DP FICTION #65B: “Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.

She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.

“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.

“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.

She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.


Muriel decided to be bad.

Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.

The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.

“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.

Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.

It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.

“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”

The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”

Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.

“Why are you just bones, Chip?”

The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”

Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”

“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”

“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.

She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.

Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.

Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.

“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.

“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”

“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.

“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”

“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.

She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.

“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”

“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”


“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”

“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.

“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.

It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.

“Listen…” Chip said.

But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.

With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.

Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.

Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.

“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.

Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.

“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.

Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”

Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.

“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”

Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”

Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.

The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”

Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”

Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.

“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”

Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”


Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.

Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.

“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”

Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”

Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”

“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.

Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.

“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.

“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”

Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.

Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.

Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.


Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.

“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.

Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?

The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.

She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.

The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.

“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”

Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.

“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”

The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.

Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.

Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.

Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.

Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.

Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!

Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.

Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.

Had the ground gone back to normal? Her hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.

She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.

Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.

“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.

She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.

For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.

This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.

A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!

Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.

A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.

Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”

The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.


The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT

All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—

She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.


Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.

The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.

The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”

Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.

“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”

Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.

“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.

“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.

Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.


Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.


“Yes, dear?”

“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.

Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”

Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.

© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.

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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,”


“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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