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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BOOK REVIEW: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

written by David Steffen

The Lightning Thief is a 2005 modern day fantasy story about modern-day children of the ancient Greek gods living in the United States, which was adapted into a 2010 feature film as well as a 2014 Broadway musical.

Percy Jackson is a well-meaning but troubled teen who has been kicked out of five schools in six years for his impulsive behavior. He’s dyslexic and has ADHD and lives with his mom alone, his father having left when he was very young.

On a field trip to the Smithsonian the substitute teacher Mrs. Dodds draws him away from the group and transforms into a monster and tries to attack him. Percy manages to kill the monster with the help of a pen that magically and unexpectedly turns into a sword.

Soon he’s drawn into a hidden world of demigods, children of the ancient Greek gods, who have some of the powers of their godly parents but are still mortal and attract the attention of every monster in the area.

The book is a fun update to the old mythology, bringing it into the modern world and adding new layers of mythology on the old. It’s fun, appealing for kids, and gives representation for kids with dyslexia and/or ADHD, these being traits common to the children of the gods in this world. It’s a fun book, and the start of a series if you like it there are more where that came from.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #2: Never Really Over by Katy Perry

written by David Steffen

This is the second in a new series that I’m very excited about wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time I will be discussing the 2019 fantasy film Never Really Over by Katy Perry about extreme measures taken to recover from depression after a breakup.

The film begins as a woman (Katy Perry) approaches a well-maintained bus stop on a country road marked with a modified yin-yang symbol that incorporates (cartoon-style) hearts in it. The heart sigil is a recurring motif throughout the film, visible from almost the first frame. She presses the call button at the stop and we get our first hint of the supernatural as the button exudes more heart-shapes into the air and in the space of another breath a VW Bus van arrives with another of the modified heart yin-yang on it. The van itself, besides its instant arrival, is notable in that it seems to run completely silently and its exhaust seems to be comprised of stylized sparkles–presumably this van runs very cleanly.

The van and its passenger are welcomed into a gated compound by people in loose, brightly colored clothing into a beautiful, grassy, tree-lined property, which appears to be a retreat or a commune. Alone in her spacious quarters, our protagonist laments “losing my self control, you’re starting to trickle back in” as she remembers the man from which she had a traumatic breakup from two years ago still isn’t over him. She is here for that express purpose, to recover from this traumatic event, but in these early moments she appears to be held prisoner by her longing for what was, gazing at a sketch of their matching tattooed hands and at the words “LET IT GO” etched in glass by her window as the other residents of the commune practice Tai chi outside on the lawn. “Cross my heart” she promises to herself that she won’t “fall down the rabbit hole”.

Their tattoos are a central and vital image in the story. His tattoo is in the palm of his left hand, and has a half-heart with a jagged boundary with the word “MISS”, and hers is the other matching half of the heart on her right hand with the word “YOU”. This seems an odd choice to me for a couple in love, since the entire message “MISS YOU” is only readable when their hands are together and the heart is complete, and when they are apart the half-heart is apparent but the words inside don’t form a complete thought alone. Even when they were together in the throes of love and at the tattoo parlor getting inked, were they even in that moment anticipating their breakup that they choose such melancholy sentiments that constantly remind them of their longing for each other and even more so when they are together and have no reason for such longing? Is this a hint at why they end up breaking up, that they are more in love with the idea of being together than they are each actually in love with , so that even when they are together their longing is still unfulfilled?

Soon she escapes from the isolation of her room and finds some solace in the social activities. Some of them are what you might expect at such a retreat (such as tai chi and dancing) while others appear somewhat baffling apart from being heart-laden metaphors for romantic struggle, such as tug-of-war with a heart-shaped hoops on either end of a chain. She also tries facial acupuncture and cupping therapy (with heart-shaped cups, natch).

But the most speculative of the therapies is the heart grove. Those participating in the heart grove wear devices around their eyes that look like eyeglasses but which harvest their anguished tears. These tears are then used to water the heart-fruits which are not only shaped like stylized hearts but actually throb with a “lub-dub” rhythm like actual hearts (but otherwise resemble apples). The heart-fruits have battles tied to the branches around them so that the fruit grows inside the bottles.

The next section is two scenes interspersed at intervals, though the ordering of the two is not clear. One shows our protagonist at a solemn campfire gathering, where a liquor has been made from the heart-fruits. One might expect that each person would drink from the bottle that they have personally tended, but before drinking they pass the bottles around, perhaps at random. Perhaps the best medicine for heartbreak is empathy, and drinking this liquor allows them to feel what the one who tended that fruit feels. After drinking their backs arch and they look up to the sky in what appears to be a spiritual epiphany.

The other scene interspersed with that shows our protagonist and her fellow residents dancing in a grassy field. She, for the first time in the film, appears to be genuinely happy and the entire dance centers completely around her (at turns joyous and sometimes boisterously grim as the dancers seem to mime self-harm in the form of stabbing themselves in the abdomen). It is never explained why she seems to suddenly be the center of all of the attention after having been a member of the crowd for the rest of the film proceeding this, but this question too may be answered by the epilogue where she is exiting the retreat compound alone on foot. Presumably she is believed to have been cured of her mental malady by the treatments she has received therein, and the gathering in the grass is meant to celebrate this and give her a joyous sendoff. Whether she has decided she is cured on her own or through consensus of others or some kind of authority at the compound is unclear, the question of who has organized this place and keeps it running is entirely unanswered.

In that final scene as she is walking along the road, the sparkle van passes by headed into the compound. She turns to glance back at it and she sees a tattoo hand with a fractured half-heart and the word “MISS” inside it. Her cured state appears to have been illusory in the face of seeing her beloved again, because she rushes to follow the van as the scene ends. This, combined with the title Never Really Over seems to imply that she will never be free of her heartache, that relapse is at any moment only one decision away, which in some ways mirrors twelve-step program philosophy such as AA–alcoholics never stop being alcoholics, the best they can hope for is to be “recovering alcoholics” who know that they can never allow themselves to drink again.

But the message of the end is overturned once again when you consider the image of the hand. The man’s tattoo shown in her flashbacks at the beginning is on his left hand, while this tattoo is on his right. One might wonder if perhaps this was merely an error in the film, that they showed a mirror image of the hand by accident or convenience. But, no, even this theory does not prove out, because the word “MISS” is not reversed, but the heart fragment itself is reversed.

Given these details it seems unlikely to be a mistake by the filmmakers, but then what is the meaning of this. It seems to be unclear and left up to the interpretation of the viewer.

Is it possible that the man has a tattoo on BOTH hands? Did he always have the second tattoo, or did he add that tattoo after the breakup? Is the purpose of the second tattoo to fit with the first one, to form the phrase “MISS MISS” in a complete heart? Has he since had a relationship with someone else whom he the “___ MISS” tattoo forms a complete thought? What thought would that be? “YOU MISS” perhaps? Or was this tattoo simply meant as a commentary on the meaningless of love and its sentiments in general, or an attempt to since his transporation into the commune suggests that’s not the case?

Or, is it possible that this isn’t him? Maybe there is some kind of social movement of the time that involves tattooing non-sequitor words-in-hearts on one’s hands? Or perhaps someone who knows about their relationship is sending in someone to trick her–but to what end? To lure her back into the commune and keep her there? To test her resolve and prove that she is not cured? I am curious what others think about the meaning of this because I am honestly not sure!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Bad Blood by Taylor Swift)

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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DP FICTION #59B: “Beldame” by Nickolas Furr

I never had a driver’s license, you see. Instead I was born blessed with epilepsy. The doctors said it was bad form to put a two-ton vehicle into the hands of a young man who could seize at any time, medication be damned. Grand mal, tonic-clonic—whatever you wanted to call it, it was the big one, and I grew up afraid to be responsible for running off the road and killing someone because of it. I tell you this simply to explain that I was completely at the mercy of the bus line when we stopped at the small town in Kansas where all the houses faced west and I met the whispery old crone who sat at the intersection of two worlds.

At the time I was suffering through a crisis of identity and ennui. It was more than just the listless, relentless boredom of youth. The side effects of the Dilantin I popped to keep the seizures at bay made me irritable, anxious, and dark—sometimes at different times, sometimes all at once. I came from a good family in Kansas City, with two parents who loved me and supported me and a sister who put up with me. I was holding down a 3.88 grade point average at the University of Kansas, and I’d just met a guy.

James was from Pueblo, Colorado. We met at school and were looking into whether or not we wanted to pursue a relationship. He brought a beautiful pair of stark blue eyes, a lingering echo of the English R.P. accent he’d developed during the first 10 years of his life, and a tolerance for my nervous flutters. We weren’t exactly dating, but there was something between us. He wasn’t the first guy I fell for, or the first that I’d had sex with, but he was the first I really started to love. When you’re already pharmaceutically primed for nervousness, anxiety, and agitation, worrying about falling in love really adds to the stress.

James tolerated the stupid things I did, even if it meant he stopped talking to me for weeks at a time and didn’t make it easy to see him. The summer after we’d started peeking into the odd parts of each other’s lives, he told me that he was going to have to spend the rest of his vacation at home, with his family. If I wanted to see him, I’d need to come to Pueblo. I’d also need to find a place to stay while I was there, because even though they knew he was gay, they wouldn’t have any of that going on in their house.

I decided he was worth it and I found a way.

One of my friends dropped me at the bus station in Wichita. Wearing my backpack and leather-and-bead epilepsy bracelet, I boarded the bus and pushed toward the back. To get an aisle seat, I wedged myself in next to a large woman who smelled like cats and baby powder. Before we’d even left the station, she was telling me about her aches, pains, and grandkids. Not wanting to offend, I nodded along, muttering things like, “really,” “no kidding,” and “kids these days.” At most I could only be eight or ten years older than those kids, but she seemed to enjoy what I had to say.

After we’d put a few miles behind us, she grew quieter and started to mumble. Near Cheney, her mouth fell open and the snoring escaped. I slipped on headphones to listen to Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” instead.

A bus in the summer is hot and noisy, and reeks of body odor, passed gas, pets and baby powder. My hard-won aisle seat meant I couldn’t see the unchanging wheat fields outside the windows. From my perch on the right side of the bus, I tuned out the world and turned up the trip-hop. The last thing I remember seeing was construction in Greensburg, Kansas before I feel asleep.

*

The bus swung around a corner and started to slow. I woke with that fuzzy, disoriented feeling waking from a sudden midday nap invariably causes. I didn’t know where we were, but most west Kansas towns all looked the same—railroad, grain elevator, grocery store, diner, and farmhouses. If it was big enough, it would have a school and a post office. None were big enough for a train station; the lines carried freight only. People without cars of their own—a rarity in this part of the country—came and went by bus only.

I leaned over the sleeping woman beside me to try and see the town. The front doors of the houses on this side all were no more than a few yards from the curb. Each had a small porch and patches of grass. Some had an oak or dogwood tree.

An American flag flew above one small stone building. I guessed the town was big enough for a post office, but I couldn’t reach close enough to the window to see the name over the door.

A couple blocks later, past a small hardware store and a Rosie’s Café, the bus stopped in front of a small grocery. Hydraulics hissed. The bus settled in place and the driver opened the door.

“Ten minutes, folks!” he said. “Don’t be late. Bathrooms are around the side, sandwiches and sodas in the store.” He stepped down and hurried around the side of the building.

About half of us got off. Most just went to the bathroom. A few went inside. I just wanted to stretch. Pulling off the headphones, I stepped into the middle of the street and let the sun warm my face. After a few moments, I opened my eyes. Across the street something was not quite right.

All the houses faced away. On the west side of the road beyond the double yellow line, there were no front doors or porches. Instead, there were fences, patios, swing sets, and barbecue grills. Not one house across the road faced me. Each faced west, away.

A few houses down, a little girl swung on a squeaky swing set. She sang the ABC song again and again, slightly louder than the metal squeaked. An unseen dog barked and I heard one of my fellow passengers ask how much longer we had.

“Seven minutes,” the bus driver answered.

A soda and sandwich would be nice, I decided, and turned to go inside. As I reached the door, someone reached out and tapped me on the arm.

“You’ll want to know this,” she said. I stepped back. A faded crone sat on a bench next to the door, smiling slightly.

“Excuse me?”

“You will want to know this,” she repeated.

Know what?

“I need to go inside,” I said, beginning to walk away.

“Buy a lottery ticket and go out the back door,” she said.

“What?” I stopped.

“Buy a lottery ticket from the man at the counter and then walk out the back door,”

“Why?”

“Because on the far side of the door, things are different.” Her slight smile became a crinkled grin. “Over there life is both great and dear. Outside that door is a world of monsters, a world of heroes. A place of great risks and greater rewards. No longer will you suffer mundane plagues of this world. No more seizures—”

I stepped back.

“No more school,” she said, continuing. “There you’ll learn if you can find someone to teach you. You’ll worship the gods of your choosing in your own place, in your own way. No more travel by bus. You’ll find other ways to travel from city to village to shire.” Her grin melted. “You’ll not have to worry about things you ought not worry about.”

I stared at her a moment.

“What do you know about my seizures?”

“Five minutes,” the driver announced as he walked past and boarded the bus.

“I know nothing,” she said. “Except that if you buy a lottery ticket and walk out that back door, you’ll step into a world where all the houses face east. And may never want to come back to this place.”

I backed away from her completely and stepped into the store. At the far end, the back door stood open, with only a battered screen door blocking the gap. Dim, gray light seemed to ooze through the aged, east-facing screen. It was not a tableau to inspire. I glanced back over my shoulder. Outside, the old crone was probably having a chuckle at my expense. Mentioning seizures was a good trick, but she could easily see the bracelet on my wrist and read the E word stitched into it.

I grabbed a bottle of Coke from a cooler and waited on a guy to buy beer and Copenhagen. The ticking clock in my head told me I had two and a half, maybe three minutes left. The guy behind the counter glanced at it and entered the price on an antique cash register.

“Buck and a quarter.”

I gave him a five and glanced around the counter—no lottery display anywhere. No tickets; no signs.

“Anything else?” He held the five.

The bus blew its horn.

“A lottery ticket,” I said. Why not? The ticket itself would make a decent conversation piece.

The cashier nodded and produced a ticket from under the counter. He didn’t push a button on a computer or tear it from a roll of tickets. He nodded and smiled. I glanced around, but nobody was watching us.

“Three and a quarter,” he said.

I took the ticket while he counted change. I thanked him and turned to face the back door.

Warm, rosy light now shone through the doorway. I slowly moved toward it until I could touch the wood frame. My fingers caressed the door. Eastern afternoon sun shone through the exhausted, dirty screen, warming my fingers. The smell of roses and jasmine tickled my nose. And when I concentrated, I could just barely hear something like a fiddle playing something happily mournful. A few seconds later the melody evaporated as the bus horn sounded again.

Fact to her fantasy. My breath fell still as my gaze finally reached the horizon and the vast mountain at its center, blued by distance. I stared at the creature in flight above the horizon and leaned into the door. It swung ajar just a few inches. Rose and jasmine grew bolder, joined by the odors of pine and something peppery. I pressed another inch or so. Tingling moisture condensed around my fingers, turning to haze.

On the other side, things are different, she had said. Life both great and dear, a world of heroes and monsters, with great risks and greater rewards. It could be the storybook life, a life in Middle-Earth… or maybe it was life somewhere darker.

What if there was no coming back, if this was a one-way trip? My folks, my sister would never know what had happened to me. I had a few good friends who would stay up at night and try to figure out what had happened, but no one would ever guess that I got off the bus somewhere in western Kansas and left this world for another.

Unless this was some sort of weird local custom or way to trick the occasional tourist, there was another world outside this door. I held up my hands to see fog drifting out from them. I felt like I should hear the slight hissing of steam.

If I couldn’t come back, I’d never see James again or speak to him. But if I could, I’d have a great story to tell everyone…. Oh. Maybe she hadn’t seen my bracelet and known. Maybe she did. But maybe there was no epilepsy and no tonic-clonic seizures on the other side.

The rosy-hued horizon beckoned through the screen door. I wanted to see it. I wanted to see that now…

…But not enough to leave everything and everyone behind.

I looked through the door once more. The misty haze threatening to pull me away from my world drifted away as I pulled the door closed and walked away. The bus horn blew one last time and the hydraulic brakes hissed. I was about to be left behind.

The first few steps back toward the counter were noiseless, not quite in touch with this world, I think, but by the time I nodded my thanks to the cashier, my shoes thumped on the wooden floor again. I handed the ticket to the beldame on the bench outside.

“I’m not sure this one’s a winner.”

“It could’ve been,” she said, and plucked it from my fingers.

I ran toward the bus, slapping at the door. It swung open resentfully and the driver swore at me to hurry up.

I glanced back and smiled, then climbed up and took my seat on the bus.

As I leaned back in my seat, I focused on my seatmate’s complaints—what she actually said about her damaged knee and ungrateful granddaughter. With the bus whining and roaring around and under us, I did more than nod alone. I listened. I needed something mundane to unravel the spell that had captured me.

She chatted as wheat fields rolled by. Only after she had fallen asleep again did I let myself remember the massive jagged mountain I’d seen through the screen door, high enough that clouds had pooled around the summit. I smiled as I remembered the winged reptilian form, soaring through those clouds.

*

Fourteen years I searched for the small Kansas town because I never learned its name. No one on the bus seemed to have caught it. I didn’t even know for certain that we were in Kansas until we passed the primary-colored “Welcome to Colorado” sign. I think I would have recognized Dodge or Garden City, but the woman sitting next to me told me I’d slept right through them.

I told myself that I’d ask the driver about that mysterious stop when we arrived in Pueblo, but during one of my dozy moments in Lamar, Colorado, another driver replaced him. When I reached my destination, the new one said she knew nothing about the Kansas route.

James didn’t understand either, but he tolerated my interest in it, considering it one of my foibles. A few years ago, I switched meds again to Depakene. Two years after I’d had my last seizure, he convinced me to get my driver’s license. For four years, he didn’t even mind too much when I started driving all over the plains, searching for that grocery.

For fourteen years, it hadn’t occurred to me that surrendering to the bus line was, in fact, a necessity. Not until now.

Fourteen years, one month, and eighteen days after I’d last been here, I awoke as the bus rounded a corner and began to slow. Still unable to read the name over the post office, I watched all the front yards to the right and the back yards to the left.

Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I was one of the first ones out the door. I didn’t see the beldame on the bench. Unsurprised, I turned to look up into the afternoon sun. I listened for the sound of a squeaky swing set and a young girl singing the ABC song again and again. I stood silent until the dog barked.

I turned. She was sitting on the bench, as unchanged as the song.

“I want to buy a lottery ticket,” I said.

Her face cracked and a smile broke free.

“I thought as much. It’s rare for someone to come back. Not unique, mind, but rare.”

“I would have been here earlier, but I had a hard time finding you again.”

“Of course you did. What’s easy isn’t worth having. What are you waiting for?”

“I need to know: can I buy two tickets?”

“Why—ah!” She looked past me, where James waited just outside the bus door. He wore a heavy backpack of his own.

“I see.” The crone looked back at me. “Of course you may.”

Inside, we shared a last Coke while watching the rosy sun of another world shine through the aged screen door. Only after we heard the hissing, growling sound of the bus leaving did I step back outside. The old woman was gone, as I had thought she would be.

“Let’s go,” I said. I took his hand and motioned toward the door and the mountain, rising high in the distance, staccato behind the screen. We rushed across the room, the sounds of our shoes on the floor fading as we ran, before flinging open the door and leaping out into the world where all the houses faced east, the same way children bang open a door while running outside to meet a new morning.


© 2019 by Nickolas Furr

Author’s Note:  My family lived in Kansas when I was younger, and we lived in a small town southwest of Wichita for a few years, until I graduated high school. After that, we moved south, but I have always felt a connection to those small prairie towns in that part of the state, as well as similar ones in other states. We drive everywhere on vacations. I don’t fly anymore, though I used to. We have crossed the country, coast to coast, several times, and we have on several occasions gone out of our way to travel through these kinds of places. Each town is different, but there are similarities that simply can’t be ignored. In fact, that small town where I graduated high school has become a sort of defining touchpoint in my brain—this is what all the small towns I would ever write about would come from.

Nickolas Furr is a writer of dark fantasy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His recent fiction has appeared in the anthologies California Screamin’, Morbid Metamorphosis, and A Darke Phantastique. He is a former journalist and freelance writer who is working towards teaching English at the college level. He has a fondness for prairie towns where the houses all face one way and the older women know all the secrets. He is a member of Horror Writers Association and San Diego HWA. He lives with his girlfriend, Liza, and their dogs, Liam and Jack, in a small mountain town east of the city which will almost certainly show up in a story at some point in the future.


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DP FICTION #59A: “This Is What the Boogeyman Looks Like” by T.J. Berg

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

It has white eyes with no pupils and no irises. Just white all the way through. But it can see you. So I must not fall asleep as I wait outside this closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict For Sale sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember, baseball bat gripped in my hands.

*

This is what the boogeyman sounds like.

Short, huffing breaths, almost snorts, like your boss calling you into his office for a chat, because you got yet another email by accident that was supposed go to the CEO, who shares your name. “And you understand,” huff huff huff, “that you obviously didn’t get the whole story with just that one email,” huff huff huff, “and the engineers are definitely going to address that problem before the product goes to market.” Huff. “We understand each other, right?” And you’re too scared of losing your job to do anything but understand.

*

This is how the boogeyman gets you.

It has six arms. The first set has hands, much like yours. The second set ends in razor-tipped claws. The third set have some kind of suction on the ends. They take your soul. Like your ex-wife when she crossed her arms and said, “I can’t be with you if you’re too scared to even have kids.” When she said, her eyes pinched with that sympathy face, “I know you blame yourself for your brother.”

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like. Eyes white, all the way through. But he can see you. When he lifts up the blankets to peer under the bed. When those wide, wide nostrils in that too-small nose flare and breath you in. When he reaches his razor-clawed hands under the bed and sinks their points into your screaming little brother’s arms. This is what he looks like.

He looks like your ex-wife sitting on the bed with her hands in her lap, stretching a hair tie over and over again, saying, “This could have worked, it still could, if you weren’t so damned scared of everything. Too scared to ride a bus. Too scared to climb a tall hill. Too scared to ask for a raise, too scared to ask for a promotion, too scared to have kids, too scared to even have a bedroom with a closet. I can’t live like this.”

The boogeyman has a flat voice, like your wife giving up on you. Like when it’s dragging your little brother from under the bed, telling him he’ll do nicely. When you’re screaming, “Nate!” and he’s screaming, “Aiden!” And you scramble out after him. It is hunching toward the open closet, pincered arms bent backward, holding your little brother pinned to its back. The closet is pure darkness. A bad place. It is taking him there, where the boogeyman comes from. You dash. You dash right across and jump, thinking, you don’t know what, thinking you’ll grab its feet, hold it here. Your fingers out, wrap around a boot, but it kicks you away as it leaps into the darkness of the closet, Nate’s screams cutting off as if someone hung up the phone on him.

It was, finally, my wife’s leaving that sent me to the psychiatrist. The one that tells me, “The boogeyman is a classic symbol of fear, one you’ve put in the place of the man who took your brother, since neither of them were ever found.” I listened, but was also looking at the door behind his desk, wondering if it was a closet door. “In twenty-six years you’ve never once slept in a room with a closet?”

A shake of the head, eyes on the door.

“You need to confront this. The best way would be to go back to that house, the very house it happened in. If that’s possible. And face that closet. Barring that, try any closet for that matter. You’ll see. There’s no boogeyman. Just your fear.”

“And if the boogeyman is there? If he does come?”

He shook his head. “If it would make you feel better, bring a weapon.”

“What, like a gun?”

“That’s a terrible idea. No. A baseball bat. That’s what I keep by my bed.”

I wondered what his boogeyman looked like.

*

My boogeyman, just now, looks like a closet door in an empty room, in an empty house with a derelict “For Sale” sign in front of it, everything smaller than I remember. It’s chilly and the floor is hard and the baseball bat is clutched tight in my hands and my heart empties and fills with every tiny noise. A creak. A crack. A loud cricket. A tiny groan. Will he come? Is he still there? Still in that closet? Would he face an adult? Do I stand a chance?

What if he doesn’t come? What if he isn’t real?

A scratch. A soft thump. The cricket again. Shadows across the moon. Phantom movement in corners, across bare floors. The damned cricket, even noisier. And every time, the booming heart. The sense that my body empties and refills in an instant of stopped breath and terror. Will he come? What will I do if he does? What will I do if he doesn’t?

The closet door swings open. The darkness lies behind it. I raise my bat. The boogeyman steps out. I swing.

*

This is what the boogeyman looks like.

He is short. He wears goggles and a tattered wide brimmed hat. Something cloaks his lower face. His clothes fit like someone wearing a glove on their foot. Bits are tied up with string. He rolls over. Springs up. Ready to fight, hands in the air in front of him.

“Aiden?” he says.

He doesn’t huff. He lifts off his goggles, pulls the mask from the bottom half of his face. And he has blue eyes, eyes like mine. “Aiden?” he says again, questing voice. A little rough at the edges.

I raise my bat.

“Is it you?” he asks. “Is it? I was sure . . .”

I shake my head, but I say, “Yes.”

“It’s . . . Aiden, it’s me. Nate.” He coughs.

“Nate?”

“Nately mately hate me lately?” The silly rhyme we once made.

“Nate?”

His hand goes to his chest. He looks afraid. “I can’t stay.” Voice getting hoarser. Breathing heavy. Looking disappointed. “The air here, it’s hard to breath.”

“How? How are you here?”

“I escaped. And I remembered you, my brother, how brave you were.” Cough. Huff. “So as I got older, living there, in that place . . . I started to hunt them. The boogeymen.” Huff.

“You’re the boogeyman . . .”

“To the boogeymen.”

We are silent a while. Behind him the darkness in the closet remains opaque.

“Mom and dad?” he asks.

“Dead.” I can’t tell him how. Dad’s suicide. Mom’s fading away.

“I could feel you,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever found my way back here.” Huff huff. “But I don’t think I can stay. I think I’ve breathed the air there too long.”

His eyes are blue, but very pale. Watery. The skin pale and pink where the goggles clung. Nostrils flare with each labored breath.

“You hunt them?” I ask. “The boogeymen?”

He grins, sheepish, a little proud. “Try to be brave, like my big brother.” He looks like he wants a hug.

I want to hit him with the bat again.

I want to shove him through the door and out of my life. I want to close the door and keep him here and watch him suffocate and die.

“I need to go back,” he says. “Will you come again? Please? I’ve been so lonely, there.” His breathing is desperate now. His back is to the blackness. “I don’t know why I’ve never sensed you before.”

Because I wouldn’t sleep in that room. Because I was too scared to go near a closet, ever again. Because this, this is what the boogeyman looks like. He looks like your little brother. He looks like you nodding a promise you’ll never keep, as your little brother steps back into the darkness.

 


© 2019 by T.J. Berg

 

Author’s Note: I was convinced of the existence of the boogeyman as a child, and closets still creep me out as a result.  I think this story was just carrying that fear into reality.

 

T.J. Berg is a molecular and cellular biologist working and writing in Sweden.  She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and was a member of the Glasgow SF Writer’s Circle.  When she isn’t writing or doing science, she can be found stravaigin the world, cooking, eating, or playing dinosaurs, princesses, and super heroes, sometimes with her son.  She (and pointers to her other stories) can be found on the web atwww.infinity-press.com.

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #57B: “The Train to Wednesday” by Steven Fischer

Charlie Slawson sat alone in the transit station, watching a set of empty train tracks and wondering why the train was late. Truth be told, he hadn’t known until just then that temporal trains even could be late. 

He looked around the underground station—its old, brick walls lined with gaudy digital displays, advertising exciting trips to next year, next century, and beyond—before noticing a man stepping onto the platform from a little door beside the tracks. He wore navy blue coveralls and a tall pair of work boots. His close-cropped, grey hair was half hidden beneath a faded baseball cap.

“Excuse me,” Charlie called. “Any idea when the train will arrive? I think it’s running late.”

The man stopped and frowned, then walked over to the bench. “You sure you’re in the right place, son? Which train are you waiting for?”

Charlie nodded and motioned to the marquee above the tracks. “Train to Wednesday. Just like it says.”

“Hmmph,” the old man grunted. “Wednesday’s never been one of our peak destinations. Especially not a Wednesday that’s just a few days away. What’d you want to do a thing like that for?”

Charlie turned the tablet in his hands so the old man could see the picture on the screen. That day, years ago, when Dad took him fishing out west of Cambridge. The first time he’d ever been to the train station. 

Dad tried to keep the trip going every year after Charlie left home, but life got busy, then they drifted apart. Charlie had always assumed they’d have time to catch up later, but he would give anything to have that day back, now.

“Your father?” the man asked.

Charlie nodded. “His funeral is this Wednesday.” He thought of the tearful video message he’d received this morning from his mother, his siblings already bickering in the background over funeral venues and seating arrangements. 

It was foolish, all of it. It would make no difference to Dad if the memorial dinner served chicken or beef, or if the service was held at the church on High Street or Main. What Dad would have appreciated was more time with his son, but Charlie hadn’t given him that. And no memorial, however perfectly it was planned, could do a thing about it. 

More time at home would just mean more time to feel guilty. More awkward conversations with distant relatives, more photographs and memories, more reminders that Dad had always been there for him, but he hadn’t done the same. 

“I loved my Dad,” Charlie said. “Even if I wasn’t the best at showing it. I wouldn’t miss his funeral for the world, but I’d just rather skip all the mess in between.”

The man nodded and fished a hand into his coveralls, coming up a moment later with a small, silver pocket watch. Inscribed on its cover was the looping infinity symbol of the Temporal Transportation Administration. 

The man opened the watch and tilted it so Charlie could see. Dials and arms littered the watch face, twisting together in an intricate dance that Charlie struggled to make heads or tails of. The man tapped the glass faceplate and made a sound which fell somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh. 

“Well would you look at that,” he said. “Seems you’re right. Train should’ve been here at least thirty seconds ago.”

“Is that normal?” Charlie asked.

“Nah. But it ain’t unheard of either.” The old man bit his lip. “These tunnels have been around almost as long as I have. Every once in a while the track is bound to run a little slow.”

Charlie looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. “Okay. Any idea how much longer it’ll be?”

“Doesn’t work like that.” The old man shook his head. “A little hiccup on the other end might mean just a few extra minutes here, or it could mean a few days, or more. No way to tell without heading down the tracks and finding where the train is stuck.”

“Christ,” Charlie mumbled, staring down into the empty tunnel at the end of the station. “Is that safe?”

The old man shrugged. “Life ain’t safe. But there’s no reason it should be especially dangerous, provided we’re careful.” He turned and started to walk towards the tracks.

“We?” Charlie asked.

“Course.” The old man climbed down onto the railway and motioned for Charlie to follow. “Any extra delays stack up real fast down the line, so once we get her going again, the train won’t stop until the next station. You’ll have to board wherever we find her.” 

“You’re joking,” Charlie muttered, glancing down at his dress slacks and new oxford shoes, then at the puddles and mud waiting for him beside the tracks. 

Then he thought of his father, and the nightmare the next two days would be without him. He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hopped over the edge of the platform.

*

Charlie tiptoed along the rail line, as close to the man and his flashlight as he could manage. Above their heads, aging brickwork dripped water and something much darker in thick, black droplets that clung to the floor. 

“You sure it’s safe to be in here?” Charlie asked. “These walls don’t look like they’re holding up so well.”

The old man grunted in agreement. “Been around a long time. It’s a wonder they’ve held up as long as they have.”

Somehow, that didn’t comfort Charlie. “Why hasn’t anyone bothered to replace them?”

“Ha!” The old man laughed, then turned back to face him. “When are you from, son?”

“When?” Charlie asked, shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “Don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Course you don’t,” the old man replied. “Because you don’t remember when they put these things in.” He patted the brick wall with obvious affection, then turned down the tunnel and started to walk again. “It ain’t just something you can go and replace. Takes a lot of time, and a lot of lives to dig a set of tunnels through spacetime. To pull the two apart so that you can move through one by moving through the other. It also took a lot of problems to make men and women willing to take that risk. Problems that you couldn’t just hop on a train and skip.”

Charlie grimaced. He wasn’t skipping the problem, just the mess. “So how does this work?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. “Aren’t we traveling back in time?”

The man laughed again, like Charlie was a child. “Course not. Trains can only go forward and so can we. Can walk down the tunnel as long as you want, but you’ll never reach a previous station.”

“And what if you managed to get outside the tunnel?”

“Wouldn’t want to do that.” The man pointed his flashlight at a pool of ink-black liquid. “The tunnel’s old enough here that some of the outside’s dripping through. All you’d find out there is a big sea of black.”

“Unless you found another tunnel?” Charlie asked.

The old man shrugged. “Suppose so, but you wouldn’t last that long. Just the tunnels and trains that can survive in the void.”

As they walked down the tracks, the dripping grew more frequent and louder, until the darkness spilled from the walls in neat little rivulets. 

“Careful now,” the old man muttered. “Better keep your feet on the tracks and avoid them puddles altogether.”

“Otherwise?” Charlie asked.

The man’s voice was stern for the first time since they’d met. “Otherwise I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”

*

The train was near wrecked when they finally found her. That much was clear the moment the old man’s flashlight beam fell onto her engine’s crumpled exterior. 

“Well that doesn’t look good,” Charlie managed to mutter.

The man shook his head and wandered closer to the engine. He pointed his flashlight down onto the ground, stepping carefully around the small, black stream which poured from the brickwork where the train had collided with the wall. The engine was lodged halfway through the wall itself, the only thing plugging a massive hole to the void.

The old man crouched beside the damaged tunnel and ran his hand along the bowing stone. Little waterfalls of thick, black liquid flowed from the brick around the sides of the train, pooling into a narrow brook which ran both ways along the tracks.

“Well?” Charlie asked. “What do you think?”

The old man grimaced. “I think we’ve got a big problem to deal with.”

Charlie looked at the line of train cars behind him. Aside from the engine, the rest of the train was largely undamaged. Passengers milled about inside, uninjured, pressing their faces up against the small, dark windows. A woman in a floral dress and an ancient-looking hat leaned her head out of one of the passenger car doors and began to climb down the emergency ladder. A young, mustachioed man in a charcoal-grey suit followed closely behind.

“The train doesn’t seem so bad to me,” Charlie said. “Just needs a new engine, probably.”

The old man nodded, then noticed the couple exiting the train. He wagged his finger like a grandfather scolding a pair of children. “And what exactly do you think you’re doing?” he called.

A guilty smile crossed the woman’s face. “Just coming to have a look. Maybe see if we could fix whatever’s the matter.”

The old man sighed and dipped a finger into one of the pools of black. The liquid crawled quickly up his hand, until he withdrew it from the puddle. He held his arm in the air a moment before pressing it against the edge of the train. The blank, dark space where his hand had been simply passed through the metal as if nothing was there.

He fixed the couple with a glare. “And what exactly are you going to do about that?”

The woman’s smile vanished and she mumbled a half-hearted reply.

“Exactly,” he replied. “Now you two get back inside and close that door, and let the experts handle this.”

Charlie chuckled. He certainly didn’t feel like an expert.

The old man frowned at him, then pulled a small, silver rag from his coveralls and wiped his hand clean. The black which had coated his palms seemed to simply fade into the fabric. “It ain’t the train that I’m worried about. This wall gives any further and the whole tunnel will be swimming in the black. Station too. Maybe the next station down the line. Nothing to stop it moving forward once it reaches that point.”

“Christ,” Charlie muttered. “What can we do about it? I imagine there’s someone that we’ll have to call?”

The old man glanced at his pocket watch. “No time for that. It’d take ‘em at least as long as it took us to get down here. But we can start by getting this engine out of the way.”

“What?” Charlie asked, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten at the idea. “The engine is the only thing plugging the hole. If we pull the plug, the entire tunnel will flood.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t work like that, kid. The tunnel isn’t any happier about it being broken than we are. Given the chance, the hole would seal itself right up. As is, the train’s the only thing keeping it open.”

He pointed at the spiderwork cracks running through the tunnel wall. “It’s like a knife in a wound. Might bleed worse for a minute when we pull it out, but the longer it’s in there, the more damage it does.” 

The cracks seemed to grow even in the short time the man spoke, new drips and defects popping up around them. “Well that’s easy then,” Charlie replied. “We just put the train in reverse and pull the engine out.”

“Mmhmm,” the man replied. “Provided she’s still working.”

*

Charlie sat in front of the train’s aging control board, horrified that humans had ever trusted their safety to technology so primitive. Although digital networks had replaced the engineers running the rails decades ago, the engines were built in a time long before then and still sported a panel of manual backups, littered with dials, levers, and other relics of the past. Charlie glanced over his shoulder at a small, dim screen that showed a live feed of the passenger cars. Come to think of it, most of the train’s passengers were relics as well.

Out the cabin’s small side window, the old man stared at Charlie and gave him two thumbs up. He’d stayed outside to make sure the hole sealed shut, his hands full of minor patching equipment which Charlie was entirely sure would be insufficient if actually needed.

Initially, he thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal. But now that he was inside the engine room, with only inches of glass separating him from the horrible emptiness which stared back through the front windshield, he wasn’t so certain. The darkness in front of him swirled and writhed like a pile of living shadow, feeling and squirming its way towards the cracks in the tunnel wall. Charlie couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Felt it the same way he felt this might not end well. But what choice did he have?

He could climb back outside the engine and tell the man he’d had enough. Walk straight to the station and wait out the rest of a painful week at Mom’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be tearful and frustrating, but certainly not deadly. 

But it had taken nearly an hour to walk this far down the tunnel, and there were no guarantees the wall would hold long enough for him to get back. Besides, if the man was right, and a spill on this end of the track could creep into the future, who was to say he’d make it to the funeral at all?

At the end of the day, those thoughts didn’t matter. The only one that mattered was of Dad, standing on the train platform all those years ago, bending over to pick up a piece of crumpled paper from beside the trash can.

“Never walk past a mistake, Charlie,” he’d said, his quiet, certain voice rising over the sound of the station’s bustle. “Not when it’s in your power to fix.”

Dad had lived his life by those words, and Charlie would be damned if he couldn’t live up to them, especially today. It was the least he could do.

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered, staring down at the large, red lever on the control panel. He glanced out the window and gave the man a thumbs up in return, then threw the lever into reverse. 

Behind him, the engine whirred to life, rumbling and shaking as it struggled to throw the massive weight of the train backwards. Charlie gripped his seat and stared out the window at the man beside the tracks, but the train didn’t move.

The man shouted something that Charlie couldn’t hear, but he knew what it must mean by the waving of the man’s arms. Turn the engine power up. Charlie nodded and spun one of the dials to full. 

The knot in his stomach tightened even further as he felt the train start to shift backwards. Its metal walls screeched and scraped against the brickwork as it pulled itself back from the hole. Then, just as soon as it had begun, the train slammed to a halt.

“No, no, no,” Charlie mumbled, spinning dials left and right. Despite his attempts, the train wouldn’t budge. Outside the window, the man motioned madly for him to kill the engine, rushing out of the way of a sudden onslaught of black liquid. 

Charlie stared at the river and raced through his odds. A portion of the wall must have broken loose as he reversed, lodging itself behind the rear wheels and holding the train in place. The void was coming in, even if he stopped the engine. 

He looked at the growing stream of black with mounting certainty. Even if he stopped now, it would be enough to flood the tunnel. The only chance to stop it was to get the engine out, so the hole could close. 

Through the windshield, the void tumbled over itself with anticipation. Nothing but black in its horrible depths. Nothing but black…and was that a streak of silver?

Charlie stood up from his chair and pressed his face to the windshield, struggling for a better look. Somewhere below, in the sea of emptiness, a small line of silver glimmered brightly. Charlie traced its path until it ended in a box, so far below it only looked like a little dot. 

But it wasn’t a dot, of that Charlie was certain. In that moment, he knew it was a train station—some other year, some other century, lingering in the darkness below. 

It was a train station, and he had a plan.

Charlie sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, then one final peek out the small side window. The black stream had grown into quite a torrent already, pouring both ways down the tunnel. The old man still motioned for Charlie to stop the engine, but he was standing pressed up against the opposite wall to avoid the darkness as best as he could. 

Charlie tapped a small red button on the dashboard, feeling a clunk behind him as the engine detached from the rest of the train cars. 

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered. “I’ve never been one for walking anyways.” With that, he gripped the engine’s lever and shoved it towards the waiting void. 

The engine lurched forward with a tremendous screech, and Charlie turned around in time to see the wall snap closed behind him and the world vanish from view.

*

The engine crashed through the station ceiling some time later. How long, exactly? Charlie wasn’t certain, and he doubted he ever would be. It felt as if he’d spent no time at all in free fall, and yet it felt as if he’d spent his whole life. All he knew was that he was happy when the collision threw him forward against his restraints and he was suddenly staring into someplace bright and living again.

The moment the engine came to a rest on the empty platform, Charlie unclipped his restraint and scrambled to the door. He climbed awkwardly out of the twisted, tilting vehicle, prepared to shout at any bystanders about the need for evacuation. Instead of spotting a stream of black liquid behind him, however, he noticed that the engine had fallen straight through the ceiling, which had, indeed, sealed itself right up behind him. 

The few commuters on the platform stared at him with surprise, but not dismay, until a middle-aged man wearing dark blue coveralls shouted at him from a across the platform. 

“Hey! Hey you!” he called. “What the hell is going on?”

Charlie stared at the brightly colored baseball cap atop the man’s head and smiled. He ran across the platform and wrapped the man in a tight embrace.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the man grumbled, shoving him away with a confused frown.

“What year is it?” Charlie asked suddenly, catching sight of the posters which lined the station walls. He remembered seeing them years ago.

“Oh Jeez,” the man muttered. “Don’t tell me you got yourself lost somehow.”

Charlie felt the knot return to his stomach as he shook his head and grabbed the man by the shoulders. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I just need to know the date, or at least the day of the week.”

The man stared at him for a moment without answering, but Charlie already knew the answer. On the tracks, a train was waiting, its doors preparing to close. Inside, a young boy and his father were too busy staring at the fishing guidebook they’d brought along to notice the commotion outside.

“Wednesday,” the man muttered, but Charlie was already running towards the train.


© 2019 by Steven Fischer

Author’s Note: I spend most of my life waiting for moments. Counting down the days to big events like graduation, or the minutes to small ones like the end of a shift. Too often, I’m so busy looking forward that I forget to look around, and I find myself wishing later I could have those moments back. Time-travelling trains might make for fun scifi, but even in fictional worlds time only moves one direction, and in real life you can’t cheat your way around that. 

Steve is a resident physician in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn’t too busy cracking open a textbook (or a patient’s thorax), you can find him exploring the Cascades by bike, boat, or boot. His stories have appeared in places like F&SFGrimdark Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. You can read more of his work at www.stevenbfischer.com, or find him on twitter @stevenfischersf. 


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