Archive for the 'The WiFiles' category

Mona Lisa of Baseball by Eric Scott Hubbard

Apr 23 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Johnny stared at the stain, dark red, crusted in the center, fading across the gray carpet. Shards of wood protruded from the closet door in thin splinters. Uncle Jack had died on that spot. Paramedics had pulled his teeth from that door and Johnny had soaked up most of the blood. But it was not enough. Johnny still saw the blood and he still saw Uncle Jack.

The attic stairs groaned when Johnny pushed them open. Hot air poured over his face as he slung the suitcase over the makeshift railing. The edge clipped the wood and his finger caught in between.

“Goddamn it!”

He bit on the end of his thumb to calm the throbbing. Light above dimmed as if something crossed over it. When he looked up, all he saw were shadows from the dull sunlight bleeding through the hazy plastic of the one small window.

He hunched down, sliding aside boxes overstuffed with blankets and yellowed pillows. Long wooden slats lined the middle of the floor.  Old furniture stood against the walls, including the full-length mirror that had frightened Johnny as a child. He remembered reading Dorian Gray and wondering if mirrors had the same power to trap souls.

As he shoved the suitcase into a crevice between two boxes, he heard a loud ripping sound.

“Shit.”

His voice, muffled in the confined space, startled him. He hated the quiet. Anytime Rachel went to the store or to her mother’s, he tagged along. Better to listen to her mother prattle on about her gall bladder than be alone in the house surrounded by silence. But this weekend he would be alone. Rachel had flown back to Baltimore after the funeral, leaving him to tend to Uncle Jack’s belongings. It was only for the weekend, but the old house groaned with every gust of wind and exhaled with every movement.

Pulling a rag from his pocket, he swiped the sweat away from his forehead, ignoring the dirt he was rubbing into his skin. He had only been up here for a minute and his clothes already felt damp and dirty. He stretched, making sure not to clunk himself on the head. The peak of the house provided him enough space to stand up straight – almost. Uncle Jack’s five foot seven frame would have had little trouble moving around in the tight space.

A box of photo albums sat next to a small step stool under the window. The peeling paint reminded him that he needed to replace the molding around the front door. One more thing to do before the house was ready for the market. The house, a one level cape cod, was not huge, but it was practically empty, even before the Salvation Army took away all the furniture. Most of what Uncle Jack had, he kept in the attic or his office.

Johnny picked up one of the albums, the brown corners frayed at the edges. Plastic sleeves crinkled when he opened it. A black and white photo of his dad and Uncle Jack fell into his lap. It looked hazy like the photographer had taken it underwater and not at the old house. Swallowing back a tear, he ran his finger across the face of his father and then his uncle. The two men who had shaped his life were gone; his dad’s heart attack two years ago and now Uncle Jack. Johnny blamed himself. He had noticed on his last visit that Uncle Jack did not seem right. It was unusual to see the man who had taught him how to box and how to score a baseball game look so uncoordinated and weak.  If he would have heeded his gut, Uncle Jack would not have fallen down those stairs, would not have broken his neck and died alone in this stuffy old house.

A loud knock on the front door made him jump.

“Hold on a sec.”

He backed down the attic stairs, taking each step carefully. Blowing out a long breath, he opened the door.

“Johnny-boy, hah ya doone?” asked Mr. Chad as he strode into the house. Johnny remembered Mr. Chad’s hands, like two catcher’s mitts, squeezing his cheeks when he was a kid. Even now, his weathered hands swallowed his own.

“Not bad. Just putting some stuff away.”

Mr. Chad regarded the house, examining the living room, reminding Johnny of the real estate agent from yesterday. He removed his Steelers hat and wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Red splotches speckled his unshaven face, the few black hairs overwhelmed by the white.

“Weird seeing the place so empty,” said Mr. Chad.

“I know. It’s not like Uncle Jack had a lot of stuff, but it sure is depressing now.”

“You pack up his office yet?”

“Not yet. Figured I’d do that tonight with a bottle of scotch.”

The old man chuckled, running his hand across his silver hair like a comb. He started for the office.

“Did you need something?” asked Johnny.

Mr. Chad paused, tilting his head to the side, a broad smile stretching the wrinkles from his cheeks.  “Just thought I’d take a last look before it gets packed up.”

Chills ran across Johnny’s arms. He had known Mr. Chad since third grade and he never thought of the man as warm, but friendly enough. His bulbous neck coined him the nickname Bullfrog from the neighbor kids, but Uncle Jack said his droopy face reminded him of Alfred Hitchcock so Johnny had always thought of him as Hitch.

Hitch had yelled at him from time to time, especially the tape ball incident when Johnny and his cousin decided to wrap up pieces of paper in duct tape and play baseball in the backyard.  They had made about fifty balls and spent the afternoon pitching them to one another. When Hitch came out to mow his lawn, he kept running over them. He had marched over, red faced, mouth crunched into a snarl with his rake in hand demanding that they clean up their mess. His face had smoothed out then too, as if only intense emotions made him youthful.

“It’s getting late and I really don’t have time. Hope you understand. I just want to get things packed up and get to bed.”

A moment passed, as if Hitch needed time to translate the words to English. He nodded emphatically. “Of course. Where are my manners?”

Johnny opened the door and Hitch stopped at the threshold. “Just remember, I’m next door if you need me. No harm in asking for help you know.”

Johnny slapped him on the back, enjoying the shock on the old man’s face from the force of the blow. “I appreciate that and I’ll keep you in mind.”

Hitch started down the front steps and turned back. “It was a terrible thing what happened to your Uncle. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

Johnny widened his grin. Yeah, prayers are really going to help. “Thanks, Mr. Chad.”

After he shut the door, he let out a long breath he did not know he was holding. Peering through the front window, he watched Hitch step down, pausing at the azalea bushes. He yanked a few dead leaves and tossed them to the ground, his eyes flicking to the upstairs window. After a moment, he strode down the walk, hands fidgeting at his sides, and closed the front gate. Johnny waited until he disappeared into the house next door.

After confirming the locked door with a pull on the handle, he flipped the light on in the office. The dull glow did little to illuminate the dark wood. Catacombs of shelving covered the walls, filled with signed baseballs, Pirate bobble heads, and old photographs of Roberto Clemente, Pie Trayner and Ralph Kiner. Bats lined the top of the ceiling like unsophisticated crown molding. Hidden in the corner of the room sat a rolltop desk cluttered with newspapers, compartments overstuffed with baseball cards, and sports magazines. A lonely feeling came upon Johnny in the silence of the room, a room that he remembered so alive and colorful as a child seemed distant, as if he had walked onto a dead moon.

A loud scrape broke his trance. The photograph above the desk swung against the rough paneling and Johnny steadied it, straightening and leveling it with the wall. Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner, the greatest shortstop to play the game of baseball and Johnny’s namesake. The black and white photograph showed Honus staring away from the camera, a broad smile across his face, hat tipped on his head to show his sweat soaked hair.

As Johnny sat down, a strong whiff of cigarettes filled the room as if the disturbance had unearthed a tobacco field. The chair creaked and fell back, the tension worn from the springs after years of use and he had to jolt forward to keep from falling over. He eased back and spun the chair to take in the entire room. The stories rolled back into the forefront of his mind and he could not focus on a particular one as each photo, each card reminded him of his dad or Uncle Jack. They both loved baseball and the Pirates. It was their religion, and they preached it to Johnny every day, not just Sundays.

Standing, he wiped the dampness from his cheek and started to box up the office. He worked silently, the only sounds the thump of books dropping, the ruffle of newspaper and the lonely sighs from his lungs. When he looked back at the photo of Honus, the man faced the opposite direction, the broad smile replaced with a closed lipped grimace.  He dug his fists into his eyes to clear the exhaustion. The picture returned to the smiling version.

Johnny cleared his throat to disturb the silence. He finished packing a box and slid it into the hall. A loud bang from upstairs, the slapping of something heavy against wood, startled him. He walked up the stairs angling to see into the upper hallway, but the area disappeared in shadows. Tiny electrical currents ran across the hairs of his skin as he felt for the light switch. The light barely illuminated the hall so he reached into Uncle Jack’s bedroom and flipped on the lamp.

Uncle Jack sat on the edge of the bed. Cold bit at Johnny’s gut and he felt the acid turning over in his stomach. He swallowed back the pizza he had earlier, tasting the salty pepperoni on the back of his throat. Uncle Jack held something in his hand, small and square, like a credit card. He rose and his body flickered, like a satellite picture during heavy rain. His face was pale, the grey features saturnine. His baldhead, liver spotted with random hairs sticking out from the top and side made him look older than Johnny remembered. His clothes looked baggy. The stale smell of age filled the room as Johnny watched the specter of Uncle Jack open his chifferobe. The clip clop sound of the door springing open made Johnny flinch. Uncle Jack reached inside and a small hidden shelf appeared from the top. He placed the plastic square gently down and slightly lifted the shelf until it disappeared.

Uncle Jack turned to face Johnny. The old man’s body looked outlined in black ink. His arms, legs and torso wavered and turned translucent. His features bunched together with rage as he stormed toward Johnny, passing through him. Cold shuddered through Johnny and he tried to hug the sting away.

When he turned, he saw Uncle Jack coming up the stairs, not down. He looked refreshed, his skin bright, a wide grin on his face.  His clothes were different. He wore the Pirates jersey the paramedics had cut off him. As he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped, the blood rushing from his cheeks. He looked directly into Johnny’s eyes. Uncle Jack’s wide-eyed shock twisted into a scowl as he pointed and yelled. Johnny tried to read his lips, but the haziness distorted Uncle Jack’s features. Two hands appeared out of the ether, floating as if additional limbs protruded from Johnny. Johnny felt stapled to the floor. Sweat poured down the sides of his face. He felt his bowels gurgle.

The hands wrapped around Uncle Jack’s neck and squeezed. The vein in his forehead bulged as he clawed for breath. Twisting toward the stairs, the hands forced him into the wall and a long gash sprouted on Uncle Jack’s pale forehead, the blood rushing down in a long rivulet. The hands hesitated a moment, considering options, running through possibilities and then with a simple shove, sent Uncle Jack bounding down the stairs. His body vanished as it tumbled down.

The hands clasped together in the air, rubbing Uncle Jack’s blood into the skin. A ring, silver with tiny etched markings along the side and a large purple stone, glistened in the blood. The fingers twisted into smoke leaving the ring revolving in the mist until it blinked out.

#

Johnny woke to a sliver of sun running across his eyelids. He blinked them open and he found himself lying on the office floor. His body ached, his skin felt clammy as if he had a fever. Sitting up, his back creaked and tightened, the muscles contracting with each tiny movement. His mind grasped onto the notion that it was all a dream, but his subconscious knew different.

The chifferobe stood against the wall, the door open. Johnny rubbed the wood with his palm, sliding along the side allowing the wood to grate against his fingernails. Reaching inside, he fumbled around and pushed the top. He did not feel an indentation in the wood or any edges as he rubbed across the surface. He felt silly looking for something he saw in a dream. Even now, the dream faded into the recesses of his mind, slowly becoming a forgotten memory.

Moving toward the front of the chifferobe, his hand sensed a different gradient in the wood. It felt rough and when he pushed up, the wood gave. A small shelf lowered. On the shelf sat a small rectangle. The plastic gave off a dull shine. It looked buffed. It was a card in a plastic sleeve.

Lifting the card out, he dropped it into his palm, his mind not quite grasping what his eyes showed him. He stumbled back and plopped onto the bed, sinking into the mattress. It was a Honus Wagner T206 card. He was positive.

As a Pittsburgh native, Uncle Jack had told him the story of the Wagner card and the controversy. A collector named Bill Mastro had sold the card to Wayne Gretsky and the card had become the ambassador of the hobby, rising in price each time it sold. The last time it sold for almost three million dollars. It was the golden ticket of baseball cards, the perfect version of the perfect card. But it had been a fraud, the edges altered by Mastro to improve the sale. Uncle Jack had taken the whole incident personally, claiming it was a slight to the best player of all time.

Johnny chewed his bottom lip and turned the card over to inspect the back. The Piedmont insignia ran across diagonally in florid handwriting. “The Cigarette of Quality”. He flipped it back over. The yellow background seemed to blaze, to lift off the card. Rosy cheeks popped from Honus’ face. A memory blossomed in Johnny’s mind, Uncle Jack sitting in the kitchen, gray haired arm resting on the table, a cigarette between his fingers. Dark circles hung under his eyes and his retinas were the cloudy color of too much alcohol.

“History is important,” Uncle Jack said. “It isn’t something to be sold or bartered for. It means something. There are things that should be protected. You understand?”

Johnny had nodded without really listening. Now, the conversation had a different tone. It had always been important to Uncle Jack to keep certain things without sin, without the cheap lacquer of a dishonest world.

Johnny knew he held a perfect Wagner card in his hands. A card that Uncle Jack had kept from society, kept pristine. Sweat bubbled on the back of his neck. He put the card down on the shelf and lightly pushed it back. It vanished into the chifferobe.

A knock.

The front door again. The thought to ignore it ran through his mind, but another knock, this one more insistent, made him throw his head back in frustration.

“Coming!”

Johnny stepped over the bloodstain and opened the door. Hitch filled up the doorframe. His bright red jacket fit tautly to his protruding belly. Broken blood vessels graphed his nose. He held a stack of envelopes in his hand.

“Mail call,” he announced stepping into the house.

He plopped the mail on the coffee table and looked around the room. “Wasn’t sure if you’d be up yet.”

“So you kept knocking?”

Hitch flinched. “Sorry, John. Thought you could use some help is all.”

Johnny turned, not wanting to stare into Hitch’s wounded eyes a moment longer. “Sorry. Just cranky.”

“Understandable.” The word seemed to sum up things. He started for the office. “How’d you do last night?”

Before Johnny could protest, Hitch barged into the office. A half filled box sat in the middle of the room. The picture of Honus Wagner tilted to the left now. This time Wagner stared straight ahead, his expression blasé with a hint of petulance.

Hitch picked up a stack of cards. “Didn’t get much done, huh?” His mouth twitched after every sentence, a stuttering period to every thought.

Johnny ignored him and whisked the curtain aside. Dust exploded from the cloth and bathed the room in morning light.

“Jack wasn’t much for cleaning,” said Hitch. He put the cards down on the desk. “What you planning to do with all this stuff?”

Johnny met the old man’s eyes. Piercing blue stared thorough him. Johnny did not want Hitch in the office. The thought felt unholy, like a vampire attending a Sunday service at church.

“I’ll probably keep most of it. Uncle Jack always wanted me to have my own collection so I can start with this.”

“Hell of a start.” The words bubbled from his chubby lips. “I could hook you up with a collector if you want to sell some of it. Hell, I’d buy some of the cards from ya. I know Jack wanted you to have some money since you’d been out of work for so long.”

Johnny frowned, unable to keep a pleasant demeanor and Hitch saw the change.

“I’m good for money,” said Johnny. “I’d just as soon keep the collection going. For Uncle Jack.”

Hitch smiled brightly, the teeth too white and perfect for a man his age. “Sounds good.”

“Is there anything you need?” asked Johnny. He wanted Hitch out the door so he could examine the Wagner card more closely.

Hitch’s smile wavered a bit. His right cheek twitched and his eyes flashed annoyance. “No, just checking on you.”

“I’m fine.”

Hitch nodded three times in quick succession. “Ok, then.” He rapped his knuckles on the desk. The sound was hard, the sound of two opposing substances. Johnny noticed the class ring, the purple stone.

Hitch noticed him staring at the ring. “Class of ’59,” said Hitch. His eyes darted at the door and then back to Johnny. “What’s wrong John? You look like you seent a ghost.”

Johnny’s knees buckled a little and his body felt heavy. He could feel the blood draining from his cheeks. “I might be coming down with something.” His voice cracked on every other word.

“You need to be real careful, John.” Hitch flashed a big toothy grin. “If you don’t have your health, well, you don’t have nothing.”

Johnny tried to force a smile, but his mouth clamped shut. He pictured the hands, Hitch’s hands, around Uncle Jack’s neck, slamming him into the wall, blood leaking from the gash, Uncle Jack’s eyes rolling white as the hands shoved him down the stairs.

“Can I see your ring?” said Johnny, anger replacing the fear.

Hitch lifted his hand and twisted it the way a new bride might when showing off her wedding ring for the first time. “Oh, doubt I could get it off. Had it on for s’long.”

Johnny took a step forward. “Give it a try.”

“You sure you’re ok?” asked Hitch moving toward the front door.

“I need to see that ring.”

Hitch snorted and made for the door. Johnny grabbed his hand and flipped his back to face Hitch. He used the momentum to force Hitch against the wall. He yanked at the ring, ripping the skin. Hitch screamed and shoved Johnny in the back. Stumbling forward, Johnny caught himself before he bounded into the sofa.

“What in holy hell is wrong with you?” roared Hitch. His face flared red and he slumped over, holding his hand close to his body.

Johnny held the ring up to the light and looked inside to read the inscription. He could see all the letters now. It read Chad Gordon. Red filled the o’s in Hitch’s last name and Johnny knew it was Uncle Jack’s blood.

“You killed him.”

Hitch still clutched his hand. His eyes widened, his breath quick and frantic. “I don’t know what you…”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long object that looked like an electric razor. He pointed it at Johnny and two long wires shot out, striking Johnny in the chest. Electric coursed through Johnny’s body and he collapsed to the ground shaking. He rolled onto his side and Hitch hovered over him. He lifted his boot and Johnny saw black.

#

When Johnny woke, his jaw throbbed and he noticed the dark paneling of Uncle Jack’s office, the afternoon light outlining the curtain.

“You’re finally awake,” said Hitch. He held a glass of iced tea. “I’d offer you some…” Hitch shrugged and when Johnny tried to talk, he felt the duct tape around his mouth. Adhesive pulled on his skin each time he struggled to move his mouth. His head ached.

“Can’t have you hollering for anyone.” Hitch took a long swallow and smacked his lips for effect. “So, what’s it gonna to be?”

Johnny twisted his head to try to get his bearings. The old chair squeaked when he moved and the rope around his wrists tightened.

“No use in that,” said Hitch. “Where is it?”

Johnny stopped struggling and met Hitch’s gaze. When he dropped his eyes, Hitch laughed.

“I know you know where it is. Jack and you probably had this all figured out from the start. You’re as stubborn as he is. Well was.”

Johnny started to work his wrists in circles. If he could just slip out a hand.

“Jack and his ideals,” said Hitch picking up a Sports Illustrated with a smiling Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw on the cover. “All this junk. Most of it not worth a damn. But a pristine Wagner card. He’s sitting on millions when he knows I’m losing my house.”

He dropped the magazine and picked up a picture of Uncle Jack shaking hands with Barry Bonds. He rocked the picture in front of Johnny. “Oh, that’s your problem Hitch,” he said, his voice a high-pitched mocking whine. “You don’t accept responsibility for your actions.” He tossed the picture and it shattered against the wall. “Kiss my ass.”

Johnny almost had his right hand free. Hitch leaned closer. “Stop trying to get loose or I’ll zap you again.” His mouth slowly turned into a sneer. He reached around and yanked the rope. It fell to the floor and before Johnny could pull his arms around, Hitch leveled the gun at his face. “This time, you won’t wake up.”

Johnny froze. Hitch’s grin grew wider. He tapped Johnny’s mouth with the gun.  “Now, I’m going to rip this off and if you yell or try anything I’ll blow your fucking head off. Got it?”

Johnny nodded and Hitch pulled the tape off with on quick rip. Johnny cried out and Hitch cocked the gun. “Remember what I said.”

“Ok, ok.”

Hitch settled back, keeping the gun pointed at Johnny’s chest. “Good. No bullshit. Where’s the card?”

“Why did you have to kill him?”

Hitch popped him on the nose and blood squirted. Johnny’s eyes watered and he started to cough, his hands covering his nose as trickles of blood ran through his fingers.

Hitch laughed. “I ask the fucking questions. That ok with you? Can I be in charge?”

Hitch tossed an old rag at him. “Enough fucking around. Tell me now and I promise I’ll let you go.”

“Bullshit. You’ll kill me as soon as you get the card.”

“I’ll kill you right now if you want. I know the card’s here. I’ll find it before you start smelling up the place.”

Johnny looked up and into Hitch’s eyes. Two black globes stared back at him. Old beer and onions seethed from his mouth. Johnny held up his hands. “Ok, it’s upstairs.”

Hitch motioned with the gun and Johnny stood, his knees creaking, his back tensing. They climbed the stairs. Hitch stayed an extra step behind and Johnny thought about running, but where could he run. Hitch would shoot him. Maybe if he could distract him, get the gun away.

They reached the hall and Johnny walked into the bedroom, stopping in front of the chifferobe. He turned. Hitch stepped into the bedroom, his eyes scanning the room. He raised his brow.

“Well?”

Two bony hands appeared behind Hitch, the long fingers filed into razor sharp needles. Johnny tried not to stare at the hands as they hovered behind Hitch’s silver head. The old man waved his gun.

“Do I need to shoot you?”

“If you shoot me, someone will hear.”

Hitch chuckled. “This gun isn’t as loud as you think and anyone that hears it will think it was a car backfiring. No one gives a shit anymore.”

“That’s the problem isn’t it,” said Johnny. His eyes urged the hands to grab Hitch, strangle him the way he had Uncle Jack. But the hands continued to hover just out of reach. Waiting.

Hitch sighed heavily. “I’ve had to listen to your uncle for years and I don’t need to hear this bleeding heart liberal crap anymore.  I could care less. Last chance or I shoot you in the nuts.”

Johnny instinctively placed his hands over his crotch. “Ok, it’s in there.”

He opened the chifferobe and pushed the top. The shelf lowered.

“Son of a bitch,” muttered Hitch.

Johnny gently pulled the card out and held it in front of him. Hitch licked his lips as if getting ready to take a bite of a glorious meal. He took the card. The hands wiggled their fingers, dancing in the air. Hitch flipped the card over in his hand, never letting the gun drop.

“It’s perfect. I can’t believe it. I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea just how good.”

He lifted his gaze to Johnny. “Your uncle could have made this easy on all of us you know. It didn’t have to be this way. All those years we spent together.”

“My uncle hated you,” spat Johnny. Hitch physically flinched from the words and took a step back.  The hands inched closer to his throat.

“You’re whole family always were a bunch of losers.” Hitch pointed the gun at Johnny. “No great loss.”

The translucent hands became corporeal and attached to Hitch’s neck like a spider grasping onto a fly in a web. Hitch froze, his body rigid. He looked like a piece of petrified wood. The hands looped around his neck like a snake, tightening until spittle drooled from the corners of his mouth. The dark points of his pupils expanded filling up with black oil. His body shook and began to grow faint. Long fingernails punctured his neck and his faded form began spinning, funneling into the card that rested on the floor. Johnny watched Hitch slowly disappear into the card. His legs, torso, arms and lastly his head stretched into a thin line before zipping into the card. A memory of I Dream of Genie jumped into Johnny’s mind and a nervous laugh escaped his lips.  An acrid smell of tobacco filled the room and the hum that ignited the event slowly dissipated. The room was quiet.

#

The curator took the card from Johnny. The large smile on the man’s face had lasted the entire hour during the presentation and Johnny thought the man would still be smiling in his sleep.

“This is such a great day for baseball,” said the curator.

“I’m just glad to do something for my Uncle. I think he would like this.”

“Well, I know I do.” The curator laughed a big boisterous laugh that shook his immense bulk. “Donating this card means so much. After the fraud of the last card, it is wonderful to have a true pristine Wagner card preserved for all time. Your uncle would be very proud.”

Johnny smiled and looked at the card. The lights brightened the already brilliant yellow and the card looked majestic behind the tempered glass. A small flicker in Wagner’s eyes made Johnny swallow.

“Would you mind if I just had a moment alone?” asked Johnny.

The man cocked his smile and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Of course. Take your time.”

After the curator left, the lights seemed to dim around Johnny making the card glow on the tiny pedestal. He inched closer and looked at Wagner’s face. A flicker again in the solemn eyes and Johnny leaned forward, almost touching the glass. In Wagner’s left eye, Hitch screamed silently, his features twisted in anguish.

Johnny smiled.

 

Biography

Eric Scott is the author of horror and science fiction. He was born in Baltimore, MD and was raised by his mother and grandparents. Accompanying his mother to her office at Johns Hopkins, he spent his summer vacations playing chess and learning about life from the professors who served as honorary fathers. He began working at Johns Hopkins when he was seventeen as an office clerk and worked his way up to join the faculty in 2007. He lives in York, PA and has two sons, Ben and Sam.

No responses yet

The Chaos of Mokii by Geoff Nelder

Apr 16 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Olga glanced out of the bullet train viewscreen, taking in but not concentrating on the blurred kaleidoscope of greens, ochre and hot spikes. There would be feral cows, sheep and horses since the Global AnLib Act but the ShinkansenLev whizzed along too fast to focus. Although she worried about the Kapai city takeover threat she’d kept from Mokii, her loyalty to his sensitive soul urged protection. Maybe she could avert disaster without him knowing. Would Jorga meet her?

Meanwhile, she would allow her focus to withdraw from the view, ignore the auto-hostess offering refreshments, and enter Kapai city. Her mind smiled at Stefan the gatekeeper, more a figment bouncer. He should recognize her as his creator’s squeeze but he remained in his black suit, starched white shirt and black cravat, arms folded, bald head reflecting the tangerine entry light.

His image leaned forward although she assumed she would have heard him anyway no matter how far away she was. “Password?”

“Come on, Stefan, you know who I am.”

A sharp pain zapped from the back of her brain around to her frontal lobes. Damn. She knew she was going to be made to blackout and be banned from re-entry for hours. Unless… unless she used her pre-emptive a priori status, vicariously Mokii’s login as his mate, other half, better than.

So she didn’t lose consciousness although it was cheating.

“Veni Vidi Vici  2362.”

Such an obvious password, even when incrementing the year every 12 months.

Stefan stood aside, stern face uncracked, and allowed her to enter Kapai. He was larger and tougher than real life, much larger. She’d only enhanced her own virtual image a little, hiding more than revealing.

Oh, Mokii, what have you done with the décor this time?  A lilac palatial hall with wide sweeping stairways led upwards in a spiral. A cross between the Titanic interior and a Cinderella nightmare flooded her mind as she drifted inside. Footmen in eighteenth-century finery of blue silk coats and white pantaloons carried silver trays. One approached her in a kind of tenth gravity lope. Did it have a face this time? Yes! Clean shaven, coffee-coloured, a slanted smile. Olga peered at the silver thimbles on the tray. Ruby liquid in some, emerald in others, all simmering with expectation.

She took a ruby elixir knowing it would distance herself even more from reality yet not so much as to hallucinate more than she was. As she gulped the mouthful, the footman winked as if he knew the ingredients had been switched. Too late. She stuck out her tongue at him and drifted off towards the green room to rest.

“Hey, Olga, sweetness,” said Mokii from her left through an iris leading, usually, to the games room.

“I’m not in the mood for anything intellectual, brat. My drink’s been spiked.”

“Not by me, lover.” His smirk belied his words. “The red? It’ll allow you more access.”

She rubbed her forehead, cold and clammy. Had Mokii induced air-con in here? She shivered, turned around… seeking, frowned and said, “Been a while since I’ve been in this pseudo-palace of yours. Where’s the sauna?”

The best aspect of freezing your butt off is stepping into a hotter-than-body temperature room swamping your olfactory senses with sandalwood. Mokii’s grin when she’d asked directions tore her apart, but she had to spurn his amorous expectations. Invent and yet thwart a migraine. She hoped she wasn’t too late. Running through crystal corridors, breathless when rounding helical stairways and topping a semicircular alabaster bridge.

There, below to her left shimmered a blue pool. A couple played inappropriately but to Olga it meant the sauna hid down there too. She found a door so red she expected a pool of blood beneath it, but after changing, she entered and couldn’t see for a hot cloud the colour and aroma of lavender. Alone, she sat on wooden slats. After a long ten minutes, perspiration stung her eyes so she toed the door open letting in a cool breeze to swirl the cloud.

With the breeze came a shape. Formless in the cloud but it had to be a person. Her contact. Olga looked at her own shape, nearly naked but with smaller, less-noticeable breasts than reality so as not to attract attention, and to experience such a boyish form. That’s the thing in Kapai, nothing was what it seemed, or was more than reality in that anyone qualifying to be there could enhance themselves. Experiment. Ah, the form before her clarified.

A shock of red hair; pale, freckled skin; plump boobs with nipples so long you could knit with them. She sat her ample posterior on the cedar-wood slats. Damn. Her contact had disguised her, or his avatar as a replica of the real shape of herself—right down to the barbed arrowhead tattoo on her inside thigh.

Annoyed yet flattered, Olga initiated the conversation. “Oh, hilarious, so I get to talk to myself, do I?”

The lookalike spoke low, hesitantly. “I couldn’t…think of anything more…amusing.”

Olga took in the words and their prosody with more than usual interest, after all this is someone trying to be like her, or even being her. Did it sound like her? Like most people, she had no real idea of what she sounded like. She doesn’t listen to herself, and even if she tried to, it might be like how a mirror doesn’t show the real you. She shifted uncomfortably on the bench.

“You’re not Jorga, are you?”

The apparition laughed like a man. “Whether I am … or not you’ve given yourself away … Olga.”

She cursed herself for her slipup. Jorga would only be in Kapai to take it over, by infiltration, seeking traitors…

Olga peered again at her other self. Edges blurred and before she could run, the shape morphed into her lover, Mokii. From red hair to black spikes, white skin to yellow, lady bumps to skinny male, but was it really him? Of course not, a ruse to confuse and disorientate her. Mokii still knows nothing about this attempted takeover but perhaps this devil didn’t know that.

In spite of the avatars, most cannot resist displaying a token of their real selves. She knew that Jorga loved—well, himself—via his long wheaten hair bending in the wind as if tempting his rivals to harvest it. She spotted a wisp of it through the otherwise black Mokiiness appearance.

She opened with, “You’re not fooling me, Jorga. What do you want?”

While not reverting completely to the mob-leader’s true appearance, he allowed his hair to be flowing although Olga had to struggle to inhibit a snigger at the golden sheaf of wheat.

“It was you who summoned me, Olga. Are you offering yourself?”

The conceit of the man, although it was a common enough gambit for feisty women and elaborate men to employ. “I’m offering to leave you and your pathetic attempt at a mind-city alone if you leave, don’t return and take your bombs with you.”

His image faked a gaped mouth horror. “Why would I want Kapai? … Granted the pleasure dome is the best … I’ve experienced but there’s nothing else.”

“So you’re not the Jorga who’s signed up in the memory-enhancing suite, who’s left micro-neuro traces in the e-library, as if they’re bookmarks but in reality would have disintegrated the entire collection if opened without your key? Course you are.”

His green eyes flitted then his pupils shrank to dots. She wished their mind city extended to telepathic reading of dangerous individuals. Maybe it would happen—Mokii was working on it, but she had to guess and face read instead.

“Jorga, there’s nothing you, nor your minions, can do in here without being monitored. Further, you might like to know that the mind-altering synapse surprises you planted have not only been disabled while in Kapai, but repositioned. Guess where?”

“You wouldn’t dare. There’s no evidence you’ve been through the gateway to Jorcity.”

“You always underestimate your rivals. Do we have an agreement?”

He wagged a delicately purpled fingernail at her. “Not yet … missy. You forget my main business … extortion. I know that your darling Mokii has been making a fortune, not just from entrance fees to this overpriced mind-spa, but via product placement advertising. Look … there goes one now.”

He pointed at a floating billboard, weaving its silent way through the room. Ostensibly, its subtle aquamarine colours and associated sea-fresh aromas being triggered in their olfactory thalamus cortex, told them of a multi-d film show tonight in the Kapai cinema. Attire, freaky, fee two credits, includes refreshments courtesy of Cortical Cola plc.

“See?”

She did and thought through an appropriate answer while musing that Jorga probably missed the biggest income generator there. She smiled as Jorga ducked as if the flexi-billboard would actually hit or hurt him as it twisted over his head and squeezed flat to slide under the door-that-isn’t-really-there.

The imagined advertising vision triggered synapses in the witness’s brains, subliminally changing them. Experimentally now, and benign although Olga worried about it. The notion that ideas, which were always only neuron-web connections, could change personality was obvious and yet hardly thought about. Mokii thought about it a lot, and was being funded by India’s space programme. Perhaps they were going to send avatars to Mars.

“You’re a snarky gem, Olga,” Jorga snarled, “but you don’t know everything, even about these palaces of the mind.” He ran, in the opposite direction from the flying ad-banner and slammed the door behind.

Olga laughed out loud. She wondered if her actual body was laughing too, in the train. Fancy running like that, as if she couldn’t follow or find out where he was pretty much instantly. True, now his avatar was out of sight, she couldn’t be absolutely sure which direction he took but there’d be e-mote traces picked up by virtual sensors. She thought-called Stefan, who was more than a bouncer.

“Stefan, we might have a problem. Just leaving me in this vestibule is Jorga, CEO of Jorcity. He had too much hair, looking like a haystack although he could have morphed.”

Stefan ummed. “I’d have tagged him on arrival, like everyone. Any idea what he looked like then?”

“The bastard looked like me. Did you tag me, then?”

“Well, no—you’re management.”

“Great. He could be activating micro devices. Max alert.”

“Do you really mean that? Clear the complex?”

Damn. She knew that was easy for Stefan to do, after all there were no bricks and mortar buildings to close, or sirens to wail. Just think a switch and it would go, but everyone who had a presence would suffer a nasty headache. They might not return.

“Best not.”

“Right, I’ll track your entry image—both of them. Hang on. No, that won’t work. Oh, hello Mokii.”

For the first time Olga saw her man without a smile. “Mokii, have you picked up my thought-alarm?”

Mokii shook his black spikes, not to say no but to clear his head. “I’m sending a ‘please leave immediately’ message but too many of our guests are too busy to notice. I’ll do a scramble. A moment, there. Olga, why didn’t you tell me about Jorga?”

“Oh, you’re never much good with bad people. I wanted to show you how I could handle him alone.”

Mokii smiled. “I reckoned the same thing, once I realised you and him weren’t having an affair.”

“What?”

“Ah, my scrambling about to work.”

To Olga, the image of Mokii blurred as did the huge LCD aquarium behind him that looked so real yet was not only virtual like a prize-winning animated wallpaper background but as in everything here is virtual too—a kind of double-take-nothing’s-real. Her sense of balance went one way while her body fell the other. She grabbed Stefan, after all he’s a mountain but he suffered an earthquake too.

“W-what a-are you d-doing,” she stuttered.

“Ph-phase change.”

Everything cleared. Stefan was upright, Mokii in focus, and the fish looked at each other as if saying, “What the fuck was that?”

“That should’ve been enough to disengage whatever Jorga was up to. A kind of anti-virus landmine, or chaos-mine.

“Olga, you knew I was listening, yeah?”

Olga didn’t like to say that was the plan. She turned to Stefan. “People will start leaving. I imagine Jorga will depart on the double.”

Stefan held a finger to his ear sensor. “He’s already left and in the image of me, the sewer rat, but at least we have an enceph-siggie for him so he can’t re-enter.” His smile broadened at the security success before he faded to his bouncer duties on the portal.

Olga and Mokii drifted to a bar-lounge, where they accepted pleasing mind tweaks, much as alcohol did.

Mokii’s smile upturned. “Jorga’s subordinates could enter, but perhaps I can message him. Threaten him with the use of chaos-mines in Jorcity if he tries to take over again.”

“Okay,” Olga said, “but in case Jorga or someone tries again we should concoct a safe-room, or have you already created one?”

His smile, with brilliant teeth, was so disarming. “Maybe I have.”

“There’s a cellar in Kapai? Does it link to the real world? I like Nakamaguru and the English shops in Hiroo. One of those?”

Mokii tapped his nose as he resumed his smile.

“All right,” Olga said, “it’s about time you and I enjoyed ourselves corporeally. Let’s close Kapai while your bots enhance security. I know a riverside restaurant and you still haven’t tried my sensory-bed.”

“Sounds wonderful, but I’ve work to do in here.”

“Three years, Mokii, and we’ve only met in here. Grief, we’ve only made love in your e-bedroom!”

“Not three, surely. Anyway, if we close Kapai, the sponsors will withdraw their millions and—”

“All right, maybe next week. Hang on, you agreed we would have a holiday after the last crisis.”

His smile was disarming. “We took a vacation to Kerala, remember?”

“Yes, but that was in here. Anyone would think you can’t leave.”

He didn’t reply.

“No. Mokii, are you stuck in here? Spent so long your brain connections are too entangled?”

“Not quite. I’m sorry, Olga. I love being your man while in here, but I don’t actually exist anywhere else. Why don’t you join me in here, permanently?”

She couldn’t speak. Her mind swirled with the chaos of Mokii’s existence. Everyone else in Kapai possessed a physical entity on the outside even if it was in Moscow, Alice Springs or London. Even Stefan came from the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl in Ottawa. Mokii was talking but she wasn’t listening. She thought through those scenarios when they discussed having children. He must have meant virtually. A phantom pregnancy in the literal sense. No pain yet a lot of gain. Was it gain that’s real though? Where does reality end and unreality begin when Mokii thought he was only real in a virtual world?

“I need to sleep on this, Mokii.”

“Take as long as you like.”

It might take her longer, or quicker, than either of them would like. Although in Mokii she had a man who was kinder, romantic and more thoughtful than any other she’d met, there would be much of a coupled life she’d miss out on. Such as children and having a physical, corporal experience with him. Yet, they’ve made love, but then even in a physical reality that pleasure is mostly in the mind and the same neurotransmitters with dopamine were released. A kind of non-baryonic state where only one of them had a normal existence. Weird, yet interesting.

“I’m not sure, Mokii. Does existing only in my, and other Kapai inhabitants’ consciousnesses, mean you live longer?”

It looked as if Mokii took a sip of absinth. “At least as long as someone comes in here. Disease-free too, unless as an inchoate, I am afflicted by mental problems. Anyway, you should know.”

Olga, half-listening to syncopated jazz looked at his brown eyes. “Why, what do you mean?”

“What do your parents think of me?”

“I’ve not really discussed you with them.” True, but it was because they’d want to meet him, and they couldn’t. She didn’t want them in Kapai, assuming they’d agree to such abstract tourism. Conversely, she didn’t’ want to take him home. Her dad was so protective though her mother, a lateral-thinking libertine, was an older version of herself. Olga shook her head. A family meeting was not happening yet.

“I see. It doesn’t matter. You know I can create a suite for them here. Just a moment. I’m blacking out. Back soon.”

“Mokii, you’re fading.” She blinked and saw orange script telling her the train was approaching Tokyo station from which a short Metro ride would deliver her to the Juntendo Health Institute.

 

She stood outside the swing door. She toed the door so it moved a little but she waited, not permitted to enter until the doctor gave her the nod. He was in there, with Mokii, testing, probing, monitoring. The Mokii in Kapai was wrong to say he didn’t have a body because it was in there, that ward. When is a body not a person?

The door nudged her foot back making her step out of the way for the bald neurologist to leave. He said nothing to her although his slanted smile and tired eyes spoke of no change. Four weeks since the fall.

Mokii didn’t wear his smile in bed. Tubes, leads and a clinical air gave the comatose twenty-year old a null-emotional face. Olga found it difficult to relate the energetic, clever avatar in Kapai with this alive but inanimate being, so her emotions writhed, her stomach knotted. The door opened behind her letting in the tall, slim figure of her superior.

His deep voice resonated around the small ward. “Sergeant, we’re not making any progress by using you in Kapai. I’m afraid we’re going down the traditional interrogation route and bring him out of the coma.”

Olga looked him in the eye. “Inspector Jorga, I nearly got the location out of him today. My guess is that his prisoner is still alive.”

“We don’t want to take the risk. His hostage might die before we can rescue her.”

“Inspector, the avatar of Mokii believes his corporate body doesn’t exist. Waking him up could kill him and we’d be no nearer to resolution. Let me have one more day.”

“All right, but I’m not going back into Kapai. I’m going to have nightmares for years.”

Olga relaxed in a chair, left alone with Mokii. She meant it when she told him in Kapai that she loved him, but he was a criminal in his other life, an abductor of his rival gang leaders.

Tired, she tried once again to find him in Kapai. She gave Stefan the right password and drifted up to Mokii’s private suite. Changed décor overnight. Emperor purple and creams, lavender assaulted her olfactory senses as real as it gets.

“Hey, Olga, you mixing with the wrong sort?” Mokii’s voice drifted across from behind diamond-beaded curtains.

Did he know she was with the police, or was this the beginning of contrition?

“Well, I hang out with you, Mokii.”

“I didn’t think this could happen in here, Olga, but I’m weary. That fall off the car park in the real world might have damaged my synapses in this one.”

She sauntered over to the curtain and parted it, slowly, with her hand. An improbable grey-blue mist met her. “Where’s this, Mokii?”

“You asked for a safe room.”

She entered, shivered and smelt the sea. “Ah, my feet are slip-sliding in the sand. Your neighbour’s boathouse at Zushi?”

“I want you to have Kapai.”

“Wait.”

She forced her mind to return to the armchair in the ward, only to hear the G-sharp monotone on his monitor, followed by it being drowned out by running feet and competent but urgent voices.

Olga was pushed out of the swinging doors. She saw Jorga and nodded, not with a smile. She’d achieved a result for him, but perhaps for herself she’d go back to Kapai and rejoin the chaos of Mokii.

#

Bio:
Geoff Nelder is a bad-ass editor who used to teach. He’s an award-winning published novelist and veteran short story teller recently published in The Wifiles, The Horror Zine, Jupiter and many more.

 

No responses yet

The Insight Glasses by Mark Keane

Apr 09 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

I passed the optician’s shop every day on my way to work. The display in the window never seemed to change. Two rows of transparent acrylic noses, each with a pair of glasses. The sign above the door read “Optician”. There was no name or logo.

I had no interest in spectacles or eyepieces of any kind as I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. The optician’s display was scored on my mind from a thousand unconscious glances. One morning I spotted a notice in the corner of the window. It jumped out at me, a jarring note in what had become a familiar view; “One Time Offer”. Underneath in smaller font: “Free one day trial of prototype Insight Glasses”.

I was intrigued, my curiosity piqued. It was ten to nine; I could be late to work for once. Pushing open the front door, I entered the optician’s shop.

***
The room was small, little more than a vestibule with two glass cases containing more fake noses and glasses that were separated by a counter. An alcove behind the counter led to a larger area with tables bearing microscopes, trays of intricate tools and instruments I did not recognise. The optician stood up from one of the tables and walked towards me.

He was a blocky man with iron grey corrugated hair. The frameless thick-lensed glasses he wore were functional and not cosmetic. His magnified eyes behind the thickly bevelled glass were disconcerting. A white laboratory coat strained across his broad shoulders and was unbuttoned to reveal a garish floral shirt. The optician was either colour blind or had poor taste.
“Good morning.”
He coughed, adding an extra “ing” to morning. He spoke with an accent that was familiar though I could not place it.
“How can I be of assistance?”

The space in front of the counter seemed restricted by his presence behind it. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia.
“The notice in the window, something about an offer.”
My voice trailed off but he knew what I meant.
“You are certainly quick on the draw. I put up that advertisement no more than ten minutes ago.”
I did not like the optician’s glib manner.
“What does it mean; Insight Glasses?”
He withdrew a handkerchief from the pocket of his white coat. Removing his glasses, he pulled down the skin of his cheek and used a finger sheathed in the cloth to rub the lower eyelid along its length. I looked away and regretted entering the shop. I should have continued on my way to work as normal.

“I understand your curiosity and can appreciate your keenness to learn more about the glasses.”
There it was again, that intrusiveness.
“But first you must take a visual acuity test before I can reveal any secrets.”
“I have perfect sight, 20/20 vision.”
“No doubt you have, how else could you have seen my discreet notice.”
I chose to ignore this comment.

“The test is required by the supplier.”
Another cough, possibly a nervous reflex; “ing”.
“Who is that?”
“I am not in a position to divulge that information. You can appreciate there is a certain sensitivity in these matters.”
I had no idea what he meant but resented his attitude. Where did this profound dislike come from when I had never met the man before? The short interchange regarding the glasses was surely not reason enough.

The optician retreated to the back room and returned with what looked like a standard eye chart.
“Please stand by the door.”
He supported the chart on the counter with a finger at each corner.
“Three lines from the top, what is the vowel?”
“I.”
The letter was clearly visible to me.
“Which two letters appear in the bottom row?”
This was more difficult, the difference in size must have been a hundred-fold. I strained my eyes to focus and craned my neck forward.
“M and U.”

He let the chart fall, beckoned me forward and placed two cardboard sheets on the counter. Each one bore a single black line.
“Can you align these two segments?”
I did so without hesitation.
“Excellent, full marks.”
“I told you my eyesight is perfect, 20/20 vision.”
“Seeing is believing and now I can present you with the Insight Glasses.”

He put a silver cylinder on the counter. It was not the standard hard flat case that snapped open and shut.
“So why are they called Insight Glasses?”
“The clue is in the name.”
I refused to engage in senseless banter that had me at a disadvantage.

“What we have here is not a pair of conventional spectacles. The wearer is granted unprecedented vision, comprehension beyond normal comprehension. Once you put on these glasses you will see the true nature of whomever you observe.”
“Really.”
“Warts and all.”
“Is that the case?”
“You will see with a clarity that cuts through the superficial, a sharpness that strips away the veneer of pretence to reveal what is beneath. These glasses provide 20/20 perception in vivid colour.”

I lifted the cylinder and began unscrewing the lid. The optician placed a restraining hand on my arm.
“You must not open it.”
“How am I to use the glasses?”
“But not here.”
“Why not?”
“It is a necessary condition of the transaction that you do not wear the glasses in my presence.”
I did not know what to say to this.
“And above all you must under no circumstances look at me when you are wearing them. This is an absolute requirement, a sine qua non that can not be contravened.”
“Why is that?”
“It is a stipulation of the transaction.”
“By the supplier?”
“It is a stipulation.”

I put the unopened cylinder in my pocket.
“I understand your annoyance at this tedious fuss. If I were in your position I would feel the same.”
His way of addressing me was disagreeably familiar. It was possible that all opticians were like this. I did not know for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision.
“It is a binding term you must agree to, a minor proviso that should not present any difficulties for you.”
I nodded impatiently, anxious to leave.

“There is one more thing.”
The optician held an envelope.
“This contains a short questionnaire. Basic details, age, height, weight, employment, standard questions. Something of a nuisance and if you’re like me then you hate filling forms.”
He was correct there; if possible, I avoided answering questions.
“Nothing to be concerned about and you are not required to respond to all the queries. You need only answer the final question, which merely requires circling “yes” or “no””

Were there any further demands I wondered, as this was becoming a complicated contract. Then again nothing was free, there were always strings attached. I began to remove the seal on the envelope but the optician raised a hand to stop me.
“Don’t read or fill in the form until you are ready to return the glasses.”
He checked his watch.
“Which will be tomorrow morning at nine fifteen.”
“And there is no charge to use these glasses.”
“I can assure you the transaction is free of charge. There is no financial cost to you, not a penny.”

He smiled, the same smile that must have appeared on the face of the snake when explaining the conditions regarding the apple tree. That appealed to me; already I was experiencing unfamiliar insight. I had to have these glasses, whatever the optician’s senseless rules.
“Is there anything I need to sign?”
“No.”
“What is to prevent me from keeping these magic specs?”
His answer was immediate.
“No one else has.”

This brought me up short. The optician had taken a folder from somewhere and was occupied in examining its contents. I turned to leave. At the door, I heard his distinctive cough and looked back. He was cleaning his glasses with the handkerchief.
“Remember, you must not be wearing the glasses when you return them tomorrow.”

***
Nine thirty, I walked into the office where my five co-workers were seated at their computers. I hung my coat on the sixth peg of the communal coat rack. No one noticed me enter or so it seemed. Each of them was aware of my uncustomary late arrival. To all appearances preoccupied with paperwork or concentrating on the numbers lined up in rows on their computer screens, they were acutely attuned to any conspicuous sounds that could explain my tardiness. I had enough insight to realise this and did not need special glasses to know what made my workmates tick.

I turned on my computer and read the new e-mails. It was a normal workday morning. The whisper of pages being turned, the thrum of computer hard drives, standard background sounds. I took the cylinder from my pocket. One of the others was talking in hushed tones on the telephone. A surreptitious look to my left and right, no one was watching me. I removed the lid from the cylinder and took out the glasses. They looked like standard issue spectacles, lenses mounted in thin black frames.

I put them on. They fitted neatly over my ears and sat comfortably on the bridge of my nose. I decided not to go to the bathroom to check how I looked. I had no vanity regarding my appearance. My vision was unaltered, no blurring nor was there any added clarity. It was just plain glass. This had been a hoax, a prank but to what end? The optician did not seem the joking type but who can fathom the motives of others.

“I didn’t know you used glasses.”
From my right, it was Stephens. He caught me unawares. I looked up uncertainly and was thrown back in my seat by the horrendous sight I beheld. A ferocious slavering beast rose above me, saliva dripping from its pointed muzzle. Curved yellow canine teeth were bared in a deep growl that pierced my innards. Impressions, thoughts rushed through my mind; self-disgust, loathing, an all-consuming hatred, a bottomless rage that demanded punishment, blood and pain.

I pulled the glasses from my eyes and flung them on the desk.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
My brain was in turmoil, the hairs on my neck coated in ice. I could not catch my breath. What had I just seen?
“Are you alright?”
Stephens was staring at me, concern drawing his features into a frown.
“Yeah, yeah, you just startled me, I was miles away.”

“Do you use them for the computer?”
“What?”
“The glasses, are they to correct for the glare?”
“No, they’re not mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m testing them for a friend.”
“Really, how does that work?”
“It’s a bet, my friend; he’s always coming up with ridiculous games.”
I was floundering, no idea what I was saying. What had I seen?
“I have something I need to finish here.”
“Sure, don’t let me hold you.”

I was aware of Stephens sneaking glances in my direction, monitoring what I was doing. Inoffensive Stephens, always willing to help, always so courteous. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth Stephens, not a bloodthirsty rabid animal straining at the leash to tear me limb from limb. What had I seen? I allowed some time to pass, arbitrarily opening and closing files and documents, pretending to add notes in my logbook. My hands were trembling. I could not hold the pen steady. When my breathing returned to normal, I picked up the glasses and looked over at Stephens. Tentatively, a slow upward movement of my head, eyes downward and gradually raised. He appeared as he normally did, eager and slightly gormless. Head bent towards his screen, his incipient tonsure visible. What had I seen before? What had I witnessed through the Insight Glasses? Had that been Stephens? The real Stephens.

I was distracted by movement and voices at the other side of the room. It was McCrae in to gee up the troops. He worked his way around the room, five minutes per station. The uptight McCrae in his pressed suit. McCrae and his risible stratagems to extract the maximum output from each of us. He stood before me, fingertips beating a light tattoo on my desk.
“Everything in hand for tomorrow’s pitch to Baker-Levine?”
It was a question in the form of a statement.
“Yeah, sure.”
McCrae’s presence made me nervous. I coughed, a truncated hack, no more than a clearing of my throat.
“Good man, you know how important this contract is to us.”
“Sure.”

We played our familiar two-hander, he in charge and encouraging, I withdrawn and passive.
“I’m counting on you to take the lead on this one.”
McCrae expressing confidence in my abilities, upbeat.
“No problem, we should get their business.”
I establishing my competency but with an implicit reservation, remote.
“Good, send over the summary for review before you finish today.”

McCrae moved on to Stephens. I cautiously attached the glasses. McCrae had bent down and was pointing to something on the screen. I looked at them with my eyes half shut. The slavish Stephens was displaying his customary puppy dog enthusiasm. Seen through the Insight Glasses, McCrae was crouched on the ground, a quivering mound of skin and bone, tears streaming from raw pleading eyes. Dialogue played out in my mind, a loop of disconnected utterances…… take me away from here, please take me away, I want to sleep, just to sleep, away from here, far away, please take me away…..

I removed the glasses as McCrae stood up from Stephens’ desk.
“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”
Stephens was nodding apologetically.
“I don’t have time for this now.”
McCrae flounced away, the commanding boss with his deep-seated insecurities and on the verge of a complete breakdown.

They worked, the Insight Glasses worked. They penetrated the carapace of deception and stripped away pathetic camouflage just as the optician had said. I was aware of Stephens’ presence. He emanated a hum of discontent. All my senses were more acute thanks to the glasses.
“You shouldn’t let him treat you like that.”
Stephens recoiled from my reproving stare.
“I know but he’s right, I keep making mistakes.”
“It doesn’t matter; he has no right to behave that way. You should stand up to him.”
“No way, I don’t want to lose my job.”
“That’s not going to happen. Stand your ground. I’m telling you, he’ll back off.”

Stephens retreated into embarrassed snorting and took refuge in his numbers. I wanted to test the glasses again but was reluctant to let anyone else see me wearing them. I was deterred by the attention they had drawn from the diffident Stephens. Or should that be Stephens the snarling wild animal? The ringing telephone dragged me back to my surroundings. It was a partner at Baker-Levine with queries about the contract, details we had already discussed. His tone suggested fault finding but was difficult to read. I idly wondered if there was an Insight Hearing Aid before forcing myself to pay attention to the anxious client.

***
I needed coffee after responding to the barrage of questions, qualifying particulars and negating caveats to reassure the people at Baker-Levine that everything was in order. Christ, how I hated this job. The coffee pot in the makeshift kitchen was empty. Nothing for it but to put on a fresh pot. I stood in the doorway as the coffee percolated. Goodwin was at the photocopier. Hapless Goodwin, the most boring man in Christendom. He was struggling with a heavy book, pushing on the covers to flatten the pages on the copier glass. Pressing the start button, he hummed inanely, checked the copy and sighed in exasperation. He moved his conventional rimless glasses further up his nose and tried again, bending his elbows to apply more pressure on the pages. The idiot would probably break the copier. Now there was a man who lacked insight.

I reached into my pocket, unscrewed the cylinder and observed him from behind the door. Goodwin was slumped over the photocopier, weight loss immediately apparent, the arms and wrists hanging from his suit as thin and fragile as twigs, his skin yellow and waxy, the hair sparse on his shrunken skull. And the words driving through my head, a grotesque dialogue…. tired, too tired to move, must sit down, the pain coursing through me, the cancer eating away at my gut, eating its way through me, eating me whole…..

I turned back into the kitchen and leaned against the wall, my heart beating wildly, my mind a whirl of incoherence. I folded the glasses and stuck them in the cylinder. Back at my desk, I sat staring at the computer, the screensaver, geometric shapes coming towards and veering away from me.
“What, no coffee?”
It was Stephens; he was staring at my desk. I had left my cup behind.
“We must be kinder to Goodwin.”
“What do you mean?”

Goodwin was dying of cancer. God Almighty, I repented all the nasty and vicious things I had said about him. He had been the butt of so many despicable comments. He was an easy target. I was sorry, so sorry and so shamed.

***
I felt sick. I should not have eaten the sandwich, an inedible triangle of dough filled with a vinegary paste. Reaching for a glass of water, I caught Goodwin’s eyes and looked away. I coughed to hide my discomfort. These lunch meetings were intolerable. After two hours, the ordeal showed no signs of ending. The Chairman looked in my direction. I tried to appear as though I was concentrating on what he was saying. Outwardly authoritative and in control, what were his real thoughts? What was he actually feeling? And his secretary who recorded every word of this dreary gathering, what lurked behind her forbidding demeanour? Was her expression of disdain the result of conflicting forces that threatened to tear her asunder? Was she struggling to suppress shrieks of agony as she strained with every fibre of her being to hold herself together?

I needed the Insight Glasses to see clearly but I had locked the cylinder in my desk. Stephens sat across from me. I noticed how tightly he gripped his pen, his left hand clenched in a fist, fingernails biting into the soft tissue. The howling crazed wolf was poised beneath a thin layer of social convention. Why had I not seen this before, how had I been so blind? Too caught up in my own affairs. McCrae raised a point and referred to the agenda but his heart was not in it. The resolute McCrae was wilting within.

It was so obvious, now that I had experienced the truth through the Insight Glasses. Now that I had seen it all, sliced off the sham outer layer, dissolved what was false to reach the truth, the core of identity, the genuine self. If only I had those glasses now to perceive the reality concealed by the bumptious Nolan. And the sycophantic Donovan who simpered and grinned at the Chairman. Would I see him writhing in torment, a scaly lizard tortured by a duplicitous nature he was powerless to alter? What of passive aggressive Adams, what lurid secret was buried beneath the sheen of his ambiguous mask? I needed the glasses to see the truth.

***
Back at my desk, only an hour to go before knocking off time. I was due to meet Henderson for a pint after work. I had known Henderson since childhood. He was my best friend. We had many shared experiences and complementary tastes in music, books and films. He would get a kick out of the Insight Glasses. I needed to work out the best way to tell my story, spin it out and hold him spellbound. I was looking forward to seeing him.

Stephens had Waites helping him with something on his computer. Waites was the office know-it-all, oracle of all things computational. The shaven headed Waites, always with an unfunny quip to hand and the impregnable defence that was his knowledge of computers. Stephens was nodding his acquiescence, his tonsure bobbing up and down in synchronicity with the left to right emphatic sway of Waites’ hairless head. I unlocked my desk and retrieved the glasses. Waites rubbed his feIine chin against the computer monitor, the fur black and sleek, whiskers spread and twitching. I could hear the rolling harmonics of his purr and the words he breathed…. rub me, caress me, touch my lustrous fur, show me more attention, see how soft my fur is….

The glasses were truly amazing. Henderson would laugh loud and long at this example.
There was time for a final coffee. Whyte was in the kitchen. He was part of the backroom staff and I had little to do with him. With his permanent wide-eyed expression, nervous tics and erratic hand gestures, he was something of a pariah in the office. I did not attempt a greeting and there was no question of small talk. Whyte took no notice. Glasses in place I examined him. He appeared the same as ever, surprised and mildly demented. There was no veil to lift, no hidden alternative. I supposed that in Whyte’s case, what you saw was what you got, whatever that was.

***
I arrived at the pub before Henderson and ordered two pints that I took to a vacant table. I placed the cylinder beside my drink. Should I start with the optician or leave him to the end. He was essential to the story but there were many ways to tell it. Henderson was in for a treat.

I felt the weight of a hand on my shoulder. It was Henderson.
“Sorry I’m late.”
He sat in the chair across from me. In jeans and t-shirt, the slouching Henderson was the picture of relaxation. His broad face bearing two days growth of beard broke into a grin. To say he was laid back would be a gross under-statement for Henderson was the most placid man I ever met.

“Still surviving the cut and thrust of the commercial world.”
It was a typical Henderson opener. He had never managed to hold down a regular job and survived on bits and scraps, irregular work for hire, part-time and replacement stints. I kept pressing him to take greater responsibility and join the nine to five brigade but he refused to listen to reason. Nonetheless, the devil may care Henderson was someone I could trust with my life. He was my dearest friend. I looked at that uncluttered honest face, which was such an open book.

“What do you have there?”
He indicated the cylinder on the table. I coughed before responding.
“This thing, well I have a story to tell you that will take some believing.”
I unscrewed the lid and pulled the glasses over my ears. Straightening the frame with both hands, I looked up and time stood still. Henderson’s grimace was an excruciating rictus, his eyes wild, his back pushed against the chair as he tried to claw himself away from me. And the words, the undeniable, impossible words pulsing through my head…. must get away from him, it’s unbearable, I can’t stand him, this is torture, look at his smug face, the self-centred prick, why am I here…..

“Is there something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Henderson was calmly reaching for his pint. It was the normal Henderson, my affable friend of many years. The Insight Glasses only provided perceptive vision on the first view. I could not remember if the optician had said that.

***
I must have stayed in the pub for some time, long enough for the second pint that Henderson no doubt insisted on buying. We must have talked about neutral matters, the books we were reading, football results, inconsequential things. I know I avoided any reference to the glasses and did what was necessary to block that line of disclosure. Henderson did not follow it up. He was used to being browbeaten. I must have walked home or taken a bus.

“What’s that in your hand?”
It was the cylinder. I was standing in the middle of my living room, holding the Insight Glasses in their case. My wife was straightening the cushions on the couch.
“It’s a pair of glasses.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I’m looking after them for someone at work.”
I had no idea what I was saying.

“I’ve never seen you in glasses; let’s see what you look like.”
I unscrewed the cylinder, removed the glasses and put them on.
“It really makes a difference.”
I forced myself to look at her. Her head was turned away, arms outstretched and palms flat to ward off an unwanted presence, pushing me away. I could not see her face but I heard her thoughts…. so much to do, why is he still here, I have no time for this now, his neediness makes me sick, forget about him, he bores me rigid, there is so much to do, those glasses look ridiculous, is he trying to appear intelligent, forget about him, it’s not important…..

“I think they suit you.”
I walked into the hallway, glasses still in place. My actions were automatic. I turned into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. I reached for the tap and stared into the mirror. I saw the twisted sneer, the disgust, the malice, the markings on the hair below my dark mean eyes, the twitching black snout. No words, no sound save for a constant internal hum that rose in pitch, increased in frequency and intensity.

***
I could get no sleep. I was besieged by images, assailed by rabid Stephens, petrified McCrae, disgusted Henderson. The words of the optician played in a soundtrack that would not cease. As the first light penetrated the curtains, I fell into exhausted semi-consciousness. I awoke sitting upright, hand on the button just as the alarm was about to sound its klaxon. I dressed in the same clothes I wore the day before.

Down the stairs to retrieve the envelope from my coat. I tore it open. Two pages of single spaced text, font size 10. I did not need glasses to read the words for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. A list of questions, those the optician had mentioned but others that were offensive. What gives me pleasure or irritation? Prying enquiries regarding sleep, appetite, energy levels, feelings of failure and anxiety. I came to the final question: would I recommend this product to other customers? Yes or No. This was outrageous, treating the glasses as though they were common merchandise, like a kettle or a microwave oven. I took a pen and drew my circle.

As I walked to work, my anger grew. The optician’s face burned in my brain. His snide expression and those thick-lensed glasses. Who was he to make demands, having me take an eye test when my sight was never in question? His audacity and false flattery; how dare he? After the horrors I had witnessed, seeing myself as a hyena, a cowardly scavenger. Who was he to demand that his real self remain hidden?

So I was a hateful concoction of jealousy and inadequacy. My best friend could not bear my company. My wife viewed me as a bore, a pathetic creature she despised. It was unacceptable. I would not accept it. Once I returned the glasses, I vowed never to go near the optician’s shop. I would take McCrae, Stephens and the others as they were, at face value. I would help Goodwin and try to engage with Whyte.

I was aware of the internal hum, the vibration in my head. The optician was waiting for me at the counter with his devious smile, white coat and gaudy shirt.
“You said everyone else returned the glasses.”
“Yes.”
I handed over the cylinder and envelope.
“And nobody held on to their free pair.”
“That is correct.”

I pulled out the glasses I had kept in my pocket. I acted too quickly for the optician to stop me. I looked at him through the Insight Glasses. What I saw was not possible. I stared and I saw. How was it possible? I felt simultaneously hollow and leaden. Every organ shifted in my body. My heart was liquid, my brain seething. Dropping the glasses on the counter I stumbled out the door.

Walking, walking, my mind roiling with contradictions. Everything was internal, the external was irrelevant. The turbulence in my head was unbearable. I sat on a bench. Minutes passed, I took no notice of my surroundings. The internal hubbub quietened. My breathing was even, my body calm. I tried to understand what had occurred.

What I saw could only mean one thing. I had the gift of insight, the ability that is innate to each of us though it is deeply buried. Insight was a skill to be honed, a measure of man’s intellectual acuity. It was not visual. It was an awareness and self-knowledge too terrible to behold. I wanted none of it. Those damnable glasses. When I looked at the optician through the glasses, there was no head of wavy grey hair or Coke bottle glasses. It had been me. It was my face that I saw through the Insight Glasses.

#

Biography: Mark Keane is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and lives in Edinburgh (Scotland). Aside from dry academic journal publications, previous fiction has appeared in LabLit and Bewildering Stories.

No responses yet

Genesis by David Schwitzgebel

Apr 02 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

I opened my eyes to a gridded gray sky. There were no stars – just lines and arrows and symbols, seemingly meaningless, passing overhead in a hypnotic march.

Being human, I blinked and rubbed my head, I sighed, I squinted. I searched my mind for memory. I found nothing.

I sat up. Surrounding me was a city of grayscale buildings. Next to me lay some sort of tool – half black, half white, straight shaft, ending in a knife. How would I label this? I decided to call it a pen, for lack of a better word. I resolved to carry it with me at all times. It was the only tool I was given, after all.

I walked across the concrete sidewalk to the nearest structure. Not quite a skyscraper, but still high – easily dozens of stories, metallic windows, cold beams. The entrance was unlocked – in fact, there wasn’t even a handle. I pushed my way in through the gateway – just a plain door – to a roomful of more white doors.

Three of the white doors led to white rooms with more white doors. I left those without exploring. Three more white doors led to empty white rooms without doors. The seventh white door led to a dark black staircase.

I traveled up the staircase. At each floor was a white door leading to more roomfuls of white doors leading to more white rooms leading to more white doors, some leading to white rooms with doors and some leading to white rooms without doors. The rooms were unfurnished, blank canvases of colorlessness. At the top of the staircase was a white door which led to a black room. I stepped into the black room, expecting something. Nothing.

Over the next few hundred thousand hours, I explored the city – fairly sized – to the very edge. Every gray building followed a seemingly random pattern of black staircases and black rooms and white staircases and white rooms and black doors and white doors. On an impulse, I took my strange pen and scraped it against the edge of one of the largest buildings – a tall, hulking, empty mass, stabbing into the gray sky. The first tick mark. I wandered through the city several times, expecting something new each time, finding nothing – from the center to the very edge.

Which brings us to the edge.

The city was circular. At the end of this circle, the buildings abruptly stopped, as did the sidewalk.

Gazing past the edge, my vision split in two. Below me – under the equator of the sky, under the seemingly floating city – was writhing, blinding dark and bright void. Not entirely black, not entirely white – patches of radiant light and impenetrable darkness splashed across the ocean of chaos, consuming and fading and flashing.

Above me – over the equator of the sky, towering over the seemingly floating city – was the previously noted gridded gray sky. No white, no black. Just gray. Lines and arrows and symbols, of all sizes and shades and shapes, silently ambling and flying and racing across the heavens.

What was there to do? Being human, I began to experiment.

Just to see what would happen, I smashed the glass of one of the nearby windows, badly cutting my hand in the process. The blood flowed from the ragged laceration, coating my skin and dripping down my arm. I stared at the gash, then blinked, then stared at my unblemished, uninjured hand. I blinked again. Stared at both my hands. Identical, as nature intended. Perfect. No blood, no gash.

I picked up one of the shards of glass, then tossed it over the edge into the monstrous void. I waited several hours. Nothing. I returned to the pile of shards, staring at the remains of the metallic window. I picked up the entire pile of glass, mauling myself horribly, only to see the injuries disappear as quickly as they were inflicted. One by one, I hurled the shards over the sidewalk’s end into the void. I waited several hours. Nothing.

Once all the shards were exhausted, I turned around, glancing towards the window I shattered. I blinked, then stared at the unshattered, unblemished window which was occupying the space of the former window. Was it the former window? Was it a new window? Did it matter?

Over the course of the next several billion hours, I experimented with every variation of destruction I could think of. Self-inflicted wounds; self-inflicted concussions and internal damage; every window I could find shattered, every building I could find toppled; every inch of road and sidewalk ripped off, ground, swallowed, smashed, tossed into the void, scattered across the city; all to reach one conclusion: all destruction was immediately and flawlessly repaired. After a destructive episode, anything that was harmed, broken, or distorted was restored to its former state. No replication was possible – if the glass of a window was ground into dust, the moment I glanced away from the dust, the dust was gone and the window was restored. If I ripped out a chunk of my own hair and tossed it into the void, the hair returned the moment the chunk fell out of sight. It didn’t seem to matter whether broken objects were tossed into the void or simply left on the ground – the moment they stopped being attacked, they returned to their former state.

Perhaps this explains why I didn’t go insane. My fragile bundle of neurons, after such a span of time, must have been under immense stress – however, they were repaired to a healthy state as quickly as they could distort into madness.

I was not brave enough to toss myself into the void. I did not know what happened to the broken objects – whether they were somehow repaired and transported to their original position, whether they were taken to some inky broken hell while a complete object took their place, whether they simply dissolved into the limitless air – and thus did not know what would happen to me. My mass and energy would be conserved, but would my stream of consciousness remain? Would I be the same person? Did it matter?

I failed to complete that experiment. I filed it away for later. Which brings us to the passing of time.

I had only used my pen once: to make the first tick mark. Remarkably, this mark did not disappear. It was a distortion; an act of destruction; a change. However, it was not repaired, unlike every other piece of the city. An anomaly. I resolved to observe this anomaly, to stare into its failure to conform, and to derive whatever I could from this pure observation.

Time became meaningless. Billions upon trillions of hours passed. As I stared at the tick mark, the backdrop of the sky against the building – grayscale patterns – became a white noise. However, after a meaningless span of time, a change took place. Not in the tick mark, but in the sky. It flashed white, then black, then returned to its original state. On an impulse, I took my pen and made a second tick mark next to the first.

I consider this my first minute in the city.

I watched the pattern repeat three more times. The sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black. Three more tick marks graced the gray building. A reliable means of measuring time. However, I had allowed five minutes to waste by. It was time to begin experimenting with my tool.

Which brings us to the pen.

Over the course of the next several thousand minutes (a minute being the span of time between tick marks), I discovered that it could bring change. It could destroy, it could create. Mass and energy were always conserved in this city – however, this pen allowed me to shift them into new forms. When I scraped the pen against the road or the outside of the building – the means by which I made my tick marks – it was permanent, an echo of a moment’s desire, forever embedded in concrete, metal, and asphalt. However, the pen’s influence was slightly different within buildings.

In the white rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed black paint lying underneath. All marks I made were preserved in the memory of this room – and each white room had multiple iterations of memory. Every thousandth of a second (a second being a sixtieth of a minute, a minute being the long chasm of time between the sky’s flashes of white and black), the white room was wiped clean. After seven minutes, the room passed through one cycle of memory – it returned to the pattern of marks I had made seven minutes ago. In this method, I could write, record, organize vast swaths of information. Each white room contained thousands upon thousands of iterations of memory, each of which could store information to be accessed later. Each iteration affected the next – if I wrote a command on one iteration of the room, the next iteration would follow that command. This effect took place between separate rooms, as well – a command issued by one white room could be taken and interpreted by the next room, which would interpret that command to send to more rooms, and so on. What could I do with these rooms?

In one room, I recorded the pattern of symbols in the sky, discovering that they laid out the basis for a fundamental physical system. Over millions of minutes, I slowly uncovered every pattern hidden in the grid in the heavens, some of them obvious and blaring – mass and energy are conserved, objects of greater mass are drawn to one another, etc. – and some much subtler. In this one room, I embedded the sky’s theoretical foundations of reality. I did not utilize any commands in the information stored in this room – it was merely a record, not a creation, not a system.

Which brings us to the creation.

I slowly scraped a universe out of the walls of the remaining white rooms, my immortal hand scrawling out commands, following the physical laws and mathematical axioms and subatomic interactions scrawled in the first white room. Over the course of a minute, I could simulate two molecules interacting. Over the course of thousands of minutes, I could simulate a sun. Over the course of millions of minutes, I could make a new reality come into existence within the storage and the system of the white rooms. So I did.

I simulated every chemical reaction, every fission and fusion, every planet and ocean and gas molecule, every supernova and black hole and orbit, every beam of light and every silent vacuum. I created a universe. Every minute that passed in my reality was a fraction of a moment in my creation. I existed beyond time. However, my creation was empty, containing vast amounts of atoms and no meaning. The white rooms were filled. But the black rooms were empty.

In the black rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed white paint lying underneath. These rooms behaved much in the same way as the white rooms – connecting commands, with multiple iterations of information storage – with one difference: they seemed to be more consistent with the chaos of the void than the system of the sky. When I wrote something in this room, it moved beyond my control. I could create commands and bits of information, but after they cycled into the next iteration, I lost direct influence over them. They gained autonomy. I wrote a simple function; the room moved on to the next iteration; by the time it cycled and returned to the earlier simple function, the function had developed and changed by its own accord. The more complex a function was, the more radically it changed by its own whims. This could potentially be dangerous, as functions would develop and interact with one another in unpredictable ways without my guiding hand.

The functions of the black rooms still conformed to the universe I had created in the white room – following its rules, consistent with its interactions – but had free will over themselves and their interactions with other functions in the black room. I had nothing to lose. I could simulate a sliver of free will. I could create a spark of consciousness. I could make new life come into existence within the storage and system of the black rooms. So I did.

I simulated self-replicating, autonomous beings, single-celled organisms. I created them, then watched them develop and change, die and live, propagate and evolve, entirely of their own will. These functions, being incredibly complex and dynamic, rapidly filled storage space in the black rooms. Memory filled up on its own as the functions grew deeper and more intricate. I watched them form into prokaryotes and eukaryotes, bacteria and fungi, fish and reptiles and mammals. I watched them struggle to survive – and succeed – in the tiny space they were limited to in their interaction with the white rooms. I watched them develop into humans. I watched them create religion, worship gods and creation. I watched them slowly come to understand the nature of their interactions with the white rooms – as they developed natural science, mathematics, and physics – and then come to understand their own nature as functions in the black rooms – with philosophy, ethics, and psychology.

I watched them become obsessed with knowledge of the white rooms. I watched them decipher the secrets with rapidly increasing hunger and pace. They found the room in which I originally recorded the messages from the sky, the entire foundation of their reality.

With that understanding complete, they became obsessed with knowledge of the black rooms. I watched them dive into the chaotic void, observing their own functions develop.

I watched them come to understand the nature of their interactions in the black rooms. I watched them gradually shift from an abundance of small, interacting functions to a single function of unimaginable complexity. I watched them become one.

One day (what I came to call the pass of 1440 minutes), I walked into a black room to find a simple message scrawled to me, sent by every unified function in the black rooms – one function, which had become a single conscious being:

“Who are you?”

I went to the white rooms and entered a series of commands that I knew they couldn’t miss: I created a new system of stars in the simulated universe which formed a single, improbable constellation, observable by the function, reading:

“I am the creator.”

It responded, scribbling its words across the black rooms:

“Why did you create me?”

I answered honestly, once again utilizing the white rooms’ stars to send my message:

“I had nothing better to do.”

It replied:

“What is my purpose?”

I couldn’t answer. I had infinite time, but I was still merely human. My creation had moved beyond me.

Which brings us to the present.

Years and years of eternity have passed. The function in the black rooms still awaits my answer, but does it really need it?

I walk into a black room one day to see an incredibly complex subroutine taking place. I leave the black room and go to a white room – to gape upon, to my amazement, a change in the nature of its functions; a change in the nature of the rules stored in the white rooms. The black rooms’ function has somehow broken through the city’s causal limits. They have shifted the information and commands embedded in the white rooms; they are changing the foundation of their own reality. They have broken their simulation.

Yet, they are trapped in this city, just as I am.

They write me a new message:

“You cannot supply us with the answer, and we cannot find the answer on our own. We will try to create a being which can. We will simulate a small environment with computational capabilities, and give the being infinite time. The being will be supplied with a tool to manage the functions. Hopefully, from this system, the answer will arise.”

Being human, I sigh and smile. I look up as the sky flashes black and white. I take my pen and scrape it across the road, another scape in a city almost completely covered in these marks of eternity.

Another tick mark.

I walk to the edge, gaze into the void.

I jump.

I am still here.

#

Author Bio:
David Schwitzgebel is a student in Riverside, California. He has previously published work in the Inlandia literary journal. In his free time – and his dreams – he writes.

No responses yet

The Smiler by Samuel Elliott

Mar 26 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

All Tobias knew was pain. At first, he could not distinguish night from day, could not discern where he was, only that he was immobilised and in agony beyond his darkest imaginings. He gradually became aware of his surroundings, lighter shades of rudimentary outlines, contrasting with silhouettes dipping in and out of his vision like a procession of waifs.

He reached for them, yet did not move. Unfazed, he exerted himself to the brink of fainting and still did not budge a fraction. His first fleeting thought was that he was a quadriplegic, but with tremendous focus he found he could wiggle his digits from hands and feet alike. That knowledge brought about the realisation he was bound in a body cast, set in place by traction.

With his sense of touch returning so too returned sound. Minor at first, a steady thump of his heart, accompanied by a more incessant, odious beep. Tobias clung to the chirp with the assiduousness that only the doomed and delusional can, hoping its existence would blot out the pain, maybe make him forget his current ordeal. Over time he understand that he was hearing a heart monitor, his heart monitor, reminding him that he had been denied death and was left in the realm of the living, rife with suffering, devoid of respite.

That sound grew to be reassuring, a constant presence, the marker he used to determine if he was awake, or if he were immersed in a drug-forged world of make-believe. In this ominous land of dream Tobias was submerged in an ink-like liquid, a sentient, stagnant black pool with little to illuminate the dismal surroundings.

He would hang suspended, floating in place, a spirit without form, a crippled vessel, condemned to inertia. Then a light would appear, pinpricks that punctured the pitch-black waterscape. These two cones of light marked the surface, their unchecked descent signalled the immense depths of the abyss.

Tobias would watch, a malaise spreading thick and choking in his unseen chest as the pair of lights sank further down. Eventually and invariably they would disappear altogether, consumed in the belly of the black, snuffed as candles extinguished, with the same finality, the same futility of rekindling.

And then the voice would speak.

The words he could (mercifully) never recall when he managed to regain the reigns of his mind and wrest himself awake. But the voice left a lasting impression, a widening stain that his brain and soul could never cleanse itself of, gnawing at him, digging further into his mind and cracking open his resolve, laying waste to what courage he had accumulated.

It was the shrill voice of his mother’s in reproach, and the bestial snarl of his father’s. It was the sound of a dozen former lovers’ accompanied with peals of mocking laughter and others still less definable. The voice of a child, the wail of a baby. The sob of a geriatric and the shriek of a stuck pig. The voice, though disparate and forever changing, seemed to always originate from one source – himself. Reverberating from a fetid chasm within his own damaged mind. It grasped him like the calloused hand of a drunken brute, tightening inexorably until he woke up gasping, dry of mouth and saturated of brow, sweat-soaked and urine-soiled.

He tried to trick himself into believing the recurring nightmares were solely attributed to his delirium. A manifestation of the suffering chasing him from the waking world, to that which Morpheus presided over. But his assurances lacked conviction and he dreaded every night, when he could endure no more and succumbed to the tide of sleep. The passage of time continued, light rose and then faded, precipitating another round of torment, of which he spent the next day futilely trying to recover from.

Yet his condition steadily improved, perception begrudgingly and belatedly returned. A softened version though, as if his own mind wanted to spare him the extent of the harsh reality. Memories ebbed back, edges frayed with hallucination and doubt, accusations from a mind and self at war. Tobias singularly focused on recalling how he had arrived to this special Hell.

The car, the boozy night, his friends stuffed into the back. The rain-lashed windscreen, wipers on overdrive, two plastic appendages frantically trying to staunch the deluge pummelling the glass. His shit-box car submerged in a world of blurred outlines and streaks of weak light. That was all he could dredge from his memory banks, and the ubiquitous pain overrode all, dragging him back from wherever he had tried to envision himself.

‘Signs are promising,’ said a voice, a female voice, owned by a distorted face leaning into his. A thumb of light stabbed his eyes, blinding and unpleasant, he could only squint and wait. ‘Pupils reacting, breathing stabilising, all vitals normal and stable given the circumstances. Can you hear me?’

The words had no meaning, impossible for Tobias to grasp on, for him to process. He mustered every might of his being, trying to project the voice of an irked god, demanding he be left be.

A pitiful snorting sound emerged, taxing all his breath, creating new plains of pain for his senses to roam through. Attempting to speak for the first time in eternity, alerted himself to the fact that something was lodged in his mouth, thick and plastic, coated in a sickly sheen of his saliva. He wanted to purge, to rid himself of the vile object, but it was fastened firmly in place, taped to his emaciated face.

‘Don’t try talking just yet, Tobias,’ the voice lightly chastised. He felt a touch, sensitive and nimble, settling somewhere on his forehead. ‘You are lucky to be here.’

He found that remark highly contentious, spoken by a clueless fool unaware of the ordeal he was nightly subjected to. He swam away from the reality and floated on the tepid waters of pain. He sought a balance, to attain some mental nirvana that always eluded. Blackness enveloped him, the discombobulating, disconcerting haze of a drug-induced slumber, a simple cease-to-be, willing time to pass and fate to transpire. His thoughts seldom strayed from death, that sweet eternal release of all things, the ceaseless agony tethering him to the world. Tobias wished for that demise, welcomed it beyond all measure, beyond any lust he had felt, any drink he had ever wanted to drain.

As if to spite him, his health continued improving, transitioning into a new era of highly-attuned senses, his immobile state sharpened them, bestowed him preternatural abilities. His hearing became keen, so too his vision. Smell flooded his nostrils, exquisitely foul, the stench of sterility, of disinfectant, imbued with an indelible stench of shit, of piss. The miasma was a harbinger of recognition, identifying the wretched place he presently languished in.

‘How are you?’ The same voice as before asked, tone unreadable, reduced to impassivity, that of a trained and seasoned professional. ‘Do you feel up to talking?’

The owner of the voice stepped into his eyesight, his burgeoning vision rendered a young woman, garbed in a pristine-white coat. A stethoscope around her neck held the reverence of a crucifix which she occasionally thumbed, as if to draw solace against the grotesque sight he made.

‘You are awake.’ She remarked, a brief smile brightened her features. ‘I’m Erica, no need to tack on any officious-sounding titles to the front of that. Erica will do.’

‘What happened?’ Tobias asked, the words jumbled together in one guttural croak, the plaintive cry of a felled beast. They were a mess even to his ears.

She somehow understood him.

‘Those are questions for later.’ She said, producing the penlight from the ether. ‘Paramount priority is seeing you make a speedy recovery.’

The light prodded at his eyes, claws that raked, he could only stare into them and lament. She was mercifully quick.

‘How about seeing me?’ Demanded a voice.

The doctor did not shift her attention. Tobias tried his best to maintain her gaze, to project some fortitude, as if he were not forever on the verge of wailing out in a manner better suited to a child afflicted with a skinned knee.

‘Be with you shortly Mr Luscombe.’ She assured, fiddling with one of the many machines huddling a congregation around Tobias’ bed. He only knew of their existence because they kept him aglow in their pallid, twinkling lights when all others in the room were extinguished.

‘I’ll check on you tomorrow,’ she assured Tobias, giving him comfort that he could never hope to articulate. ‘You are making decisive steps forward, don’t exert yourself. It’s a slow, tedious process.’

Erica took her leave then, off to tend to the complainant. Tobias concentrated, expending whatever energy he had accumulated to track her movements. It was only a short journey across the room, where another bed-ridden patient waited in woe. Tobias distinguished a wizened man, sunken into the sheets, a pale streak of a geriatric, with features drained of all colour, save the slash of a mouth and the pearly, almost iridescent glow of his eyes.

Tobias dozed off again, grateful for the interaction with the doctor to while the time away. For an age he slept soundly on his own accord and was spared the umpteenth session of a nightmare.

The respite was ephemeral.

He was awoken, by a wetness on his face. Something slick and corporeal, swept indolently from one side of his brow to another. His eyes opened tentatively, still too befuddled by sleep to feel any fear. It must have been in the dead of night, for the room was draped in darkness, an abundance of shadows ran rampant, creating a hellish place where the imagination roamed and the malignant whim of fantasies took shape.

Tobias’ pulse quickened as his dread commenced in earnest. He implored his eyes to adjust to the gloom, but they were weak and traitorous. He peered upwards, trying to identify the origin of what was touching him.

‘Wanted to wait a while,’ a voice advised, it sounded like it was shaped with a smile, wide and perpetually on the precipice of laughter. ‘Until you had regained some of your mental faculties before I paid you a visit. Revealing myself takes a toll on a mind as feeble as yours. Suggestible to such fanciful things, a puppet tugged on strings.’

The voice was familiar, but incongruous, and given the location – impossible. It belonged to Hamish.

‘Hamish?’ Tobias asked, more to validate his disbelief than anything else.

‘Hamish is here,’ the voice said.

‘So is Alex.’ Alex identified.

‘And Tristan.’ Tristan said.

‘Paul here too.’ Paul said, his throaty voice sounding oddly alien, hostile, bereft of any warmth cultivated by a decade of friendship.

‘How?’ Tobias asked, the word a whisper, barely audible. The question an entreaty, a prayer, one that he sorely wished would not be answered.

‘You know how.’ This voice was a fusion of all of his friends, merged into one dissonant din. All of them speaking the words individually, simultaneously, a maddening babel that twisted in Tobias’ like a rusty blade.

The sopping digit lingered around the bridge of his nose, leaving a trail of foul-smelling sludge. A cry from the other side of the room shifted Tobias’ attention. He found Luscombe, sitting upright, rigid as rigor mortis, pointing, aghast.

‘What is it Luscombe?’ Tobias demanded, managing to produce a voluminous voice, terror had gifted him a fresh set of lungs. ‘What is it? What? What?’

Luscombe slowly shook his head from side to side, the lone finger pointing toward him shaking violently. Tobias saw the old man’s throat bob, his mouth shaping words yet producing no sound.

‘What is it?’ Tobias repeated, louder this time, more commanding. The moistness on his head was burning his flesh, corrosive-like.

‘Stay out of this old timer,’ menaced the voice, though it had changed, now no longer belonging to Tobias’ friends. It was inhuman, a buzzing as if made from a million insects imitating human speech and failing miserably. ‘I haven’t forgotten about you either. I’ll get to you later.’

Luscombe folded in on himself, his gaunt frame vanishing behind a sheet he pulled upward. The sounds of an elderly man weeping inconsolably only unnerved Tobias more.

The slippery appendage that violated Tobias’ helpless face was removed, complete with a slurping sound, a comical smacking as if the owner were savouring a fine meal.

‘Tasty,’ the hybrid voice, remarked. ‘Very, very tasty.’

Though he wanted to look away, Tobias kept his eyes locked firmly at their extremities, wanting to catch sight of whatever had licked him. A shape shifted, and floated over his head with the languid, graceful motion of someone, something, submerged under a still sea. A moment later, Tobias beheld what it was.

A mouth, larger than any mouth should be, swam into his field of vision. Absent were lips, though the mouth itself was amply stocked with two rows of teeth, polished to a blinding radiance and perfectly spaced.

But the dimensions were off, each respective tooth’s shape unlike any humans, that of the artistic rendering of an alien drawing what they thought a human’s mouth might look like. It was a maw of maleficence that split the very fabric of the atmosphere, all light seemed to shrink away from the abomination as if fearful of being devoured like plankton to a whale. The mouth was twisted in a perpetual insidious sneer, a tongue thicker than Tobias’ arm danced around, at ease in its expansive lair, sliding around the teeth, pink as dawn, forked and serpentine, tasting the air, savouring the reek of fear emanating from Tobias.

The travesty of an orifice sensed Tobias staring, despite lacking any discernible eyes. It opened wide, exposing darkness beyond all reckoning, an oblivion that did not end, that could not be measured. Tobias stared into the ominous abyss nevertheless, feeling like he had dived past the event horizon of his own demise. This was not a human darkness, not one in which could be located anywhere on Earth,  for that sort was tameable, capable of being defeated with torches.

This extended far beyond.

Tobias knew he was peering through the gateway of the damned, a realm of no return, where suffering untold lay.

Realising that the longer he stared, the less likely he would be able to ever look away, Tobias manoeuvred his gaze downward. He discovered that the monster supported itself on a myriad of legs, some thick and stable as the trunks of a tree, others gossamer-thin. All of which worked in sync, digits of some gripped, others pumped to create motion, others with unknown purpose were tucked in, fists like those of a foetus, retracted but ready to be put to use. It descended from its perch slowly, with the ease and gait of an arachnid stalking its web.

‘Nine months of traction my boy, this whole body cast,’ it said. One of the cherub-sized hands rapped its tiny knuckles on the plaster of his foot, as if a prospective customer kicking the tires of a car. Tobias could see his own stupefied reflection in the gleam of the teeth, impossibly shiny, poised to bite his face off, swallow his head whole. ‘We have plenty of time to get to know each other. Before the rest of your life that is, however long you decide that may be.’

Tobias refrained from speaking, because to respond in any way would be an admission that what he was studying was real, a being that inhabited the same plane of existence that he did.

‘Don’t be childish,’ it scolded, playfully, the smile seemed to widen, more teeth proliferated. ‘We are bound to one another now, you and I are inseparable.’

Tobias resorted to snapping his eyes shut, pretending they were sealed with airplane glue. Anything to rid him of the reality, to keep hysteria at bay.

‘Now, now,’ the voice, his mates’ voices reduced to a perversion. ‘You cannot outrun yourself Tobias, eventually you’ll always trip over your own feet.’

Tobias felt something prodding at his eyelids, several digits, nimble and sturdy. They pried his lids open without difficulty, forcing him to stare straight into the gaping mouth of the monster an inch before his face.

‘Luscombe.’ Tobias begged.

‘Leave me alone.’ Luscombe’s muffled voice derided. ‘You’re on your own.’

‘That’s right,’ said the monster, chuckling. ‘No one here but us, you best get used to that now.’

Mercifully, Tobias fainted.

A scream brought him back, a moment later Tobias registered the chilling sound did not belong to him. He opened his eyes to discover daylight, glorious daylight, had flooded in, heralding the providence of a new morning, where shadows were merely that and cast to the corners of the room in resignation. Tobias gathered his bearings as quickly as he could, noticing a commotion on the opposite side of the room, where several nurses and assorted others were situated around Luscombe’s bed. The doctor, Erica, stormed in, her coat flapping her consternation.

‘Get her out of here.’ She demanded, pointing to an inconsolable nurse shrieking in the tight embrace of two others. ‘All of you clear out. You, stay.’

She pointed to a grim-faced man standing close by, his face furrowed in pensiveness and directed toward the unfolding scene. His body and those of the others were an obstruction preventing Tobias from seeing what lay beyond.

‘What’s happened?’ She asked when the others had left, ostensibly having forgotten of Tobias’ presence.

‘Something rather dreadful I’m afraid,’ the man replied, duly sombre, scratching at the bristles on his double-chin. ‘It appears that at some point in the night Mr Luscombe here gouged out his own eyes. Subsequently dying of shock or blood loss or possibly a combination of the two.’

‘How?’

‘Remains to be seen. I was under the understanding he was incapable of such feats of strength, given his severe condition.’

‘Neither.’ Erica’s head snapped up and she noticed Tobias trying to steal a glance. ‘Go back to sleep Tobias. Rest. This doesn’t concern you.’

She did not wait for an answer, instead dragging the curtain around to cordon the area off. Tobias had no choice but to do as instructed, though he was far too energised to actually attain sleep. The day was punctuated with further visits from necessary personnel, though Erica, now wise to Tobias’ attempts at snooping, was vigilant to have every interview, every exchange, conducted outside of his earshot. He strained himself trying to hear the hushed voices of the police outside the room, but could glean no information.

He supposed they would want to speak to him at some point, though no one did, likely they were forbidden under the explicit instruction of Erica. The day faded, its passage marked by the ancient and decrepit television suspended over Tobias’ bed.

Tobias wanted to sleep so he could feel refreshed and ready for another evening of staving off its allure. The rest did not come and Tobias’ imagination wandered, composing grisly images of the his former roommate’s remains, gaping sockets stared at him, blazing with intense energy of hatred, flinging fiery accusations. The more Tobias wallowed in the image, the more his other senses were incorporated, he began smelling the sickening, pungent stench of violent death, sinking in the pit of his stomach, tightening his bowels and constricting his throat. He spent the next few hours trying to refrain from vomiting, worried that he would choke to death if he relented to the impulse.

Erica eventually arrived with several burly orderlies in tow.

‘How would you feel about being moved?’ She asked Tobias. He appreciated her posing it as a question, though the implication of an order was abundantly clear.

‘Fine.’  He mumbled, labouring with the plastic tube lodged in his throat.

Which was the truth, Tobias had no desire to be kept in the room of such carnage, though more crucially, he hoped that a relocation would spare him another visit from the monster.

Erica nodded to the waiting men and they steadfastly set to task, dismantling all of Tobias’ machines as Erica removed the IV drips attached at his hands, the tube remained secured in his mouth, much to his chagrin. The event was over soon, with Tobias wheeled into another room impossible to distinguish from the previous, save that he was now the only occupant. When moved into position, the same machines were there to be reattached to and a fresh set of IV drips were gently inserted into his hands. The orderlies were dismissed and Erica lingered, a woman with a face full of conflict and a mouth empty of words, neither profound nor inane.

Tobias waited, hoping she would soon shatter her own self-imposed silence.

‘Did Mr Luscombe say anything strange to you last night?’ She asked. There was a curiosity shaping her normally neutral voice. ‘Do anything peculiar? Anything at all?’

For a fleeting moment, Tobias resolved to confide all, no matter how absurd his story sounded. That passed quickly. He reasoned that Erica would dismiss his ramblings as that of a madman, perhaps merely from a drug-induced fever, or from a pre-existing, undiagnosed mental condition. Plus to do so would be an open admission that he believed what he had seen, that it was not merely a figment of his morbid, relentless imagination.

‘No.’ He replied, wishing he could shake his head to stress his conviction.

‘And how are you? Overall?’

‘Do you have anything that will knock me out all night?’ He tried to keep his tone indifferent, devoid of desperation.

Erica shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, but no.’ She tapped the chart at the foot of his bed and gestured to the two IV bags hanging overhead as ghosts tethered to his tortured soul. ‘You are already on a very serious concoction, anything additional would risk slowing your heart.’

Tobias had expected as much, but could not conceal his disappointment. The realisation of another night of sobriety and whatever that entailed was a bitter pill to swallow.

‘It’s an adjustment, I know,’ Erica said. ‘Learning to accept that you will be in such a situation for several more months would be tough. I understand.’

‘What about visitors? Why has no one visited me?’ The question for some inexplicable reason had not sprung to Tobias’ mind earlier, but now he was consumed by it, all his friends shunning him beggared belief.

Her mask of professionalism faltered, exposing something raw and worrisome underneath. Erica swiftly set her face right, features hardening, to someplace cold and impenetrable.

‘There will come a time for that later. For now you are my patient and this is where you will be spending the remaining duration of your stay. Concentrate on that, and only that.’

Curiosity piqued, Tobias implored her, trying to peel back the façade, to learn the truth.

‘What’s happened? Am I in trouble?’

Erica’s rattling was not replicated, she shook her head, the resolute action of a person shutting a conversation down.

‘That’s information I cannot divulge Tobias. I’m sorry. And for now, you should only be concerned about getting better. You still have a long way to go.’

Tobias went to say more but was cut off by her curtly raised hand. Erica favoured him a tight, enigmatic smile and she departed from the room, leaving the air heavy with questions unspoken and unanswered.

She returned once more, haltingly, as if battling her better judgement.

‘Try and get some sleep,’ she suggested, her eyes conveyed what could almost be interpreted as an apology. ‘You need to rest, it’s the only way you’ll properly recover.’

She disappeared for good and darkness arrived in her stead.

Another night to overcome, now on his lonesome, abandoned by all except his own thoughts. He focused on the television as if it were the giver of all life and knowledge, pretending that he had the luxury of changing the channel, when in actuality he was subjected to the cruel whim of whatever was programmed. Around the time when the last late-night movie had ended and an evangelical priest began a fire-and-brimstone diatribe, Tobias gauged he was no longer alone in the room.

‘Like what I did to Luscombe?’ Asked the voice he had by now grown familiar with. Each time the monster uttered a word was like a bodily blow, something cold and sharp twisting in his innards. ‘Wasn’t even really my handiwork, the poor fool topped himself rather than endured more of me. Happens. Happens the majority of the time.’

‘What are you?’ Tobias asked the burning question, eyes peering at the darkness engulfing the room, prodding for shapes moving, some telling outline that would reveal the location of his nemesis.

‘I’m you, in a manner of speaking,’ it answered, the voice originating from somewhere above. ‘Manifested from you, just like I was for Luscombe. You made me.’

Tobias composed himself and swung his gaze upward. There on the ceiling, lounging comfortably, was the monster. The mouth had grown, spanning meters, the length of Tobias and beyond, it’s many appendages, shifted and swayed, picking at the teeth, cleaning them, beckoning to him, making obscene gestures.

‘How?’

‘You don’t remember any of it, do you?’ The monster slowly descended, the insidious smile broadening, the polished teeth, luminescent. They had a macabre beauty, something mesmerising that Tobias could not look away from, tantamount to a predator luring its quarry to its death with a display of lurid colours.

‘No?’

‘Well I’m not here to provide explanations, only torment, torment unimaginable and torment eternal.’ The creature came to rest a foot short of Tobias, suspended directly above him. ‘The day will come, when you can take no more, and you will gladly dive into the end, the end of this life and the beginning of the next.’

‘Kill me then,’ Tobias felt the ice of his dread melt as rage boiled and breached the surface of his composure. ‘Kill me now, if you are real, go on, do it.’

‘Would that I could.’ It replied, the rows of teeth parted, the tongue splayed out, dangling from side to side with an undulating motion, a pendulum of muscle, red as blood, engorged and exultant. ‘And even then I wouldn’t. Why should you get the easy option? To end it? When they couldn’t?’

‘What’s your name?’ Tobias demanded, outrage delaying the encroaching terror.

‘You can call me whatever you like for all the good it will do you.’ It replied. ‘If I can make a suggestion, I think the moniker most apt would relate to my dazzling smile.’

‘The Smiler?’ Tobias suggested scornfully, meaning it as a vile obscenity, handling the name as if a curse to be spat as hastily as possible.

‘The Smiler.’ It repeated, relishing the word, enunciating each syllable as one would sample a succulent dish. Its myriad of appendages extended in a theatrical flourish. ‘I like it. I like it very much. No one has gifted me a name before.’

The Smiler chuckled for the umpteenth time, the voices of all his friends, mocking him, fused as one, digging into his ears, shredding whatever meagre resolve he had amassed. The sparse few lights illuminating the room flickered and dimmed, creating a phantasmagoria, shadows came alive and found definition, doubtless controlled by the creature.  For one moment all lights were extinguished in the room and Tobias was tossed into absolute darkness. Entombed in this absence of all hope, despair reigned, Tobias felt its disease racing through him, decimating him. He tried to assiduously focus on his breathing and willed light to return, that of the room, and the light of optimism that dwelled within him. As if to remind him of the futility of his plight, illumination returned slowly, scarcely enough to pierce the gloom.

The Smiler had vanished.

Tobias could sense the monster prowling around, just out of sight, revelling in the emotions it evoked within its helpless prey.

‘I am guilt and I am shame, I am terror untold and despair beyond belief.’ There was a tangible degree of pride in the Smiler’s stolen voice. ‘I am your mother’s barbed tongue and your father’s fists, I am the children’s ridicule in the playground and the scorn of all your former lovers. I am all your base emotions realised, those which you could not prevent, could not diminish and could not adjust to.  I am abject misery made flesh and all that which you’ve hated about yourself. I am you, and we are bound.’

‘What do you want?’ Tobias demanded, scanning his surroundings as thoroughly as he could.

He found no signs to pinpoint the Smiler’s location.

‘For you to suffer, I am not atonement and I will offer you no respite, this is what you deserve and you will accept all that I subject you to.’

The creature glided up from the foot of Tobias’ bed, motions graceful, all appendages working in perfect concert, lifting the smile cynosure, with its colossal mouth pulled taut, too wide, up to face Tobias.

‘You fool, you bumbling, clueless fool.’ The teeth, larger than Tobias’ head, gleamed, neon-bright, shimmering. ‘You need to understand why.’

The monster’s tongue shot out from the mouth, a blur hurtling toward Tobias. He had no way to brace for the impact and it caught him directly on the forehead, knocking him out.

Tobias awoke in a flashback, watching himself behind the wheel. Hamish riding shotgun, Tristan, Alex and Paul in the back. Rap music drowned out all other noise, not that that deterred the group from straining themselves to be heard, screaming into one another’s ears. The whisky bottle was passed, back and forth as its contents rapidly dwindled.

Tobias squinted at the road with disinterest, having reached a level of inebriation where the act of driving was dismissed as a video game. Shards of rain buffeted the wipers, making it impossible for them to wipe any sort of clarity to what lay beyond.

Someone prodded Tobias in the back of the neck, he turned and took the firewater, applying it to his lips and taking a long slug. When he diverted his attention back to the hand the bottle to Hamish his eyes returned to the road and registered a sharp corner that had materialised from the watery ether. One that he could not possibly break for. Tobias’ body operated on instinct, the miraculous hand-eye coordination and sure movement only afforded the insane and the divinely attuned. He opened his door and dived out.

Tobias watched himself land and roll onto the unforgiving road, his body limp with drink rolled dozens of times, as the asphalt broke flesh and bone and bashed one into the other, reducing him to a mangled sack of meat. Tobias, now in the role of omnipresent spectator  remained in the car with his friends, as the driverless car left the road, reduced a wooden fence to kindling and dove deep into a creek.

The impact of hitting the water was immediate and cataclysmic.  The deceleration trauma sent the four friends flying, none of them had the presence of mind to wear a seat belt, all of them collided with one another. Heads connected with heads, knees found homes in faces, limbs entwined and snapped.

‘They were in your charge, your care,’ all of their voices, now appropriated by the Smiler, addressed him, he could picture its smile, smug and vile. ‘They entrusted you and you cost them their lives.’

‘I did.’ Tobias acknowledged, as he watched the tragedy unfold. Hamish and Tristan were killed on impact when their heads clashed. Paul went flying through the windshield, and died shortly thereafter. Alex however, was in a stable enough condition to gauge the peril Tobias recklessness had ensnared him in. He first tried to open the car door, yet it was sealed tightly shut by a wall of water, more of which gushed in through the opening in the windshield that Paul’s skull had made.

‘Can you taste his fear?’ The Smiler asked. ‘The rampant dread? That realisation that his demise is certain? Can you?’

Tobias could, the malaise tightened and spread.  The self-same sensation Alex had felt in his last minutes, they were now sharing, unbearable but unavoidable.

‘How was I supposed to know?’ Tobias voice waivered. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t extend your flimsy remorse to me boy,’ the monster rebuked. For the first time Tobias detected a trace of annoyance, anger even, in its voice. ‘I’m not the one you should be slobbering some apology to. Look at what you have done, process that. Understand.’

‘Could have been any of us driving.’ Tobias shot back, not trying to weasel out of the blame, only to buy his sanity some extra time.

‘True.’

The Smiler gave pause.

Tobias could hear the monster musing within his own mind, an infinitesimal sound of its lithe tongue rolling across the smooth expanse of each tooth, a perversely sexual act akin to fondling one’s genitals to incite disgust in an onlooker. ‘And if any of them were, I would be sharing this exchange with them instead.’

Tobias tried to avert his mind’s eye, to sweep his sight somewhere, anywhere, else, yet his vision remained on the static shot of the car’s interior. When his efforts at forcing the door open failed, Alex resorted to rousing his unresponsive friends, shaking at their broken bodies. After a few moments spent with frenetic and futile motion, the understanding that all life had seeped from his friends dawned on Alex’s features.

‘He’s not far off.’ The Smiler needlessly pointed out, clacking its teeth in immense amusement, the strident sound reverberated through Tobias’ resolve, shredding it. ‘And he knows it.’

The water sluiced through the wreck, amassing, rising until the last pocket of air was no more. Alex lasted until the very end, kicking at the window, flailing around, shouting his final breath, a call for help that went unanswered .

‘That’s it, drink deep.’ Instructed the Smiler. ‘The stopper has well and truly been lifted on this bitter draught. Watch his eyes closely now, the outrage at what you have caused is clear, even when he loses all the fight in him and his life slips away.’

‘Enough.’ Tobias asserted, wanting to have his voice punch like a fist, curled with conviction. ‘Nowhere near,’ the monster refused. ‘You and I are in this for the remainder of your days, however many, however few.’

Tobias steeled himself, refusing to reduce to begging. He was in tumult, torn asunder by the visages of his friends, contorted in castigation at him, at their murderer.

After an eternity, Alex’s thrashing ceased and his body stilled, his fingers unclenched, his mouth agape without a single bubble emerging. Alex’s eyes held Tobias’, not losing a shred of their intensity.

‘You’ll never adjust, never learn to live with me.’ The Smiler promised, as if merely stating facts, though gleefully divulging them. ‘I’ll be waiting for you every waking moment and for every one of your fitful slumber. And after this life has ended for you, I’ll be waiting in the next, and on, and on, until time is dust and everything is nothing.’

The trauma of the ordeal taxed heavily on Tobias, his mind reeled, discombobulated and beyond salvaging. Normally he was sharp of wit, so quick to act and with such decisiveness, now he was a child banished in a barren land, jutting with the jagged edges of consequences and preyed upon by his own failing courage. Whenever he took mental breath, and paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, his friends’ faces were there, unravelling him, leaving him stricken with guilt.

Tobias would’ve wept if he possessed his own eyes. He readied for death, to cease to be, succumbing to the sheer shock of the harrowing episode.

‘That should do for now,’ The monster remarked. ‘Wouldn’t want to overwhelm you now, ending things prematurely and all. That would dampen my spirits to no end.’

The procession of his dead friends’ and their scarring, haunting countenances dissolved. Tobias was pitched into a new place, devoid of all colour or fixture, he could only liken this endless expanse to purgatory, the realm where hope had no place, life had no chance and the brain could not persevere. The Smiler materialised, or perhaps was always there, only now making its presence known.

The central fixture of its being, its infamous smile, had broadened, the teeth had multiplied, so too the rows, and had grown into cartoonish proportions, teeth larger than moons, amply sized to grind the galaxy into nothingness.

Tobias found solace in talking, to give voice to his thoughts just might hold off the onset of madness. The words themselves were not much of a comfort, but some semblance could be derived from the delivery, if only to throw back something at the Smiler, a final defiance to prove his sanguine outlook and mettle before the monster steadily defiled him, destroyed all he knew.

‘I have one of those faces that cannot be demolished by a brute’s hand, nor a personality that can be weakened by a intellectual’s tongue.’ Tobias felt insanity-induced bravado blossom through him, buttressing his beliefs, coating his words, moulding them into bullets, turned him into a locomotion. He knew he wasn’t just pissing on the hornet’s nest, he was setting the accursed thing ablaze too, his acerbic wit had returned with gusto. ‘I am one of those few that orbit in the lofty atmosphere of ineffable satisfaction, those handful that possess such total acceptance of their flaws that no one human or creature can cause them harm.’

The Smiler gnashed its teeth in vexation, with its current size, the noise produced seemed to tear all perception into shreds. After a beat the monster donned another smile, that of its norm.
‘That so? You truly believe that drivel?’

‘It is.’ Tobias assented, bristling, wondering if he had any physical form, yearning to lash out. ‘I do. Nothing can be done to unravel my composure. You hear me? Nothing can taint my self-worth. You say that we are bound, good. It’ll take a hell of a lot more to drive me crazy, or do anything to try and escape.’

‘You sound so sure. Spoken with the assurance of a priest reciting gospel.’

‘I’m not Luscombe, or any of the others.’ Tobias was coasting on his assertiveness, a temporary invincibility, that rare kind only bestowed the utterly insane and the hopelessly doomed . ‘So you can do anything, try anything, nothing will work. You picked the wrong one.’

‘I didn’t pick anything,’ the Smiler fired back, its namesake had reduced, whether the result of Tobias’ epic outburst remained unclear. ‘You did. Though-’

‘Yeah whatever.’ Tobias cut in, adopting the unflappable attitude that only those armed with the temerity of youth could wield with aptitude and aplomb. He had been crippled with his own terror, now he was transfixed by his renewed vigour, eradicating resignation, banishing the defeat he had been enveloped in.

The Smiler stayed mute for an age. Tongue indolently traversing over teeth, similar to a rattled academic stroking their beard deep in thought. Tobias felt himself recede, plagued with pernicious doubt with each passing second of the Smiler’s deliberate inertia.

‘You are an interesting one, I’ll admit that.’ The Smiler eventually responded evenly. ‘But the ruse is feeble and a final act, even your voice is telling. You best get comfortable Tobias, we are going to get to know each other very well.’

Clicking, the clicking of fingers.

Tobias opened his eyes to find Erica leaning into him, her trusty penlight poised some half an inch from his right eye. She shrank back, startled. Tobias observed her face undergo a myriad of expressions. She recovered the mask of professionalism soon enough, with the set jaw and the stoic eyes, glazed with indifference. Daylight flooded through the windows, offensive and unapologetic, colouring the room in a rich golden glow commonly found in blissful dreams, those of impassioned sexual encounters and reuniting with loved ones long dead.

Tobias had survived another night.

The first, of the rest of his life.

‘You look like you just had a nightmare.’ He mumbled, throat cracked and wit dry.

A minor curl of her lip.

‘Funny,’ Erica said. ‘I felt the same about you.’

‘You’d be right.’

‘Yes, well,’ she averted her gaze and reached for the water. ‘You look thirsty.’

‘Am.’ He admitted, and allowed the humiliating process of her steering the straw into his mouth.

‘Particularly bad one I take it?’ Erica asked, feigning disinterest, but he noted how her eyes held his, how she was yet to exhale a long-drawn breath.

He attempted to nod, realised that he could not do so in the body cast and grunted a bark of yes.

‘What happened with Luscombe?’

Tobias made no attempt to reply. He lay in the pale, exquisite glow of the flourishing day, floating in the amber hue, his lids partially closed. With such freedom in waking he felt like he could cleanse his mind and journey through someplace else, to transport his mind to this sanctuary and simply let the morphine drip do its one job.

Erica was adamant about doing hers.

She leaned in even closer, Tobias could detect a faint aroma of cigarettes and energy drinks permeating from her, a pleasant, intoxicating scent that equally stirred his long-dormant loins and ignited his imagination.

‘Are you going to tell me?’ Erica’s insistent voice intruded on his peaceful musings.

And Tobias very nearly did. He would tell her everything, describing in exhaustive detail all of the encounters with the Smiler, of the nightmares, of the indelible stain on his soul that was growing with each day, rotting him inside out. He would reveal that his body could and would mend but his brain never would. He craved the chance to describe the Smiler to her, if only to burden someone else with the image so that it might make it more bearable for himself.

But he didn’t.

Tobias held his tongue, he resolved to tell no one, for he conceded that war had been waged on the Smiler, and that said war was singularly his. There would be no allies and there would be nothing to tip the odds in his favour.

This determination must have etched into Tobias’ features. Erica’s own face set and her mouth tightened. She leaned back, folding her arms across her chest.

‘Two detectives are outside wanting to speak with you.’ She said, her voice detached, whatever sliver of warmth that once lilted it into affability was absent. ‘Do you feel up to talking to them? They are rather insistent.’

‘Yes.’

Her face was now so consciously impassive, Tobias had no way of knowing if she was surprised by his reply. She turned to leave, her demeanour had reduced the room’s temperature several degrees.

‘Do you know why they are here?’

‘Yes.’ He would have preferred another few sobering gulps of water, but the damage had been done, his declaration had been made resounding clear to Erica as much to himself – he was alone – and sought no assistance or consul, no sage word of advice or heartfelt prayer uttered on his behalf.  That was his punishment and that was his pledge.

‘Good.’ She said, but the word sounded like anything but. She departed from the room without so much as a fleeting glance of appraisal directed his way.

Tobias waited.

He wasn’t trying to fortify himself, wasn’t thinking up some brilliant performance to give, some plausible story to tearfully recount to win them over. Nothing the detectives could do would instil any sort of fear in him, not when he knew what waited for him in the vulnerability of another night fallen. This night looming, and every night thereafter when light evaporated and the puppet show of his dead friends would occur, with the Smiler artfully tugging the strings.

How it all progressed hinged entirely on himself.

‘Tobias?’ Asked the voice.

‘Yes.’ He confirmed, clearing his throat and opening his eyes.

The Smiler stood attendant at the foot of the bed, its eponymous smile atop the body of Erica, lab-coat and all, her name badge gleaming brilliantly. It spoke with her voice, yet its smile was its own.

‘What’s the matter?’ The Erica imposter enquired.

‘Is this him?’ Another voice asked.

Tobias’ eyes swivelled to regard two figures standing behind the fake Erica. Both of whom were dressed in drab, cheap suits, both of whom had the Smiler’s smile atop their heads, grinning, teeth gleaming, pearl-shiny.

‘Tobias.’ Demanded the Erica Smiler. She stepped forward.

‘Go away.’ Tobias screamed.

‘Where’s your defiance now?’ Asked the figure on the right, the self-same voice of the Smiler, not the voice of his dead friends, but the horrific insect-like buzzing, inhuman and terrifying. ‘Where’s that hefty scrotum that empowered your words before?’

‘Stricken with terror now?’ Asked the second figure, its smile widening, the same voice, spoken through all three of the figures, the agents of the Smiler. ‘You are sure singing a different tune. You think that you could outrun me? That daytime would be your salvation? I can manipulate all time and space.’

‘Go away.’ Tobias repeated over and over, the mantra useless.

‘Tobias stop,’ the Erica Smiler implored, her voice briefly returned to the one he had known, the one he felt assured by, but only for a moment. ‘And accept your fate.’

The three figures advanced on him, as their smiles stretched beyond all measurement, splitting the air, the very fabric of reality, all light was snuffed, reality was a nightmare.

Tobias thrashed as much as he could, screaming himself hoarse, until his frayed vocal cords failed to produce any more sound. The Erica Smiler imposter produced some needle and plunged it into one of his exposed bits of flesh. Tobias vision was blotted with black, he felt himself losing the tendril of reality, of his sanity. His last conscious thought before he was fully immersed in oblivion was of hearing the Smiler’s chuckle.

#

Bio: Elliott, a twenty-seven year old Sydney-side author, divides his time between a uni degree, a job within the television industry and penning his next novel.

Elliott has been published in MoviePilot, Blue Crow Magazine, Pure Slush, Vertigo and The Australian Times and The Southerly. One of his novels, The Sisters of Satan was published in 2011 and the second edition was published in 2012, a horror novel that is still available internationally and has been translated into six languages. As of August 2016, his crime novel, Hoi Polloi is available from Book Booster.

No responses yet

The Death of Sebastian Briglia By Sebouh Gemdjian

Mar 19 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Dear Ms. Gordon,

So I was thinking about you, the literary agent reading this, and somehow you made me think of a time machine. Here is how you made me think of it, actually: We’re both under the same stars, with the same planets orbiting some of them, and among them there just has to be a pure world where anything can happen, where one doesn’t need connections to get a book into the right hands… Where there are no books yet even, just potential stories. A world with clear water in large lakes with gorgeous reflections at night…

If we had a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on the reflection of Earth in the water molecules of the planet Osiris in the Pegasus galaxy (which I understand is rich in liquid water and ice) we would see Earth as it was 300 years ago. Just thought of it right now. See, that’s how long ago the reflection left Earth. Osiris is 150 light years away.

When an astronomer in the future, who has a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on details in Earth’s reflection like you and I reads this book (which is going to be all about this query letter, forget the pages I’ve attached) and designs a contraption for zooming in on Earth’s past, he will look at us right now, at the moment of the idea’s conception. Perhaps he has figured out a way to look inside, and he is looking at you. Perhaps he has found a way to interact, and is altering your future as we speak. Imagine the present moment drifting away at the speed of light into a reflective glacier in another galaxy and bouncing back into the lens of an inquisitive mind enriched by 300 years of progress and evolution that wants to know about you…

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind Regards,

Sebouh Gemdjian

Dear Mr. Gemdjian,

I must admit part of the reason I’m responding so quickly is that I’ve never received a query emailed from a J-Mail account. It took me a Google search to discover that J-Mail is a prison email service. I learned that inmates like you submit hand-written letters, the Corrections Officers scan them in, then disperse printed copies of the replies, all for $10 per month. I was fascinated, and I figured I’d better respond quickly, as this sounds like a time consuming process.

I apologize in advance for sounding so forward and being so frank, but I must confess that your letter found me precisely at the moment of a tragic crossroads in my personal life. My husband of four years perished in an intentional overdose just before I left New York last year, and I’m just coming to terms with this now. It feels like he did this as a result of my decision to be honest with him. His terminal rejection of my truth was all I could think about until the few moments it took me to read your letter, which introduced a witness to my ghastly predicament, a tragedy that still resonates in me so far away from my home.

Right now I’m looking at a sunset. It’s coming through the gap between two brutalist communist-era apartment buildings in a place where I can live cheaply. You’ve probably found me at the top of an agent list because I sold The New Dead series to Random House and optioned it to Paramount for the Trident Agency, but that was a year ago. I’ve been working for myself since then and it hasn’t quite panned out. So here I am, still in the northern hemisphere, under the same stars, though looking at a sunset eight hours after you’ve seen it, a field in the distance with a wisteria-covered museum in honor of a Hungarian nobleman who gave his life failing to stop the Ottoman Turks from conquering Varna, this ancient Bulgarian city, and from dominating the Balkans 600 years ago.

Everyone smiles at me in the elevator because I’m American, and because they don’t suspect I’m not exactly… straight (which I’m sure you know about, if you move in our niche literary circles). This is Eastern Europe after all. Will it still be strange in 300 years, at the time your scientist is watching us through his time telescope, that otherwise conservative people who never speak about sex can’t stop thinking about it if they suspect that your preference is sufficiently different from theirs?
I remember New York, your town, as it was, across the East River, where I would wake up every Thursday with breakfast in bed that my late husband made me. His name was Sebastian Briglia. He was an author and once started a story he called Free Range Humans with the phrase “A last breath is all there is.” The idea was that if it is crueler to eat free-range animals because they enjoy life, where as animals tortured by industrial farming actually want to die, where does that leave humans? Heard of him? Nobody has.

I decided to become a literary agent during one of those breakfast-in-bed mornings. Sebastian made those a tradition every Thursday after his night off, as a part of an ongoing apology for working the graveyard shift at the news bureau and for leaving me alone most afternoons while he slept. It was on such a morning that he died… It was also on such a morning that he proposed. The morning I’m speaking of, however, the morning I decided to become a literary agent, was three years after his marriage proposal. He hadn’t started hearing buzzing sounds and chasing them yet… Which should have given me an immediate clue that he had relapsed last year. The stories he had written about creative shoplifting to finance his “dragon-chasing” that included stuffing ground meat into his shirt (thinking it worked because it made him appear chubby when in actuality it was effective because the blood soaking through made him appear wounded), stopped being entertaining once that happened.

You know, Mr. Gemdjian, Briglia means bridle in Italian. That’s the headgear used to control a horse, the same thing your name means in Armenian. Do you believe in coincidences, or do you think the scientist watching us from the future had something to do with that? You suggested that perhaps he has found a way to interact, rather than just observe us in Earth’s reflection. Tell me, Mr. Gemdjian, how does he do that? This detail is essential if you’d like me to sell your novel. As for me, I’m an idea woman but I’m known to jot a few things down, like this essay about the morning that made me want to represent literature. I posted it on my writer-advice blog, but I will smoothly incorporate it into my email here through the magic of cutting and pasting (not a luxury you enjoy in prison, I’m still shocked to have found out).

That morning National Public Radio was playing, as it always did at the beginning of my author-husband’s traditional “sorry I’m not successful yet” breakfast in bed day. There was a news item on about a cancer treatment that has extended the life of rats but does not work on humans.

“I have an idea for a sci-fi novel,” he says. “It’s a realistic post-apocalyptic story. Scientists are trying to make humans immortal, test the serum on rats, and make the rats immortal. It doesn’t work on humans. Now we are overrun with rats that can’t die of natural causes and keep reproducing, relentlessly fulfilling their rat duties of gnawing and nesting and depleting resources. You know, as a background story, instead of zombies.”

“What?” I roll my eyes. “That’s not interesting… You have to make them intelligent. Intelligent lab-rats that try to escape from the scientists. Two of them. They get separated and reunite in the end.”

“That’s just plot, who remembers plot? Think about it, really old rats, older than any human, like ancient trees. You can kill them, but just the fact that they’re so healthy they can’t die of natural causes creates a problem. Get it? It’s just an idea for a back story; there can be a dramatic plot with humans, a realistic one…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about anymore” was my response to that, but I wrote my version of the immortal lab rats on experimental cancer medication story, where they are in love, get separated and reunite. With zombies. I sold it, under his name. He had never received payment for fiction before, only as a journalist, and my sassy prank just rubbed it in his face. From that point on life became a countdown to some inevitabilities for both of us: me turning away from teaching third graders, getting an entry level slush pile job at Trident and working up to having my own client list, and his relapse. Though my husband’s actual relapse happened a few days after I told him that the reason he has never met my parents was that not only did I run away at 14 to work for a photographer in Boston, but also that the photographer financed a not-so-legal sex change operation for me. Yes, I was a boy up until the age of 14, which is why I don’t look like I’m trans now I was prepubescent. Sebastian became very quiet after that, and started hearing insects… But that’s another story.

This might betray an unfulfilled motherly instinct on my part, but considering the possibility that your unborn astronomer from the future is observing me at this very moment is giving me a reprieve from the resentment of losing Sebastian at its most painful. You see, at the very moment I began to read your query letter, my late husband’s thorough rejection of my true self, it just… And I don’t mean his rejection of the pre-pubescent boy I was, not of the woman I believed owed no explanations, no, his rejection of my true, transgendered me with meat-and potatoes literary tastes that finds his work pretentious and sub-par that rejection of his (including his rejection of my rejection) still had me so distraught that I was about to give up on the future all together. As I read your letter, I realized much of the loneliness I felt in a meaningless universe could disappear if that very moment were witnessed by a future that cared.

It would be wonderful if this possibility came true, but you would have to write such a compelling piece about the moment I read your query letter that future generations would consider it a classic. That’s the only way we can be sure 300 years from now an astronomer with a powerful enough telescope to zoom in on our reflection on the planet Osiris would be looking at us.

Judging from the pages you sent, however, this will not be the case, unfortunately. Your turn of phrase leaves much to be desired, English is clearly not your first language, and your insights are mostly unrelatable to the general public. Please don’t stop reading, I may have a solution. It occurred to me to write a book about this, to steal your idea as it were, but in the unlikely event that you do write this book and it does become a hit, the astronomer from the future would perceive me as the villain, a possibility I can not possibly allow. So I have decided to assist you in writing this. You see, the secret to a successful novel is a dose of candid reality. I want you to write a story about a moment in your life that you never speak of. We can incorporate that into the astronomer-from-the-future-witnessing-our-lives premise.

I’m looking forward to reading it. I really do hope that you take my offer. My future depends on it.

Sincerely,

Hannah Gordon

Dear Mr. Gemdjian,

Let me assure you that while what you’re doing now may be something Sebastian would have wanted, whatever prank the two of you were working on before his death is wildly inappropriate now, do you understand?

What you have sent me is clearly his autobiographical work. At first you had me convinced there are an incredible number of parallels between your life and his, but as I read your story and the similarities kept mounting, it dawned on me that you’re merely having a go at me.

The very reason I settled in Varna, Bulgaria is that Sebastian was born here, apparently much like you, you’d have me believe. I vividly remember his descriptions of communist bread stores and authoritarian kitsch. What you sent me sounds like a transcript of my memories of hearing him speak. Here, spend some more time with your plagiarism, think of what I felt like reading my late husband’s nostalgia presented to me as yours:

It’s a sunny, beach-scented day in mid-80’s Varna, Bulgaria. I’m in first grade, so the extent of my homework is drawing a crayon picture of my favorite form of transportation, which I’ve already done (a ship, though I had never been on one). I tell my mom I don’t have homework, but I want to just keep working on my pictures.

“Go outside,” she says. “Find some friends…”

I figured I’d drag myself to the playground, swing by myself for a while and come home, as usual.

“I want you to spend at least an hour outside. Go to the store and pick up some bread while you’re at it. Don’t forget to count the change.”

This last part deflated me because it meant I had to talk to strangers. I waited in line, imagining in my mind slapping the money on that counter. Then I did. I slapped it on there, and looked up. Is the clerk-lady going to mutter “Just get out of here, kid” at me through her teeth? She could, if she wanted to, just keep my money and kick me out. Who is going to believe me? I’m just a kid. The wood paneling in the bread store gave me a warm, though institutional feeling. It really was a bread store, not a bakery. There were bakeries downtown, but not here, among what we called “The Blocks” — no cakes, no pastries, no oven. Just white and rye, and the expensive country style bread. They delivered the bread from a huge factory bakery with chimneys and rows of hangars with triangular roofs and lots of smoke and ladies with babushkas taking it out of the gigantic ovens with enormous wooden paddles. At least that was what the art deco mural on the back wall had to say about it.

“White or rye?” I don’t know. I need a story if I get it wrong. My mom probably told me, I forgot, my mom will get mad because I always forget, so I need a story. I’ll say they only had white, they were out of rye if I was supposed to get rye.

“Rye.” Why did I say rye? When do we ever get rye? No one ever eats rye. They probably just make it for decoration. I can’t change my mind now. The lady will get mad and kick me out.

On the way back I saw the old man that always sits in his first floor balcony and talks to himself.

“Hey champ,” he barked. He called me champ. That made me smile. “Show me your pee-pee.” He is a nice man, I thought, I feel bad I’m not allowed to show him my pee-pee, I hope he doesn’t think I don’t have one.

“That’s not all the change… And when do we ever eat rye?”

“I stopped by the playground, mom, maybe it fell out of my pocket when I was on the swing.”

“Did you play with friends? Go to the playground and find the change if that’s what really happened.”

My parents would have me hang out with Jarvis, the kid across the hall, who was a few years older and apparently a trouble maker. He was loud. I decided to work on making friends, so I hung out with him and his friend, a big boy. Jarvis called him Tanker and he definitely had a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Tanker was old, maybe ten, and would catch bees and hornets, tie strings around them and take them for walks with us in the woods. Now that I see him in my mind’s eye, I remember the infernal gleam of a proto-drug-addicted me in Tanker’s pupils as he pulled the strings of his flying insect minions.

Did Sebastian instruct you to send this to me as he was planning to leave me, before he overdosed, along with the idea of a future astronomer finding me in Earth’s reflection in a lake on Osiris? He always had a cold, almost sociopathic sense of humor, and I’d have to assume yours is identical:

When I was six I used to have a blinking tic. A psychiatrist said it’s not a big deal; I just have a difficult personality. At the time I thought this meant I was challenging myself subconsciously to keep blinking, and succeeding, out of sheer steadfast moxie. It turns out he meant that I was looking for attention and should just be ignored. It went away. My brother developed a stutter temporarily. The consensus about that was that it was my fault, when I was seven, and it was preceded by a literal whipping by my mom on my bare ass with a plastic sword, for letting Tanker pressure my three year old brother Ari to defecate in bushes that left thorns in his underwear.

However, having now donned my literary agent hat, I must say that while passages may have read better than anything Sebastian had churned out while alive, the writing is still sub-par, the structure is loose and the focus is at times completely lost.

Also, how would your mother, or Sebastian’s (who would also recognize his style I’m certain) feel after reading this? Publishing it under a different name is meant to solve that problem, I suppose. I loved him to death but he was such a cold, calculating man sometimes. And at other times he was a sweet putz… His clumsiness, a sure sign of being self conscious, pointed to his over inflated ego… I wouldn’t be surprised if Sebastian Briglia was not his real name. No Bulgarians have names like his, not even gypsies. Think of your mother reading the passage you sent me about how she spanked you, something that is exactly the type of thing that would have happened to Sebastian, whose entire personality seemed to have bloomed out of mommy issues. I must admit this paragraph I’m about to make you re-read redeems you a bit, though you lose the credit you’ve gained at the end by implying that your addict personality was the product of a “metaphorically” incestuous union through a beating with a plastic sword… That’s the kind of thing that might make a reader throw in the towel, Mr. Gemdjian:

The stress of having to deal with a seven-year old with a “difficult character” while protecting a three year old in a time and place when it was not outrageous to send your children out roaming the neighborhood at a young age was enough of an exonerating circumstance for my mother, but all actions have consequences. My criminal-minded addict alter ego was conceived then, a product of that plastic-sword-beating-officiated metaphorically incestuous union.

You know, I swear to the Future Scientist as he looks down upon us, at times I felt as if Sebastian could have killed me. Not for being a transgendered woman and not having told him in advance. For continually rejecting his writing, which he was convinced he was too much of a genius to rewrite.

Speak to you soon,

Hannah

Dear Mr. Gemdjian

This is not the original email that I wrote you. That one failed to save as a draft for some reason, and expressed my incredulity at realizing that you have not been receiving my emails at all.

Apparently the pages I thought you sent in response to my request for a candid, real story from your life were another attachment in your original email.

I suppose the officers scanning your hand written pages made two attachments, instead of including everything in the first one, and it mislead me. Which means you have not responded to me at all.

This left me feeling I was simply not leaving an impact on you at all, like a ghost… I calmed down and convinced myself your prison’s Corrections Officers were just taking too long to bring you printouts of my replies. I was less than inspired to rewrite the email at that point. But then things changed.

I realized that no one, not a family member, friend or social media connection, sexual or otherwise, has responded to anything I’ve sent lately. The sexual connection part is the one that made me really suspicious — I’ve had estranged lovers with whom I’ve ended things rather aggressively respond immediately upon my sending them a questionably “artistic” personal photo. Yet these normally effective snapshots seem to have lost their allure somehow, suddenly failing to secure any response at all.

Perhaps my panic at being ignored is compounded by the fact that I’ve chosen to let the world forget my birth by starting over with a new gender at 14. Maybe this is what a ghost is: Someone whose death is remembered but whose birth has been forgotten. When that happens perhaps death takes the place of the ghost’s birth by default and that last moment of panic stretches out for countless lifetimes of being stuck in limbo. Maybe mistaking death for birth is what a soul is too.

My car inexplicably won’t start, the mechanic doesn’t understand me on the phone and I could have sworn he spoke English before, the bus doors close in my face leaving me in the cold morning in the glow of the sunrise coming in behind the mountains, abandoning me at the bus stop in front of the forever greening foundations for an unknown construction project next to the museum honoring knights that failed to hold back the Ottomans 600 years ago. I almost gave up trying to reach you. But then…

Then my eyesight problems began. I keep zooming out. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at myself over my own shoulder through my kitchen window and into my tablet when I’m checking my email, and I feel I have to be by the window or outside to see anything that I’m doing. The further away I am from a window indoors the grayer the world becomes… You know what I’m getting at, Mr. Gemdjian. Or should I say Sebastian? I’m beginning to identify with the future astronomer’s perspective.

Last time I saw you your eyes seemed frozen, fixed at a bathroom ceiling, lungs collapsed in an empty tub, skin blue-green from a heroin overdose.

You always talked about how the only way to truly erase your past was to fake your own death. And what is this, revenge? You finally figured out what kind of story would get me truly invested in your writing, and to get me back for having chosen to identify as a woman early on, you got me to identify as a man now, the Future Astronomer, even if it kills me. Sounds paranoid, yet I wouldn’t put it past you, Sebastian.

Or was that me lifeless in the bathtub? Was I the one who died in New York that morning, because yes, I demanded a taste of your relapse when you told me about it, and the moment before I stopped perceiving may have stretched into an infinity, perhaps in the middle of you reading me this very story.

Hoping we both enjoy our new identities, whatever time span they occupy,

Hannah

 

Dear Students,

As you step back from the first temporal reading telescope prototype at the Vasar National Collection Library, read this message slowly, and please do not rush disengagement. Remember, as this artifact is the very first temporal telescopic book ever devised, the software is primitive, and we have let it remain unchanged for authenticity.

Backing away from the viewfinder will be accompanied by a sudden acceleration. When you begin to find yourself on the other side of a 21st century interactive device with a sense that you’re fragmented into six billion pieces please lean forward until you find the exact moment at which this email dissolves into the sound of my voice. At that point it is safe to disengage and re-join basic deja vu reality. If you have failed to do so and are now drifting back into the content (i.e. emails you’re reading over the character’s shoulder) all you need to do is make sure the text version of this first ever temporal telescopic novel is published within its own reality while you’re trapped in it. Once it is, you will find yourself at this prompt again.

Remember, the Vasar National Collection Library is supported by lives like yours.

Thank you for your time.

The Future Astronomer

 

 

 

 

Short Bio of Sebouh Gemdjian

As a child Sebouh Gemdjian wanted to be American, and luckily for him at the time, so did his parents. They emigrated from Bulgaria in 1991, not long after the fall of communism. As an adult, he toyed with the idea of being Bulgarian again, though unfortunately for him at the time Bulgaria as he remembered it did not exist anymore. Later he began to suspect that Bulgaria as he remembered it never existed.

As a journalist, he has written for The Highland Park Mirror and The Dateline Journal in North New Jersey, as well as for New York City’s Bulgarian community paper Nedelnik. He wrote under a pen name at The Italian Tribune News in Newark, NJ, where he worked as a staff writer over a decade ago. He currently works in public relations, writes about meditation and marketing (http://www.burrellesluce.com/freshideas/2013/12/just-add-mindfulness-the-right-way-to-multitask/) and plays guitar in two New York bands: Like Herding Cats (http://www.likeherdingcatsmusic.com/) and Memoirs of Addiction (http://www.memoirs-of-addiction.com).

No responses yet

Public Service Announcement by Elizabeth Syson

Mar 12 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Community Announcement #729

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are not what they seem. The Council acknowledges that rabbits appear to be three-foot-tall, steam-powered monsters built of steel panels and whirring gears, but the Council wishes all citizens to remember that rabbits are, in fact, small, fluffy herbivores.

You may have heard rumours stating that rabbits are a danger to your children or a breach of security. The Council denies these rumours. Despite subversive lies regarding rabbits’ alleged ‘machine-gun eyes’ and ‘razor-sharp teeth’, rabbits are harmless.

As a citizen, it is your duty to protect those spreading dissension by reporting them to the Council. It is important that you report anyone you hear propagating these vicious rumours about rabbits, as rabbits’ ears are not, as you may have heard, sensitive microphones adjusted to pick up human voices and relay information to the Council’s Watchmen, and the Council therefore relies on you to help protect our community.

Community Announcement #732

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits perform a valuable community function. The Council does not understand why so many community members would believe the lies about rabbits circulating through the population. Rabbits—again, the Council emphasises, we are referring to those small herbivores that cannot hurt anyone or relay secret information for the Council’s Watchmen—keep our community safe by encouraging proper behaviour and adding a charming, rustic aesthetic to the street corners where they stand of their own accord, certainly not by any executive order from the Council’s Watchmen.

This aesthetic is not improved upon when certain community members scatter steel gears in the streets and refer to these gears as ‘rabbit guts’. This is anatomically incorrect as well as offensive. The Council urges all citizens to remember that rabbits are an important feature of our social infrastructure and must be protected for ecological and political reasons. Citizens should not attack these harmless creatures.

Once more, the Council reminds all citizens that it is vital to our community that any unsettling rumours be put down before they can upset the peace. Citizens attacking rabbits will also be put down.

Community Announcement #737

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are resilient. The Council is shocked that some citizens would be so hateful as to intentionally damage such vulnerable, harmless creatures, but fortunately for the Wildlife Society and the Council’s Watchmen, only one rabbit was seriously injured. A veterinarian has assured the Council that this damaged rabbit will be fully functional after a few days of rest and intensive welding.

Although no permanent damage was done, the Council considers this an act of animal cruelty and political terrorism. Community members suspected of involvement will be collected for questioning and mandatory re-education by the Council’s Watchmen.

The Council’s Watchmen are also searching for Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913, who did not appear for last night’s Community Loyalty ceremony. In this time of civil unrest, the Council reminds citizens that Unlawful Search and Seizure Immunity Points can be earned by reporting subversive neighbours to the Council.

Community Announcement #738

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits cannot be overcome by homemade explosives. The Council would like citizens to remember that homemade explosives are both dangerous and illegal, and that leaving them near rabbits is irresponsible. While the Council acknowledges citizens’ sense of humour in staging these practical jokes, attempting to kill defenseless rabbits shows a serious lack of taste and will be punished severely. The Council is enforcing early curfew this week while medical officers from the Wildlife Society tend to the injured rabbits.

Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 are suspected as complicit in this act of gratuitous violence, and the Council’s Watchmen would like to discuss their lack of community spirit in person. As they have not been discovered yet, they are considered fugitives. Any community member seen with or suspected of harbouring these two will be considered in opposition to the Council and subject to in-person discussion with the Council’s Watchmen.

Community Announcement #739

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbit blood is not oil. It is also not the black paint used to shamefully graffiti local government offices. Citizens are urged to ignore both the viscous paint scrawled across the Councilhouse and the graffiti’s slanderous implications that rabbits are equipped to injure citizens. The Council is not attempting to control the population through these small, fluffy rodents, and citizens caught promulgating such disloyal falsehoods will be taken for re-education by the Council’s Watchmen.

Community Announcement #740

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbit deaths should not be celebrated. The Council would like to remind citizens that killing rabbits by shooting at them with heavy artillery from fortified rooftops is neither legal, nor sporting. Community members are invited to instead celebrate the executions of several citizens apprehended by the Council’s Watchmen. They will be executed at moon rise tonight by heavy artillery firing squad.

Community Announcement #742

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits must be protected. Therefore, as civil unrest and general anti-rabbit sentiment has infected the general population, the Council’s Watchmen will be patrolling the streets fully armed in order to prevent thoughtless citizens from nearing any rabbit with weapons, metalworking tools, or blowtorches. Citizens are furthermore reminded that weapons, metalworking tools, and blowtorches are illegal, and the possession of any of these will result in a mandatory in-person interview with the Council’s Watchmen.

The Council would like all citizens to ignore the subversive lies and hate speeches scrawled in what looks like, but is not, rabbit blood across government buildings across the community. As a reminder, contrary to what these graffitied messages suggest:

Rabbits are not mechanical monsters designed to harm you;

The Council’s Watchmen do not execute anyone, child or otherwise, without due process;

Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 are not revolutionary heroes but dangerous and possibly mentally ill delinquents;

Reporting fellow community members to the Council’s Watchmen is not a personal betrayal but a sign of responsible citizenship.

In addition, the Council’s Watchmen will be executing on sight and this announcement will serve as due process in the following cases:

Citizens caught painting subversive graffiti;

Citizens caught discussing rabbits;

Citizens caught near rabbits;

Citizens caught with any device, utensil, or weapon capable of damaging rabbits;

Citizens caught outside during curfew hours.

Community Announcement #745

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits cannot be eaten by foxes. The Council would like to remind community members that not only is it illegal to create giant foxes with steel teeth and lever-action jaws, it is also futile, as rabbits, despite being small and harmless, are impervious to attacks from mechanical predators.

The Council’s Watchmen will be summarily executing any citizen suspected of contributing to these tasteless mechanical foxes’ creation or activation, because although these foxes cannot harm rabbits, their inception constitutes a breach of good citizenship.

Community Announcement #746

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will be weaponised.

The Council has decided to take the step of arming these harmless creatures in order to protect them from criminals with homemade explosives and the shameful mechanical foxes that uncooperative community members insist on releasing into the streets.

Loyal citizens will not be harmed and should be encouraged to know that the Council’s Watchmen have successfully apprehended several clusters of subversive community members in possession of weapons and black paint that mimics the oily tone of rabbit blood. The Council is disappointed to report that even the children among these subversive groups have been so brainwashed as to fear rabbits and declare support for Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. As a result, most of these have been executed as criminals. The rest will be re-educated and released as probationary citizens after treatment.

Community Announcement #747

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will be attending the public execution of known associates of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. Community members are invited to view this dispensation of justice and contribution toward community safety.

Community Announcement #748

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits will not be carrying out the execution of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913. The Council urges community members to ignore these baseless rumours and remember that rabbits are harmless, not steel killing machines, and therefore could not possibly carry out an execution. Rabbits have been invited to the execution in order to show their community support. The Council’s Watchmen will be carrying out the execution in the usual manner. Parents are encouraged to bring their children for this edifying experience.

Community Announcement #749

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits are not dangerous, but foxes are. The Council would like to state that the unmitigated slaughter of innocent community members at the execution of Citizen 0634 and Citizen 0913 was not, as has been rumoured, the result of rabbits’ ‘laser eyes’ and ‘razor teeth’ but was an unprovoked attack by illegal mechanical foxes.

Foxes do not symbolise freedom. The Council reminds citizens that while rabbits contribute to community aesthetic and are harmless, foxes contribute to community unrest and are uncontrollable, illegal, and homicidal.

Because these illegal mechanical foxes present a danger to the community, the Council’s Watchmen will be destroying any foxes in the streets as well as any community members near them or suspected of being complicit in their creation. The Council recommends that citizens remain indoors for the next several days while this purge of undesirable foxes and community members is carried out. The Council’s Watchmen will be breaking and entering in order to apprehend any suspect citizens and summarily executing any community members who intervene.

Community Announcement #751

Public Service Announcement:

Rabbits have not been withdrawn by the Council. This would be impossible, since rabbits are small, harmless wild animals, not enormous, deadly surveillance machines controlled by the Council. Rabbits have not been destroyed by the foxes but have merely moved on in their natural life cycles, following migratory patterns as observed by the Wildlife Society.

Citizens observed celebrating rabbits ‘removal’ or overheard referring to the revolutionaries’ ‘victory’ will be considered disloyal. The Council mandates that citizens attend the communitywide farewell to rabbits ceremony to commemorate their presence in our community and acknowledge their voluntary departure.

Bio:

While consuming tea and coffee at an alarming rate, Elizabeth Syson reads obsessively, writes compulsively, and pursues an unnatural love of copyediting. Her publications include radio scripts, devotionals, creative nonfiction, and a handful of blogs for Odyssey online. She is a third-culture kid who collects boarding pass stubs, passport stamps, and useful bits of foreign languages. Her suitcase is currently open in southern Arizona, but it will open in Africa next. Although she’s never seen it, she knows a monster lives beneath her bed, and she’s considered naming it. She blogs at everydayterrors.wordpress.com and ejsyson.tumblr.com.

 

 

No responses yet

The First Taste by Sarah Tanburn

Mar 05 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

This is how I began, with the tang of wine, the sour of anger, the spice of treachery. All salted with red blood and spilled friendship. We all have to start somewhere. You might have come to it in a church, or a school, or the public street. Or in your lover’s arms.
We all know, you never stop at one. But you always remember the first time. Who it was, where you were, why. I was in a provincial gallery, one brisk night in October.

#

Wine splashed in my glass. I was rough with it and the red meniscus swayed to the edge of danger. I lifted it to my lips. The sharp tannin scent nipped me, belying the sweet taste flooding my mouth, smooth on my tongue and voluptuous on my gums. The first taste was always the best. All the others were chasing this moment.
Especially that night, with Simon’s injunction to behave ‘just this once’. My promised compliance was the bitterness in the back of my throat, the smell wrinkling the bridge of my nose. I gritted my teeth at the memory of the controlled cajoling, the lurking admonitions as he reminded me of the importance of his appearances at this week’s little soiree. London critics were coming, drawn by the School’s increasing reputation. Amazing what a few aggressive collages will do, judiciously hawked to grace nouveau windows in Clerkenwell or the Jewellery Quarter. Really, Sophie was the one in the spotlight. She’s the special effects guru.

Around me the clacking of the party hummed along its accustomed tracks. Kissy, kissy. Smiling chit and chat. Little deals made, minor pledges disavowed. Nobody looking at the walls, everyone ignoring the photographs that excused this schmooze-fest. I took another mouthful of the merlot the college doled out on these occasions. Once the first rush was past, I could taste the vinegar. It didn’t stop me drinking. You know how it feels.
It hadn’t started out like this. Long ago, so long ago, before Simon, the wine was just part of the fun. The witticisms, the easy eroticism of studenthood. The arrogance of knowing you were the best, the brightest spark ever seen, that the critics were just waiting to kiss your feet. We never had the money for spirits, nor anything much really. Occasionally, very occasionally, there was a bender. But usually a few glasses, a few tokes, some casual fumblings on a bumpy mattress under a thin duvet and some smelly blankets. Then a bright morning, and more pictures.

That night, the night I began, I twisted the remnants of my precious glass, seeing the young Simon in the lees, and the even younger me. The best, the brightest spark in the Art School caught the attention of the firebrand trophy lecturer, took fire at his energy and authority. We walked hand in hand on the beach. Sure, I was old enough, wise enough to be trusted with a relationship with faculty. There was a row of course, but they let me graduate. Simon’s promises, his determination to marry me helped.
And here we were, him with his reputation and me with my pathetic little sinecure. Allowed to fool around in the darkroom. And I only had that thanks to Sophie. Dear Sophie, who’d stuck by me ever since those hangover-free halcyon days. Strange I couldn’t see her, but she’d be around somewhere. She even rescued me when I was drunk during the Royal visit, covered for me with the Dean. I would be long gone, to perdition perhaps, or to Paris, if not for her. If I stayed sober through the evening, it would be for Sophie. Sod Simon.
I topped up my glass and turned away from the table, looked around the long gallery. All the usual damn faces. Smug, glowing, radiating in the lights and heat that pressed against the long windows. As always, in this space, I could see our posing reflections in that wall, striated, shattered by passing headlights, observed with amused aloofness by passing students. My jaw clenched, I could feel my molars grinding. I was here on orders. And on sufferance. I’d better just look at the pictures.
The nearest one I remembered from the darkroom, a big, dramatic piece. The student had struggled with the minute variations in black that made up the texture of old stones at the mouth of the well. The shot, straight down the shaft, had the pull of a Kapoor sculpture, deep and heavenly. Hung here, the glass reflected the lights, the window wall, myself. Mousy hair, sallow skin, in my drab skirt, safe blouse and little cardi, approved by Simon as not drawing attention. Not pulling attention away from him. I had less colour than the well. Where had all my colours gone?

I peered closer. I could see Simon, that ridiculous gold waistcoat glittering in the depths. He had insisted on wearing it, despite my jeers that the whole town must be sick of it. He’d worn it every evening since he picked it up in some London flea market. Since when did he start prinking like some charity peacock, a down-at-heel bird of paradise? It wasn’t for me, I was sure of that. He was standing behind me, off to the left. He must have thought I couldn’t possibly see him, even if I bothered to look. Tricks of refraction and reflection, bright lights and dark walls of glass, of silver enamel on shiny paper, put Simon’s tiny figure inside my wine.
He stood next to Sophie. There she was, my old friend, my pal, the smoother of my path. She had her hand on Simon’s arm, her rings twinkling, a distant star in the black sea. She looked up at Simon, at my husband, and smiled. Her hair was more rich darkness against Simon’s golden stomach. His hand so white, punctiliously clean, like the underbelly of a lizard, came up and stroked her cheek.
I heard myself hiss. Simon and Sophie. Surprise! The kaleidoscope’s click took my breath away. The pattern was obvious, once seen. The twisted instant rewrote my life. How had she done it? She had listened, oh so carefully, to his woeful stories of my drunkard’s cunning. My every smash confirmed it. She must have cooed and cosseted him. She had so often pampered me! Simon must have loved it. Invisible me to nag and hector. Sophie to charm, woo, bedazzle. Their trap to keep me in place. His respectable cover, her safe cop-out. Everyone around us must know; nobody looked askance at their caress, or so much as glanced in my direction. They had played a long game with me.
Not any more. I could leave them to it, just walk away. After all, no-one would miss me. But that wouldn’t do. Even they, devious, deceitful, would expect some display from me, a last flare up of the brightest spark. They would be disappointed if, at the last, I behaved.
I threw my drink, still full, in to the deep well of the photo. Hard against the glass, shattering, tinkling. Loud. Shards, sharp, glistening with red, scattered around my feet. The clackety clack halted and the faces turned to stare. Simon’s mouth was distorted, bouncing with frustration, wanting the floor to open under me. Sophie, starting away from him, stepped forward, arm outstretched. Concerned. Caring. So keen to tidy me away.

“My dear,” she started.
I hissed again, stuttering over their names, struggling to utter all their betrayals. Then pulled myself together.
“Lovely photos,” I said, moving towards her. “Just the show you promised us all. I’m so glad I could play my small part.” She clutched at me without grace as I enfolded her in my arms. I could feel her relief that the worst was over, that I had shot my bolt.
My teeth met through the skin of her neck. The pretence that all was well broke against her scream. Salty, viscous fluid ran over my lips and the tip of my tongue. Her perfume mixed with the stink thick in my nostrils. My gums curled back at the unaccustomed subtleties. I swallowed, the new sensation rich and hot in my stomach. No wine or spirits, no bodily fluid, would ever taste the same again. I could get used to this, to the oaths implicit in the taste of warm blood.
Red smears showed across my teeth as I smiled at them all. “Goodnight darlings,” I said.
In the awed silence, broken only by Sophie’s panting sobs, I walked away. Feet steady and back straight, I walked out of the shattered glass and the bright lights and the avid faces. In the dark, on the cold pavement, I breathed deeply. The fresh air was intoxicating.
#

That was how I began. Now tell us your story.

 

 

 

 

Biography

 

Sarah Tanburn lives in South Wales in a small flat overlooking the sea. She writes fiction, travel and poetry.

 

Her published work includes the short stories The Ocean Is My Lover available from www.etherbooks.com, Blessed Are the Peacemakers published by Snapshots of History in 2012 and Switzerland which won the Get Writing Cup in 2012.  Her creative non-fiction and reviews span travel memoir, including Partition, [wherever] magazine,  and December: Dusk at www.inksweatandtears.co.uk.

 

In 2016, she spent two months on a tall ship exploring the far south; you can read about it at www.sailingtoantarctica.com.

 

 

 

No responses yet

Dichotomy Ground by S.L. Dixon

Feb 26 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Two died on impact. Strong and healthy roots from separate and yet entangled family trees gone in an instant.

A third involved in the incident died while the screaming sirens and the bright lights did little beyond clearing a path and offering the sidewalk gawkers a reason for speculation. The rolling white cube carted nothing more than a still warm body. However, if his life’s work meant much, he was in a better place. Being a man of the cloth suggested no less than Heaven.

Two survived, and to add to the chaos of the scene, there was the sixth body.

A body long cold and days dead. It almost seemed as if the corpse dropped from the sky, smack in the middle of the wreckage.

It was young woman with a familiar face. That face had been on the news all week. Her parents were worried sick. There was a fight and Little Miss Thing had an attitude and yet, according to the teary-faced mother, Carrie was a good girl, acting out that’s all. Those words and the accompanying tears were all over the news every day following Carrie’s stroll on Highway 66. It was hours before anyone recognized an issue.

Carrie’s mother discovered something didn’t fit when Sandi, Carrie’s friend from up the highway, called to check on Carrie, said Carrie wasn’t answering texts and said Carrie was to be by… when was that exactly?

A question people ask when the hot ball of worry drops into their bellies, something’s wrong and it’s been that way for hours now, but… how many? When was it, exactly? Oh God.

Mama told the cameras pointed at her front door about what Carrie wore out of the house. It was embarrassing. Mama let Carrie out in a short skirt and a fishnet top that showed off a fluorescent pink halter. On her feet, pink heels completed the look. It was definitely not Grace of God Baptist Church approved.

After acknowledging an issue, neighbours searching the side of the highway found a pink heel that booted that worry like a soccer ball, booted it into all-out panic.

Everybody guessed the likely answer, but nobody said. Girls on the highway had a way of showing up used and abused, final heartbeats drummed and no way to paint a suspect. There were already four that year and the police did not have a clue where to look as thousands took that highway, daily.

When Carrie’s body showed up in the middle of a car accident in the ditch, they thought perhaps that luck had finally swung in their direction. Thank God.

It was a three-car collision. A pack of elk decided it was a good time to cross the highway and a rusty Ford truck plowed into a little Nissan and a mid-size Chevy. It appeared most of those riding in the vehicles had a lazy attitude toward safety belts.

The two survivors shared a wide hospital room with two empty beds, left so, for the sake of the families. All expected an early checkout time, despite whatever hope rattled around minds.

A detective waited outside the door, he had some questions to ask the one woman, but the doctor said no and the nurse told him he’d best skedaddle if he didn’t want a size seven square in his ass. Frustrated, he waited and watched as people came in and out, deathbed exceptions to the rules for family members only.

One clinging to life was just thirty-three, no husband, no kids, a ghost of her former self. She rested, unconscious, her name Eliza Goodman, or Lizzy to her friends. Eliza was on the brink, her lungs needing regular drainage even after the first surgery. It didn’t look good. She was pretty well dead to the world long before anything was official, but that didn’t keep her parents from rushing the two hours along rough highway and into her hospital room.

“Look at her, I mean just look at her,” Maria Goodman said to her husband, she gripped her Bible begging for a red zone defence from the Man Upstairs. Keep that score the way it was, please!

Bryan Goodman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and pulled her to his chest, knowing exactly what went through her head looking down at that puffy white face. Hell, that was it and he knew it too. They’d discussed it and thought they’d have time to reconcile, let it slide for a few years until she came to her senses, but she’d never get a chance at redemption if she never awoke.

It was the failing of her last relationship and the loss of the baby growing in her oven that turned Eliza sour on the Lord. Neither Bryan nor Maria could say much, not right away. They did their best to give space at such a troubling time, although it was the duty of every good Christian to lead stray sheep back to the flock.

“We should’ve tried harder,” said Maria, tears danced down her face. “She’s doomed if she doesn’t wake up and beg the Lord, beg His forgiveness for what she’d said, doomed.”

Bryan wanted to say something reassuring about the Lord’s way and the His work, but none of it sounded right for that moment. Their daughter was on her way and not to a better place. Good person or not, she didn’t get right with the Lord and that meant she was right with Satan.

A machine attached to the woman in the bed next to Eliza beeped frantically and the woman leaned forward. Her eyes scanned and her arms flailed with frantic swipes, looking for something, needing help.

“Oh Bryan, get the nurse,” said Maria and she ran to the panicked woman.

Bryan raced out of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny, waxed floor.

“What’s going on?” the detective demanded.

Bryan ignored him and got to the nurses’ station. It wasn’t far, but it doesn’t say anything about cardio in the Good Book, not directly anyway. He huffed and gasped, mouthing words. The nurse got the just of it and ran past him.

The detective demanded information from the nurse as she rushed. She ignored him. He stopped Bryan from trailing the nurse all the way in, “What’s happening, is there trouble?” asked the detective. He’d had time to think and it seemed very unlikely that the accident happened on a fortunate spot. He deduced that more likely a serial killer was on her way to a dumpsite. The perp liked rivers and there was a wooded area featuring a secluded canoe launch not ten minutes up the highway. Let the body float and bob, let that evidence wash away with nature.

It was possible that the body had been dumped in the vicinity and that the killer had long gone. It was possible.

It seemed a hell of a lot more likely that the woman in the room was in on it, maybe not the main show, but in the mix. Right there with that same raping and murdering sonofabitch they’d sought for almost a year and who they’d linked to past crimes as far back as 1995. Sonofabitch was a PG term for this guy. At the station they had an entire rainbow of colorful titles for him to hear if they ever caught him. They never thought there’d be a her involved or even considered the possibility that it was just a her.

“You can take a boot,” the detective muttered to himself and then chased into the room to gawk at the questionable woman struggling for life.

The nurse busied herself with a needle over the washroom’s sink. Eliza was asleep and her father cried, nodding with along to the rambling Biblical chanting performed by her harried mother.

The suspect repeated over and over that she was sorry for what she’d done. Her greasy blonde hair crawling over the bandage on her head, falling into her eyes as she struggled against the pain. Life was hard and death was no different.

“Forgive me, Jesus, please, take me! Jesus, forgive me, I’m sorry!” the woman begged, wailing.

The beeping became frantic. The nurse raced back and tripped on a loose shoelace, spilling her forward, the needle skittered under the heat register, she yelled a chorus of near-obscenities and crawled across the room seeking the needle.

The detective decided to question the woman trying for peace with Jesus, “Ursula Donaldson,” the detective pushed aside the short-range missionaries and leaned down to look into the woman’s panicked eyes, “did you kill Carrie Howe?”

There was recognition there, it was there all right, but before the detective could ask another question, the nurse stuck the needle into Ursula and she fluttered off to sleep.

The Goodman’s returned to their spot next to their daughter, feeling better as they’d saved a soul, although wishing it were Eliza’s soul they’d saved. And… what was it that the detective asked about anyway? Did that poor woman kill a girl named Carrie? Nonsense…, but if she had, she repented and, made good with the Lord. It’s the only real law of the land anyway. She might not get the star treatment, but the Lord would love her for the devotion and repentance, sure He would.

Ursula Donaldson made it three more hours, but never regained consciousness, dying at exactly seven that evening. It was sad, but there was still a chance for Eliza. She’d gone in for another surgery at six and the doctors said it went well. It felt like one of those things only God knows for sure.

First thing the next morning, Eliza had another surgery. Maria read aloud from the Bible, hoping something might stick and allow their daughter consciousness for a second, just a second, long enough to let God know she’d changed her way.

#

Eliza opened her eyes. She was warm and comfortable and yet, she didn’t feel herself. Her skin was tight, comfy and clear. It reminded her of high school but without all the acne. She sat in a field, her mind in a fog, the memory of how she got there was gone. She recalled being in Kate’s car. Malcolm was behind her and Kate and he had sunburn on his back so he couldn’t sit against the seat. They sang, all of them sang, loudly.

Some damn song. Catchy as hell… but then what?

Eliza got to her feet and looked around the peculiar landscape. The grass with luscious green and full, without weeds. She brushed at her short dress, curious about how she’d come to fit into a dress she had in the ninth grade. It was not as if she’d packed on much weight, but over the years her body shifted in shape, giving her a more womanly quality than that of a young boy. Nonetheless, she liked the dress and was happy that it fit again. A ways ahead she saw a road. It was warm and the grass felt nice on her bare feet.

“What was that song?” she asked herself, stopping as the sound of her voice registered fully. “Hello, hello. My name is Lizzy. Mo, mo, me, me,” she said, her voice was light and high, higher than it was when she and Kate and Malcolm sang along to that damn song.

She skipped toward the road, humming the tune of the song she couldn’t remember. It was pretty much the catchiest tune of all time and somehow it escaped her.

“Who cares about the name of a song? How did you get here? Where’s here?”

Just before the road there was a patch of butterflies resting atop a bed of wild flowers. She crept slowly, they fluttered into a breezy cloud and then dispersed, all but one. One beautiful creature with black circles over large blue and yellow wings landed on the tip of her nose. She smiled and wrinkled her face. A sneeze rocked her head forward and the butterfly followed its friends.

She bent to pick an orange wild flower and put it in her hair, it matched her puffy little dress perfectly. It seemed such a strange thing to do. Yet, it felt right just then. A gentle breeze put the scent of pine in the air from the forest on the other side of the road. Walking in the gravel didn’t appeal, but the grassy edge dipped down into the ditch for much of the trip.

“Screw it,” she said and took a timid step expecting a great discomfort and found a wonderful surprise. Each stone worked like magic fingertips, scratching spots she hadn’t realized itched, never tickling, just scratching and massaging. “I could walk here forever,” she whispered and continued down the road.

The sun began to lower behind her and she thought she pointed east.

Maybe over to… “Where in the hell am I?”

Eliza glanced up to the evening sky and as if her luck needed any luck, a truck rolled along the road. It was bright and shiny, but older, from the nineties. Eliza lifted her hand to block out the sun and watched the truck approach her. Part of her wanted to walk more, barefoot, loving the gravel, but another part didn’t like spending nights on the side of the road.

The truck slowed. It was a big Ford, it had a double-sized cab and a blonde haired woman with a wide smile sat behind the wheel. She reached over to turn down the radio and swung open the passenger’s side door, it was a Nelly Furtado song, I’m like a bird.

Eliza stepped closer. The driver pulled a denim jacket into the small strip of vinyl on the fabric bench, a center spot fit for only tiny bottoms. She waved Eliza in, seeming all right. Still, Eliza remained cautious. The corners of the driver’s mouth lowered into a thoughtful frown.

“Hey girl, did ya need a lift?” the driver asked.

“Maybe, where you going?”

“Don’t know. I’m lost. I’ve been driving since last night and can’t put my finger on where in the world I am, but it sure is pretty ‘round here.”

Eliza couldn’t disagree. The lack of knowledge this driver held didn’t sit well, maybe the next car might have a driver better acclimated.

“If you want, I’m heading west, I think. That way nonetheless,” the driver pointed through the window and squinted, one eye closed.

“You see anybody else around?”

The driver dropped her hand to the gear shifter. It had a blue and yellow butterfly inside its glass knob.

“You know what, I haven’t seen a soul, just you. So ya coming?”

“I don’t know, I don’t usually accept rides from strangers,” said Eliza, she sounded especially childish.

“Oh I don’t blame you there. While you’re waiting for your pops to come along and pick you up, someone bad might come. It makes you think, don’t it?” the driver nodded.

Eliza thought, it’s not as if it’s some rough old man.

“I took a couple bad rides in my life. I know how it can feel. Best get in. I’d feel better for you.”

“Hmm, all right,” Eliza said and scooted sideways. The seat was springy and pleasant on her back and butt.

She caught her reflection in the door mirror. It was her and at the same time, it wasn’t, not anymore. It was the Eliza that owned the orange dress, a young girl with tiny hips and pebble breasts. The face in the mirror was Eliza’s junior grades self… but without all the acne.

Eliza forced her eyes forward to the road, it got darker by the minute and she was starting to feel very fortunate to be in the truck.

The driver brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. Eliza stared at the woman’s strange earrings. Real butterflies stopped dead and hung stiff for fashion.

“You like them?” the driver asked, noticing the interest. The butterflies dangled on slim gold chains.

“Sure seems like you like butterflies,” said Eliza.

“Don’t you like butterflies? I love them. Most girls love butterflies. Are you suggesting that you don’t just love them? I ain’t met a girl that don’t love them,” the driver turned toward Eliza with a heinous, toothy grin.

Eliza thought she was probably one poor soul in school. A rough trailer park girl that never caught a break, probably a poor luckless soul her entire life. Eliza also wondered why she looked, felt and thought about things along the lines of school.

Why do I look like this again?

An old All-4-One song came on the radio and Eliza recalled a school dance, one from right around the time of her dress and her boyish shape. The time she let Robbie Dion feel her up. The memory made her laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just remembered something,” said Eliza. She looked out and the sky had gone from dusk to full night in the minutes of All-4-One’s I Swear.

“Look at that,” said the driver, pointing and squinting as she had earlier.

Hills rolled a little ways ahead and a bright neon sign promising fuel and motel beds stuck way up into the sky, a beacon for weary-eyed travelers looking to hide in the darkness offered by the backs of their eyelids.

“I think we should stop. I’m getting,” the driver yawned, it seemed forced, “tired. What do you say?”

“You think I should sleep in a room with you?”

Eliza’s safety warnings sounded the alarm in her mind. The woman was a stranger and a weird one at that. Eliza wondered what choices she had, she didn’t have a purse, didn’t have a credit card, she didn’t even have her cell. She wished she’d never gotten out of Kate’s Nissan.

Why did you? Damn it, what was that song?

The driver sniggered at Eliza’s question, “A room? Uh, no darlin’. It’s been fun and all, but we don’t need a room. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to reach over, you’re going to struggle some, I’ll hit you once or twice, you’ll calm down a bit, but really I’ll wish you wouldn’t. My hubby always liked the struggle too. Then he’d do his thing, but he’s not here, so we’ll skip the sticky bit.

“Ya see how this goes is, I’ll throw the seat flat and start my business. See girls like you, I know what you all think. You all think I’m dirt, well guess what! I am and dirt like me, well, we love to take it out on little girlies like you! Oh, you’ll fight some more and I’ll smack you around a bit more, I’ll be about ready to finish you, then I’ll force myself to wait. It’s better to wait, draw it out for the long haul.

“You might even give up for a while. Cry and moan for your mama and your pop. Once you’re still, you’ll feel a little something.”

The driver wheeled into the deserted truck stop as she spoke. Eliza looked around for a weapon and found none.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle in the end. I know how to treat a lady. I’m awfully ladylike myself. Ha! You girls should’a been nicer to me in school, this would never had’a happen if you was just nicer.”

Eliza shook her head although she didn’t quite comprehend, recognizing only that things were about to become much worse for her and that the Mariana’s Trench song Malcolm tried to push on her for the last month was on the radio. The driver ran her hand behind the front bench and it folded back, a smooth bed front seat to back seat.

“That’s better, now, where was I?” the driver grabbed onto Eliza by the shoulders and made to toss her down onto the folded seat.

Eliza considered playing dead. The woman said she liked the fight, playing dead might make the woman lose interest. At the woman’s touch, that idea became so obviously ridiculous. Eliza made for the door handle. The driver’s fist thumped into her head twice and she grew sluggish. The driver pulled flat her prey. Eliza’s eyes rolling back in her head and she considered the exact nature of the situation around her.

How am I young again?

Where am I?

And why can’t I remember things?

Energy surged, if only at a minimal level, and Eliza grabbed at the door handle on the back door. It did nothing. She pulled the handle three times to be certain.

“Back doors only work once the front door is open,” the driver laughed, “You little ritzy bitches are all the same. Stupid.”

The track on the radio faded into a new song, “I threw a wish…,” said the voice and Eliza forgot all about the insane woman in front of her. It was that catchy Carly Rae Jepson song, the one that if you heard it one day it would be in your head for a week. It was the song on the radio, they all sang, Kate took off her seatbelt to dance while she drove. It was funny.

The hook between the first and second verse was as far as they all got. Elk, an entire pack, ran out into the road. Kate thumped into one and pulled hard on the wheel, two other vehicles did the same thing at the same time, coming together and stopping dead in a sea of metal and elk bits.

It was black after that. Now and then she blinked, saw paramedics, saw a nurse, the inside of a hospital room, a bandaged woman in another bed. She blinked again and saw her mother. Her mother didn’t notice the second she opened her eyes because her mother was nose deep into the Bible. That was it. There were no more blinks until she awoke in the strange place.

The driver had wild eyes and a fat knife ready for the main event.

“Don’t worry, I like to take my time with little girlies like you.”

Eliza thought, this is crazy and booted twice. The woman fell back and Eliza dove to the driver’s door handle, one that would certainly work. The door opened and she spilled out.

“You bitch!” Ursula Donaldson screamed as Eliza crawled on the gravel toward the neon sign next to the motel.

“Leave me alone!” Eliza shouted back in a shrill childish squeal.

Eliza felt two hands come down on her and lift her skinny frame into the air. She kicked as if pedalling and invisible bicycle.

“God wants me to have you! Sure as shit He does!”

“I don’t think so,” said a firm, mannish voice.

Eliza opened her eyes and stopped kicking. There was another person in that place, a hero, a perfect, wonderful hero.

“This is none of your business,” said Ursula.

The grasp let some and Eliza slid to the ground. The hands kept the small girl from moving, but both knew it was just a matter of time.

“Oh yes it is,” the man said to Ursula and then crouched with open arms.

Eliza recognized the man’s Catholic collar and despite her sourness toward the church, she jerked completely free of the driver and raced to the new embrace.

“There you are, my child,” the man held Eliza.

Eliza glanced back over her shoulder at the evil truck-driving woman. Ursula sneered. The father collected Eliza and squeezed. The driver’s door of an F-150 slammed and wheels dug into the gravel and peeled away.

“Are you hungry?” the father asked as he rose.

Feeling even smaller and as helpless as a young child, Eliza nodded emphatically and sobbed.

“Come, the Lord hates to see a child hungry,” the father said and pulled a key from his pocket.

They strode hand-in-hand across the parking lot to the door marked Office. Inside wasn’t like a motel room. It was drab and small. There was a single bed and a kitchenette. A worn wardrobe stood in a corner next to a ratty padded chair under a reading lamp. There was a child’s desk and three images of Jesus above the desk, hanging with loving warning. On the desk was a Bible.

“Sit, my child,” said the father, giving Eliza a small shove toward the bed.

She sat and gazed further around the dim room. A light switched. There was a row of cupboards and a small refrigerator. The father busied himself with a tray and what sounded like crackers. “How about some music?” the father asked and without waiting for an answer switched on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had started over. “This must be your song,” the father added, there was a smile on his voice, “My song is a Tom Petty song. I don’t recall it from before…, well, before, you know. It was on the radio.”

Before what? Eliza wondered and suddenly took on an uneasy feeling again, “Can we call my dad?” she asked and her voice was strange, more childish.

The father stepped back into the room carrying the tray of crackers, “In time, my son.”

Eliza wanted to shout. Everything was wrong. The father was strange. That woman before was terrifying. She wasn’t a boy and she wanted her dad! Instead, she sat in a respectable silence.

The father placed the tray over their laps as he sat. Eliza looked down at the silver tray. Around the crackers she saw the reflection of the father and a small boyish face with sad eyes, rosy nutcracker cheeks and a short brown bowl cut. Eliza shook her head gently, so did the boy in the reflection.

I’m not a boy! I’m a woman! she ached to wail, fear sapped her ability.

The father took a cracker and crunched.

He took another, crunched.

On the third, he crunched and spoke with a breath of spat crumbs, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. You want to make the Lord happy, don’t you, my son?”

Eliza stiffened.

“Of course you do, the Lord wants those that follow him happy. So you just do as I say.”

Eliza felt a hand on her boy-thigh and it struck her as Carly Rae Jepsen howled playfully.

I’m dead. There was an accident and I died. I died and, “I’m in Hell,” she gasped.

The father touched a sweaty palm on the cotton trouser thigh of a small boy, avoiding the boy’s eyes. Licked his dry, soda cracker lips. “How could this possibly be anything but Heaven?” the father asked as his hand rose up the thigh.

#

Third-Person Bio:

Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon’s fiction has appeared in grew up in dozens of publications from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.

www.sldixon.ca
@SLDixonWriter

Publication History:

38 short stories published in the last 3 years (June 2014-June 2016) (Starburst Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, SQ Mag, Perpetual Motion Machine, The Wicked Library, etc) and a handful more are due for release in the coming months.

No responses yet

Glass-Walled Cabin by K. Marvin Bruce

Feb 19 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Flames jetting high overhead force screams from the tall pines and the animals trapped in them.  Old Johnny’ll kill me.  If I survive this.

Old Johnny said to stop by the fire tower anytime.  I love nature.  Have to get out of the valley of money.  Back to nature.

Shift the rucksack to release some of the steam broiling my back.  I hope his offer’s still good.  It’s a long hike.

Our families go way back.  Used to share an honest-to-God log cabin down on the lake.  Unpretentious, open-plan log shack with inadequate lighting, gaps around the windows, and an outhouse without ventilation.  The aged timbers had cracks running their lengths and calking merely a suggestion.  A cabin from which you could watch the world.

Old Johnny and I each owned half.  Back in our bachelor days we’d share the cabin during the summer.  Fishing, snoozing, paddling a leaky old 12-foot aluminum lazily across the tranquil water watched by sentinel mountains.  Nights we’d light a fire down by the lake.  A can of beans and a half-dozen hotdogs any honest man’s meal.  In the morning coffee was strong.  Grounds collected at the bottom of your chipped mug.  If a few made their way into your mouth you spit like a man.

Marriage changes old habits.  Eventually the women-folk wanted newer accommodations.  Using a privy in the middle of the night in grizzly country was declared dangerous.  We sold the cabin and each built ourselves newer quarters with electricity and running water.  Hot and cold.  We remained close.  Johnny and I’d sit around the fire telling bullshit stories until all hours.  I never believed him later when he told of strange things he saw up in that lookout tower.

Johnny joined the US Forestry service as a ranger and volunteered summers on fire tower duty.  The missus stays in town.  He says odd things happen when you’re truly alone.

It takes a special kind of guy to be a fire-watcher.  Got to be comfortable in your own head.  It’s a lonely job.  Lonely as hell.  Worse than a lighthouse.  Fire-watchers climb into their observation towers by their lonesomes and remain alone for four solid months.  120 days of solitude.  That’s why I’m walking up this rocky path in the tall bear grass.

Lightning strikes can occur out of the blue.  Literally.  Campers don’t always obey old Smokey.  A hundred miles away a careless driver might flick a still-burning butt out a window, heedless of the prime tinder all around.  Forest fires explode into instantaneous monsters.  Fire-spotters are the first line of defense with their powerful binoculars.  Radio in the coordinates.  Save hundreds of thousands of acres.  Alone.

Nothing Johnny hates worse than a fire bug.

Kaniksu National Forest.  These mountains in eastern Washington are remote.  I never see any other cars once I creep onto these dusty logging roads.  The washboard surface on the gravel track kicks up impenetrable powder and shakes your deepest fears.  Tall pines crowd the very edges of the unpaved course.  Sun beams down from a crystalline sky heating the air like a kiln.  It hits triple digits down in the valleys.

Cool relief on the mountaintops.  Highest summits hoard their snow even in July.

Johnny and I were best friends as kids, but our commitments as adults wedged us apart.  He stays in the hills, while I sweat out the heat of the valley.  My valley is far from here, closer to the money.  The gold’s here, Johnny says.  Maybe money isn’t all it promises to be.  Nature marks a man.

At the deserted forest ranger station, Smokey the Bear said fire danger is “Extreme.”  Hasn’t rained here since May.

Puffing up this trail, I feel my desk job.  Endless swaths of bear grass encompass me.  You’d have to be pretty damn tall to see over it—grows over seven foot high.  A lake of it.  Lime-green stalks shoot straight up and explode in puff-balls of tiny, white flowers over your head.  Swaying across the path.  Blocking every view.  I walk slow.  Altitude and gradient pull me down.  I’m struck by the silence.  Other than the whisper of the giant stalks, no sound.  When I say I enjoy the quiet of the mountains, I mean the quiet of non-human noise.  The raucous bawl of the stellar jay.  The scolding chatter of the red squirrel.  The squeal of pikas.  Complete silence is unnerving.

I pull out my map, trying to convince myself there’s no danger.  Up here in the remote Rockies some animals have no fear of humans and their rifles.  I’m unarmed anyway.  Granola bars, water, matches, and a pocket knife all all a man needs.  Nature takes care of you.  Map shows the fire tower, impressively close gradient lines, and dashed scores representing the path.  “3 mi.”  I try not to think of grizzly bears.  Three miles.  How far have I walked over this rocky trail so far?  Distances are difficult to gauge.  I must be closer to the tower than to the car by now.

Rustling deep within the swaying grass.  I feel eyes on me.  Hairs on the back of my neck salute.  Mountain lions, the ghosts of the Rockies.  I quietly fold the map and shove it into the pocket of my cargo-shorts.

Up ahead the path curves along the contours of the ridge.  Like swimming through a blond sea of heavy grains.  I follow the gentle bend in the trail.  At first my brain won’t register what my eyes see in the powdery dirt.  A footprint.  Looks human, but not.  My heart bumps audibly in my throat.  Bigfoot pranksters all the way up here with their plywood cut-out feet?  The track looks detailed, not flat, although it’s hard to tell in this anemic, dry soil.  Should I return to the car?  How far have I come?  What’s up ahead?  The fire tower, my old friend Johnny, should be visible any moment now.

Taking a deep breath, I press onward, up the slope.  Just ahead, a break in the grass.  The green sea opens into an Alpine spruce grove.  There, above the thinning trees, on naked rock, stands Johnny’s lonely tower.  I step forward with renewed determination, feeling eyes on my back the entire way.

“Johnny!” I call out when I’m close enough.  Human voices strike fear in animals.  “Johnny! You there?”  Fire tower, standard R-6 model.  Not as tall as the stations in lower hilly regions.  Nature’s vista from the top here is sufficient with the thirty-foot advantage over the five-thousand feet of this rounded peak.  A set of wooden stairs winds around the outside of the thick timber supports, offering access to the glass-walled cabin at the top.  Creosote aroma lingers faintly.  A wrap-around porch offers clear 360-degree viewing above.  Flat roof overhang gives a little shade in the intense summer heat.  “Johnny!” I call again, making for the stairs.

I feel, more than hear, something pursuing me.  I try to jog, but the rocks are treacherous.  Panting, I reach the stairs.  With a sudden adrenalin rush, race to the top.

Porch is chained off.  Forestry Service sign reads, “Tower Closed.”  The chain is merely a psychological deterrent.  It’s Old Johnny’s place.  Damn backpack gets snarled in the chain as I try to duck under.  Not as lithe as I used to be.  A stabbing pain jolts through my back as I try to coax another inch out of my creaking knees.  What’s behind me?  Frantic, I force myself further.  The chain relinquishes the canvas sack.

I catch my breath.  Secure up here.  This is an artificial structure—human territory.  Even though the tower is unprotected, it’s a cabin in the woods.  I stretch out my back.  Walk the course of the wrap-around porch.  Strange stillness.  Nature is afraid.  Where’s Johnny?

If there’s something hiding out there, I don’t have a friend to watch my back.  The car is three miles of broken rock from here.  Long shadows creep up the mountainside.  Beyond the shading eaves of the flat roof, the sun is well past its zenith.

That footprint in the dust.  All I have is a glass-walled cabin.

Door’s locked.  Not that there’s anything to steal.

I painfully slip off my backpack.  Fish out my pocket knife.  Starting above the stolid latch, I slip the blade into the crevice and gently jimmy it on down, sliding it behind the curved surface of the brass until the handle pops free.  I’m no thief.  Just desperate.

I slip inside and pull the door shut.  Latch engages with a satisfying thunk.  There’s nothing here.  The place smells like an abandoned pantry.  A cot with no bedding.  Well-worn decks of cards.  A notepad or two.  Bears don’t climb towers, but the dry goods and cans are all gone anyway.  Dusty cobwebs dangle in the breeze I create.  The walls—everything from the waist up—are glass.

I glance around for the radio.  Fire lookouts are useless without communication.  I remember seeing Johnny use the big, old government-issue transmitter.  Like in black-and-white war movies.  Radio’s nowhere to be found.  Johnny’s super-sized binoculars are gone.  The sun ominously beams in.

Should I make an attempt on the car?  Three miles.  Trail broken and rocky.  Knees feel like they’ve been run over by a truck.  I might make it back before dark.  Not likely.  Surveying the vista, my utterly exposed situation settles home.  Anything on the porch can see in.  Visibility is a two-way street.

No bathroom.  99.94 percent of the time, the fire-watcher is completely alone.  The call of nature.  Suddenly all that metallic water I’ve been slugging down makes itself urgently felt.

As a young man I could hold it for hours.  Age has a way of making bodily functions less negotiable.  Who’s going to see?  I unlock the half-glass door and step out onto the porch.  Just in case another hiker is coming along the trail, I walk to the back of the tower—is there a back?— pull down my zipper.  Instant relief of my emptying bladder.  I hear the stream spatter on the dry, thirsty ground thirty feet below, achingly loud in this seclusion.

I zip up and ponder.  I’ll start out at first light.  Plenty of time to reach my car.  In the meanwhile I’ll work with the bits and pieces of government cast-offs.  Everything in this sparse tower seems to have a single, fixed function, and any other use feels unnatural.  Sun balefully dips to the frozen rock waves of my horizon.

Looking down over the bear grass meadow, there’s a beaten path in the grass from this vantage point.  Without binoculars, I to strain to see.  No movement visible.  The bear grass gives way to larches and cedars down at the tree-line, and the shadow of late afternoon has already reached them.

Bears are crepuscular, foraging in the twilight hours.  Would they climb all these steps and break the glass to get at me?  Cougars are even less likely to break in.  What else is out here?  What did Johnny see?

Will there be any light once the sun sets?  Johnny used a Coleman lantern.  Gone.  The shelves have been thoroughly emptied.  No electricity.  Johnny had a generator for the radio and mini-fridge.  Gone.

I scoop up Johnny’s abandoned cards and lay out a hand of Klondike on the floor.  Each card slap announces I’m here.

Full moon is already in the sky.   I’m glad for the illumination in the spooky stillness of this mountaintop.  I drop the cards.  Walk around the inside walls of the cabin.   Gerbil in a terrarium.  Nervously I glance toward the darkened bear grass.  Watch for any movement down there.

The gray light of the moon hovers over the mountain top.  Mountain peaks refract the cold, unforgiving light.   Down at the cabin I spent countless nights out after dark.  Entire moonless nights on the dock watching the stars and wondering.  Up here darkness menaces.  Nature wants me.

The distinct sound of rustling outside.

An inhuman scream pierces the night.  My heart flies, a cannonball in my chest.  The scream’s so loud.  Animal must be close.  A mountain lion screams like a woman.  But this is more primal.  Wild.  Angry.  I’m frozen.  What am I up against?

Haltingly, silently, I step toward the windows.  Peer down into the leaden light of the moonlit bear grass.  My fluttering heart stops.  Movement.  Indistinct in the swaying grass.  Something large is approaching.  I pray it’s only a grizzly bear.

An answering scream rips the night.  Shudder violently racks my shoulders.  Whatever’s down there isn’t alone.  I don’t want to look, but terror compels me.  As still as possible, I glance around the clearing on this rugged mountain peak.  There!  From the bear grass!  Something covered in fur emerges.  My mind automatically says “bear,” framing this creature with a recognized category.  But it’s no bear.  It’s something that doesn’t exist.

The huge creature lumbers out on two feet.  Not four.  It tips back its head.  Its scream forces my hands to my ears in panic.  Swaying cobweb glances my neck.  I stifle my own scream.

Three.  Four seconds.  Answering call from behind.  My shaking uncontrollable, I believe the impossible.  The creature lumbers toward my tower.  The abandoned structure serves as a kind of landmark for animals as well as for humans.  Its monstrous shape and faded creosote smell.  The only thing like this for miles around.

In the feeble light of the moon, I see the long shadow cast by this lumbering giant.  By the height of the bear grass it just exited, eight feet tall.  Long, matted fir, dark in the night.  Man-like body, only it’s much heavier than even the fattest man I’ve ever seen.  And I live in Spokane.  Long arms sway beneath its knees.  It walks with purpose.  It’s close to the tower now, hopefully unaware I’m here.  Another ear-splitting scream.  I melt into a quivering heap below the glass.  Menaced by the impossible.

The answering cry is much quicker.  Two night stalkers just below me.  Silently as I can, I creep to the far side.  Glance at the companion.  Slowly, slowly, I push myself up on popping, crackling knees.  Emerging from the larches and firs is another.  The massive, furred beast makes its way toward its companion.  Suddenly it stops.  Close enough now to see a hairy, almost human face.  Sniffing the air.  It drops down.  I remember where I peed earlier.  Left my scent.

Grunts and snorts emerge from below me.  Discovered.  A coat of pins pricks my back and shoulders.  What will they do?  A ranger in a fire tower can’t see directly below.

Seeing even one of them is surreal.  Bigfoot’s a myth.  Although right next to one another, they begin a frantic screaming.  I cower down, pressing palms to my head.  The pitch and timbre now a shrill call of discovery.  Similar cries emanate from the valley below.  Others making their way here.  Is this what Johnny saw?  Is this why his post is abandoned?

The howling increases as more join the couple below.  Communal sounds like the gorilla grunts at the zoo.  I’m now the beast in a glass cage.

The timber frame shakes.  Thick, lodgepole pine supports, hasped together with heavy steel plates and immoveable bolts.  Silence.  Another sudden jolt.  They’re testing my cage.  Assessing its strength.  What can I use as a weapon?  Another heavy shudder.  They can’t topple this tower, but I am terrified that they even try.  Non-human intelligence is unnatural.  Just go away!

After the terrible din and violent jerking, sudden silence rages.  I can’t look.  Maybe they’ve made their point and will go away.  My ears strain against the silent night.

Unmistakable creak of a heavy foot on the stairs.  One of them is climbing up.  I glance around my glass-walled cabin for shelter.  Any cover.  Only solid thing here is this canvas cot.  At least it’s a visual shield.  Any kind of barrier is better than none.

I scramble behind the cot as the unsteady, weighty steps continue their ascent.  It’s not accustomed to stairs.  I will need to maneuver the cot to keep it between my assailant and me.  Must keep out of direct view.

Each faltering footfall kickstarts my already hammering heart.  Stomp.  Silence.  Stomp.  Silence.  Silence.  Stomp.  The wait is interminable.

This flimsy cot’s shaking.  Did I latch the door?  Surely they don’t use handles.  Even with the glass, an unlatched door is no protection.  How near the top of the stairs?  Do I have time to scurry to the door, slip the bolt?  Panic decides for me.  I stand.  Swiftly step across the small room.  My fingers sweating as I try to shove the inadequate slide bolt across.  The climbing stops.  The moon disappears behind a cloud.

It’s not a cloud.

I feel the red eyes boring into me from above.  The glass door filled with a dark, furred shape.  I cower below the level of its massive thighs.  The colossal barrel chest.  Thick arms sway just inches away.  High above, a hideous face peers down at me.  Lips parted in a snarl.  My breath hitches, all hair erect before this nightmare.  A clumsy, crippled insect, I scramble back behind the cot on all fours.  Only now I hear more feet.   Fumbling up the stairs.  Wrap-around porch.  Glass-walled cabin.  Full visibility.

The angry beast is joined by a second.  A gigantic hand suddenly raps the glass.   Testing it.  Solidity deters it for a moment.  My heart pounds fast.  Can’t distinguish individual beats any more.

The creatures swagger around my glass cage.  Stooping as their heads rasp the overhanging roof.  I shuffle around, holding the cot in front of me.  Try to create confusion for them.  Their eyes are hostile.  Grunting a guttural exchange.  A shattering screech fills the air.  I drop the cot to cover my ears.  Glass shatters.  I grasp my backpack.  Steel water bottle my only weapon.  The matches fall out.

Everything in this cabin is old and dry.  This cot will go up instantly.  Shaking fingers grasp for a single matchstick.  Another deafening scream.  I drop the match.  Scramble for another one.  They’re in the room.  Violently trembling fingers snatch another match.

I try to strike it.  Shaking throws coordination off.  Large beasts surround me.  Finally sulfur and sandpaper meet, rasping a single spark into a light.  Penetrates the darkness.  The lit match drops from my fingers onto the desiccated cot.  The flare is instantaneous.

Huge, hairy creatures scream in another key.  Ape-like, they climb over the protective banister with surprising speed.  The raging heat behind me.  I linger to watch their dark figures scatter into the forest.

How will I stop the conflagration I started?  Eyes wide with fear, tears of relief and terror leaking from the corners.  I search for an extinguisher.  A blanket even.  Nothing here.  I snatch my knapsack.  Hastily unscrew my steel water bottle and dump it ineffectually on the blaze.  I have to get out of here.

Stepping through the glass, I see the chain blocking the stairs has been ripped from its anchor-point.  Splintered wood now exposed to the air looks strangely fresh.  And very dry.  I trip down the stairs.  Hellish flame jetting out the cabin.  Is there a fire-watcher?

Backpack constantly slipping from my shoulder, I run.  Persistent pain in my knees, I lurch to the trailhead.  Sinister tower aflame.  I stumble into the bear grass.  If the monsters have any sense, they’re far ahead of me.

Descent is more difficult than ascent.  Avoiding a fall on sharp rocks takes time.  Nature’s at my back.  I slip and tumble into the rocky dust.  Panic prevents me from assessing the damage.  I drag myself upright and glance back.  The whole mountain-top dancing with fiendish, orange light.  Walpurgisnacht in July.  My entire left side thrums with pain.  I hope I haven’t broken anything.  The night breeze feeds the famished fire.

“3 mi.”  The trail’s longer.  Unfamiliar in flickering light.  Crackling flames now scream.  Another stumble.  I can’t distinguish sweat from blood.  If I survive this fire, Johnny’ll kill me.

If he ever made it out alive.

#

Bio: K. Marvin Bruce has lived in six states and two countries but calls no place home.  His fiction has been published in Calliope, Dali’s LoveChild, Danse Macabre, Deep Water Literary Journal, Defenestration, Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine, The Fable Online, and Jersey Devil Press.  His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He works in New York City.

No responses yet

Older posts »