DP FICTION #64A: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story included a terminology error where a spindle was confused with a spinning wheel. This has been corrected. Thank you to “Janice in GA” who first pointed out the error.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.

The house misses 1989. It has spent so much of the time since vacant. 

Today it is going to change that. It is on its best behavior as the realtor, Mrs. Weiss, sweeps up. She puts out trays of store-bought cookies and hides scent dispensers, while 133 Poisonwood summons a gentle breeze and uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property. Both the realtor and the real estate need this open house to work.

Stragglers trickle in. They are bored people more interested in snacks than the restored plumbing. The house straightens its aching floorboards, like a human sucking in their belly. Stragglers track mud everywhere. The house would love nothing more than any of them to spend the rest of their lives tracking mud into it.

A heavyset man with sagging shoulders lets himself in. He has a bit of brownie smudged against the back of his parakeet green hoodie, and doesn’t seem aware of it. Mrs. Weiss gives him a little wave while continuing to hold up a ten-minute conversation with an affluent couple. The couple made the mistake of saying they were “thinking of thinking of conceiving,” and Mrs. Weiss wields statistics about the school district like a cowboy wields a lasso. The couple’s shoes likely cost more than a down payment on the house, but from how often they check their phones, they clearly are headed back to their Mercedes.

The man with the brownie-stained hoodie prowls through 133 Poisonwood’s halls, and it pulls its floorboards so straight that its foundations tremble.

The man doesn’t look at 133 Poisonwood’s floor. He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit.

The house feels ashamed of the loose wallpaper. It’s vintage painted silk, which Mrs. Weiss says could be a big value-add. Now the house ponders if it can haunt its own glue and help strip the wallpaper away to please him. It’s especially important since he is spending more time here than anyone has yet without Mrs. Weiss wrangling them. It’s like he doesn’t feel the vibes other visitors do, or he doesn’t care about them.

From his behavior, what he cares about is wallpaper, the natural lighting through the windows in the master bedroom and the kitchen.

A child stomps in through the front door, her frizzy hair in three oblong pigtails she probably did herself. A silver keepsake locket clashes with her bright green Incredible Hulk t-shirt. Her elbows are tucked into her chest, hands out like claws, stained with brownie bits.

Every step she takes is deliberate and channels all her tiny body weight to be as heavy as possible. If the house had to guess, the girl is probably pretending to be a dinosaur on the hunt.

The man in the brownie-stained hoodie glances at her. He asks, “Ana. Where’s your coat?”

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

Ana apparently hates clothes so much she immediately grabs the bottom of her Hulk t-shirt and yanks it up over her head. She is careful to keep her locket in place, but chucks the shirt at the man. He grabs for her, and she ducks between his arms, bolting past Mrs. Weiss and the affluent couple, pigtails and locket bouncing.

In their chase, they leave the front door open. The house knows heating oil is expensive. It summons a spectral breeze to shut it for them.

The sound makes Ana pinwheel around, and she points at the door. She says, “Daddy! It’s ghosts!”

Daddy says, “Ana, we talked about this. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“You didn’t look.”

“You don’t have to look for things that aren’t there.”

Ana looks at her locket and huffs. “What if it’s Mommy’s ghost?”

Daddy closes his eyes for a moment. “Please just put your shirt back on.”

Ana immediately attacks her own pants. “Clothes are for the weak!”

“Put it on or we are leaving, Ana,” he says, trying to wrestle clothing onto his daughter. She pushes at him, leaving more brownie residue on his hoodie. As they battle, the affluent couple slips out the front door without closing it.

The house closes it for them. Heating oil isn’t cheap.

*

The triangular roof means the second floor only has the space for one bedroom. Mrs. Weiss reads the expression on Daddy’s face, and she attacks with, “The basement is very spacious with generous lighting. It’s cool in the summer, and toasty in the winter.”

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

The four-year-old scarcely looks at the bedroom before backing out. She holds the handrail with both hands as she climbs down the stairs on quivering legs. On the third stair, she freezes entirely.

Daddy is in the middle of surveying the room and misses Ana quivering in place.

Some houses give their residents visions of slaughters or trauma. 133 Poisonwood gives Daddy a swift vision of his daughter’s vertigo. He doesn’t know it’s anyone else’s insight, and wouldn’t believe it, but he’s at the stairs in seconds. Ana holds onto his pants leg until she feels safe.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

The basement is only half-underground, so the windows are level with the freshly mowed front lawn. Ana spends a moment giggling at the view. Then she whizzes around the basement, from the combination furnace and laundry room, to a storage closet, and to a pair of vacant rooms. They would make a perfect child’s bedroom and playroom.

Ana goes to the west room, announcing, “Daddy. You can keep all the ghosts you bust in here.”

Mrs. Weiss offers, “One of these could be a home office. You said you telecommute? Google Fiber is coming to the area next year.”

Daddy says, “I want to work from home more. I’m a software engineer, and I host a skeptic podcast. You might have heard us.”

The house isn’t offended. It doesn’t believe in ghosts either.

Ana hops back and forth between the two rooms, scrutinizing over and over as though they’ll grow. That is a trick the house doesn’t have.

Daddy says, “We could sleep next door to each other. What do you think?”

Ana says, “But I want a big dino room.”

“You’re getting to be a big dinosaur. How about the room on the top floor?”

Ana’s bottom lip shoots upward like she’s going to run. She clearly won’t settle for the room on the top floor, and there’s only a master bedroom on the first floor. A tantrum is close, and it could ruin everything.

So 133 Poisonwood plays its ace. Every decent haunted house has at least one secret room. Dorottya Blasko used to sew down here when she didn’t want to be pestered, in a room her family couldn’t find. It would be a perfect place for Ana to grow up in. Perhaps she’ll learn to sew.

With the sound of an affectionate kitten, the door opens. Shock hits the adults, who definitely don’t remember there being a room there. Ana doesn’t care, and runs to explore it.

“Uh, we aren’t showing that room,” Mrs. Weiss says, scrambling to cover for herself. She’s panicking, imagining hazards and lawsuits.

She doesn’t understand. 133 Poisonwood is going to clinch the sale for them.

The room runs deep, with an expansive window that hasn’t been seen from the outside in over twenty years. A sewing box with a scarlet and royal blue quilted exterior sits next to a rocking chair, and beneath the window is a broad spinning wheel that still smells like hobbies. Many great dresses were supposed to come out of this room. There are a few cracks on the concrete floor. Nothing a loving father can’t fill in to perfect his daughter’s big dino room.

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

Ana ignores the call and runs straight up to the spinning wheel. Her little hands grab onto spokes in the drive wheel, and she turns to the door. “It’s like Mommy’s.”

Daddy says, “Careful, that’s not ours—”

Ana yanks the wheel around to show it off to the adults. She pulls before the house can resist, and the entire device creaks and wobbles. It topples straight down on top of Ana, throwing her to the floor.

Daddy grabs her shoulders and pulls her from between the cracked wheel and treadle. Ana’s too distracted bawling to feel her necklace snag the spindle. The thin chain snaps, and the locket slips from her neck and down a crack in the floor. Without intending to, the house sucks the chain down like a strand of spaghetti. The house tries to spit it out.

Daddy squeezes Ana to his chest so hard she could pop, and keeps repeating, “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Mrs. Weiss gestures and says, “Her hand.”

“Are you alright?”

Ana says, “Let me fix it!” She stretches her hands to the broken spinning wheel. One of her hands is bleeding and she still wants to use them to clean up her mess. She says, “Daddy, let go, I’ll fix it. Don’t make the ghosts sad.”

That breaks Daddy’s concerned trance, and he lifts her under one arm, ignoring the kicking of her feet. He marches for the stairs. “No. I warned you, and we are leaving.”

“Daddy, no!”

“No more. Say goodbye. You see the ghosts aren’t saying goodbye? Do you know why?”

An urge falls over the house to slam the door shut and trap them all inside. Daddy, Ana, and even Mrs. Weiss, force them all to spend eternity in its hidden room, where they can make dresses, and stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. It will shelter them from all the hurricanes the world can create. It needs them.

The phantom door’s hinges and knob tremble as 133 Poisonwood fights itself. In that moment it knows what makes other homes go evil. The killer houses can’t bear to be alone.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. But it isn’t one.

It leaves its rooms open as Daddy carries his bawling daughter out of the basement, her incoherent sounds resonating through the house’s crawl spaces. He carries her up the stairs and out the front door without a backward glance. This time, he remembers to close the door.

*

133 Poisonwood leaves the secret room open in the hopes that someone will come back. It squeezes the cracks in its floor closed, popping the locket out without scratching it. Inside is the picture of a woman with a thick nose and proud eyes. She would have made an excellent ghost. The house would take a phantom for an inhabitant at this point.

The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.

With half an hour of daylight left, a red sedan pulls up. The driver lingers outside for two minutes before knocking. It’s Daddy.

Mrs. Weiss answers and forces a smile, “Ulisses. Is Ana okay?”

Daddy says, “It was a scratch. Thanks for being understanding before.”

She says, “I’m so sorry about that. I told the team this place was supposed to be empty.”

He says, “Have you seen a locket? Ana wears it everywhere and it’s gone missing.”

Mrs. Weiss holds the door open for him, “We can check around. What does it look like?”

“It has a picture of Ana’s mother inside. It’s one of few gifts she still has from her.”

“She was your wife?”

“She was going to be,” he says, and looks around the master bedroom with an expression even emptier than the space. “There was an accident on our apartment’s fire escape. She had a fall.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Right now, Ana needs all the comfort she can get. So if we can find that locket, it’d save our lives.”

They look around, the man so tired every step looks heavy. It’s amazing he could stagger into a motel bed, let alone go hunting for a locket. The house hasn’t seen someone as in need of a home in years.

Mrs. Weiss says, “I had something like that after my father past away. Makes her feel like her mother’s spirit is still with her?”

“Superstitions aren’t comforting to me,” he says, fatigue giving way to scorn, as though daring the house’s walls to do something. “And Ana’s mother was an atheist.”

The house is tempted to give Daddy the shock of his life and toss the locket to him. Give him back the image of his lover and proof of its power.

But he doesn’t need to believe in hauntings. With his slumped shoulders, and his clothes stained with his daughter’s food, and the pieces of their lives he is trying to put together?

What he needs is a win.

So the house uses what little strength it has to levitate the locket onto the top basement stair. It twists it so the light catches it, and shines into the upstairs living room.

Daddy finds the precious locket on his own. He bends over it, brushing a thumb over his lover’s image. He heaves a sigh through his nose like he wishes he could fit inside the locket.

The house lets him be proud of himself. It will hold onto this memory for the cold years ahead until it is bulldozed.

Daddy stands up without the locket, leaving it behind. The house tries to send him a vision warning that he’s forgotten what he came here for.

The mental image doesn’t change what he’s doing.

He goes right outside, to his sedan where Ana sits, rubbing at her puffy eyes and runny nose. Daddy says, “It might be here. Do you want to help me look?”

The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes.

Ana flops out of the car and trudges into 133 Poisonwood. She spends too long poking around the kitchen, a room she was barely in earlier. Daddy plays an even worse sleuth, deliberately checking around empty hallways that give him a view of when Ana finally checks the basement door.

“Mommy!” she cheers. She sits right down on the stair and hugs the locket to her throat, voice trembling with emotions too big for her body. “Mommy came back!”

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

“I told you she’d be here. Mommy wanted me to find it.”

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

She scrunches her nose and mimics his voice to say, “You don’t know that.”

Daddy puts a hand over the locket. “You found this. Not anybody else. You don’t need ghosts,” and he taps her on the temple, “because you have the best parts of your mother inside you.”

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

133 Poisonwood has never so understood what it wants to do for people as when it watches this parent. It tries to hold onto the vibrations of his voice in its walls.

Then Ana says, “Nah. The ghosts left it here.”

She hauls off to the living room, hopping in late afternoon sunbeams, and holding the locket in the light.

Reason is defeated for the moment. Daddy doesn’t fight her on it. He rests against the wall, against the wallpaper he hates, taking the house for granted. The house plays a tune on its shingles, the same one that calmed Dorottya Blasko in 1989.

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

“Please, call me Carol,” she says. She’s been pretending she wasn’t lurking ten feet away this whole time. “You’re very sweet with Ana. You can just tell some people were born with the knack.”

“Three rooms in the basement. This is a lot of house for the money, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

133 Poisonwood would be more charmed by the line if it hadn’t heard her say that eight other times today.

Daddy says, “I like the space this place has for her. There’s plenty of room to run. And she loves to run. Going to be a track and field star.”

“I said to myself that this place looks happier when you’re in it. It suits you.”

The house can tell he wants to say he doesn’t believe that.

He says, “What we need is somewhere to start fresh.”

Mrs. Weiss offers him a folio of data on the house and gestures to the basement. “Care for another look around?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” He takes the folio. “While Ana is playing upstairs, can we check how insulated from sound that sewing room is? It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good podcast studio.”

If houses could laugh. He sounds so unguarded and sincere.

This tired skeptic doesn’t need to know that his podcast room doesn’t technically exist. If he finds the blueprints for 133 Poisonwood, he’ll shave away what he doesn’t understand with Occam’s razor. The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.


© 2020 by John Wiswell

Author’s Note: At the World Fantasy Convention in 2018, I went to dinner with some lovely people who let me babble about Horror. I read, watch, and play Horror every week, but I barely ever write it. Instead I tend to put Horror-y things back out as humorous stories or heartwarming stories. Off the top of my head I gave them the example that if I wrote a haunted house story, it wouldn’t be like Haunting of Hill House – it would be about a haunted house that was lonely and desperately wanted someone to live in it. One of my fellow authors reached across the table, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “Please write this.” On the train ride home, I did. So this story is dedicated to Natalia Theodoridou, who demanded I help 133 Poisonwood find its family and its audience – all of you.

John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.


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The Lodge and Seven Contrivances: How Contrivance Affects Horror Plots

written by John Wiswell

Most Horror stories are built on contrivance. In Jaws, a shark that absolutely isn’t native to that region attacks swimmers. How did it get there and why is it behaving this way? Neither Benchley’s novel nor Spielberg’s film cares. Little more effort is put into justifying the mayor and business owners forcing beaches to stay open. Those contrivances are compelling because characters are suddenly in peril they’ve never prepared for and are so vulnerable to.

You can find integral contrivance in stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. It can create an eerie sense that things are wrong because characters suddenly lack agency on some important level, or that a pattern of plot events is being broken. It can be your premise, or it can push the plot out of wherever it’s stuck. It’s the thing coming from nowhere – the unjustified jump scare, or needlessly antagonistic bully, and coincidental run-in with a witch. 

The problem comes from overuse. Even audiences that don’t know about plot mechanics sense when it happens. There’s an irritation that the story isn’t moving right because event after event isn’t the result of anything they’re invested in. 

A great example of this is 2019’s The Lodge, which recently hit streaming platforms including Hulu. The movie’s premise is that a pair of kids and their dad’s new girlfriend get stranded in a lodge and spooky events start happening to them. It’s a perfectly decent premise, right?

The movie begins with the two children’s birth mother committing suicide. The little sister is shattered. The older brother tries to comfort her. It feels like the start of a painful journey for the kids. If you have any parental instincts, you’re ready to care about them.

Then the contrivances hit.

Contrivance 1: There is a six-month time skip. 

Time skips usually pull the audience out of a story, but if you haven’t done anything else weird and get the plot moving right away, the audience will adjust. We all adjusted to the beginning of Avengers Endgame, right?

The time skip means we miss the kids’ grieving, coping, and growth. The movie has reset them to not be fully healed, and now they’re mostly anxious and resentful towards their dad. The story is hedging that we have enough residual care for where the kids were before the time skip to still care now.

Contrivance 2: Within one minute of the skip, the dad tells his kids that his girlfriend is coming with them on a ski trip. The kids are hurt by this idea and are in ready-made conflict with the dad. 

The movie’s time skip elided all the conflicts in the decision-making. The ski trip isn’t the result of past choices; it’s from nowhere. What the movie has done is skip to a point of conflict without building it up. It’s cheating on narrative. Especially when a story like this has a functional opening, a move like this breaks flow. The hope is that what comes next will justify it.

Next in The Lodge, the kids have to meet the girlfriend. They wait in the car to avoid the social cues of having to greet her. She gets into the car and doesn’t say hi at first. She’s nervous, too, which feels valid. The dad will have to break the ice for them.

Contrivance 3: The dad gets a phone call and leaves them in the car. 

Who called? It’s barely mentioned and doesn’t reflect anything else in the plot. He was basically called by the screenplay.

The call is a contrivance to make this scene as awkward as possible. It’s a redundant contrivance since the kids and girlfriend were already awkward. Now it’s just super awkward. 

Since it comes close to other recent plot contrivances, it’s easy for this moment to feel forced and grating. This is the compound contrivance effect. The more things that feel unearned, the testier your audience will get. 

That night the kids poke into their dad’s computer and reveal the girlfriend’s backstory: she is the survivor of a suicide cult. Part of why she’s so awkward is that she has enormous unresolved trauma. 

You might call this an infodump and accuse it of contrivance, but it isn’t really contrived. The kids are using their agency to pursue believable curiosity about this woman who is basically a stranger. What they’ve learned complicates the plot. This is utterly different than arbitrarily jumping forward six months.

Further, the girlfriend is now much more interesting because of the revelation. This sets her up as a trauma victim. When the movie shows her unpacking medication, it’s meaningful to us. With its characters set up, it feels like the movie is finally about to start and we’ll get that scary goodness. We’re ready for chills rather than just awkwardness.

Contrivance 4: In a bold choice, the movie switches POV to the girlfriend. 

She isn’t a co-POV. The kids are suddenly supporting characters in her story. On the one hand she’s a fish out of water and mentally ill, so she’s supposed to be sympathetic. On the other hand, if the audience has been attached to anyone it is the kids, and it’s a huge writing risk to relegate them behind her after what they’ve already been through. Such a big change after the earlier contrivances makes the story feel janky. It makes you question what story the movie is even trying to tell.

Following the switch, there are a few minutes of scenes building the girlfriend’s tension with the kids. They freeze up when she accidentally wears their mom’s old hat and demand it back. 

The dad sees that she’s having a hard time so he decides to do something nice for her. He decides to give her the combination to his safe, shows her his gun, and takes her shooting.

This is neither contrivance nor natural. It’s in-between. His motive makes sense, but why the hell does he think shooting things will make her feel at home? It’s so brazenly a Chekhov’s Gun scenario, except a character is literally pausing the plot and forcing the gun to appear in scene. Thanks to the compound contrivance effect, things that aren’t pure contrivance cause the same irritation.

It underscores that all the contrivances have made the father a plot device rather than a character. Who is this guy? Why does he want these people to go on vacation together? Why isn’t he helping them bond? He’s never unpacked as a character.

Then we find out why.

Contrivance 5: The dad gets a mystery call from whatever job he has and abruptly decides to leave in their only car, leaving his kids and girlfriend with no way to leave the lodge.

So it turns out the story put no thought into the dad character because it planned to get rid of him ASAP. 

Inside the fiction, it’s exasperating that this person did so much to make this unwanted situation happen and then ditched them all. He’d be a good antagonist if he wasn’t leaving the movie now.

Outside the fiction, bigger things are wrong. The movie isn’t telling a story; it’s forcing one to happen, which isn’t nearly as engrossing. It doesn’t feel like the movie has gotten to where it wants to be despite messing around with so much stilted plotting.

The girlfriend and kids watch a movie in the lodge and have cocoa. None of them are acknowledging how awkward their situation is. The daughter feels sick and the girlfriend isn’t super-considerate, but checks her temperature and says her she’s fine. This is tolerable.

Contrivance 6: They wake to find the power, heat, and water is all off. Their phones don’t work. Their clothes, toys, and the girlfriend’s medication is gone.

This one thing is no more contrived than any one thing in Us or The Shining.  This contrivance is the premise of the movie, and you probably were watching to get to this point. In fact a sudden contrivance can be exciting. If things build up naturally and then something dramatic changes, like the blood falling into the eye of the dad in 28 Days Later, it can be terrifying.

What The Lodge has done is replace character agency with too many contrivances. Nothing that got us to this premise feels earned. A Horror story can easily get more tense (or intense) as a protagonist makes a series of dangerous decisions, or as an antagonist makes choices raising the stakes. Here instead things keep being pushed along by forces from off-screen or by virtual non-characters.

It feels additionally cloying because we have three viable protagonists here who should have been able to carry the movie up to this event. We cared about the kids. We understood that the girlfriend was unwell and in a tough position. When they do the standard fare of freaking out and blaming each other and ignoring the apparent supernaturalism of their circumstances, it feels like just the next weird contrived thing that’s forcing them to dance.

Before you can even ask what interesting ways they’ll respond with after they finish panicking, well…

Contrivance 7: You’ll be shocked to learn that they are soon snowed in. There is absolutely no leaving the lodge.

From here it’s obvious that they will perform standard trope responses to outside stimuli until some big twist or reveal. The characters never got proper opportunities to inhabit or push their own narrative forward. These are three people with heavy pain in their lives and reasons to be strong individual characters, and an hour of runtime into the movie the most interesting thing now is what bumped into their window. 

Overuse like this is why “contrived” is a pejorative. When it’s used well, these intrusions can push characters to reveal more of themselves or just scare the crap out of the audience. If they aren’t used carefully, though, the only victim of a Horror story is the story itself.


John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.

DP FICTION #63B: “Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner

The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

It went like this. Rich folks live at the highest points in the city, up on the sea cliff and in these walled gardens that we only get let into to weed and harvest. As the city spirals downward, so does the wealth. The royals always say the gods will let the money trickle down like rainfall, but the only thing that slides down is their sewage.

The gangs have always been stealing to make meat, but usually the goods stayed in your alley. Everyone else, well, that’s the city for you. We’re not all touchy-feely neighborly like the hunters and farmers at the edge of the Woods. The boards changed that because you had to go to the Greyhoods for the best wood, the Gallows Hand for potions, and those two had to work together for the best wheels—part wood, part crystal. We made the bolts, the bearings, the mounts and the grips from thin metal shavings stuck on top.

We knew our secret wouldn’t last—playing peasant was in fash that year. A noble sees some street kid kicking flips and offers to buy the board for his son. Offers more gold than that kid ever going to have again. Then another noble’s son gets jealous, and we got servants scavenging our secrets or palace craftsman offering to purchase them.

But the three gangs said no, collectively, and began to bargain. That’s where the Bitches got the name, after the nonhuman blacksmiths’ union. A bard reported that the king called them the Blacksmith Bitches after the union appealed to him. Anyway, we bargained to be let inside. Our boardmakers would only be allowed to produce for the royal families—no stealing secrets.

But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t be stealing.

A request came next sunrise.

We entered the castle while each gangs’ best cartographer followed by rooftop and shadow-way. We felt their eyes even keener than the guards’. They’d chalk the best lines for escape. Then it was up to our master riders to make the escape happen. We would be seen, no doubt of that (the heads piked outside the wall mouthed yes), so it would come to speed and darkness.

The queen’s aide took us to the princess’s room. Us grubby gutter-gangs, standing in the towers that cast shadows over the sweaty backs of our parents, our siblings. We—the leftover kids of makers and farmers and prostitutes and cart-drivers and shit-shovelers—requested by the castle for something more than to chuck a spear or the noose.

When the aide knocked in a rappity-rap that anyone could tell was secret, the princess peeked through. A smile split that fey face. She swung open the door and stuck her fists on her hips.

“I’m ready.”

Leather trousers stuck from her fluffy skirts, and she’d bound her feet (incorrectly) in peasant wraps with the double-thick saddle soles. A silk handkerchief wrapped her windless-weaving hair from her face.

The aide fidgeted. “Princess Sydney, these are—”

“I know who they are! Everyone does!” She pointed at each of us and rattled off our names and gangs: Cyclops riding for Greyhoods, Litch riding for Gallows, and Jett riding for the Blacksmith Bitches.

We glanced at each other, the guilt worse than the Devil’s Tavern shit-stalls. We’d cracked jokes over pipes and brews about the snotty princeling who’d scream “off with their heads” the first time he cracked his bum. This kid . . . seemed better than that.

Princess Sydney waltzed into her rooms the size of a whole slum street. The aide closed the door but stood beside it.

The princess looked around our slouched, fidgeting forms, then leaned in to whisper. “Call me Syd. Only they call me that.” She rolled up her sleeve and showed a mark traced over and over with black ink, the retraced design blurring at the edge where it seeped beneath her skin, a kid’s attempted tattoo. A cross with curled horns growing from the angles. A half-orc rebel, like us, had been burned at the stake. The king, this girl’s blood, claimed the half-orc had killed a guard during a robbery. Really, we were just illegal. All the halfers. Half-elf, half-human, half-scale, whatever. Anyway, the cross and horns had become the downunder’s symbol, whether you were one-drop or pure. Being poor meant you couldn’t be pure because the gods only cursed sinners to the slums. Ha.

But this princess had a symbol hand-drawn on her arm that would get her some sort of lash, even if it was just with the tongue. We glanced at each other, then motioned her to lower her sleeve. She looked at us with a pixie grin, then her eyes flickered to the boards. She caressed the nose of Sleepeater as if the board were a famous sword.

We nodded at each other. Let’s do this.

Some of us taught Syd while her watcher settled into a chair with a book. The rest of us perused the room of the little rebel. We wondered what this would mean, if the next ruler might help us. But she was so young, so impressionable. She hadn’t seen the downunder, seen what she might one day help.  Heard of us, yes, but we were the brags told at the tavern beer-dippers and by the bards entertaining over trash fires. We were the parentless, the death-defying, the hungry-but-running, the riders of Sleepeater, Killcount, Bloodless, Firestorm, Dragonwing, famous in the downunder as the royal sword Bloodsoaked. Except that sword drank our blood, and all the other poors who sold broad shoulders for the army’s bread ration and the flour-oil money sent home once a month. Our boards, they gave something real, even if it was only hope.

Tonight would change what we could give.

Syd learned fast. Already, she could glide. Her board was sewage, but once we assembled a new one, she took to the quick turns. That pixie smile never left her face.

We wondered about it in whispers or looks when she laughed like gold coins spilling into a pool. Yeah, not cat-slit eyes, no pointed ears, no ghost-wings. But didn’t mean she would pass the one-drop test or the priests’ fervor exams. Being a princess would save her, but not the board bums that led her down such a path.

We named our boards to keep us and our friends safe. And, when we inevitably broke our necks riding the roofs (or the guards got us), someone else could pick up the board, or another just like it, and Dragonwing would still fly, Firestorm darting just ahead, grinding sparks. Sleepeater would wake the guards with silly jumps rattling their roofs and sometimes their helmets. Killcount would kill it on the biggest drops, so high all the downunder witnessed. Bloodless would never fall.

What would happen if we put a princess on a board?

Same thing that would happen to any twelve-year-old. She would fall.

She flipped her board into her hand like we always did. “I want to smoke a roof!”

We told her, not yet, little slick. She rolled her eyes when we said she needed to ollie first and hopped onto her board. One shove, and that princess proved she could get air. Still not tuned to the board, she stumbled on the landing, but rolled into her fall just like we would have taught her. Her watcher didn’t even look up from the book.

So, we made her a roof. Piling furniture against one wall, creating a few levels, a ramp. Any of us, burly street drippings that we were, would be too heavy so we couldn’t test it, but sometimes you didn’t get to test roof lines before you carved. We lined the ground with pillows and bedding. It felt good to tramp the silks and linen with our dirty grip-boots.

Syd climbed up two dressers. We’d created a drop to a long table (the legs balanced on chairs for height). The other end, a ramp went up to a bookcase. From there, she’d drop to a smaller bookcase, then another smaller one, then to another table. She’d have seconds to react. Most roofs were easier than this rickety thing.

She knew it, too, but we said if she could master this thing, then she could ride.

We helped her cast a sight line, plan each jump, catch, footstep, drop. She fell, of course. Didn’t land the first drop onto the table, the board skidding from her feet.

She climbed right back up. Again, again, again.

When king’s guard came to spear-nudge us out, she’d completed the first half but couldn’t quite figure the transition from off her board, run the ramp, then jump into the first drop.

With the guards nicking our heels, she winked. “See you soon!”

That pixie grin sent us wondering again.

We made the raid that night. Sleepeater and Dragonwing took the headline and we followed the leader, mirroring their jumps and drops. We scored big and didn’t lose a spark of gold or blood. Our favorite merchant waited on the other side of the waste grate back in the downunder, and we passed him the wares. Our stuff sold wild outside of town in the cities of living revolution. Here, found owning a piece of royalty, hands and heads went chopped.

Of course, our faces became the new guard graffiti, papering the taverns and community houses. Downunder, nobody turned us in, but we couldn’t go back to finish Syd’s lessons. Smart kid like that already knew she would get us for only a day.

*

For the next year, we kept it cool around the castle. The king outlawed boards, which made it popular as dragon scales among the nobles for a hot second. That royal score had fed plenty and the city had many other pockets of wealth. We emptied them.

Some of us fell. Dragonwing’s rider went to surf the stars with a split skull. Sleepeater landed in a net and never left the guard barracks. Killcount broke both legs dropping off a wall, but they came back even stronger with a young rider whose brother had been hanged for looking at a royal wife. Just the kind of burn Killcount needed to brave those gaps.

Once our faces had bone-bleached off the walls, we planned another castle hit: an anniversary celebration with no fear of revolution from blow because the King held a feast for the whole city. Can’t blame them—when you can eat, you eat. But we still had a chance to grind some tops.

We scored and went straight to the old sewers to cache it until the right merchant came looking for dictator-era jewels.

Except as we ramped into stink, we counted a thirteenth rider. Like us, she wore all black, a scarf around her face, a hammer-battered skull cap. She kept up on the roofs, but it was the ramp into the sewer-dark where she stuttered. Just the slightest hesitation before she pushed, like the first time skating a new roofline.

We circled up at the first turn, riding over her head on the slick stone walls. She braked and flicked her board into her hand. Jagged red spelled “Synner” on the belly.

The Y clued us, and when she tugged down her mask, that same pixie grin waited. The princess looked older. A scar curved over her jaw. Her legs had thickened with riding muscles.

You can’t be here! we told her. A princess gone missing would be assumed kidnapping and ransom, would mean the raising of the downunder, murdering the most capable to destroy another generation that maybe would have said no. She didn’t know what payment she required.

“No, no, it’s okay. I covered my tracks. My double is posing.”

Your double?

She thumbed the scar along her jaw. “I’m not princess enough for the people, according to my father. She looks the part, even if she’s just my half-bastard-sister. She hates it as much as I do. She told me it was time.” She dropped her board and stepped onto it. No longer the wobbly girl we gave lessons to, she turned fluid, riding the board like driftwood on the river. “I can’t do much up there. You can make me something else.”

We looked at each other. Dragonwing and Sleepeater ollied their acceptance immediately. They spoke for their gangs, the Greyhoods and Gallows Hands, but the rest of us wondered what one more sinner downunder could do.

We explained that we didn’t need more bodies but leaders. If she showed her face right now—might as well break our boards.

She flashed the belly of her board. “Then make it a rumor. Make me something more. When they check on me, it will just be my sister Kess. They won’t know the difference. Never have.”

We huddled up. Dragonwing and Sleepeater hadn’t changed their stance, but we wondered at the choice to gamble another young life. We took the big air each night because what else did we have to live for—rat meat and cricket grain? But this kid, she might be something.

With us, she’d just be a criminal.

Some argued we’d run more dangerous lines than this at a younger age.

Others agreed and said who were we to stop her, a bunch of halfies with scarred-up knees.

The Blacksmith Bitches held the deciding vote. They held their turn.

Show us you’re serious, we said. Prove you’ve thought it through.

She turned that pixie grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” One shove and she parted us, clattering up the sewer ramp. Sleepeater followed, with a few Greyhood runners flanking, but the rest of us waited. We had loot to sell and mouths to feed.

The news came later, with sirens. Due to the king’s sizeable collection of mounts, his stables had been moved just outside the first level, and the shit was raked into a runoff that led straight downunder. With Sleepeater’s help, they’d carved up the barn roofs, panicking the guards and slave mounts, but Syd dropped to the gate, showed her face, sent the guard scrambling to give her the royal treatment, then vanished into the barns. Syd opened all the stalls, then Sleepeater clattered the roof, sending all the mounts rushing.

By the end of the night, the horses, griffons, dragons, wyverns, minotaurs, centaurs, and dire wolves had been absorbed into the downunder. The king’s men came with the royal pedigree papers, with lists of markings, but we did our job well. Only a handful were stolen again.

When Syd rolled into our park, still shit-stained and beast-smelling, we couldn’t help but welcome her.

Then we waited for it to get worse.

We stayed low, skated our traditional paths in the downunder, never crossed out of building’s shade or sewer’s shadow. Not until a little thing happened did we believe Syd, not until her double stood beside the king at an announcement about “schools for the children” shite. Not until we knew we had a secret on the king—his royal child had escaped.

Synner unleashed on the middle-castle dwellers and the nobles: breaking into a speciesist grocer, surfing through the upper-castle farmers’ market, thieving a child-beating blacksmith. We skated flank, let her face forward, let that board leave a trail. We tagged the hits with Synner, but one of the best paint-magickers turned out a stencil (her shadowy face bleeding into the top of her board, name on the belly), and princess propaganda went wall-to-wall.

Some worried the king would see, but some said, yes, that’s what we needed. If she wanted a true revolt, he’d know. All the downunder knew her masked face, and most suspected her heritage, so whispered the crows. Somebody would take it kingside.

So it happened. We were staying low, keeping the boards hidden, after a big hit on a shop selling slave-diamonds. The guards had chased us all the way to the sewer head before we lost them in the stench. Wild riding, we’d been drunk off it, but knew enough to relax. Breathe it all in. A week later, Synner went out with Killcount and Firestorm just to land a few tricks, grind a few gutters, so the downunderers saw us safe and laughing.

Maybe someone knifed us, maybe it was fate. The guards hit so hard the three boards were caught up in the wave. Riders went down, but the guards took Syd, of course. That’s how we knew their goal. A good rebel, she kicked her board into the fearful crowd.

A new Synner picked it up.

She held the board above her head. She screamed with half-scale metal: “To war!”

We rode the way of revolt.


© 2020 by Phoebe Wagner

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, and revolution.  In epic fantasy, the tiered city is such a staple that it seemed a waste to only ride skateboards on the streets rather than the roof tops—what a perfect ramp! Because I knew revolution would be a key aspect of this story, the first person plural voice came with the  characters. 

Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD in literature at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the co-editor of two solarpunk anthologies: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures. When not writing, reading, or grading, you can find her kayaking the nearest river. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com


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DP FICTION #63A: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble

Content Warning: Domestic Violence

Max found the box that fit absolutely everything when he was clearing space for Roderick to move in. They had agreed he’d pare down to a single bookshelf, so he drove by the local rental place and bought a half dozen boxes.

By the end of the first round, he’d cleared half of one bookshelf. There were still three and a half more he’d committed to losing. He had enough to start filling boxes, though, and he could use a mental break from the triage.

Max knelt on the super shag and sorted. Hardcovers he only ever bought from the remainder bin by the register. That’s where he met Roderick.

Remaindered just means something big and fancy got overhyped and under-delivered.” Somehow Roderick made derision feel exotic. Enticing.

“Or the people who love it couldn’t cover the cost?” Max said. He felt pinned under the amber of Roderick’s gaze. He didn’t know yet that Roderick’s eyebrows didn’t have a high natural arch, that he was just always judging you.

Roderick shrugged wide shoulders sheathed in stretch cotton.

“I say if you value it, you find a way to pay what it’s worth.” As Roderick’s knuckles brushed the back of Max’s hand, he felt worth more than he had in a long time.

Max stacked the hardcovers — biggest on the bottom — in the box. He could have sworn that alone should fill it, but there was at least half a box empty, so he must have been wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

It took one coffee, two drinks, and one dinner date for Max to give up on the remainder bin. If he couldn’t afford the price, he didn’t want it enough, now did he? Roderick wasn’t fond of the oversized trade paperbacks that took their place.

“They’re all over the place.” His corded forearms wrapped around Max from behind. “I mean, they’re a mess, all different heights and widths and what’s the point of a book shelf if it looks like a junk drawer? It should be precise. Crisp and clean.”

Crisp and clean. Like Roderick. Even when he was trying the scruffy look, he trimmed his stubble every morning to the perfect length for defining his jawline. Max didn’t mind the rug burn he got when they kissed, because kissing, and the rash on his shoulder, reminded him where Roderick rested his chin, the way the bruises on his upper arms reminded him of Roderick’s strong hands.

“Artistic integrity?” Max offered. “This was the way they wanted to present them, so—”

Roderick shook his head.

“Everybody’s got a vision,” he said. “A visionary shapes the world instead of letting everyone else do it for him.”

The trades were a more challenging puzzle to pack, but Max eventually found himself satisfied that he’d not wasted any space in the matrix he shaped atop the hardcovers.

Still half a box to fill. And he’d been so certain this time.

The low-end paperbacks had been in milk crates to begin with.

“If you’re going to keep them, you gotta show off what you have.” Roderick was naked, idly sorting through the crate. His sweat smelled like warm cinnamon and chamomile. Max never smelled like that when he tried Roderick’s cologne. Then again, he always washed it off right after because Roderick hated people touching his stuff.

Roderick’s brows arched past their usual curve, which meant he was judging extra hard.

“These don’t even have front covers,” he said.

“That means they’re well-loved,” Max said, wrapping his arms around Roderick’s bicep and snuggling in.

“It means they’re out of shape and ugly,” Roderick said. Max pulled the sheet up over his belly.  “Or stolen,” Roderick continued, leaning onto Max. He was solid and heavy, but Max found the weight of him comforting. “You know that scam, don’t you? Bookseller tears off the cover for a return and gets a full refund. They’re supposed to get rid of what’s left, but they keep it, the greedy little shits, and sell it ‘used’ to some guy thinks he’s getting a bargain. But I guess if you have them on a shelf, no one can tell since the spine’s intact.”

Max bought the shelves the next day.

The paperbacks slid off the oak (Roderick never would have let him live down pressboard) as well as they had slid on. Max set them in the box, spines up, in an effort to save space. But when all that was done, the paperbacks still didn’t fill anything. Well-creased titles stared up from the bottom of the box. Just as more books did when he cleared another row. And, emboldened, two more. Max picked up the box, which had heft but nothing close to an entire bookshelf’s worth.

He smiled and started tossing books in at random. He kept out his treasured LeGuin and Butler, since after Max’s fangasming, Roderick would notice if they disappeared. Otherwise, he stopped worrying about what went in the box, because it all fit. When he was done, he scrawled his name on the side.

He went to shove the box into the back of his closet, but the floor was already covered with unpaired shoes and old t-shirts and a bin of ratty notebooks, all thrown in the dark when Roderick turned up his beautiful Roman nose at them. Max opened the box and dumped everything in, then slid the cardboard home. That night, Roderick practically swooned.

“I thought we’d be fighting about this for weeks,” Roderick said. Roderick was a big proponent of moving forward. Evolving. Never live in the past, he liked to say.

Max shrugged and smiled and took advantage of Roderick’s alacrity to get him to wear his chaps when they had sex.

The other boxes he’d bought from the rental company didn’t seem to work the same way, so Max exercised their no-questions return policy and got his money back.

Max never told Roderick about the box. Not when Max agreed to clear his old Robot Army toys from the wall shelves so Roderick could use the space for his orchids. Or when they got a plasma screen after Max … lost his balance … during a discussion and cracked the screen on his old tube television. Definitely he didn’t mention it when Roderick insisted a few tiny blood drops from Max’s split lip meant they should replace the quilt his grandmother made.

Expired medication. Cosplay that didn’t fit anymore. The 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Ani-Han Hero Team. Boxed.

The apartment was clean and bright and organized and unblemished the way that kept Roderick content, and Max didn’t stress losing anything because it was all in the box in the back of the closet if he ever needed it.

Max blamed himself for not realizing that, when everything Max had that Roderick didn’t like was finally in the box, the only thing left for Roderick to consider was Max. Cut as Roderick was, Max was never cut enough. He couldn’t box himself, though, and much as he tried, he couldn’t change himself enough to make Roderick happy living with him.

There was more room in the bathroom after that, without the extra gauze and butterfly bandages and the concealer Roderick helped him find that smoothed everything out so you almost didn’t notice bruises, even up close. Max packed away Roderick’s detritus so he wouldn’t have to remember. He couldn’t bring himself to throw any of that away, but he didn’t want to see it anymore. Never live in the past might be a good philosophy, after all.

In the end, it seemed better to move than to stay where he was; he couldn’t seem to pack enough away to really, finally forget Roderick.

Part of Max wished he could pack the whole apartment in the box, so he could pull it back out and live in it again when he was ready. Every roleplay system told you, though, that you couldn’t pack a space inside a space. That was just madness.

There was still plenty to take, and the box held it all. Max had to be a touch more strategic this time. He didn’t want to unpack everything all at once, so he made sure that the main cookware and a few dishes and his toiletries and work clothes were on the top, over everything else. He worried for a moment what might happen if his cologne leaked in transit, but the cardboard seemed to hold scents as well as it did everything else. Had a decent vapor barrier, to boot, so he could take his time washing whatever might need washing on the other side.

Unfortunately, Max wasn’t quite as good at strategic packing as he thought. Once his clothes were out at the new place, he realized he needed the steamer. When everything had been on hangers, and without Roderick to cock his head and ask if it was really good enough, Max hadn’t used the steamer much. Between the folding and the odds and ends piled on top of his clothes, though, even Max noticed how unsightly things were.

Max knew he’d packed it. He’d packed everything. It’s just that he was also certain it was one of the first things he’d thrown in. So much for not everything at once.

Out came the clothes that might fit when Max finally went back to the gym and the bullet blender he was planning to start using and the never-opened sliders he’d intended to attach to the couch feet at the old place for the hardwood. Max hefted the stack of not-all-expired coupons and lobbed a half-empty sunscreen onto the stack of ratty beach towels.

His keys fell into the box as Max’s hand wrapped around the steamer’s handle, because of course they did. They clattered through the layer of baby gates bought for a dog he never brought home. Max swore.

He’d been planning to make copies tomorrow. Max didn’t want to dig any further, but he figured it was a better option than going to the landlord. She’d already given him the side-eye when he showed up with just the one box and some stray furniture. It didn’t sting nearly as badly as Roderick’s disapproval. Still, Max decided to pull out the gates, grab the keys, then slide the gates back into the box and be done for the night.

Except moving the gates shifted the decorative boxes the keys had landed on. Another jangle. Another thing to pull out. And again, when his old cookware that lost its Teflon slid and scooped and dumped the keys down yet further. He tossed aside the curtains with the broken cords. Started yanking things out faster so he could be done with it, but then he was knee deep in winter scarves, sifting after the muffled clink of metal.

They were Roderick’s scarves. Roderick loved scarves. He wrapped his neck in stripes and chevrons and houndstooth and even one with polka dots. Winter opened up a long, woolen set of new decorative options for the world, so Roderick always welcomed the snow. Max rolled each one neatly again and laid them outside the box. The last — a black one with a single, thin pink stripe — he used to borrow from Roderick when he wanted to cover his own neck. It had wriggled one end deeper into the morass. Max had to pull much harder to free it. He worried that the wool wouldn’t come back from the stretching, but as it slipped loose, a flash of metal caught his eye. He looped the scarf around his neck and forgot about worrying.

Max pushed aside the boxer briefs, steadfastly trying not to think about how well they fit Roderick. He tossed aside the chaps. Roderick had only worn them three times since he bought them for him, anyway.

The keys kept eluding him. Max pulled out his phone and tapped the flashlight on as he sifted past every patterned sock in as many color combinations as Roderick had been able to find. Grabbed handfuls of dried Valentine’s Day and anniversary bouquets. Flipped over the frames with pictures of them together. The first time Max went skiing, when he learned how to fall instead of crash. The beach, where Roderick always took on an enviable bronze and smelled like coconut and Max prayed he wouldn’t himself turn into a lobster because every hit hurt worse on a burn.

Max couldn’t tell now if the metal sound was frame or keys as he clattered past pictures of Roderick’s nephew and sisters and the time his mom visited. Accidentally crushed one of the bulbs on the wreath Roderick’s aunt sent him last Christmas. So much stuff, all of it sliding and tilting the wrong way every time Max got close. Until he found the watch.

The third anniversary is supposed to be leather, but given how uninspiring Roderick found the chaps, Max bought a watch. It was a classic windup, the not-kid-stuff kind of retro Roderick could enjoy. The band was the leather bit: custom cut and tanned, hand-stitched. Max had paid extra to get M + R burned into the strap.

The spring wound down long ago. Now, the band was loose. The box did well to keep out moisture, so Roderick was relatively preserved, but time ravaged a body even inside a dry box, it seemed. Roderick’s skin had taken on a sallow tone that made it hard to see the bruises on his neck, but Max could still make out where he’d wrapped the curtain cords. When Roderick’s strong hands throttled him. When the price lurking in the dark sluicing in from the edges of Max’s vision had been a price he wouldn’t pay.

The key ring was hooked on Roderick’s bony thumb. Max picked it up gingerly, afraid to break off a digit. He wasn’t sure he knew how to mask a break on someone else.

Something about the atrophy made Roderick look colder, even wearing that soft sweater Max wanted to lay down and snuggle against. Max took off the scarf he’d draped on himself earlier. Gently wrapped the slightly-stretched black wool with the thin pink stripe around the saggy skin at Roderick’s neck. It covered Roderick’s bruises as well as it had Max’s.

Max cupped Roderick’s cheek in one hand, kissed him on the forehead, and climbed back out of the box. Holiday decorations and picture frames and socks and scarves and underwear and the broken curtains all fit back in the box where they belonged. Where they would always be at hand if Max needed them.

He closed the lid and carried the box upstairs. Slid it in the back of his new closet like he’d had it in the old one. Out of sight was almost like out of mind. One step away. Eventually Max would be ready to move on completely, he was sure.

Not quite yet, though. For now, he thought it best if he steamed the wrinkles from his outfit for work in the morning and called it good. Roderick never could stand to see Max wrinkled.


© 2020 by Jason Kimble

Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, and Speculative Masculinities. You can find more of his nattering at processwonk.wordpress.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #62B: “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris

You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

Your eyes scan the renovated warehouse where the doctor has set up shop, which doubles as a Pilates studio at night. You ask how many times he’s done this before.

The doctor stops whisking and cracks open a soda can. He says he’s performed this procedure literally dozens of times. Several droplets of Diet Mountain Dew splash into the mixing bowl, but the doctor appears unconcerned. You look for reassurance in the form of laboratory equipment, all of which looks state of the art, judging by the assortment of alembics, vials, and tubes on his table, and the size of the 3D printer, which has been whirring since you arrived, churning out a neon-orange human skull. (The Pontius Pilates T-shirts sold at the front desk also appear to be tastefully designed and a flattering fit.) The doctor resumes whisking, mixing in three cups of plaster of Paris and most of an already-open box of baking soda from the break-room refrigerator. He adds the last of the cremains to the cremixture. With each stroke of the whisk he counts aloud, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. You don’t want to over-beat the batter, he says.

The 3D printer stops, and the doctor remarks on its perfect timing. The skull is the last piece of your husband’s new skeleton. He picks up the skull and examines it like Hamlet pitying Yorick. Think fast, he commands, tossing you the skull. You drop your keys to the table as you grab for the plastic skull. You bobble it, but manage to clamp your hands around it before it hits the floor. The doctor laughs—what fun! You nod as your blood pressure de-escalates out of hypertension. You carefully hand your husband’s skull back to him as he makes the “gimmie-gimmie” gesture. He then wheels a gurney out from behind a curtain, upon which rests a plastic skeleton rendered in lemon yellow, except for the collarbone and left shoulder blade. He had run out of the yellow resin, the doctor says, and used the next closest color to finish up. The hues clash, but God willing, you’ll never see your husband’s candy-corn-colored skeleton again anyway.

He jams the skull onto the spine in a manner resembling, both in physical strain and amount of cursing, the time your husband replaced the front axle of the Hyundai. A loud click makes you think his plastic spine has snapped, but the rapidity with which the doctor extends his hand toward you for a fist bump suggests the skeleton is officially ship-shape.

The doctor startles, realizing he almost forgot an important step. It’s the third important step he’s almost forgotten, but who’s counting? You hand him the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that will serve as your husband’s new brain, which will regulate all bodily systems, including the Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that will be his new heart. You were up all night loading photos of you and your husband, the honeymoon, the house, Max the doggo, and your vacation to Colorado that one time into the special Dropbox folder labeled “FRIENDLY_FILE.” You also sprung for Spotify Premium and loaded it with playlists of his favorite songs. And for good measure, you pirated Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones. The doctor snaps the brain into place, plugging the USB cable into the complex system of wires that snakes through and around the skeleton. Several times he pauses and rewinds a YouTube tutorial on how to wire a drone helicopter to make sure he’s got things right. The doctor sees you looking and reassures you that he’s done this literally dozens of times.

Now it’s time to add the chicken wire. Wrapping it around the bones like he’s taping a sprained ankle, he explains the wire mesh gives the new flesh something to grab onto, like patching a hole in drywall. Most importantly, it functions as a cage for the skeleton. Did you know we’ve all got a spooky skeleton trapped inside us that wants to escape? You point out that this skeleton is plastic. The doctor shakes his head–a well-made skeleton knows it’s a skeleton, ready to burst out of at the first sign of weakness. You can find no fault in his logic; they can do amazing things with 3D printers these days.

The doctor secures the chicken wire with a bag of zip ties from Home Depot. He then grabs a drywall knife and scoops a big pile of the cremains mixture onto the wire-encased right shin. He mentions his patent-pending skin formula is completely full-moon proof. You ask what happens on a full moon. The doctor beams—NOTHING, thanks to his secret formula! His hunched-over posture of concentration reminds you of the tattoo artist when you and hubby got matching pinup girls with the word “LOVE” inscribed underneath. The doctor draws several occult-looking symbols onto your husband’s chest with a chopstick you’re not sure is unused. You decide not to remind him of his promise to re-create the tattoo.

By the by, the doctor wants to know how your husband will be spending his time once he comes back to life. There’s lots of red tape about reasons for reanimating a loved one. For instance, valid reasons include appearing as a surprise witness at a murder trial, spending one last Christmas with the fam, or firing their loathsome successor at the family business. Activities such as acting as a human shield, digging their own grave, or being the patsy in an elaborate jewel heist are strictly verboten (though for jewel heists, the role of “the brains of the outfit” is acceptable). You respond that your husband is dead, isn’t that reason enough? You miss the conversations, the cuddles, the creature comforts of living with your best friend. You can’t cope with your husband’s death without him, and yes, you know how crazy that sounds. The doctor nods—moving on is a lot harder for the living than the dead.

The doctor positions several oscillating fans next to your husband, and invites you to join him outside for a smoke while the new flesh dries. You confide to the doctor that you feel like you should stay there with your once-and-future husband, but part of you doesn’t want to be alone with this mound of corpse batter. He says that’s a perfectly natural response. Also, could he bum a smoke from you?

The mixture has dried, and the doctor tells you—and these are his words—it’s time to turn and burn, baby. Or perhaps he was talking to your husband, and you’re not sure which makes you more uncomfortable. He grabs a series of electrodes connected to a thing, licking each one like it’s a postage stamp, and attaches them to your husband’s new flesh. The doctor dons a pair of heavy rubber gloves, a welding mask, and a lead vest. He then hands you a pair of safety glasses you wouldn’t trust if you were making a homemade birdhouse. When he tells you to stand back, you backpedal behind a reinforced shield wall at a velocity that will leave your muscles sore for two days.

Before he throws the master switch—one of those oversized red buttons labeled “easy” they sell at Staples for six bucks—the doctor rattles off the safety concerns you’d already learned from his website, but which he’s required by law to mention again. For example, your husband will go out looking for those responsible for his death. You reply that he was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. The doctor winks and points at your husband. He knows who did it. Oh-ho-ho-ho, he knows.

The doctor asks if you have pets. You mention your corgi, Max, whom the doctor advises you to give away. When you protest, the doctor purses his lips and puts a hand on your shoulder. In his gentlest voice he tells you that, two weeks from now, one way or another, the dog won’t be living with you. This information was not on the website, and you mention, rather forcefully, that Max had been your husband’s dog and without him you couldn’t have held it together, and it would’ve been good to know he couldn’t stay before you started this process. The doctor thanks you for this constructive criticism. You ask the doctor if anybody loves him enough to reanimate him after you strangle him to death. He laughs and says yes, his credit card company. You don’t know what to say to that.

The doctor asks if you have any final questions. Just one, the one you’ve been dreading, the one about which the website was very vague—will your husband still be capable of love? The doctor’s face contorts to one of revulsion as he tells you no. You only meant to ask whether your husband could still feel love as an emotion. He chuckles, relieved, saying the answer to that is also no. All his favorite sports teams? Hubby hates them now. He will harbor a deep, unspoken resentment toward all living creatures, and you especially. Maybe it’s because you disturbed his rest, or you dragged him away from Heaven, or who knows what. Your husband won’t really know, either. He’ll probably lash out at you. He might say something passive-aggressive while watching TV. He may lift the car over his head and hurl it at you. He might start a petty argument for no good reason. This is all perfectly normal and expected. While you will be legally responsible for him, he still has his own will and desires, and he’ll want more out of his new life than reliving his old one; the dead are, by necessity, better at moving on than the living.

The doctor asks if you still want to go through with this. His face shows none of the mirth he’d exhibited up to that point. You pause, contemplating how easily you could tell your friends the doctor turned out to be a flake. You could walk away and keep your dog with nothing lost but your deposit. Well, that and the idea of seeing your beloved’s face again. And he would still be your beloved, no matter what the doctor said. You give the final okay.

The doctor presses the button. You’re half-expecting lightning to course into your husband’s new body, for him to let out a monstrous growl as raw animal life surges into the waiting vessel. What actually happens is much less dramatic, more like a vibrating massage chair; you hear the muffled ringtone of your husband’s Samsung brain, like when your iPhone slides between the couch cushions.

It takes a minute or so for your husband to boot up. The skin starts to move, then all at once, it sucks inward like a vacuum sealer, forming the contours of your husband’s face.

He rises. The doctor had warned you about the eerie red light that now pours from your husband’s empty eye sockets, but you can’t really prepare yourself for the first time you see a living, breathing monster. The doctor corrects you—the scientific term is “abomination before God,” which his lawyer has assured him is very different, legally speaking.

Your husband looks at you. You go weak in the knees—his loving gaze always made your knees weak, but this is different. He opens his mouth, and the light pours forth from there as well. Oh, God, it’s weird. His voice sounds delayed, like he’s speaking to you via satellite from somewhere far, far away. OH HEY. I MUST’VE. DRIFTED OFF FOR A. BIT. But at bottom, it’s his voice, and you throw your arms around him. He freezes. The light inside him intensifies, redder and redder, so bright you can hear it. He puts his arms around you. For a moment, you think (hope?) he might crush you, but he does not. He pats you on the back a couple times.

Tears overflow from your eyes. You want to kiss him, but you don’t dare, lest that red light enter your body. You just tell him how much you love him and how you’ve missed him and you can’t believe he’s back, and so on.

The terrible red light now glows through his flesh. DID YOU. WATCH GAME. OF THRONES WITHOUT. ME?

You shake your head and wipe the tears away. You were waiting for him.

He shrugs and the light subsides. WHATEVER YOU. WANT, BABE.

You scoff at the doctor’s notion that the dead are better at moving on than the living: you’ve moved on from the very concept of moving on. You forget about the life you may have had as a family of one. You forget about the dog, for what living creature can compete with nostalgia in (mostly) human form? You can sit on the couch with your sweetie again, or a reasonable approximation thereof. The doctor was right, it’s the little creature comforts that make life worth living, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

During your reverie, your husband had started to strangle the doctor. You put your hand on your husband’s shoulder, and at your touch he releases his grip. The doctor gives you a thumbs-up to show he’s okay, this happens all the time.

You smile at your husband. It’s time to go home.


© 2020 by Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris writes mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He has published several short stories in literary journals, and writes an advice column at Writer Unboxed designed to help dilettantes and hacks learn nothing whatsoever. When he’s not typing words into a thing, Bill develops online courses at an organization his lawyer advised him not to name. He has two sons who asked not to be mentioned in this bio, but Elliott and Wyatt forgot to say “please.”


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DP FICTION #62A: “A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella

It is a long way down to the sea. A long way down, and treacherous. But I must make this journey today from my uncle’s castle, carrying his bones. I must make this journey, both for my uncle’s bargain, and for my own.

The way starts in the morning, when the frost’s sheen at the top of the mountain wants to blind me. This is the first obstacle of the day, to avoid the harsh winter sun as it shines against the rocks and the meagre grasses that dare peek out in my uncle’s deadlands. A place where I am one of the last living things.

One of the last living things still holding on.

I cradle his bones in my right arm, as my left one is the one that will need to hold the rope. The rope, this high on the mountain pass, which is now slick with frost and will become wet under my warm, living hand. The frost will fall off the rope as the seasons change down the mountain, as it will become warmer later.

The Mountain of Three Seasons carries its intent in its name.

I carry no weapon with me. I wear no armor. This is important, both for my task and for my uncle’s promise. I know I will find weapons later, down by the sea, in the cave that I seek. I know that armor has collected there, and gold, and bones.

And a dragon.

Or what is left of one.

The mountain path is narrow and sheer. The winds whip and whisper my death down below. They promise me things. They promise me, “Itta, no more loneliness.” “Itta, no more pain.” But I know these are lies. I know how my uncle lived.

I know that his pain did not end upon his first death.

So the wind’s whispering and promises go ignored as I travel down, down, down the mountain pass. I grip tight to the rope, grip tight to my uncle’s bones; my chill visible, my breath visible. Then less visible. Now invisible.

As I am now in spring.

*

It was spring when I came to live with my uncle, some ten years ago. I came from the lowlands. From the burned lands. From lands which will now be forever warm. Because dragon fire upturns not only treasure, but family.

My uncle welcomed me into his castle with a hand so cold, I thought I would never be warm again. His touch was like anticipation—it made my heart flutter, made my eyes grow wide with wonder. My eyes that took in his tapestries on every wall. Tapestries of unicorns and of knights and of dragons that hung so thick they made my boots whisper on the stone.

But I did not whisper. I turned to him, precocious as I was, a girl of seven. I turned to him and I asked, “Uncle, why is your hand like ice?”

“I am a ghost, my dear Itta,” he said. “I have been a ghost for many years.”

I was too young to be shocked by such things then. Too small to think the answer odd.

“How did you die?” I asked.

“Magic,” he said. “And I am kept here by magic, magic that I will teach you, and magic that you will help me do. Would you like that, my dear girl?”

Again, too young to disagree, I nodded. “I would, Uncle. Yes please.”

A young girl wants only to please her elders, after all.

What he taught me was how to read from books whose pages smelled sweet and were fragile in my fingers. Books that held stories of dragons, and the fighting of them. Then stories of old mages, and how they fought dragons, and then stories of powerful maidens and their own battles with the beasts.

Some three years later, I brought eggs to a boil for my supper.

“Would you like to kill a dragon, my dear Itta?” my uncle asked.

“Am I going to learn to kill a dragon, Uncle?” I asked back.

“Yes, my dear,” he said. “That is exactly the reason you are here.”

*

The reason I am here is to travel down the mountain, as the rope becomes wet, simply wet beneath my fingers, now that winter has gone. The reason I am here is to deliver my uncle’s bones to that cave by the sea; the cave holding such treasure, but I do not want this treasure. I want the dragon who keeps it.

I travel to this cave as the sheer pass tries to show me other promises. Crocuses here. Forget-me-nots there. Three daisies clinging to a rock, what a pretty thing they would be as a crown on someone’s head.

But this thought is a trap.

I seek no crown.

The daisies whisper to me. “Itta, Itta,” the daisies say. “Come, come and take me. Place the bones here. Surely they are too heavy a burden. Surely they are too heavy for you.”

This is another trick of the mountain pass. To unbalance me, to make me forget my promise to my uncle, to forget my task. Forget all it is I am meant to do. Without this task, I have no future—only my past. Only what I was.

So I say nothing to the daisies; I ignore their request. The path stretches longer and thinner out in front of me, and I must go. I hold fast to the rope as I look ahead. Look ahead into summer, where I will wander into tall grasses. Where I will follow the grasses as they lead to the sea, clutching my uncle’s bones tight to my chest. Hold them with my sword arm, my fighting arm, now holding my uncle close.

As I have every day since his death.

Every day since I refused to bury him.

I walk into summer, and pass through the tall grasses whose seeds tickle my nose, tickle my skin. My body writhes and twitches, but I do not drop what I carry. I cannot. I carry too precious a thing. I understand that.

I understand that all too well.

“Itta,” the grasses say, “lay down here with us. Stay a while. Look up at the bright beautiful sun. Let it warm you.”

But I do not. I will have a lifetime to look at the sun. I will have a lifetime to remember the feel of warmth upon me.

*

The days were warm when I learned the name of the dragon I was meant to kill. She was called Nomathstep and she kept a cave by the sea. A cave filled with the bones of wizards and knights, with their swords and their staves, with gold stolen from the villages she burned. Soon, after that meal of eggs and that talk of dragons, my reading went from stories of maidens killing dragons, to books on the anatomy of dragons, mages’ treatises on what sort of magic to use on a dragon, and, finally, what sort of sword a girl like me should wield.

For seven years, I knew I was to learn to kill a dragon. So every day, for seven years, I took a sword in my hand to practice what I’d read. I practiced against air. I practiced against tapestries of dragons. I practiced with visions of the stories of Nomathstep. Stories of her fire, of her fury, of her golden eyes. All this time, I caught my uncle watching me from his spellrooms. Rooms I was not permitted to enter. Rooms that felt like anticipation; simply being near them made my heart flutter, made my breath catch.

In all that time, in all that training. I never learned a single spell. Still, I kept my uncle’s castle clean, kept myself fed with eggs and chicken and wild onions. I never saw another person my age, never saw another person at all. But the stories, they continued to arrive. Through my uncle, through the books left in my own rooms.

And each night, like every night, my uncle asked me, “Are you ready yet to kill a dragon?”

And each night, after training, after chores, I answered, “Perhaps tomorrow.”

And then my uncle said, “Then tomorrow, I will teach you magic.”

But he never did.

Because.

Because my uncle was in love with Nomathstep; he did not want her to die.

I knew this in the way my uncle spoke of the dragon. In the way he spoke of her beautiful red scales, of her fathomless golden eyes. He often muttered about her in his spellrooms late at night when he thought I was not listening from my own room below. The castle crags were deep and no longer good for keeping secrets. My uncle muttered about her voice, how it was like to singing. He muttered about the feel of her scales under his hand, smooth, and silky, and warm.

I knew by all these utterances that he was in love with her.

I knew then what I had to do.

One day. Because love is greater than revenge.

*

Today I am walking to a cave by the sea. I have walked down the Mountain of Three Seasons, and now I must cross the sands under the hot, hot sun. The heat scorches my tongue and my throat. My hair, once drawn up away from my face, has fallen limp against my cheeks. Sweat trickles down my arms, down my back, pools in my boots. But I have not felt the heat I seek yet. I know this.

I know the real heat is yet to come.

I clutch my uncle’s bones close, my sword arm easily bearing the weight. But my sword arm aches for something else. For that sense of anticipation, for the chill of my uncle’s ghost when he stood near me. That ache will not leave, wherever I go. Whether in my uncle’s deadlands, or wherever my future takes me.

But this I know, with my promise to him and the one I make today, my uncle’s days of heartbreak are over. His longing. His curse. His sense of betrayal. The curse remained only until final death. And now that day has passed. And now his pain has ended.

The sands climb up to meet me, dunes rising higher and higher on the way to Nomathstep’s cave. This is what one does for love, so the stories say. They traverse the impossible, they ignore the lies and promises of others, walking toward the one they know is true. The one they know is their heart. Even when that heart is dying.

Even when that heart was pierced long ago.

My legs tremble like the tall grasses of the mountain’s summer. My lips shake like the winds of the mountain’s winter. But I carry on, on toward Nomathstep’s cave for the promise, the promise I made to myself, on the day I found my uncle gone. The cave mouth beckoning closer, ever closer to Nomathstep’s home.

*

The cave was where Nomathstep killed my uncle after an accord. The two of them had reached an impasse: that neither of them could continue to go on dragoning and wizarding as they had been, without further harm to the general nature of dragons or wizards. At the time, both of them had beating hearts, both of them spoke with heated words.

Nomathstep asked my uncle, “Is it in your nature to simply kill a thing for being what it is?”

And my uncle asked her back, “Is it in your nature to bargain?”

They spent two weeks in Nomathstep’s cave, talking, discussing, sharing food. They spent two weeks among the bones of those that meant to slay her, clad in their armor and robes, swords cast aside, gold and jewels piled high below them. My uncle remained, alive… for a time.

In the meantime, the villages went unlooted and unburnt. In the meantime, my uncle’s work went undone and untended. However, the two of them reached a different accord. They grew closer, far closer. So close that my uncle wrapped himself underneath Nomathstep’s great wing, and she held him gently in the crook of her claws.

They stayed like this for days, for many days, until my uncle finally said, “I will have to kill you, you understand.”

“And I, you,” Nomathstep said back. “And then will you leave me alone?”

“Of course,” my uncle said. “But I will kill you first.”

But as he tried to stand, as he tried to gather his staff, Nomathstep was faster, closer.

She went first.

She cursed my uncle to a death of loneliness on top of the Mountain of Three Seasons. And then, as the story goes, she pierced his heart with a burning claw, the same one that had held him close. The same one that had cradled him so gently. He died then and there, forever and forever banished to the castle on top of the mountain. To a death of loneliness —for many, many years.

Until I arrived.

The stories say that Nomathstep herself died of a broken heart some months later. That she’d refused to leave from her cave, refused to eat or to drink. Refused to pillage or to burn a single thing.

She went against her dragon’s nature.

And a dragon going against her nature dies.

*

Nomathstep is still dead when I arrive at her cave and she stirs. She opens one dead golden eye, no longer brilliant, no longer shining. Her red scales are shedding, coated in a film of salt, claws dulled and pitted, heart no longer able to warm the cave. She is blinking at the sunlight off the sea as I stand against it. And when she sees me, she rises to her full, terrifying height.

She fills the mouth of the cave, her yellowed, broken teeth baring down at me. Her dead eyes narrowed. A bellows of breath upon my face.

And she says, “Who dares disturb my last dying days?”

Oh, and I do tremble. I tremble as I hold my uncle’s bones in front of me. I do tremble in my lack of armor, with my lack of a sword.

“I am Itta,” I say. “Of the Mountain of Three Seasons. I bring you the bones of the wizard who lived there, who died there.”

Nomathstep takes a step back, her chest rattling with the effort of her undeath. She lowers her snout to me, sniffing me. My heart is so afraid, it tries to escape through my fingers, my throat, my stomach. The heartbeat is so strong, it rattles me, shakes me.

“You smell like him,” she says. “Like anticipation.”

Now her voice is like singing, melodious and mournful, as she lays down upon her pile of treasure. She lifts a wing, her lips cracking into a smile. She beckons me with to her a claw, her dead golden eyes kinder now, gentler now.

“Come, Itta of the Mountain,” Nomathstep says. “Bring my love to me and rest a while, so that we may remember him.”

The cave smells like dust and memory, like hot metal and decay. I settle down onto pile of old robes as she holds me in the crook of her claw, as she folds a flaking wing over me. I lean into the cooling embers of her heart. I know now that Nomathstep is truly dying, I know it by the rattle of her sigh as she holds my uncle’s bones between us.

*

My uncle’s bones are two of his femurs, six fingers, and what remains of his skull. I found them myself, found them one morning when I arrived in the kitchen to make tea. I found the bones resting on the table, at the place he always sat waiting for me. Waiting to ask if I was ready yet today to kill a dragon, and I would answer every day: perhaps tomorrow.

Every night, I would hear his heartbreak from his spellrooms.

My uncle was truly dead; ghosts born of heartbreak only live so long.

This I have learned, in all my reading, in all the books that smelled of sweet or leather. In all the books that felt like velvet or Nomathstep’s scales in my hands. But what I did not learn, in all my books, was how to grieve for a ghost. Was how to take what remained of my uncle and cry for him, to do what he would have wanted.

To do what I would have wanted.

So I took the skull and the femurs and the six fingers. I wrapped them in a small dragon tapestry. I tied them neatly with twine. I refused to bury my uncle. I could not. As lonely as my uncle’s deadlands had always been, I was not ready to be alone.

My uncle had spoken often of the path down the Mountain of Three Seasons. The winds that whispered death, the tricks the flowers played, the promises of the grasses. And finally, the death of the sun. He said he tried to follow the path several times, but he could not make the journey himself.

I spent fourteen days in my uncle’s deadlands, carrying his bones. Fourteen days of loneliness, fourteen days of chicken and eggs and wild onions. All these days with no conversation, with my heart pierced over and over in my chest. All these days, I knew I had to walk the path myself. That I had to take my uncle’s bones to the dragon that he loved. To Nomathstep.

I had to end the curse.

This was my promise.

I had to end the curse and begin my own life. To save Nomathstep from her own heartbreak, to return the bones of the one she loved. I must save myself from the same, from heartbreak. I must cease cleaning an empty castle, one no longer haunted. Cease haunting the castle myself with my own wails and moans. A new life for me would not begin until I left my uncle’s deadlands; it would not begin until I put his bones to rest.

Until I saved another from his fate.

Saved both of us.

*

Both of us spend the afternoon watching the sun it passed into evening, then into night. Once darkness falls, Nomathstep stirs. Her wing cracks and shakes as it pulls away from me; her heart no colder than it was some hours ago. When she speaks, her voice is that same mournful song, but her breath is no longer that bellows. It is a kind heat, a summer wind.

“You are a good girl, Itta,” Nomathstep says. “You are a very good girl.”

“I know,” I say.

“You would make a terrible wizard.”

“I know this, too,” I say.

“But you will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says.

“Maybe,” I say.

“You will.” Nomathstep smiles then. She stands and reaches out with one of her dull and pitted claws. “I will take what is mine: the man I love. You will take what is yours: this cave.”

I offer her the tapestry, the tapestry containing what remains of my uncle. She takes it and holds it in her claws with the kind of gentleness as I have only imagined in books, in stories. The very sight of it makes my heart sting with tears.

“You will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says. “But only the right one.”

And then Nomathstep, love of my uncle’s life, terror of all the land, leaves me in this, my cave. And then she flies out, out over the dark, dark sea.

*

It is a difficult way to my cave by the sea. A difficult way, and treacherous. I have slain many dragons who have tried to claim what is mine, many dragons who tried to take, rather than bargain. But one day, the right one will find me. This was Nomathstep’s promise. One will find me, and we will share her legacy, and all that she left behind.


© 2020 by Jordan Kurella

Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Moscow and Manhattan). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their stories have been featured in Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons Magazines. You can find them on Twitter @jskurella.


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DP FICTION #61B: “The Old Ones, Great and Small” by Rajiv Moté

School’s out, and everybody wants to see the Great Old Ones: the line into the Miskatonic Zoo doubles back and winds out the gates. The American and Massachusetts flags barely flutter above the gate, and the sun today is merciless in a cloudless sky. I ask my grandchildren, Caleb and Cody, if they wouldn’t rather go to a museum or park, catch a ball game, or go anywhere at all less crowded, but they won’t be swayed. The zoo has been closed for renovations for two years now, and they want to see the Great Old Ones in their new, “natural” habitats.

It was originally built as a prison. It looked the part even when they opened it to public tours, back when I was a baby. It hadn’t done much to change its look in the last 70 years. I’m almost as curious as my grandkids. I’m old enough to have seen America stumble toward evolved attitudes on many things, and the Old Races are a good example. It always starts with fear. Horrors lurking in the dark. And then something shines a light on that fear, and once we see it, we can face it, fight it, drag it into the sunshine, and conquer it. And once we’re not afraid anymore, we can afford to be generous. We make accommodations. We give the object of our fear a place in society—as long as it can never threaten us again. So now the prison for monsters has become a habitat for exotic animals. It happened in a generation.

There is news footage of me, from when I was three, at the newly renamed Miskatonic Zoo. My parents stood behind me, and I toddled up to the thick pane of glass, behind which, under bright lights, was a Shoggoth as big as a moving van. In the footage, I slapped my chubby hands on the glass, and the Shoggoth’s pseudopods shot out and flattened against the barrier, eyes and tendrils forming and dissolving in a frenzy. I laughed, and the camera zoomed in on my innocent delight. The footage was played and replayed. I won’t take credit for changing the attitude of a nation, but I was in an image representing that change. Even today, my claim to minor fame is as “that baby laughing at the Shoggoth.”

From our place in line, we see a metal stair leading to a platform, just inside the gate. A Shoggoth waits under the platform while groups of visitors climb into the howdah on its back. That’s new. A teenage kid in a Miskatonic Zoo uniform shouts something inaudible, and the Shoggoth slowly flows down one of the paths, pausing to let families with strollers pass. Another Shoggoth shambles up to the platform to receive the next riders. Our scientists learned the command language from the Elder Things, at least enough to make the creatures useful. It looks like we’ve progressed since then. They say the Shoggoths started as the Elder Things’ slaves. Now they’re ours. We keep the Elder Things well away from the Shoggoths, of course. Fool us once, et cetera et cetera.

The kid at the counter waves me and the boys through the entrance without taking my credit card, saying “Welcome back, Mister Holyoke!” There is—or was—a screen inside the receiving lobby playing the footage of the three-year-old me with the Shoggoth. They use it in the Visitors Center introductory video too. I can see that Chris and Cody enjoy the conferred status from being with me. I admit it makes me stand a little taller too. It’s the little things, at my age.

The park has changed considerably. Habitats constructed to be “more suitable for the animals’ health and well-being” is a newer concern. Miskatonic now has a school of marine biology as well as zoology, and where once the research was geared toward how to contain these creatures, now it’s about their ecology, physiology, and health.

The Deep One house is completely new. Before, it was a bare, concrete-and-glass enclosure with a cement floor and a murky pool, more for wading than swimming. The fish-men wore collars and cuffs, and the males were locked into kilt-like garments after complaints that visitors were disturbed by the size of their genitals. Now they are unshackled, and let it all fly free. In the lobby there’s an information mural, and an educational video featuring a popular actress, about Deep One reproduction and interbreeding, which doesn’t shy away from the dark history of sexual assault before the species and their half-breed descendants were rounded up. The new, two-level habitat has a facade replica of decrepit Innsmouth buildings and piers, and even an artificial reef some distance off the “shore.” The water’s depth is four or five times the height of an adult, and the bottom is decorated with sea grasses, replicas of sunken ruins, broken columns, and various small, bottom-dwelling marine creatures.

I can’t help but feel that the enriched enclosure is mostly for the benefit of the zoo visitors. The Deep Ones sit as they always had, huddled in small groups on the pier or on the reef, as though they were still shackled together. They stare at nothing, pointedly ignoring all the kids tapping on the glass. As we watch, one of the reef-sitters rolls into the water and paces the tank, as far back from the glass as possible. Back and forth it swims, traveling end to end in seconds with the barest flick of its webbed fingers and toes.

“Stop it, boys,” I say to Chris and Cody, who have joined the other knockers.

“But Grampa,” Cody says. “You did this, and now you’re famous!”

“Just stop bothering the poor thing.” Poor thing. I guess I’m part of the shift. There are no half-breeds in the zoo anymore—I’m not sure what was done with them—but the way these creatures sit in their little circles, not seeming to communicate or do anything, ignoring the constant clamor of children, their bulging eyes staring at nothing and their plump, fishy lips in a permanent “O” of surprise—well, it’s disturbing. I dislike seeing apes in captivity too. A little too human for comfort.

I know I’m projecting. I’m retired, and my main occupation now is keeping my grandchildren occupied while their parents are at work. Otherwise, I do a lot of sitting in silence too, everything behind me, not much ahead.

At the far end of the underwater viewing deck, a sign above a bank of elevators reads “To Father Dagon.” The Shoggoths, Elder Things, Deep Ones, ghouls, nightgaunts, and the fungi from Yuggoth are one thing, but people come to the Miskatonic Zoo to see the colossal Great Old Ones. The zoo houses two of the three “gods” of the Deep Ones—the third, Mother Hydra, is the main attraction in the Stockholm aquarium. Chris and Cody each take an arm and pull me to the elevators. The elevator car’s far wall is glass, and etched into it is a design like the veins of a leaf. An Elder Sign. The Sign is stamped somewhere into all the enclosures, but are most obvious surrounding the Great Old Ones. How they work is still being studied. But they do work. They were the key to keeping the creatures under control.

The elevator slowly descends a concrete shaft while overhead audio describes Father Dagon: how he was captured, his diet, the genetic similarities to the Deep Ones, and evidence for and against him being a mature organism of the same species.

Dagon was the first of the Old Races humanity faced head-on. When he attacked an oil drilling rig, it drew the Great Old Ones out of the shadows and into conflict with American interests. It was just what the nation needed: a monster to target with its military machine, the cost of which was becoming harder to justify to the American people. We uncovered conspiracies, rounded up cultists, weaponized their eldritch lore, and hunted down monsters wherever they lurked. It created jobs, stoked national pride, and returned America to global relevance.

Finally the concrete gives way to the blue-green lighted waters of the tank. Unlike the Deep One enclosure, this tank is unadorned, and massive chains attached to enormous eyebolts in the walls descend into the depths. We see the top of Dagon’s spiny head first. Great spikes webbed with fins crown his head and descend in rows down his muscled back. The elevator sinks slowly, putting us at the level of his huge, bulbous eyes and shark-toothed maw, big enough to swallow the entire elevator car. An Elder Sign-studded collar, just beneath his gill slits, is attached by chains to the walls, keeping the Great Old One immobile.

The elevator pauses so everyone can pose in mock terror for photos.

Then the elevator continues, giving us a full view of all 20 yards of his serpentine body and webbed limbs. Dagon is chained at several points to the wall, and his tank offers little room to move anyway. I’d read there are already protests. Animal rights activists compare Dagon’s captivity to how veal is raised, and there is speculation that the creature might even be sentient. Serious academics use the word “genocide.” And yet I think this manner of holding him seems somehow more respectful. It acknowledges the giant, ancient creature’s power, the threat he could pose.

Then I see the divers. Marine biology students are swimming in the tank, taking scale samples, drawing blood, and scraping parasites from Dagon’s body. Dagon isn’t being shown respect.

He’s being studied.

The elevator reverses direction at the beast’s clawed, webbed feet. During its slow ascent, I stare at Dagon, trying to see the sanity-splitting horror it once was. It is freakishly huge. It has an as-yet inexplicable sensitivity to a particular glyph. But other than that… “Poor thing” indeed.

“Can we see Cthulhu now?” Cody says, just as Chris says “Shoggoth ride!”

The schedule decides it. The next Cthulhu showing is in 20 minutes, so we make our way to the R’lyeh Amphitheater, hurrying past the touch-and-learn displays of non-Euclidean geometry so we can get “good” seats in the splash zone. The amphitheater dominates the zoo campus. A semicircle of concrete steps provides seating for hundreds, and before it rises an artful jumble of greenish masonry blocks glistening in the sun. They feature the same eye-twisting angles and planes from the touch-and-learn exhibit. In the middle of that jumble is the monolith, a darker block of stone as big as a medium-sized office building. It is carved, bottom to top, with an Elder Sign. Floodlights and fog machines set an eldritch, otherworldly atmosphere. The renovation added drama to the show. In past years, Cthulhu was kept in a tank like Dagon’s.

At noon on the dot, the fog machines belch out a dense cloud of vapor, and the floodlights cycle from green to blue to red. A deep male voice booms from hidden speakers, somehow wringing torturous Aklo words through a New England accent. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” A beat later, a woman’s voice translates. “In his house in R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Applause. Ominous music builds as the fog cloud clears, and then the monolith splits down the middle, the two halves slowly separating. Black smoke pours forth. Then, to the screams and cheers of the audience, Great Cthulhu scrambles out onto the masonry.

Everyone has seen the videos. We all know what he looks like. The octopus head, the dragon wings, the soggy, semi-gelatinous flesh in a manlike shape. He lurches forward, tentacles waving, arms reaching, straining vainly against the enormous shackles that confine him to the stage. Still, his sheer size makes him impressive. If allowed to stand erect, he would dwarf even the monolith.

“What’s that thing on his head?” Chris asks me.

A metal band fits Cthulhu like a crown, but from certain angles you can see that it is held in place by prongs piercing his glob of a cranium. “That’s so he keeps his dreams to himself,” I answer. Cthulhu is the first truly psychic organism studied by biologists and neuroscientists. The research to block his madness-inducing thoughts yielded interesting side discoveries, and mind-to-mind communication among humans is now discussed as a real possibility, with revolutionary consequences.

Cthulhu screeches and blubbers as he strains against his bonds. But they are so obviously secure, that the initial shock of his charge gives way to quiet contemplation of this huge, alien organism. There is no more drama. The rest of the show is devoted to the science, including his disabled telepathy, his not-quite-solid tissue structure, and his probable extraterrestrial origins. His human handlers, so tiny standing beside him, demonstrate how they’ve trained him with simple commands through his neural link. The show concludes with him shambling back into his monolith until the next show. “Cthulhu the dancing bear,” quipped one reviewer on the news.

Chris and Cody loved it, but it was a show geared towards children. It left me melancholy. I keep feeling that something has been lost. Our humility, maybe. Our caution. Or maybe just our sense of awe. Are horror and wonder two sides of the same coin, a coin we’ve put into a hydraulic press to stamp with a logo, turning it into a souvenir? But these are things old men say when the world has outpaced them. It’s rank nostalgia, something Chris and Cody wouldn’t understand. I keep these thoughts to myself.

The line to ride a Shoggoth is long. Many of the visitors at the Cthulhu show had the same idea. I give Cody some money to buy us all ice cream while Chris and I stand in line. Four Shoggoths are queued for the platform. Previous passengers exit the howdah via the opposite platform and stair, behind. With their ever-shifting, amorphous bodies, I can’t tell one of the creatures from another. They had been bred as slaves, I’d read, but at some point they rebelled against their Elder Thing masters. So these protoplasmic masses of eyes and tendrils have some sense of their condition. They are sentient. Now they are pony rides.

Psychologists say coherent human memories don’t go back before the age of about four. My memory of my first encounter with a Shoggoth is surely a product of my imagination and that briefly famous video. In that invented memory, I’m a brave little boy, laughing in the face of an unspeakable horror. I know it was ignorance, not bravery, but it makes me feel good about myself. Proud. I was in the news, and in some small way, I’d helped set the tone for the new, fearless American Golden Age. Put that way, it’s as much accomplishment as any could hope for. I wondered what challenges my grandchildren would face. What would be the fear that spurs their generation to great deeds? Or maybe they’d find a different path to greatness.

We had long since finished our ice cream and held each other’s place in line for bathroom breaks when we finally reach the stair, and then, the platform. A teenager—not the one we saw from outside—opens a gate in the howdah to let out the returning passengers, and then lets us climb aboard. When we all take our seats, the kid utters an Aklo command, and our Shoggoth lumbers forward.

While Chris and Cody record videos of ghouls running alongside us on the other side of a fence, I stare over the railing at the squishy mess that is the Shoggoth beneath us. Eyes, tendrils, ripples of murky color. Ignoring the sign to keep inside the railing, I reach over, fingers splayed, and hold my hand above the creature’s writhing mass.

An eye surfaces from its hide.

It regards my hand without blinking, without dissolving back into its goo. I stare back. It’s impossible to attribute expression or emotion to a Shoggoth’s eyes. There just aren’t enough common reference points with humans. But I wonder, is this my Shoggoth? Did it recognize me? And if it did, what—if any—relationship does our intersecting histories imply between us? I am 76 years old, retired, and I now spend most of my time looking after pre-teen children. I feel a sudden craving for contact with something older than me, something with a perspective that comes from a time people now refer to as “history.” Impulsively, I lean over and try to touch the Shoggoth.

Immediately the eyeball vanishes. The mottled jelly that consumed it quivers and retreats from my touch. I wince. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” I mutter.

“Sir, please keep your hands inside the railing,” the teenager says with the rote cadence of recitation.

I do as I’m told. The quivering subsides, and the Shoggoth lumbers along. While my great-grandchildren laugh, and the ghouls running alongside us howl, I lean back in my seat and close my eyes against the sun, shielding them from the light, but luxuriating in the warmth. I take a nap without any dreams at all.


© 2019 by Rajiv Moté

Author’s Note: I love H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous, unknowable, unmentionable, indescribable horrors that lurk beyond the edge of comprehension. They’re beings who, by their very existence, invalidate our significance. They threaten our sense of identity and place. They’re the ultimate Other. But unlike Lovecraft’s doomed protagonists, humans tend to meet existential threats, perceived or otherwise, aggressively. What we don’t annihilate, we dominate, subjugate, commodify, and monetize. And only when we feel safe do we finally consider trying to understand the Other.

Rajiv Moté is a writer living in Chicago with his wife, daughter, and puppy. His stories make appearances in Cast of Wonders, Metaphorosis, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Truancy, and others, and he has served as a slush-reading Badger for Shimmer. During the day, he gathers source material by masquerading as a software engineering manager. He scrapes off excess words on Twitter at @RajivMote, and occasionally realizes he should put some effort into rajivmote.com.


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DP FICTION #61A: “The Eat Me Drink Me Challenge” by Chris Kuriata

The first YouTube video received over seven million hits before being taken down.

A shaky camera held by a giggling friend captured a teenage boy standing in a well-tended backyard. Dressed in cargo shorts, he stared solemnly down the lens before announcing, “I’m Shyam Rangaratnam, and this is the Eat Me Drink Me Challenge.”

After taking a deep breath and a dramatic pause—as all on-line daredevils do before embarking on their potentially painful stunt—Shyam broke the seal on the familiar purple vial, and emptied the liquid onto his tongue.

An audible poof sounded as the teenager twisted and writhed, shrinking away like an ice cube under running water. The camera zoomed into the grass, swishing back and forth before discovering miniature Shyam—no bigger than a salt shaker—cavorting through the leafy green jungle he’d thrown himself into.

“Aw shit, dude,” the friend behind the camera guffawed as he stomped his sandaled foot into the grass. “Look out! I’m going to crush you!” In his over-exuberant Godzilla impression, the camera man came frighteningly close to stomping Shyam for real. Every adult watching the video cringed, astounded by how close these kids came to filming a gruesome tragedy.

Escaping his friend’s joking foot, Shyam scrambled through the blades of grass—each one capable of slicing him as deep as a piece of sheet metal—and climbed into the dollhouse positioned in the middle of the lawn. Toy collectors identified the dollhouse as a vintage My Little Pony Lullaby Nursery (which in the box sells on Ebay for upwards of two hundred dollars) that likely belonged to Shyam’s mother back in the 80’s.

The dollhouse rumbled, shaking like a rocket ship preparing for blast off. First, the plastic roof popped into the air, making way for Shyam’s head just before as his arms burst through the side walls and his feet came out the bottom.

Woozy, Shyam stood up and stumbled back and forth with the body of the dollhouse still wrapped around his chest. The hard plastic dug into his neck, cutting off his air supply.

“I can’t breathe” Shyam croaked, clawing at the Hasbro plastic. “Dude, I’m serious.” He fell to the ground and rolled like a burning man performing STOP DROP AND ROLL. The camera went shaky as his friend rushed to help, shutting off—just as all great internet videos do—a moment too soon.

*

The first to make the long, arduous trip up the rabbit hole was the Mad Hatter. Going up is always more difficult than going down. Given the chance to do the journey over, the Hatter would have gone sideways.

Despite arriving with best intentions, eager to leave behind the wild past that resulted in the multiple death sentences necessitating his emigration, the Hatter joined a bad crowd. Millinery shops always attract dangerous outliers, and soon the Hatter found himself at the centre of an underground anarchist movement: The Gonzo Flamingos.

When FBI officials infiltrated the group in the 1980’s, the Hatter made a deal with the US government. In exchange for a reduced prison sentence for the Flamingos’ acts of vandalism and destruction, he gave the military a sample of Eat Me Drink Me, which he’d smuggled out of Wonderland sewn into the band of his hat as an insurance policy for emergencies such as this.

The Hatter understood the value Eat Me Drink Me held in this new land.

During Reagan’s conflict with the USSR, no military scheme was deemed too wacky; be it training Olympic gymnasts in the art of karate, or building satellites to zap nuclear weapons in outer space like a game of Missile Command. The Hatter’s Eat Me Drink Me was analyzed, synthesized, and reproduced in high volume. Thousands of soldiers were shrunk down to allow the easy dissemination of armies into enemy territory, where they’d return to normal size and overpower. Genius strategy.

Only problem was the Russians soon had Eat Me Drink Me of their own. The red-loving Queen of Hearts, angered over the Hatter’s escape from her majestic death sentences, hoped to jeopardize his deal by sending an envoy of knaves up the rabbit hole bearing Eat Me Drink Me for the Soviets.

With both sides possessing the same strength weapons, the threat of mutually assured destruction created peace.

In the late 90’s, the horrifying truth was revealed that great numbers of soldiers shrunken down in preparation for a full scale operation were never restored to full size due to a lag in the production of Eat Me. A documentary film chronicled a group of such soldiers who’d been living in a shrunken community in Afghanistan, made of US and Russian soldiers alike, both having quit any allegiance to the countries that had forsaken them. The documentary concluded with a heartbreaking sequence where the filmmaker offered a dose of Eat Me he’d acquired from a mysterious source, but after taking a vote the shrunken former soldiers decided they couldn’t return to full size after years of living small, and chose to remain in the community they’d formed beneath the rocks and the sand.

In 2002, the US government offered an apology to the families of missing shrunken soldiers, now estimated to be over a thousand. Instead of reparations, a monument was unveiled in the shadow of the Vietnam memorial wall, standing seven inches high and requiring a magnifying glass to read the names of each soldier etched into the alabaster column. The controversial monument had been designed by a Hawaiian artist well known for his ability to write the Lord’s Prayer on a grain of rice.

*

To no one’s surprise, the Mad Hatter was turned down at every parole hearing and served each year of his sentence until 2007 when there was no choice but to release him. Those closest described him as bitter over his treatment by the prison system, and his resentment only grew when he was included in a class action lawsuit brought forth by the families of the shrunken soldiers.

Maybe he needed the money, or maybe he was out for revenge, but after meeting with the heads of several underground businesses, he sold the recipe for Eat Me Drink Me and the horrible, wonderful stuff flooded the market, available for the first time to the average person.

*

Nostalgia propelled the popularity of Eat Me Drink Me as a recreational drug. Children of the 80’s who suffered nightmares of miniature soldiers crawling out of their toilet drains or climbing into their throats at night to choke them now leapt at the chance to reclaim the childhood anxieties their parent’s shitty generation had saddled them with. Approaching the end of their thirties, they flocked to Eat Me Drink Me as a cozy reminder of their youth, like the golden age of Madonna, audio cassette tapes, WrestleMania, or anything else their pre-teen children didn’t know or care about.

Obviously, the stuff wasn’t sold at Costco—you had to know a guy who knew a guy, but there were tons of those guys around. Eighty bucks bought a nice dose of Eat Me Drink Me. The drug could be purchased in full confidence. This was no sandwich baggie of broken up herbs, or a frightening clump of there-could-be-anything-in-there powder wrapped in a dirty wad of paper. Eat Me Drink Me came in a professional purple vial of liquid and a coin-sized tin of fresh cake. The producers clearly valued quality.

Positively, no one became an addict. No one blew through their kid’s college fund to fuel all-night EMDM binges. The drug was used sparingly, like a weekend trip to the cabin. Most Eat Me Drink Me was consumed on birthdays and anniversaries—special occasions when the kids were sent to a sleep over, or Mom and Dad booked themselves into a hotel room.

Yes, Eat Me Drink Me was primarily used as a sexual aid.

There’s no need to be graphic; becoming small and restoring yourself has all sorts of applications in the bedroom. I bet you’re thinking of half a dozen right now. Experimentation came naturally.

Therapists who specialized in intimacy counselling saw their business plummet. The divorce rates for people married between 1995 and 1999 lulled.

*

The same scene played out in households across North America.

Kids looking for a confiscated phone or video game memory card would sneak into their parent’s bedroom and snoop through the nightstand. Brushing aside socks and underwear, their fingers would knock into something hard at the bottom of the drawer. Horrified, the kids would find themselves holding the recognizable set of purple vial and miniature cake tin.

“Gross out! I can’t believe they’re doing that in the house. Now I can’t get the visuals out of my head.”

*

The two minute and seven second video posted by Shyam Rangaratnum reshaped his generation’s entire perception of Eat Me Drink Me. Within twenty-four hours of uploading his challenge video, tens of thousands of kid’s were searching their parent’s bedroom, rescuing Eat Me Drink Me from the realm of disgusting, old person sex and making it a part of modern day, youthful fun.

The formula of the video was easy to replicate; get small, climb into a toy dollhouse, get large, and smash the toy to bits. Sure-fire hilarity.

Every kid brought their own twist to the Eat Me Drink Me Challenge, making their version better than the one that had inspired them.

One video showed a young man climb into a Barbie dollhouse his friends threw off a bridge, capturing him exploding out in a burst of pink plastic shards before splashing unharmed into the water. Another showed two young women playing Han Solo and Chewbacca sitting in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon before blasting the good ship to smithereens like it smashed into an asteroid. One fool hardy young man straddled a lit cherry bomb, growing back to normal size milliseconds before detonation. The explosion burned a hole in the crotch of his pants and left him rolling across the asphalt parking lot from the nut punch, but if he had mistimed eating the cake by as much as a heartbeat, he would have been torn apart into dangling little pieces.

*

Every school held special assemblies, bringing in speakers to warn teenagers about the dangers of playing around with EMDM.

“You may think this is all fun and games, but no one knows the long term effects of chemically induced concision coupled with accelerated restoration. Just say no.”

Kids jeered and laughed. They’d heard about the “Just Say No” campaign from their parents when Nancy Reagan peddled the same corny platitude. Either someone they knew, or they themselves had taken the Eat Me Drink Me Challenge with no ill effects. All this handwringing and unfounded scare-mongering was ridiculous, and would be laughed at in twenty year’s time, like Reefer Madness or Duck and Cover.

*

The Mad Hatter’s legal troubles were never ending. An artisan tea maker claimed he came up with the recipe for Eat Me Drink Me and sued for patent infringement. During depositions, it came to light the Mad Hatter had used Eat Me Drink Me on multiple occasions without his paramour’s consent. As many as thirty victims came forward. His passport was revoked. Already suffering financial hardship, and facing eviction from his garden on Mount Pleasant, the Mad Hatter ended his tea party by hanging his belt over top of a door. In the end, all he had left was seven hundred dollars in mint condition coins.

*

Most internet fads disappear into the sands of time, like the ALS ice bucket and the Harlem Shake, but the Eat Me Drink Me Challenge lingers, tormenting those who took part and forever chilling those who didn’t with the reminder, There but for the grace of God go I.

For once, the adult’s warning had merit. There turned out to be long term detriments to using Eat Me Drink Me. These effects went unnoticed amongst the parents of these teenagers, as they had already shut down their reproductive factories.

But their children had yet to perform all their life experiences, and so they bore the brunt of Eat Me Drink Me’s disastrous after-effects.

Post-mortems showed that Eat Me left the system within seventy-two hours. Drink Me, on the other hand, lingered in the body like radioactive material. Before cremation, all corpses need to be tested for traces of Drink Me. Just as a pacemaker in a crematorium will cause an explosion, burning a body with Drink Me will poison the air for a two mile radius.

Drink Me attacks the reproductive system of both males and females. A male who has ingested Drink Me carries remnants in his sperm. A female carries remnants in the lining of her uterus. Not the eggs, because the eggs are already formed at birth.

The babies came out small. No more than the size of a tooth.

A shrunken baby happened when just one of the parents had been exposed to Eat Me Drink Me. If both of them had ingested the foul stuff then the baby came out like… well, it’s probably better not to know. Normally, people say your imagination will always be worse than the truth, but in this instance, there’s no way you can imagine something worse than the truth. Trust me.

Although the shrunken babies were carried to full term, the hospital treated them like preemies. The miniature infants received intensive care. Staff volunteered overtime. An unspoken agreement had been made, that modern medicine would overcome the insidious effects of Eat Me Drink Me, and the children would not be made to suffer for the ill-advised decisions made by their parents or their grandparents. One day, there would be cause for celebration. Rather than perish, the shrunken babies would prevail.

*

Shyam Rangaratum, the young man whose boredom and natural sense of showmanship set this whole ordeal into motion, of course sired a shrunken child. Like everyone else, he held out hope his son would outgrow his disability, that by his first or second birthday he would catch up to normal size. That didn’t happen. The medical community’s attempt to introduce Eat Me into a baby’s system did not take. Shyam knew his son would never grow bigger than his middle finger.

Other than that, his child was completely healthy. He learned to walk and talk just as well as the children of Shyam’s friends. Shyam’s son often smiled. He was capable of experiencing happiness.

After great discussion and soul searching, Shyam and his wife Uma decided to conceive a second child. They agreed it was the right thing to do, even knowing full well the baby would be born shrunk.

“We could get a donor,” Shyam said. “You’re fine. You could have a normal baby without me.”

In bed, Uma pulled Shyam close. Times were still early, and she had faith the shrunken babies would forge a new normal. It seemed cruel to deny their son a sibling, someone who would share his perspective of the world, someone with whom he could scheme and dream.

Shyam and Uma’s children will never feel the need to move to the desert where bitter old soldiers live hidden under the sand. Instead, they will master the real Eat Me Drink Me challenge, claiming their rightful place in the world, living so well even the giants will envy them.


© 2019 by Chris Kuriata

Chris Kuriata lives in (and often writes about the Niagara Region). His stories about home-invading bears, whale-hunting clowns, and time-traveling kittens have appeared in many fine publications such as Shock TotemOnSpecThe NoSleep Podcast, and on-line at The Saturday Evening Post. Find out more about his work at https://chriskuriata.wordpress.com or on Twitter @CKuriata


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DP FICTION #60B: “The Cliff of Hands” by Joanne Rixon

“Lhálali’s bloody viscera,” Eešan cursed. She searched the cliff face for a hold and found nothing. Finally she spotted a thread-thin crack and wedged her wingtip claw in it so she could reach upward with her stubby grasping-hands.

“Watch out,” Aušidh said. “If you fall now you’ll get hurt, won’t you?” She dipped in a little swoop less than a winglength away from Eešan in the air. The shadow of her wide membranous wings rippled across the uneven stone and the little burst of wind ruffled the sparse black fur on Eešan’s back.

The others circled farther away, the curves and points of their silhouettes slowly churning the air as they gawked. Eešan was putting on enough of a spectacle that half her hatchmates had turned up to watch.

“Yes,” Eešan said tightly. It made her feel sick to have to speak her fear out loud. “If I fall, I’ll die.”

“Oh.” Aušidh circled up and around again, landing on the cliff face just beneath Eešan, her grasping-hands and wingtips confidently catching in a clean four-point landing on the irregular stone surface. “I didn’t think you were that high up yet.”

“Don’t be stupid, you wouldn’t die,” Xhufu called down from her perch on a little outcropping several winglengths higher than Eešan. “You might break a bone if you didn’t slow yourself at all, but anyone can glide if they try.”

“Of course she would die if she fell,” Dhabelh scoffed, dropping to hang upside down from her grasping-hands to get her face closer to the conversation. “Eešan is pinwinged, what do you think pinwinged means?”

Eešan clenched her jaw and reached up. For her hatchmates the sick terror that twisted in her chest might as well be a vague rumor. As far as Xhufu could understand, anyone could glide. She couldn’t comprehend the hard, boring reality of life with only one functional wing.

Eešan’s left wing wrist had broken as she hatched; her shell had been too thick and her eggclaws too weak. The complex joint had healed as gnarled as a wind-sculpted eešanyalh bush on the edge of a canyon. Now, she was so pinwinged that she could barely get herself around the rookery on the ropes and baskets used to ferry babies and the elderly up the cavern sides. She had never had the strong, flexing shoulders that propelled her hatchmates as they ate up the sky.

“We could get you down, Eešan,” Uliinh said. She launched off the side of the cliff and into the air, flying across Eešan at a diagonal and latching onto the rocks above her. The turbulence of Uliinh’s wings almost knocked Eešan loose. For a frantic beat of her heart Eešan clenched at the stone, pulling her misshapen left wing as close as it would come to her body to keep from falling to her death.

“Between the four of us,” Uliinh said, “we could glide you down again. You don’t have to prove anything, you know. Just be patient with the Choir, they’ll persuade themselves.”

Eešan huffed out a bitter laugh and reached up again, hauling her body another winglength up the cliff. Uliinh was wrong, twice over—Eešan wasn’t sure even this dramatic scene she was throwing would be enough to convince the Choir, and she was sure Uliinh couldn’t catch her if she fell—but she didn’t have it in her to argue and climb at the same time.

Twenty winglengths above her, the orange-brown sandstone turned red with the handprints of every adult in the rookery. Sun beat down on the painted prints; the heat on her back and head was making her dizzy. The sunlight on the dips and protrusions in the cliff face cast tricky small shadows, fooling the eye into seeing room to maneuver where there was none.

The color difference between the dark gray siltstone at the bottom of the cliff and the paler white and orange sandstone layered above it created temperature fluctuations that made the drafts here unpredictable and sharp. That combined with the strange shape of the cliff was what made it the Cliff of Hands, where each child of the rookery flew into adulthood. Only a skillful flyer could come at the Cliff at just the right angle to make a pass at the Hands and, without landing, leave a handprint there on top of the cloud of handprints left by the rookery’s ancestors.

Only a skillful flyer could earn adulthood, the right to raise their voice in the Choir, and the rookery’s respect. She knew that respect would only ever be partial for someone pinwinged, but she wanted it desperately anyway, craved every speck of it she could get. Thinking about it twisted the fear in her chest into rage, and she channeled it into her muscles, powering her another winglength upward.

There—a crevice in the cliff face gave her holds for both the clawed digit at the tip of her right wing and her right grasping-hand.

She concentrated on the rock, ignoring her hatchmates chattering and fluttering around her, and stretched her left grasping-hand as far up as it would go. That wasn’t very far: grasping-hands were good for landing, latching on to a surface and clinging, but climbing steadily upward wasn’t a movement that came naturally. Her short lower limbs could only reach half as far as her wings, making her progress slow and awkward.

“This is so pointless,” Dhabelh said. “Even if you make it all the way up to the Hands—and I don’t think you’re going to—it’s not going to count.”

Eešan was glad that at least Dhabelh wasn’t trying to imagine how Eešan was going to get down. At the edge of her vision, sweat blurred the shapes of individual bushes and rocks below together with their own shadows into a rust- and copper-colored blanket.

More sweat gilded the tough membrane that stretched along her sides from the long tips of her wingfingers to the outer edge of her grasping-hands, but her broken wing couldn’t stretch out to let the sweat evaporate in sheets. She’d always had trouble regulating her body temperature because of that.

“It has to count, doesn’t it?” Aušidh flitted behind her, one side to the other side and then back again.

Eešan scowled and pointedly oriented her ears away from Aušidh, ignoring her.

“No.” Dhabelh hung from one grasping-hand, then switched to the other, making climbing look easy. Of course, if she lost her grip and fell, her wings would catch her. “That’s not flying the Hands. She’s not flying it.”

“There’s no rule about flying it.” Aušidh sounded puzzled and Eešan squashed an intense flare of frustration. Aušidh was always so frustratingly naïve. “You just have to put up your handprint. That’s what I did.”

“No one’s been stupid enough to try this before,” Xhufu put in. “Who knows what people will think.”

“But Aušidh, you flew it. How does the ritual go?” Dhabelh’s question was rhetorical; everyone knew how it went. “You take off a child and fly into the cloud of ancestors and land an adult.”

“It would still count,” Aušidh insisted.

“We would need a Choir to decide,” Xhufu said. “Eešan, did you ask what everyone thought? I didn’t hear about it.”

“I didn’t hear about it either,” Uliinh said.

“If you didn’t hear about it, obviously I didn’t ask for a consensus yet,” Eešan muttered. She did not have the patience for this conversation right now. “You fire-shit sun-eaters.”

The dust from the cliff stained her belly and chest a dusty orange, bright against her black skin. Sweat gathered under the bandolier that crossed her torso. To save on weight, she’d taken everything off it except for a hand-sized grass basket full of paint. She’d woven the basket herself, spent weeks collecting clay, watadh eggs and the eešanyalh bark that gave the paint its bright red color.

It had taken help, another way she was ruining the ritual. She couldn’t fly, so she couldn’t gather eggs from the watadh nests on the cliffsides herself. Although Pwabeš hadn’t asked why Eešan wanted the eggs, Eešan hadn’t been keeping her plan a secret. But she hadn’t tried to present it to the whole rookery either. She’d been too afraid they’d tell her she wasn’t an adult so she wasn’t qualified to make the decision to risk her life for social status.

She was so shitting tired of being a child.

Eešan climbed silently for several minutes and Dhabelh and Xhufu flew off—not far, just catching a thermal until they rose above the clifftop and soared there, in sight but beyond talking range. Aušidh and Uliinh stayed on the cliff face with her.

Ten winglengths to the bottom of the Hands. Uliinh shifted on the rock impatiently, flapping out into the air and then returning to the same spot. She was waiting for Eešan to give up; she probably had some stupid plan to call the others in to carry Eešan to the ground when her limbs gave out. The bottom of the canyon was too far below for that heroic plan to work, though, Eešan knew. If she reached the sunset alive, it would be because she’d climbed not just to the bottom of the Hands but all the way to the top and over the lip of the Cliff. That way she could rest and then shuffle down the slope on the other side.

Her chest was tight with fear she was losing the will to ignore. She reached up, her pulse loud in her ears. The movement triggered the ache in her limbs that would eventually weaken her. Eventually, she wouldn’t be able to climb.

When she’d been planning, she hadn’t thought she could be this terrified, not the whole time. She’d imagined herself as more courageous, as losing the fear once she began. Now it was too late to back down. She would be strong enough, or she wouldn’t.

It was almost funny. She’d trapped herself into seeming brave.

Six winglengths below the Hands, the rocks jutted out from the cliff and she had to climb up and out, clinging under the rock over empty space. Right wing, left grasping-hand, right grasping-hand. Her left wing membrane caught the air and the wind tried to suck her out into thin air. She flexed her shoulders, twisting hard to pull herself back flush with the stone above her. Right wingtip again, and as she pulled herself up the protrusion, a gust of wind threw a scatter of sand in her face.

“Be careful,” Uliinh said. She half-spread her wings then paused.

“Yeah, thanks,” Eešan couldn’t help snapping. Uliinh, with her strong symmetrical wings, wasn’t the one with something to fear here. Yawning emptiness ached underneath her.

Without a spare hand to wipe her eyes, she had to wait for the breeze to dry the blur of sandy tears. When she could almost see again, she reached with her right grasping-hand and dug her fingers into a thin crack in the stone, moving herself sideways to get around the edge of the protrusion and back to a section of the cliff that was merely vertical.

The tricky wind blew up against her, pressing her helpfully into the stone. She wrapped her left grasping-hand around a knob of sandstone and hauled her body up.

Then the crack shifted under her right grasping-hand, the whole layer of stone sloughing away from the cliff. The wind caught her right wing membrane. It sucked at her, pulling her out and away.

Her left wing scraped uselessly against rock. Her left grasping-fingers began to slip off the round knob of stone.

No. Staying a child forever was a kind of death, and she had rejected it. She rejected the wide open space just as strongly, with sick sharp twist of her guts.

The gritty stone tore sharply at the pads of her fingers, bright red flashes of pain in a thundercloud of fear.

“Ancestors and descendants,” Aušidh swore as she finally noticed that Eešan was falling.

Eešan’s flailing right wingtip claw caught on a small divot in the stone with an agonizing twist—caught, and held.

Her right grasping-hand found another small flaw in the stone. She shoved her fingertips into it, grinding the rough stone into the raw scrapes on her fingers like friction could fuse the two surfaces into one.

Breath rushing in short, panicked pants, Eešan pressed her torso and wings as close to the cliff as she could. Her heart drummed in her ears, fear and relief fusing together. It had happened so quickly. Death one second, and then she’d caught herself.

“Skwayašúliwa’s shitting mouth,” she breathed. She was alive.

Aušidh hopped belatedly into the air and fluttered to a spot just below Eešan like she thought she’d be able to catch her if she fell.

“Dhabelh, Xhufu!” Uliinh whistled, calling them down from the thermal.

“Stop worrying,” Eešan said. When she risked a glance up she saw bright red blood seeping out around the base of her right wingtip claw. She’d splintered it. “Shit.” She laughed, a little hysterically. “If I fall that means the Choir will have to count me as an adult, right? If I die in the middle of this they’ll talk about my corpse like I’m a real person?”

“No!” Aušidh said. “Stop talking like that, Eešan.”

“I’ll talk how I shitting want to.” The giddy panic rush was making her rude. Ruder. She didn’t care. The Hands were right there.

Two more painful winglengths up and the stone in front of her face turned red with old paint.

“Need a hand?” Xhufu snickered as she landed a winglength away. “Get it? A hand?”

For Xhufu there was nothing dangerous happening here. The reminder hurt like an old, deep bruise. Eešan squeezed her eyes shut for a second, then opened them to grope for her basket of paint.

“Here.” Aušidh shifted closer and reached out, turning the loop of bandolier that had migrated as Eešan climbed until the paint was behind her back. “Can you reach it?”

“Thanks.” Eešan dug the fingers of her left grasping-hand into the thick paint. It was almost too dry to use after baking in the sun so long, but she spit into her palm and made a fist, squishing the paint in the moist saliva and spreading it around.

Then she reached out and pressed her hand to the Cliff. When she pulled it back, a fresh red print shone out at her.

It looked exactly like every other handprint: three fingers, a thumb, the pads of her palm forming a sacred three-sided circle. For once, she was no different than anyone else, now or at any point in the tangled nest of history that cradled the rookery. Eešan shut her nostrils flat like she was in a sandstorm, an indescribable feeling rising up in her lungs. Relief and anger all mixed together with pride and the spitting bluster that had gotten her all the way up here.

She’d done it.

“How much longer is this going to take?” Dhabelh asked.

“Why? Getting hungry, lump-ass?” Aušidh said.

Eešan took another long moment to memorize her handprint. She would probably never see it again; she couldn’t just fly past it to confirm it existed like everyone else could. Then she reached upward for her next hold.

“I saw you put your handprint there,” Dhabelh persisted. “So you don’t need me here anymore.”

“Right,” Eešan said. Her grasping-hands throbbed. “You can go if you want to.”

“Stay, Dhabelh.” Uliinh rolled her neck worriedly. “She isn’t down yet. What if she falls?”

“Even if you force the Choir to admit you, everyone is still going to know you didn’t fly it,” Xhufu said. She spread her wings, ready to launch. Eešan could see the sun glowing through Xhufu’s wing membranes, the light picking out each vein that ran through them, before she dove sharply to the side and came out of it a hundred winglengths away.

Eešan would never know what that was like, to dive like that. To get the last word in a conversation because she could just escape it.

“That rotten intestine was supposed to stay until you reach the top,” Aušidh grumbled. She climbed at Eešan’s pace, a few winglengths below her. “She’s selfish. I don’t know why you told her about this.”

“The Choir will listen to her,” Eešan said, although she wasn’t sure it was true. Her wingtip was leaving small streaks of blood on the half-faded handprints she was climbing over. It would take months for the claw to recover from this abuse. It would probably blacken and fall off before it healed. “She’s not a liar—she’ll confirm that she saw me place my Hand. It won’t be just my friends witnessing for me.”

Aušidh cleared her throat of dust and spit a hunk of phlegm off to the side, obviously a commentary on Xhufu. Uliinh drifted into a shady spot and clutched at the stone, watching, waiting for Eešan to fall. Dhabelh surprised Eešan by joining Uliinh instead of following after Xhufu.

The top of the Cliff waited several dozen winglengths above her. Eešan climbed.


© 2019 by Joanne Rixon

Joanne Rixon organizes the North Seattle Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Meetup and is a member of STEW and the Dreamcrashers. Her short fiction has recently appeared in The Malahat Review, Fireside, and Terraform, and you can find her on twitter @JoanneRixon.


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