the throttles. When Billy gave me a chop at his throat, I cut the engines, leaving us with nothing but the sound of water slapping against the hull. “Okay, Jacki. I’m gonna go out on a limb and bet that we’re not talking about a stowaway here. I’m thinking we have a big problem. At best, he’s decided that some turtle or shark is his girlfriend. Failing that, he may be having delusions.” Either that, or we were about to get our minds blown; but she didn’t need to hear the musings of the drunk part of my brain.

“Oh God, no,” she mewed. “He’s too young. He shouldn’t be that far along yet. There should be signs before this. He shouldn’t just go straight to hallucinations. Oh God.”

“Jacki, he needs you to pull it together. You need to go out there and let him show you what he’s going to show you.” That way his mom could be the one to actually break that big ol’ heart of his. “Do what you gotta do. He’ll probably get upset. Try to ease him down as best you can. I’ll be around. You start, I’ll finish.” This sounded to me like as reasonable a plan as could be found for a situation like this.  How do you go about telling a grown adult that you’re seriously concerned that something is about to get freaky? I let that one be. No need for her to think I was both chicken-shit and crazy.

“Now I wish I’d been drinking too.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, here we go.”

We both stepped out of the pilot house and I swung around to the bow. I gazed out into the darkness, and listened in as best I could.

“You should take a seat there, Mom.”

“Really, Billy, just show me. Please sweetie.” If she weren’t ten years my junior I could see falling for that lady. Even as strung out as she was, she managed to muster enough strength in her voice to sound like a patient mother.

“Mom, would y-you please sit down?”

“Fine. Now can I see?”02WhispersFromTheSea2

The whispering emerged from the water. I can’t begin to explain how a sound emerges from water, but it did. It was loud, too. It was singing again, but in a wispy incomprehensible tune. Just listening to it made my whole body relax. All the tension melted away and I’d have thought I was out for a pleasure cruise, had I not remembered exactly what was going down aft of me.

“Mom, this is–”

“BILLY! NO! Get back!” Jacki screamed in terror. The whispering cut off instantly.

That was enough to knock me loose. I was back on the dive deck in an instant. Jacki had her arms wrapped around Billy and was wide-eyed staring at the empty water off the back.  Her pale face and trembling hands matched her prior scream.

“Billy, you okay?” I asked.

Looking a bit dazed himself, “Yeah, Dale. She just startled me. I didn’t think she’d…” He pried his mother’s arms from around him. She didn’t put up a fight, just stared at the water behind the boat. “Anyway, I think we should go back. M-mom’s not ready for this.” He headed into the pilot house and the engines roared to life. He wasn’t actually licensed to drive the boat, but the Coast Guard was the least of my concerns at the moment.

I stayed back with Jacki. Billy put the props in gear and brought us around. I eased her back into her seat and finally asked in a low voice, “Jacki, what happened? What was it Jacki? What’d you see?”

Her eyes started blinking again and her mouth began soundlessly working. “He– It was–” she finally managed. She shook her head and pointed to the water. “No. I don’t–” She stood back up and turned to the rail. She leaned over and vomited over the side. She turned back around and looked at me, with a string of bile stretching along her lower lip. Wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, she said, “Give me a minute please.” She dropped back onto her seat and fished a pack of cigarettes out of her purse.

“Jacki, did you hear the singing, too?”

“Singing? Please. Dale, just give me a minute.”

As she tried to light up I turned and ducked back into the pilot house.

When I stepped up beside Billy he offered me the wheel. I took over and let the silence be as we headed back for the inlet.

As we slowed to enter the channel Billy began, “S-sorry Dale. That wasn’t how that was supposed to go. I don’t know why mom freaked out like that. I thought she was r-ready. I don’t know why she couldn’t hear her.”

“Billy, who’s your girlfriend? I didn’t see. I heard her, but I didn’t see. Clearly your mom did, and it has upset her… deeply.”

“You heard her?”

“Yeah, I realize I’ve been hearing her whispers for over a year now.”

“Why can you hear her, and mom can’t?”

“How the hell should I know Billy? I don’t even know what she is?”

In his most resolute voice Billy concluded the conversation with, “I don’t know what to do, Dale. I n-need to think about this.” He swung out the side door and went to sit on the bow.

We pulled back up to the dock and Billy secured the lines. He then began moving tanks back and forth to the wall of the shop. I was wondering why when I heard his mother behind me, “Sorry, Dale, I blew it.” I turned to look at her, leaning against the edge of the hatch behind me. “Sorry. He’s got some big fish thing out there. I was so nervous and stressed that I freaked out when something actually started coming out of the water.”

I looked her in the eyes, “Jacki, what was it?”

Her eyes dropped to the deck and she said, “Take him back out one of these nights, let him show you. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll know it when you see it, I’m sure. I was so scared that this was something serious that I just flew off the handle. I’ll talk it over with Billy when we get home. I’d like you to see it though. Just so you know what’s going on. I didn’t recognize what it was, but I’m sure you will. Just some big fishy thing. And, it is big, I’m warning you Dale.  I want to know what it was. No hurry, but… I didn’t know anything that big would try and put its fins on the floor or anything. It was big, and I thought it was going to climb up onto the boat. I panicked. Sorry.”

“Big fishy thing, trying to climb onto the boat…” I was cycling through the inventory of large sea creatures that could fall under that description. Maybe she saw a sea lion, they’d probably try to climb up onto the dive deck. Walrus never come this far south. I’d have heard the splash if it’d been a shark or dolphin. I’d never heard of friendly mahi. Turtle maybe? None of them sang though. “Are you sure it was a fish?” I sighed. “I heard singing when it came up. I couldn’t even start to explain how, but… it was singing.”

“Billy must have freaked us both out then. Because there was no singing.  It was actually really quiet and graceful, until I screamed.”

“Are you really sure that was just a fish?”

Her poker face was only slightly better than Billy’s. “Yeah. I’m sorry I scared you all. It’s just a fish. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what he thinks it is. I’ll text you or email you before I got to bed.”

As a man familiar with denial, I knew it when I saw it. “Ms. Dalton, I–”

“Don’t Ms. Dalton me. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what it was. I’ll let you know and you can go verify it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I’m not sure if I was more scared right then, or when Billy told us we were going to meet his girlfriend. She was looking for a rational explanation to something irrational. She stormed off to her car and leaned against it. Chain smoking cigarettes waiting for Billy.

Once she was clear, Billy finished making a show of work and slipped into the pilothouse. “Dale, you could hear her?”

“Yeah, Billy.”

“I need you to take me out tomorrow night. I want you to know about her.”

“Look you and your mom should talk about this–”

“She’s gonna ignore it. We’ll talk, and she’ll make herself feel better. If she can’t hear her, then I don’t think I can e-ever explain it to her.”

“You think you can explain this at all?”

“Once you see her. Yeah. You’ll take me, tomorrow night?”

I sighed. “Yeah, man. I’ll take you out tomorrow.”

He got a big grin on his face for a moment and turned to go. Billy then paused and looked back at me, the grin gone. “And, aaah, Dale? You’ll want to have somebody who can say they were with you tomorrow. Not on the boat. Someone you can trust.”

“Aaw shit. Bill, you’re scaring me. What the hell?” I smacked the wheel with my palm so hard it started aching. I reached over and killed the electrical, and all the lights on the boat went out. In the harsh shadows cast by the lights on the back of the shop I looked Billy right in the eyes. “I gotta ask. I’m your friend. You aren’t thinking about, you know, hurting yourself are you? I mean come on. You just told me to get an alibi.”

He actually laughed at me, “No, it’s not like that. I w-wouldn’t hurt myself, or kill myself either. She wouldn’t hurt me either.”

“Well, that just makes me feel great about taking you out, then. What is she Billy?”

“I don’t know. But you’ll understand when you meet her.” His head snapped toward the bow. “I’m gonna go over there now. But, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and hurried to the bow.

As Billy stepped out of the pilothouse I glanced over at his mom. She was talking on her cell phone. I half hoped she was calling a shrink and was going to drag him straight to the nuthouse. Whatever was going to happen–

The whispering started again. Billy had his head and shoulders dangling off the bow. To this day, I wonder if things would have been different if I’d just leaned over the gunwale and peeked. But I didn’t.

The next day Billy and I worked late, and then I took him out to dinner. He was all happy and chatty, like nothing was wrong. We didn’t talk about it at all. I asked about his mom, and he said she understood as well as she ever would. I drank more than I should have at dinner. I guess I was trying to soak up all the courage I could.

Once the sun was down, out we went. Back out to the edge of the wall. I killed the engines and the slapping of the water was the only sound around. Billy turned to me and was going to say something when the whispering started.  He grinned and was exuding excitement as he said, “She’s here. Are you ready? You can hear her?”

“I hear it.”

He stepped out and started backing across the deck. Never taking his eyes from mine he coaxed, “Come on, Dale. It’s okay, come on.”

I followed him along the deck in silence. I tore my eyes away from him to watch the water off the back of the boat. The whispering was getting louder.

“You better sit,” Billy giggled.

I sat myself down on then end of the diver’s bench and leaned back against the rack. Watching the water in anticipation I asked, “This is gonna screw me up, isn’t it?”

“No, if I knew it, you knew it. There’s more out here than we can explain. She’s proof.”

As he said this, the whispering changed to singing. It was louder this time, so loud. I realized it wasn’t loud though, still just barely audible. It was digging into my brain, though. It echoed in my skull. I was just sitting on the bench, and all I wanted to do was listen to her song. So I waited.

I can’t really describe her. Mere words fail. Billy turned to the water and she came rising out.  She didn’t even rise out of it, as much as she came through it. She was dry there before me. It was a gorgeous woman, but she was glimmering. Her skin was shimmering like fish scales. But she wasn’t scaly, it was smooth dry skin. I’m sure it would have been warm if I touched it. White flowing hair blew in the breeze as she stood on the water in front of us. Her beautiful green eyes locked onto mine and her song ended what little conscious thought I had left.

If she’d offered me her hand, at that moment, I’m pretty sure I’d have gone with her, too. Sitting there enthralled, I knew she loved us. We were the beautiful creatures she made special trips to the surface to come see. We were beautiful bold creatures to her. She’d take Billy with her, and ensure he got to be amongst the reefs he loved to explore.

She slid back under the water just as gracefully as she came. Her song stopped, but the whispering persisted.

It took me a second to get her out of my head and reclaim control of my body. When I finally managed to draw a big breath I turned to see Billy standing there grinning at me. “You see? You understand?”

“You’re going to go.”

“I am.”

“You’re not coming back, even I know that.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

My brains were just starting to slowly produce thoughts of their own again. “What am I supposed to tell your mother?”

He stepped out onto the dive deck and looked over his shoulder at me. “I don’t know. Don’t. She knows as well as she ever will. What would you tell her, even if you could?”

“Billy, she’s amazing. But I’m not sure if this is a good thing.”

“I am. She’s my soulmate. She’s the only one on this whole planet who really understands me. I’ve been building the courage to go with her for months now, I guess.” He turned and gazed into the water. “Bye, Dale. And, thank you.”

In the blink of an eye she shot from the water. I saw one hand come up to caress his cheek, as the other wrapped around his shoulders. Her hungry eyes met his, then flicked over to me for only an instant. With an innocent grin on his face, she snatched Billy from the dive deck, and they were gone. Back into the black with a splash and a flash.

That look. I’ve spent many long nights since lost in a bottle, wondering what it was I saw in those eyes right before she claimed him.

 

Ryan Anderson is a consultant and SCUBA instructor in Greensboro, NC. When not working, writing, or peering into the dark abyss below him, Ryan serves as the president of the Writers Group of the Triad. Mr. Anderson’s work has also appeared in Domain Science Fiction.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Jun

“Puppet Wrangling” by Barbara A. Barnett

Speculate_blogJonah peered into the puppet pit. Wooden heads turned up in unison, greeting him with painted, blank-eyed stares. Creepy as hell, yet even after all the weird shit Jonah had seen dealing stolen spells on the streets, the puppets fascinated him like nothing else ever had—the mime with the monocle and the overly red lips; the clown with the bulbous, misshapen nose; the fancy lady with the feathered hair and the elongated head; the childlike jester. The closer Jonah leaned toward the metal grating that covered the pit, the more clearly he heard the puppets’ ceaseless titters and the clacking of their wooden jaws.

Reuben joined him at the pit, baseball cap pulled low, shadowing a knife-scarred face. The Judge’s goons were gonna give Reuben hell for the cap. Orange jumpsuits ain’t for accessorizing—that’s what they’d been told their first day on the Judge’s farm, along with “don’t ask questions” and “don’t touch the puppets.”

“So, you in or not?” Reuben asked.

“I told you ‘no’ already.” Jonah cast an anxious glance around. No sign of anyone, but the Judge’s foreman, a fellow by the name of Big Pete, had a knack for showing up just as shit was about to go down. “You get caught jacking the Judge’s car and they’re gonna haul your ass straight back to juvie.”

“Better than here.” Reuben spit into the puppet pit. “I can’t take another night listening to these creepy little fuckers.”

“I feel you, man. I do.” Jonah hadn’t slept much himself since he and Reuben got yanked out of juvie a week before to serve the rest of their time on the farm—part of some new reform program. Jonah liked that idea: reform. Finally doing something honest with his life. But the farm made getting there maddening as hell. All that tittering and clacking from the puppets dogged him no matter how far he ventured from the pit, like the sounds had burrowed deep into his brain.

“So, you’re in then?” Reuben pressed.

“You know what ‘no’ means, right?”

“Why don’t you explain it to me, professor? Show me how smart all those books of yours make you.”

Jonah had a few choice insults in mind, but before he could hurl one at Reuben, a glint from the pit caught his eye: his favorite puppet, the Queen of the Night, captivating in her silver gown and her crown of jeweled, sparkling spikes. She was the one thing that made Reuben’s plan tempting. If he snatched her before taking off, then maybe he could work out what kind of magic the Judge had used to create her. Find the right buyer for that spell, and Jonah could turn a tidy little profit, maybe enough to set his mother up real nice.

But then he imagined the look of disappointment his mother would give him when she figured out where the money had come from. And she would figure it out. She always did. Jonah shook his head. No, he was gonna get off the farm the right way. He was gonna earn it.

“I’m doing this with or without you,” Reuben said. “Tonight.”

“Then you’re doing it without me.”

“What the hell you got to stay for?”

“I heard guys have really turned it around here. Guys like Tyrone.”

Reuben snorted. “I ain’t heard nothin’ from Tyrone.”

“Because he bettered himself. Doesn’t have time for thugs like you now.”

Reuben muttered something about Jonah’s mama having time for thugs like him, but before Jonah could meet insult with insult, the Queen of the Night caught his eye again. He stared at her sparkling crown, mesmerized, barely aware of his fingers sliding around the pit’s grating.

“What’d I tell you about poking your fingers in there, boy?”

Jonah backed away from the pit, head down as the Judge’s foreman, Big Pete, strode toward them. Big Pete had the kind of presence you could feel coming, with broad shoulders, a beady-eyed stare, and biceps bigger than Jonah’s head. Despite the summer heat, Big Pete wore his usual long-sleeved flannel shirt and thick leather overalls. Leather was harder for the puppets to claw through, he claimed.

“These ain’t toys we’re dealing with,” Big Pete said, his voice like thick gravel. “These are nasty critters.”

“Why keep ‘em around then?” Reuben asked. “What’s the Judge need puppets for?”

Jonah cringed. What the hell was Reuben thinking? You didn’t question guys like Big Pete—especially not when you were planning to steal his boss’s Jaguar. You just kept your head down and your mouth shut except for a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as required.

01PuppetMasteryPosterEdgesCatBig Pete stood silent for a long while, chewing on a wad of tobacco while he scrutinized Jonah and Reuben, his brow so furrowed that it looked as if his face had swallowed his eyes. Between each smack of Big Pete’s lips, Jonah heard the puppets: titter and clack, titter and clack. The sound pulled at him, insisting that he turn toward it, but Jonah kept his eyes fixed on the ground. One glance at the Queen of the Night on Jonah’s part and Big Pete would know he had been thinking about stealing her. It was like the guy could read every would-be crime on a person’s face.

“What’s anyone need a puppet for?” Big Pete finally said. He stripped off his thick work gloves and pointed at Reuben. “You. Take that damn hat off and get the stick from the shed. And you,” He pointed at Jonah. “Get ready to open the pit.”

Jonah crouched beside the pit, one hand ready to unlatch the grating, his gaze glued to Big Pete. If he managed to learn any of the big guy’s spells before leaving the farm, he wanted it to be this beauty coming up.

Big Pete cracked his knuckles and raised his hands in the air. “Open her up!”

Jonah unlocked the grating and heaved it open. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s steel walls, trying to climb out. But before any of them could get a handhold, phosphorescent strings shot from Big Pete’s fingers and attached themselves to the puppets’ limbs. The clacks and titters silenced, replaced by a pained whine as the puppets became Big Pete’s unwilling marionettes, at the mercy of every twist and twirl of his fingers.

Big Pete yanked the puppets up and out of the pit. Several strings tangled, and the Queen of the Night stumbled, landing near Jonah’s foot. On instinct, Jonah reached down to help her up, but Reuben, stick in hand as Big Pete had ordered, smacked her out of reach, so hard that Jonah had to fight the urge to slug him.

“Are you thick, boy?” Big Pete barked at Jonah. “These little parasites would do worse than kill you.”

“What do they do?” Reuben asked.

“Nothing pleasant.” Big Pete snatched the hat off Reuben’s head and threw it in the pit. “Now come on while your boyfriend here gets this pit cleaned up.”

Rage flashed across Reuben’s face—a twitch of the cheek and a narrowing of the eyes that Jonah recognized all too well. Jonah tensed, wondering if Reuben might be dumb enough to try taking the stick to Big Pete.

“Yes, sir,” Reuben said instead, his reply crisp, anger simmering beneath.

With a grunt and a jerk of his stringed hands, Big Pete dragged the puppets behind him, moving so fast that it was near-impossible for them to get their footing. The few times one did, Reuben whacked it with the stick.

Jonah grabbed a shovel and a pail, then took a deep breath before climbing down into the pit. Puppet shit smelled worse than even the filthiest back alley he had ever hidden from the cops in, like crap dipped in formaldehyde. It made Jonah glad he didn’t know what was in that bloody-looking slop Big Pete made him feed to the puppets.

It didn’t seem fair that he was stuck with pit duty when Reuben was the one mouthing off all the time. But at least cleaning up didn’t take too long—scoop out the dung and the piss-soaked straw, hose down the scratched steel lining that kept the puppets from burrowing their way out, throw down a new bed of straw. Mindless work, but it gave Jonah time to pay attention to other things, like the farm’s layout. He took note of every tree, every tool shed, every row of crops, every vehicle parked at the end of the long winding driveway that led up from the main road, every loose fence slat along the property line. You could never know a joint too well. Jonah had no intention of escaping, but circumstances changed sometimes, and you had to be ready. If he had learned that lesson earlier, he wouldn’t have ended up on the farm in the first place.

Jonah spied Big Pete and Reuben standing further uphill, just outside the Judge’s white-columned monstrosity of a house. This was the first time Jonah had seen Big Pete take the puppets up to the house; normally he just dragged them around the fields until Jonah finished cleaning. The Judge strolled out to meet Big Pete, looking about as Southern fried rich as they came—white suit and a straw hat, walking cane polished to a shine. A black-suited bodyguard even bigger than Big Pete shadowed his every step. The Judge inspected the puppets, circling around them. When one got too close, he smacked it with his cane; the crack of wood-on-wood was loud enough for Jonah to hear all the way out at the pit.

Finally, the Judge pointed to one of the puppets. His bodyguard raised a hand in the air. Like Big Pete earlier, strings extended from the man’s fingers, cast like fishing lines. The strings latched onto one of the puppets. The jester, Jonah realized after a squint of his eyes and a crane of his neck. Several strings fell away from Big Pete’s hands, and the men parted ways—the Judge and his bodyguard toward the house with the jester, Big Pete and Reuben back toward the pit with the rest of the puppets in tow.

Jonah quickly returned his attention to pitching fresh straw into the pit, tossing the final clump in just as Big Pete and Reuben reached him. While Reuben used the stick to force the puppets back into the pit, Jonah kept his head down, determined not to show even the slightest interest in what had transpired up at the house. From the way the puppets jittered and whimpered, he had a feeling the jester wasn’t coming back.

With more force than needed, Reuben knocked the last of the puppets into the pit—the Queen of the Night. Jonah balled his fists, unclenched them just as fast. As much as he wanted to shove Reuben straight in after her, he kept his cool, closing and locking the grating as soon as the strings detached from Big Pete’s fingers.

Big Pete wiped their fibrous remnants on the legs of his overalls, then nodded toward Reuben. “Go up to the house and get me a towel.”

Reuben started toward the house, stick still in hand—at least until Big Pete snatched it from him. Reuben paused, stiffened, then continued on.

Big Pete looked Jonah up and down. “Don’t like cleaning up puppet shit, do you?”

“No, sir.”

“I tell you what . . .” Big Pete glanced after Reuben. “You keep tabs on that buddy of yours for me, and I’ll make sure you land some better detail around here.”

He knows, Jonah thought. He knows Reuben’s up to something, and so he’s testing me.

Snitching was about the worst thing you could do back in the neighborhood. With no small amount of guilt, Jonah remembered all the times Reuben could have ratted on him and didn’t—not even for money. Because that was the code. You stood by your own.

But this wasn’t the neighborhood, Jonah reminded himself. He thought about Reuben smacking those puppets harder than necessary; just like all those guys Jonah had seen hitting his mother back home. No, this was the farm, and the farm had a code, too. Follow it, and the worst Reuben would end up with was a beating before they hauled him back to juvie.

“The Judge’s car, sir,” Jonah said, meeting Big Pete’s gaze. Let him see the truth there. Let him see a guy who was gonna turn himself around and go clean. “Reuben’s planning to jack it tonight.”

“And you were planning to help him?”

“No, sir. I told him ‘no’ more than once.”

Big Pete studied him for a long while, like a lie was a thing he could find in the whites of Jonah’s eyes. Finally, Big Pete smiled.

“Keep your mouth shut and your nose clean like you’ve been doing, and one day you might find a place for yourself here like I did. Maybe learn a few of my tricks.”

“Yes, sir,” Jonah said with forced earnestness. Big Pete could work some sweet magic, but his spells weren’t enough to make Jonah want to stick around and become one of the Judge’s lackeys. No, if he was going clean, then he was going to be his own man.

#

Jonah lay on his cot that night, eyes closed, listening to it all go down: Reuben sneaking out of the shack they were housed in, his pathetically small sack of belongings tossed over one shoulder. The click of a car door, then the engine turning over. The shouts and curses as the Judge’s men ambushed Reuben. The grate over the pit opening, closing. The titter and clack of the puppets louder than usual.

Then came the scream.

Jonah bolted upright. He heard a pained cry, unintelligible, then another scream, unmistakably Reuben’s.

“The Judge had that little punk sent straight back to juvenile hall,” Big Pete told Jonah the next morning.

Jonah hadn’t asked, and he didn’t believe it. He’d been up all night, listening, watching as the sun rose. Not a single vehicle had left the farm.

They killed him. They killed Reuben and it’s all my fault.

That thought played over and over in Jonah’s mind, as relentless as the puppets’ titters and clacks.

The puppets. He’d heard the pit opened and closed the night before, right before Reuben’s scream. First chance he got, Jonah peered into the pit, unable to shake the image of the puppets chowing down on Reuben’s limbs the same way they went at that bloody slop they were normally fed. But instead of blood, Jonah was met with nothing more than the same blank-eyed stares he always saw.

No, not the same ones. The jester was gone, of course, but now the clown puppet as well.

“Nose out of the pit, boy,” Big Pete snapped. “You’ve got work to do. Important visitor coming by tonight.”

Big Pete at least made good on his word. Instead of cleaning up the pit, ratting out Reuben had earned Jonah a day mending the lattice skirting that ran underneath the house’s front porch. Yesterday, he would have welcomed the change of pace. Today, Jonah decided he’d rather have the smell of puppet shit back in his nostrils than deal with the guilt gnawing at him. Reuben deserved a lot of things, but nothing that would make a guy let out a scream like the one he’d heard.

It was the not knowing that chafed at Jonah the most—what they’d done to Reuben, why they had opened the pit, what had become of the missing puppets. “Don’t ask questions,” he imagined Big Pete saying. But there were ways to get answers without asking questions. Jonah left one lattice panel loose, propped just so; no one would be the wiser unless they put pressure on it. It’d be a small opening once removed, but enough for someone as scrawny as Jonah to slip underneath the porch. Just in case.

#

Jonah was back on his cot by nightfall, hustled out of the way before the Judge’s big fancy guest arrived. Like the night before, Jonah lay there listening. Soon enough, tires rumbled up the driveway. A car door opened and closed, then the front door of the house. When all but the puppets’ titter and clack fell silent, Jonah slipped off his cot and out into the darkness.

You could never know a joint too well—that lesson was about to pay off. Jonah had been keeping tabs on how many guys the Judge had patrolling the grounds at night, where and when. There hadn’t been much else to do with the titter and clack of the puppets keeping him up most nights.

The Judge’s house looked downright sinister in the dark, lit up from within like a jack-o-lantern, with curtains billowing wraith-like in the open windows.

No good letting it spook you, Jonah told himself, keeping to the shadows as he crept toward the house. Sweat poured down his face, from fear as much as from the summer heat. He didn’t want to end up like Reuben, whatever the hell had happened to him. But he needed to know what was going on up at that house.

Voices drifted from an open window—the dining room. Jonah hurried toward it, crouched beneath. He’d only be able to linger there for so long before someone came by on patrol, but that was where his loose panel of lattice came in, giving him an easy hiding spot beneath the porch.

“Senator,” came the Judge’s voice, “I’d like to introduce you to the latest beneficiary of this fine reform program we’ve launched here. This here is Reuben.”

Jonah’s mind spun from shock to relief and back again. Reuben was all right?

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Senator, sir.”

That voice—Reuben’s, yet off somehow. Like it had been flattened out, none of his usual rage and defiance lurking underneath.

Chairs scraped against hardwood, followed by an animated, unfamiliar voice, presumably the senator’s.

“Thank you, son. Mighty polite of you.”

Jonah almost laughed at the absurdity of Reuben pulling out a chair for anyone, let alone a senator.

“I’ve been impressed with the results, Your Honor,” the Senator said. “I can see this thing going statewide, even national given time. But you’ve been cagey on the details. You’re going to need to be more forthcoming if you want me to support any more funding for your project. There have been some concerns expressed, you see—the family of one of the boys. These boys may be criminals, but we need to make sure they’re not being harmed in any way.”01PuppetMasteryPosterEdges

The Judge chuckled. “It’ll be my pleasure to show you exactly how the process works.”

A rustle sounded from nearby. Jonah’s pulse quickened. In his surprise at hearing Reuben’s voice, he’d almost forgotten about the guard on patrol. Jonah darted toward the porch and removed the loose panel, quickly but quietly. He started crawling through the opening, but his jumpsuit caught on a splintered piece of lattice. Jonah cursed under his breath and tugged. His jumpsuit pulled free, and he scrambled the rest of the way beneath the porch.

Had the guard seen him? Jonah stayed as still and silent as possible while he waited for the answer, splayed out on his stomach, breathing in cold, foul-smelling dirt. The guard’s steps drew closer, slow and steady. Something skittered over Jonah’s ankle. He gave an involuntary twitch, but no more.

“Get it out of me!” came the senator’s voice from inside the house. “Get it—”

The shout cut off abruptly, but Jonah heard plenty else from the open window: a thump and a crash, like furniture knocked over, then anxious muffled voices.

The guard on patrol paused beside the porch, snickered, then continued on.

Jonah clenched at the dirt, trying to keep his trembling breaths under control. Something squiggled beneath his palm; he bit his lip to hold back a yelp. He had to wait until the guard finished his sweep of the front of the house—something the guy seemed determined to do as slowly as possible. The prick even started whistling, like he was out for a leisurely stroll. Finally, after minutes that felt like hours, the whistling faded as the guard rounded a corner to continue his patrol along the other side of the house.

Jonah let out a heavy, quaking exhale, then sucked in a deep breath that he immediately regretted—underneath the porch smelled as bad as the puppet pit, making him sick to his stomach. Jonah crawled toward the hole in the lattice, but stopped short as the front door swung open overhead.

“It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Senator.”

“Yes, it has, Your Honor. You needn’t worry about that funding coming through.”

The senator’s voice, so lively before, sounded eerily sleepy now.

“Good to hear, my friend, good to hear,” the Judge said. “You be careful heading home now.”

The urge to run grew as strong as Jonah’s nausea; he was going to puke if he didn’t get out of there. Too slowly, the front door closed above. The senator crossed the porch with heavy, stilted steps.

Go, go, go, Jonah thought, willing the man to walk faster.

A jingle sounded as the senator passed overhead. The man paused, made some sort of gurgling noise, then continued toward his car, this time without the jingle.

Christ, had they put the jester puppet inside the guy? Get it out of me; that’s what he’d screamed earlier. And the missing clown puppet—was that what they’d done to Reuben, too?

By the time the senator’s car door finally opened and closed, Jonah couldn’t hold it back any longer; he retched.

Almost . . .

The engine started. Another eternity, and at last the senator’s car pulled away.

Jonah bolted out from beneath the porch. He had lost track of what time it was, whether one of the Judge’s men might be coming by on his rounds, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the hell away.

Screw reform, he thought, running toward the western edge of the farm, only memory and moonlight to guide him. Hop the fence and there’d be miles of forest to put between him and the Judge’s horror show of a farm. But as he passed the puppet pit, Jonah’s steps slowed. He didn’t just hear the puppets’ titter and clack, he realized; he felt it, like something tugging at his insides. Big Pete had called the puppets parasites, and Jonah finally understood why. And it gave him an idea.

There was nothing he could think to do for Reuben, but he could at least give the Judge one final fuck you.

Jonah opened the nearby tool shed, waited. No sign that anyone had heard, that anyone was even near. He felt around in the dark until his hand closed around the stick. Weapon in hand, Jonah crept toward the pit and reached for the grating’s latch, unlocked it, waited. Still no sign of anyone. Inside the pit, the puppets hushed.

Jonah opened the grating and backed away, stick at the ready. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s edge until one after the other secured a handhold and hoisted itself out. Jonah thought he’d have to beat some of them off, but instead he watched with a feeling of vindication as the puppets scurried through the darkness, tittering and clacking their way toward the Judge’s house. Their wooden-limbed stampede would have been comical if he had never heard Reuben and the Senator’s screams.

Jonah was about to resume his escape, but a glint in the moonlight captured his eye—the Queen of the Night’s crown. She lagged behind the other puppets, slowed by the length of her gown. Jonah’s gut told him to let her go, but another thought gave him pause. He had to tell the authorities what was happening on the farm; it was the only decent thing to do. But who would take the word of an escaped screw-up like him? He was gonna need proof.

Jonah hurriedly grabbed some rope and sackcloth from the shed, slung it over his shoulder, then crept toward the Queen of the Night, ready to whack her from behind and bag her. One step then another, long strides to catch up to her without running. He was just about there, one step away, when a twig snapped under his foot. The Queen of the Night whirled and leapt at him. Her fingers dug into Jonah’s skin; pain flared up his arms. Jonah tried to pull her off, but his limbs stiffened. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, unable to move. The Queen’s face, a thing of beauty to him before, now looked unnaturally elongated, with eyes full of a terrifying, unending blackness.

“Please,” Jonah whimpered, barely able to move his mouth.

The Queen crawled beneath his shirt and started burrowing into his stomach, her spikey crown cutting its way through his skin, inch by inch. Jonah screamed.

God, pull it out! he thought. His arms wouldn’t respond.

The Queen’s feet disappeared from view. But he felt her moving, digging out a space within him, her fingers latching onto his insides. The tickle of a spell filled his head.

Get it out!

The puppet stilled, and though Jonah’s fevered thoughts continued to whirl, the rest of his body grew slack. Inside him, the Queen of the Night raised an arm; Jonah’s own arm mirrored the movement. He willed his body to resist, but it obeyed her every move as she forced him to climb to his feet.

And then her thoughts—like a whisper at first, they grew clearer and clearer, forcing themselves upon him until he knew all that she knew. The Judge only thought he was in control; the puppets had plans of their own. And when the Judge’s reform program went national and his sphere of influence widened, the puppets would be the ones in position to pull all the strings.

No need to turn your life around, came a thought that was not his own, but the Queen’s. I can do it for you.

Jonah would have shuddered if he could. Instead he walked unwillingly toward the Judge’s house with a puppet’s stiff-legged stride, the titter and clack echoing louder than ever within his mind.

 

Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Black Static, and Evil Girlfriend Media’s Stamps, Vamps & Tramps anthology. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




29
Apr

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

I love flash fiction. A good story told in a thousand words will last a lifetime. For the past year, I have read, accepted, or rejected 510 submissions that I read between February and October 2015. This is a small set of submissions when compared to some of the more popular online fiction venues. But this was perfect for me. EGM.Shorts has been my project from beginning to end.

People like statistics. So, here they are. Make of them what you will.

Statistics – ACCEPTED, 90
Women, original: 27
Woman, reprint: 30
Women, total: 57

Men, original: 18
Men, reprint: 15
Men, total: 33

Statistics – REJECTED, 420
Women, original: 143
Woman, reprint: 47
Women, total: 190

Men, original: 184
Men, reprint: 46
Men, total: 230

Statistics – TOTAL SUBMITTED, 510
Women, original: 170
Woman, reprint: 77
Women, total: 247

Men, original: 202
Men, reprint: 61
Men, total: 263

It’s interesting to see that we had an almost equal parity between men and women submitting. I find it interesting that women submitted more reprints than men.

Statistics – ACCEPTANCE RATES
Women, original: 15.88%
Woman, reprint: 28.96%
Women, total: 23.07%

Men, original: 8.91%
Men, reprint: 24.59%
Men, total: 12.54%

I also find it interesting that, for the most part, I preferred flash fiction by women authors. One of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of following the submission guidelines. In specific:
1. Rape is not a plot point. Violence for violence’s sake is not a plot point.
2. Horror must have a clear, supernatural element.

These are the two guidelines most broken for EGM.Shorts and mostly broken by male authors. Female authors broke them as well, but not as egregiously as male authors. Unfortunately, according to my slush reader for Speculate!, the same thing is happening there.

Despite some of these issues, I very much enjoyed shepherding EGM.Shorts into existence. The Archives will stay up for at least another year. In the meantime, Speculate! is merrily in progress.




28
Apr

THE TAPE LIBRARY by Josh Roseman

Martha knows her career is ending. She’s known it for years. But when the meeting is called, and she sees that everyone in the conference room is over fifty, she knows she’s out of time.

“A generous severance package,” Mr. Walker says. “Mandated by the company,” Mrs. Butler says. “Gratitude for your years of service,” Mrs. Siglar says.

“Screw you all,” Leonard says. “I quit.” And he gets up and leaves, slamming the door as he goes.

Later, in her cubicle, Martha reads the informational packet they all received. The severance package actually is quite generous—thirty years at the station means sixty weeks of pay, plus the choice to buy medical benefits at the employee rate, means Martha will have plenty of time to find another job. And unlike some of her co-workers, she actually bothered to keep up with technology over the past thirty years. She knows she’ll be all right.

Martha freshens her lipstick and adjusts her sweater, then gets up from her ancient desk chair—she wonders if they’ll let her keep it—and walks down the hall to the ingest station. Downsized or not, she still has a job to do.

#

Martha’s last day of work is a Friday. Her co-workers throw a party for all the veterans who are leaving, and on the air that night, Brian and Henri say something nice during the 6:00 news. After all, everyone being downsized is a true veteran of the television business, with 25 years or more spent at the same station. Martha enjoys being recognized for her work in such a public way, and she appreciates that the parent company—going through quite a financial upheaval of its own—is going to pay her salary for an entire extra year.

After it’s all over, after Dave helps her bring her boxes out to her little Toyota, after hugs goodbye and promises to keep in touch, Martha walks alone, past the edit bays and the graphics suite, past the empty offices and the old training room, and stands at the door of the tape library. She can hear the shelves rattling.

The library is not happy.

Martha steps inside and closes the door gently. The automatic lights flicker on, illuminating row upon row of narrow walkways and high steel shelves. Up close to the door are small blue boxes, no bigger than her hand, with digital tapes. Farther back: containers full of beta tapes. Farther still are canisters with old reels. The station has been around for a long time, almost seventy years, and they never throw anything away. Why should they? There’s plenty of room.

The rattling dies down, but Martha can feel the heaviness in the air. “This is it,” she says, her voice soft. She steps into the nearest aisle and strokes the spine of a binder of DVDs. Her fingers tingle. “This is good-bye.”

One of the televisions against the wall flickers to life, and the deck below it glows softly as it powers on. A tape—an old beta, the date close to when she first arrived—floats down the aisle, and she reaches up to take it. She slides the tape into the deck, punches it up on the router, and presses play.

At this point in her life, Martha is no longer surprised by anything her library does—and it is definitely her library. The other editors are almost afraid to come in here, but now she supposes Dave is going to have to learn how to be a librarian. The library has helped her these past few years, as she’s grown older and more easily tired; on bad days, when her knees ached or the young reporters haven’t been respectful, it had picked up on her moods and left her little presents in the tape decks: stories about kittens rescued from trees, or the first baby born in the new millennium.

But this gift is something else. The library has never actually created something for her. This is definitely a creation: from the decades of file footage, the library has created a message for her. She watches, her heart breaking just a little, the thin veneer of “it’s all right” cracking around the edges.

When it’s over, after she’s dried her tears on the edge of her sweater, Martha dubs the tape onto a blank DVD. In her precise handwriting, she labels it “Library Farewell” and drops it into an envelope. When she ejects the tape, it floats back down the aisle, to its shelf.

“Thank you,” she says. She touches the door handle, then looks back. “Good-bye.”

The shelves rattle long after she closes the door. She takes the back exit out of the station, gets into her car, and drives home from her library for the last time.


Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia and makes internets for a living. His new collection, The Clockwork Russian, contains stories published in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and StarShipSofa, among others. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42.



26
Apr

The White Snake by Laurie Tom

You didn’t know me the second time you said “Hello.” You couldn’t have known we’d met before, because people don’t believe in spirits in this modern day. Everything is decided, neatly parceled into little bits of what is considered possible and what is not. I am just a myth. But when I look at you, gazing back at me from your seat beside my hospital bed, I know what is real. We are real, what we share is real, and I am dying.

You try to comfort me, fluff my pillow, and ask if you can get me something to drink, and I can’t help but feel touched by your compassion. You have always been a gentle man. That was what drew me to you the first time we met. You couldn’t have known what your actions had meant to a little white snake.

If you still have that gentleness in you, listen to me now. Please. I know you don’t want to believe, but you have to accept.

I was not born in this country of yours, but of a rushing stream in a land its people call the Middle Kingdom. My kind minds the ways of our common cousins and no man can tell the difference if he does not know us well. Most of the spiritfolk remained in the old country, but being a small and curious thing I sailed east across the ocean with the emigrants and landed here, on the land of your people.

At heart, people here are not so different from people there. You grow fields of wheat instead of fields of rice. That doesn’t matter. You still eat. But you do not have the history of believing in us. The people of the Middle Kingdom know us, in the form of superstition if nothing else. Your people have never heard of us at all. But I didn’t mind. I was only a snake.

You remember the day we met, don’t you? It’s only a childhood memory to you, if that at all. Some boys thought to make sport of the strange creature they found in the fields. White, but not albino, it didn’t look like anything they had seen before. Of course they were curious. Of course they wanted to catch it. Even back in the old country boys did such things, but I did not expect to be caught.

Then you came. You were only a child yourself and you drove them back, yelled for them to leave. They scowled and pouted, but they scattered, and you turned to look at me.

“Hello,” you said. “You can go now.”

You could not have understood the thanks in my voice. To your ears my gratitude was nothing but a hiss, but I basked in your compassion as readily as I would have the sun. Seldom does a spirit find itself indebted to a man, but never does one forget to repay what it owes.

I watched you as you grew from boy to man, and I made good on my debt. When you stayed up nights to study I was the one who gathered your things for you so they’d be ready in the morning. That day you wanted lunch but found yourself a quarter short—I placed that coin on the sidewalk where you would find it. A snake could not do very much, even one a bit brighter than the rest, but I tried.

The problem was I wanted more.

You see, I came to know you, your strengths and your faults, and I wanted to be able to be with you without having to hide in the cracks and shadows. I wanted to see you smile at me and know me for who I am.

So I shed my scales, coated my head with hair, and grew limbs from my body in order to resemble a human being. I thought you might not have liked me because I could only look like the people who come from my country, but you didn’t care that my eyes were brown instead of blue, or that my hair was black instead of straw. You were as kind to the woman as you were to the snake.

Though they seem brief now, I do not regret the twenty years spent with you. You cannot know the price my kind pays to maintain a human shape. We can never stay long, as if our lives must be further shorn beyond the longevity we have already lost. Disease has wracked my body in a way that would have been impossible twenty years ago. But I would not change my mind.

My only wish is that you would understand me. We shared so much; life, love, and children, and yet you will never know the whole of me. You don’t believe in spirits and think my stories flights of fancy. You, who have been kind to me in so many ways, are the source of the only cruelty I cannot overcome.

But love forgives, love forgets, and I have long accepted you for what you are. Soon, now, you will have to accept me for what I am.

I tried to tell you that I wasn’t an ordinary girl.

What will you say when I pass on and you see not the body of a woman, but a coiled little serpent with shining marble scales?


Laurie Tom is a third generation Chinese American. She’s been entranced by science fiction and fantasy since childhood and has never been able to stop visiting other worlds. Her work has also appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. This story was previously published in Penumbra.




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