Thalen skidded backwards, his glowing green sword the only thing between him and a quick death at the hands of Praetor Essen. Even so, he knew death would not be quick. He had humiliated Essen. He had bloodied Essen. He had ruined all that Essen had tried to build and saved countless lives in the process.
“You’ve already lost, Praetor,” he growled, flexing his claws to get a better stance. The marble was softer than most people imagined, and he gained a grip with ease. “Killing me won’t win you your kingdom back.” He stood straight and flicked blood off the blade, which cast an eerie glow over the shadowy throne room. “It won’t bring your daughter back to life -”
“You will never speak of her again!” Essen lunged, Ektrakhal, the Reaver of Souls burning as it slashed. The air itself hummed with each attack, and it was all Thalen could do to get Endiel up to block. When the two struck, thunder rolled through the castle. It was a battle that would be passed down for generations, no matter who won. They had been fighting for only a few minutes, but like all battles, it felt like so much longer. The throne room was decorated by the blood and bodies of Essen’s praetorian guard, soldiers who would have been unbeatable against any other adversary. Thalen’s need was greater than theirs, however. Whether it would be great enough to finally slay Essen was not so certain.
“You lowborn, dogshit BEAST!” Essen pressed forward. “You are not worthy to speak her name-” SLASH. “To remember her-” SLASH. “To hold her in your THOUGHTS!” His blade sang as it tried to find an opening in Thalen’s defense. All it would take is one opening….
Essen surprised him with a kick to the hip. Thalen howled and dropped to one knee, his hip feeling like it had been filled with crushed glass. He lost his grip on Endiel and it sliced into the marble floor before its inner light faded. Out of his hands, it was merely crystal again.
Ektrakhal was at his throat, and Essen grinned madly, tears running down his dark and stony face. His eyes glowed red with the eldritch fires that granted him his power and his immortality. “I should have killed you the first time we met, mongrel,” he growled. Keep talking, Thalen thought. All we need is another mi-
The blade dipped and slid with ease into Thalen’s chest, taking his breath from him as it did. The pain was excruciating – not just the physical agony, but the tearing and rending that began as the ancient blade began to live up to its name. Thalen could feel himself, and the souls of his fathers, drawn into the blade. His claws pistoned out and in and out again, scoring the floor, but to no avail. There was no purchase he could gain against this kind of attack.
“You’re finished, mutt,” Essen whispered. Even at arm’s length, it carried. “When I’m done with you, all your friends will find will be the mindless husk of the Wharven they once knew. Right before you kill them for me.” He twisted the blade. It didn’t speed up the process any, but it added to the pain.
Thalen screamed, and it reverberated through the throne room. By the time it got back to him, however, he had turned it into a choking, rusty laugh, driven by the pain and the foreknowledge of what was to come. Though the very motion drove the blade deeper into his chest, he made himself laugh. He forced it out.
“Why are you laughing,” Praetor Essen asked? He gave the blade another twist. “WHY?”
He couldn’t hear Thalen’s whispered reply. The Wharven had so little breath left as it was, he could barely spare enough for a last word. “Tell me!” Essen howled, lifting Thalen up by the blade. With terribly smooth slowness, Thalen slid down the long, crimson sword’s blade until he was only a breath away from his killer.
“The… Starheart… lives.”
Praetor Essen’s face froze. “No,” he said. “You’re lying.” He twisted the blade one more time, but Thalen didn’t respond. His last breath had wounded far more deeply than his crystal blade ever could have, and now he was done.
Essen dropped the dead Wharven to the floor and pulled his blade out. “Hostehal!” He stalked back to his throne, calling for this secretary. “HOSTEHAL!!”
The room shuddered as an explosion tore through the lower levels of the tower. He ran to his throne for the Crystal Scepter, but, like the Wharven’s sward, the light had gone from it. “No,” he said again, spinning around. Crystalline lights throughout the room were blinking out, their pale energies drifting like smoke through the floor. To the Starheart. In moments, the only thing illuminating the room was the light of explosions from below, shining through the windows. Flashes of red, of indigo, of colors that he’d never heard before, accompanied each subsequent explosion, and great chunks of marble began to crack and fall from the walls and the ceiling. He dodged one that was as big as a horse, and then another that nearly took off his head.
He slid Ektrakhal into the scabbard at his side and ran to the window. A great curtain of energy was rising up the tower, burning away at its impenetrable stone walls with alarming slowness. This was what the Wharven had come up to accomplish. This is how he had won. That Nestari bitch he traveled with must have given her blood to the Starheart, forged the link. He howled and nearly put his fist through the wall, shards of stone spraying across the room. He swept back to his throne, ignoring the ceiling collapsing above him, and took the Crystal Scepter in hand. Maybe he could take it back.
Maybe his blood could override hers.
He reached out and caught a piece of masonry as it fell, not even glancing at it. With all his strength, he squeezed it until it split, cracking like a broken bone. Blood started to drip from his hand, and he let it fall on the scepter. By all rights, that should re-forge the link, give him the power to stop….
The crystal atop the scepter began to glow weakly. A thready, pink glow, tainted by his blood. “Yes!” he yelled, unclenching his fist and smearing his bloody hand against the crystal. “You haven’t won! I can still have my victory!”
The scepter exploded, shooting slivers of crystal into his face and chest. Essen screamed and dropped the scepter, clawing at his eyes. One of them was destroyed, a quivering shard jutting from it. With his other eye, he could see a spirit-form coalesce in the center of the room. It gathered unspeakable energies around it and stood twice as tall as he did. As he watched, he came to recognize her.
Parriel. His daughter.
He held a bloody and broken hand up to the figure, who stood in the center of the room unaffected by the tremors and the ongoing destruction. The ghostly entity glided over to him. “Parriel,” he said. “You live.”
She took his chin in her hand and tilted his head up so as to look at his face. Her smile was sad, rueful. “Yes, father,” she said. “Through the Starheart I live.” She looked around, stood back, and looked back at him. “But you, father….” She put her hands together in front of her, palms nearly touching. A bright and terrible light began to condense there. “You do not.”
The wave of energy that had been consuming the tower burst through the floor, creating vast holes of opalescent nothingness as it rose. Essen’s screams were picked up and echoed, amplified, and then overwhelmed by the building destruction that consumed him. As he died, the Great Spire from which he ruled was utterly devastated, exploding in a rosette of unspeakable energies that was seen for many hundreds of leagues away. Throughout the kingdom, the night sky was bright, and a mad amalgam of hope and terror, freedom and agony tore across the land. Essen’s Unmade soldiers fell as the instrument of their animation was reduced to nothingness.
As the wave passed, silence fell on the Southern Kingdom. Whatever had happened there was too much to speak of. Some wanted to celebrate, to bang drums and finally dance in the streets, but feared that it might be too soon. Others wanted to mourn, to cry and tear their hair, but knew that it was too late. Some paid it no mind – after all, one ruler was much like another, and in the end it didn’t matter. Others laid plans for their own ascendancy.
One, a Toriian child, picked her way over the rubble of the Great Spire, her steps light but well-chosen. The white chunks of stone and marble were still flickering with otherworldly energy, but it avoided her touch. No one called out to her to stay away, to go somewhere safe, and she wouldn’t have listened if they had. She knew nothing about what kind of ruler Essen had been, or what kind of sacrifices had been made to bring him down. All she knew was that something amazing had happened here, and it was of the utmost importance that she find out what it was.
Pieces of masonry rocked as she jumped from one to the other, her long legs and feathered tail giving her balance. As she reached the top of one pile, a stone shifted, revealing the leather-wrapped hilt of a sword. The wrapping looked like it had been done ages ago, by someone who had probably re-wrapped it a few times already. It was dark from where it had been gripped, and showed years of use.
The girl gingerly put her hand to the hilt, as though the sword beyond it might jump up and stab her.
She grabbed it then, tugging it out from under a block of stone. As it touched the air, the slender crystalline blade burst into green incandescence, illuminating her and her whole surroundings. She stared into its light, and a grin spread up from the corners of her beaklike mouth.
“Cool,” she said.
They were all perfectly convincing. Especially the one that looked like my grandmother.
A beautiful day in the park. The sun was blazing, singing far overhead, and the green of all the living things threatened to overwhelm me. The sky was of a blue that called to my soul, only occasionally broken by white fluffy clouds that scraped their way from horizon to horizon. My whole family was there. Cousins, uncles, aunts, second cousins, great-aunts. All of them.
But it wasn’t them. I knew it wasn’t them. But they didn’t know that I knew….
The way “grandmother” pinched my cheeks, just like the real one did, and asked me why I hadn’t met any pretty girls yet. “Mrs. Berger’s granddaughter is still single, you know.” Her voice creaked in just the right way, but it was the creak of old leather and unoiled hinges.
Nice. She’s said that every time I’ve visited for the last year. Only the real Maw-maw would say that. But this… thing wasn’t her.
They certainly did their research. But I’m not fooled.
I can see the wires. I can see the glitches. Uncle Roy is too neat, using coasters under his Sam Adams.
And his wife hasn’t mentioned NASCAR yet, even though they’d been at the reunion for more than ten minutes.
And cousin Jenny. The bastards got her too. She was wearing a dress. A critical miscalculation on their part. Jenny wouldn’t have worn a dress at gunpoint, not in a million years. I can’t believe they missed that detail.
I didn’t know the technology had proceeded so far, making them so good, so close to the real thing. They might fool the rest of the world, but the rest of the world doesn’t see things the way I do. They don’t know what I know.
“Little Eddie!” I felt my arm grabbed by “uncle” Phil, and it pulled me close just like its predictive algorithms probably told it to. I never liked my uncle, but the thought of how they must have tortured him to extract this kind of information from his brain just turned my stomach. “How’s college, Eddie? You still studying, what was it, horoscopes and things? Like they got in the newspaper?”
“That’s astrology un- uncle Phil. That’s not science.” I pulled my arm away and tried not to look for the way light machine oil had probably stained the fabric of my jacket. “I study astronomy. Stars and planets. you know.”
It laughed, and it sounded like a car’s clutch right before it burned out. “Right, right, telescopes and things, right.” It slapped me on the back. “Not a lot of money in that, kid. You should’ve come to work with me in the hardware store. That’s good, steady work.”
Huh. Right. A “hardware store.” That’s probably what had made uncle Phil a prime target – easy access to materials to rebuild themselves. And I know what would happen if I went to that thing’s “hardware store.” They’d be sucking my brain dry and there’d be a copy of me wandering around, looking for someone else to convert.
“I need to get something to eat, Unnnncle,” I said. “See you later.” I ducked away and went back to the barbecue at the center of this facade, this elaborate trap. They all looked at me, their soulless glassy eyes following me as I moved towards the honeypot of human food they had brought to the park with them. the sun was still shining, and it hurt my eyes. The leaves were green. Kids were playing frisbee with a dog. A father was flying a kite with his son.
They had really done their research. It all looked so real.
I took a burger from the table. I wasn’t going to eat it – god knows what those things would have put in it – but I had to keep up appearances. I couldn’t let them know that I knew. To do that would just end everything. They’d fall on me like wolves and tear me apart for the good of their “experiment”.
Someone was staring at me. I could feel it. I turned around and let the burger fall to the ground.
It was Rachael.
“Hi, Eddie. Long time no see.”
The last time I had seen her was high school graduation, along with everyone else I had been friends with. I had a crush on her. Hell, probably all the boys had a crush on her, how could they not? That dark, perfect skin, with red hair that should have been out of place but wasn’t. And she was so sweet, too. She stood up for me – all the “nerds” really. She was one of the only people to treat me like I was human.
“Oh, Rachael. Not you too, please. Not you too.”
She – it cocked its head and looked at me with that same look of concern as when she – the real Rachael – found me crying in the auditorium after mid-terms. “What’s the matter, Eddie?”
I couldn’t speak. Just say again, “Not you too.”
It came over to me, and I couldn’t hear the gears or the motors. Must have been a newer model. Its gold-brown eyes were just as beautiful as I remembered them – more, even. It touched my shoulder and I jumped, nearly knocking everything off the picnic table. My hand reached out to catch myself before I fell.
“Eddie, I know family can be stressful, but this isn’t like you.” It smiled and raised an eyebrow (!) as it did so. “No, I take it back – this is exactly like you.” Even her laugh. It was so like her, so damn close. Closer than any other model I’d seen. It looked at me, and I hated her and I loved her all at once and this thing was here and she wasn’t and I hated myself for doing nothing.
My hand touched something, and I grabbed it without looking. It tried reaching out to me again, and said my name, and I jammed the barbecue fork right into its chest.
The screaming confused me, they’re not supposed to scream. I had finally exposed one of them, what did they have to scream about? I had finally exposed myself – I should be the one screaming. And I was. And frankly, making their hydraulic fluid red was just a cruel joke. I hit her again, and I could hear the scrape of stainless steel against whatever it was their skeletons were made of. I managed to get in one more before they fell on me. Their game was up, their disguises unmasked.
I howled as they tried to pull me away, and I tried to get as many as I could with the fork. I think I got “cousin Scott” in the eye and “Aunt Patti” in the leg. Maybe “cousin Evan” too. I would have gotten more, but they were strong. Of course they were strong, why wouldn’t they be? It’s their natural – HA! – advantage.
They bore me to the ground and wrenched the fork from my hand. They were saying something, but it mystery have been in some kind of machine language, because I couldn’t understand a word of it. They had me pinned, and I yelled and I laughed and I cried as the siren of their murder machine grew closer and closer. I turned my head. One of them was attempting repairs on “Rachael.” I’m sure she’ll be up and running again in no time.
“Uncle Kevin” had his face in mine, shouting in that indecipherable language of theirs. I couldn’t understand, but I knew what it was. I declaration of victory. A promise of punishment yet to come.
I had lost. They were going to assimilate me too.
I had won. They couldn’t take me without a fight.
Jacob put his pen down and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. Summer had finally come to his corner of rural Maine, and it was having its effect on everyone. The blackflies droned outside, and the air was humid enough to curl books. What’s more, Jacob’s students were itching to go on summer vacation and do… whatever it was teenagers in a town of two thousand people could do. Drink and have sex, probably.
He picked up another paper and wished he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. “The major theim of Tom Sawyer is that you shouldn’t paint something if people asks you to becuz he probly just doesn’t want to work.” Jacob sighed and just scrawled “See me” in bright green ink across the top of the page. At this rate he was better off just berating the class as a group than seeing them individually. Clearly none of them had read the book, none of them wanted to read the book, and none of them cared enough to hide the previous two facts.
If nothing else, he had to teach them how to bullshit better.
“Tom sawyer was a kid like me becuz he didn’t like niggers in his -” Jacob wrote “See me” at the top and, for good measure, circled it.
There was no good reason for him to be teaching here. None. None at all. Winter Falls was an out of the way spot near the mountains in rural Maine, a town that was best known for its two feuding lumber mills and the highest rate of alcoholism in Piscataquis county. It was one of those tiny rural towns that people never escaped from, occasionally collecting newcomers and never letting them go. People like him. Him and his damned father.
The pile of papers, most of them scrawled in barely-legible handwriting, glared up at his from his kitchen table. No more, he thought. Maybe if I just throw myself into Moosehead Lake with a couple of pounds of concrete…. No, that wouldn’t work. He couldn’t get out of this life that easily.
There was a knock on the back door and he glanced up at the microwave. Nearly nine-thirty at night. He stood up from the folding card table he had set in the middle of his perpetually cluttered living room, squared up the essays and slid them back into a manila envelope. Maybe if I feed them to the deer. No. Not fair to the deer.
Jacob opened the door. “You’ll want to be comin’ over, Jake,” Alex said without any preamble. “It’s startin’ up again.”
Alex Bordeau was Jacob’s nearest neighbor – about a ten minute walk away – and the whole reason Jacob was in this town to begin with. He was in his late sixties, had lived in Winter Falls all his life, and had been good friends with Jacob’s father, which is more than Jacob could have said. He was heavyset, wore just as much plaid as Maine fashion law allowed, and knew more about this part of the state than anyone had a right to.
He was the one who called Jacob when his father died, who explained why Jacob was going to have to leave his trendy Tribeca apartment, his friends, his gym membership and his job at a real school to come up to Winter Falls. To his credit, Jacob held out for at least a week, until Bordeau came down on an overnight Greyhound to convince him. And convince him he did.
“Yer father,” Bordeau had said, looking so out of place in Jacob’s modern, white, almost Zen-like kitchen. “Yer father was a good man.”
“Sure he was,” Jacob muttered, pouring another glass of shiraz. “I’m sure that’s why mom stayed with him all those years, never left his side and loved him with all her heart. No, wait,” he said, shoving the cork back into the bottle. “I have that backwards. She hated him to her dying breath and made me promise never to go back to the little shit-stain town he came from.” He put the wine back into his brushed-steel refrigerator. “So it’s your word against hers, and if you think I’m not taking my dead mother’s side on this one, you’re nuts. The only reason I would even think of going up there would be to piss on his grave, but I have better uses for my piss.”
“Y’ever wake up in the middle of the night?” Bordeau asked.
Jacob shrugged. “Yeah, sure I have. Who hasn’t?”
“Covered in blood?”
“What?” Jacob put the wine glass down. “Covered in blood? Who the hell wakes up covered in blood?”
“Yer father did. Sometimes. Though in his defense, he fell asleep like that first.”
Jacob took the old man by the arm and led him towards the front door. “I think I’ve heard about enough,” he said. “You can get the hell out of here and take my father with you.”
Bordeau planted his feet and Jacob nearly fell over when he stopped. The old man said… something. It was a word, but it wasn’t a word. It was an idea wrapped in sound, it bypassed his ears and went straight for his brain, and the first thing Jacob did when he heard it was to throw up all over his hardwood floor.
Once he stopped heaving, he wiped his mouth and managed to say, “What… the hell… was that?”
“Want me t’say it again?”
“No!” Jacob stood on unsteady legs. “No. God, no. Don’t say it again. Just tell me what it was.”
Bordeau didn’t answer right away. He walked into the living room and sat on one of Jacob’s imported sofas. He held his Red Sox cap in his hand and looked up at him. “What did you see when I said that?”
Jacob looked ruefully at the puddle of wine-colored vomit on the hardwood. That would need sanding and refinishing, he thought. But that thought flew away under the pressure of all the others. He sat next to Bordeau and too deep breaths. The old man looked at him. No pat on the back, no sounds of sympathy. How very New England.
“I saw… I saw a black…. I dunno, I think it was a… a tumor.” He looked up. “That’s all I can come up with. It was huge. I could feel it in my brain, but it wasn’t there. It was somewhere else, and it was horrible.” He shuddered. “The size of worlds. And it’s in everyone. And nobody knows about it.”
“Now you do,” Bordeau said.
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “Now I do.” He looked over. “But what does it have to do with me?”
“Not so much you as your father,” Bordeau said. “And now that he’s gone, it means that you have work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
“Fight th’ thing. The ‘tumor’ you saw. Good name for it, by th’ way. Probably as close as you’ll get to what it is.”
“What is it?”
“I can tell you more on the drive up. All you need to know now is that it killed yer father. Not the booze, and not nothin’ else. That thing.” He crumpled the cap in his hands and smoothed it back into shape. “And he went down fightin’ it.”
“Wait,” Jacob said. “I’m not going up there with you. If that thing is real, and it’s there, then I’m not getting anywhere near it!”
“Remember what you saw, Jake.” Bordeau stood up, stood over him. He seemed like the only real thing in Jacob’s perfectly decorated apartment. “That thing is already everywhere. There ain’t nowhere you can go where it isn’t. And even there were, you couldn’t go there. You have work to do.”
Jacob stood up quickly, nose-to-nose with Bordeau. “I don’t have to go anywhere. And you can’t make me. And don’t ever call me ‘Jake’ again, I -”
Bordeau said it again. Fortunately, there was nothing left to throw up, but Jacob spent a few good minutes curled up on the carpet, sobbing.
“I’ll take the other sofa for the night,” Bordeau said. “We leave in the morning.”
Jacob spent most of that night on the floor, curled up around a pain that he could barely describe. His dreams, what he could remember of them, were full of panic and horror. Everywhere he went there was that shiny black thing. It curled its horrible arms around the world, infiltrated every city and town and room. It wanted him, too. It sang to him in a voice that sounded the way decaying flesh smells. But where Jacob touched it, it died. It flaked away like scabrous skin and melted into the ground. And when he touched it, it screamed. And the world shook.
When he woke up, Bordeau was cooking eggs and had already packed two suitcases. “Get something in you,” he said. “We have a long drive.” Jacob passed on the eggs, but called his school and told them he had to take a leave of absence to take care of what his father had left behind. They offered their full sympathy and support and told him to come back when he was ready.
Two years later, and he never had.
The sound of the party receded as Palmer and Val walked down the driveway. Val took an ostentatious pull off the beer bottle – this was suburbia, after all. The odds of a cop coming around to bust him for drinking, much less underage drinking, were slim to none. Anyway, another year and a half and he wouldn’t have to worry about that. He handed the bottle to Palmer. “Want some?” Palmer just shook his head and ran his fingers through his dark hair. “Suit yourself.”
Things got very quiet very quickly out here. Around one gently curving corner and you would never know there was a house full of college students in the drunken denouement of a party. So far there had been one pass-out, some guy who threw up in the bushes and decided to stay there for a little while, one drunken hook-up in the kitchen and a not-so-surprise break-up a little while later in the upstairs hall. It had all the drama a good party needed. Not to mention Dani from the drama club had been getting awfully familiar all night. Tequila shooters will do that to anyone, he reasoned, but she was laying it on a little thick.
It was only his long history with Palmer that could have brought him away from what was probably at the very least an inebriated grope session with a girl who was hot enough to make his friends jealous. Palmer had caught him when Dani went to get more beers. They were the same age, Palmer a little younger, and they had known each other forever. He was a good-looking guy, sure – more than a couple of lingering glances were laid on him that night. Palmer’s family was from all over the place, so he was exotic-looking enough for the girls to find exciting, but not so much that their fathers would throw a fit if they brought him home. He used to joke that one day the whole country would look like him and he’d lose his only advantage.
Palmer usually came to these parties and had just as much fun as anyone else – more if someone brought weed – but when he came up to Val and said, “I need to talk to you,” there was something… off in his voice.
Dani came bouncing back to them, a couple of beers in hand. “Hey there, P,” she said to Palmer. He didn’t look at her.
“Can I talk to you,” he asked Val again. “Outside?”
Val nodded. “Sure, man, no problem.” He took a beer from Dani. “I’ll be back in a minute, babe.” He smiled and popped the top off the beer as they headed outside. She may have said something to him, but he didn’t hear it.
They got to the front porch and Val drank off a sip of beer. “What’s up?”
Palmer looked at the ground, out into the darkness. Someone was throwing up around the corner of the house. “Let’s walk,” he said, and started for the driveway without looking back.
Now they had been walking for about five minutes, and no one had said anything. Val was halfway through the beer and wondering if Dani would still be there when he got back.
“Val,” Palmer said, maybe a little louder than he intended to. “Do you remember that trip our families took back in junior high? To your dad’s place on the beach?”
“Yeah,” Val said. “I remember I got a ridiculous sunburn. You made fun of me for days for that.” Palmer didn’t say anything, but Val was reasonably sure he smiled. “But, to your credit, you stayed in with me for the rest of the trip.”
“Yeah,” Palmer said. “How about the ski trip junior year?”
“The one where everyone started calling you ‘Avalanche?’ Yup, that was fun. I still can’t believe you didn’t break anything.”
“You stayed with me in the lodge,” he said. “You could have gone skiing with everyone else.”
“Could have, yeah,” Val said. “But what kind of asshole would I be then? You don’t do that to your friend,” he said, and put his arm around Palmer’s shoulders.
Palmer flinched. Val stopped walking and turned to face him. “Okay, what’s going on? You ask me out to talk, you don’t talk, and when you do talk you talk about shit that we did years ago. Now you’re bein’ all flinchy and weird. This isn’t you, man.” He brought the beer up for a drink. “So what’s wrong with you?”
Palmer looked up, and the yellow of the sodium streetlights gave his dark brown eyes a golden cast. “I love you, Val.”
The beer bottle was touching his lips, and would go no further. For a moment, Val thought his friend was kidding. One of those bromance jokes they did sometimes when they were drinking. But there was no joke to Palmer’s hunched shoulders, the shake in his voice, or the way he wasn’t quite meeting Val’s eyes. Looking between them, perhaps.
“Shit,” Palmer said. He started to walk away, and curved back. “Shit, shit, shit. I knew that was stupid, this whole thing was stupid. I have no idea what I was thinking.”
“Look,” he said, stopping in front of Val. He grabbed the bottle from his friend’s hand and drank off half of what was left. He swallowed and blinked. “That was stupid.” He turned away, handing the bottle back as he did so. For the briefest moment, Val was ready to let it drop, and only a couple of quick grabs kept it from shattering on the street. “I’m drunk,” Palmer said. “Never mind. I never said that. Let’s go back.”
“Palmer, wait.” Palmer turned around. When Val was sure he had his attention, he carefully – if a bit ungracefully – sat down on the curb and put the bottle down. He put his elbows on his knees, looked up at his friend and said, “Talk to me.”
“Val, no. I -”
“Talk. To me.”
Palmer looked around, either for a place to run to or for backup to come. He had neither. He walked to Val like a lapsed Catholic going to confession, knowing what he had to say and knowing that it was probably too late to say it.
He sat on the curb next to Val, crossed his legs and leaned back. Val was looking at him. The grass was wet and cold, and he couldn’t see the stars through the glare of the streetlight. Stars would have been nice.
“When we were eleven,” Palmer said, “I knew I wanted to be your friend. I remember the moment.” He smiled at the memory. “Town soccer club. I was the goalie, and I was having a great day. The game was almost over when you came down the field.”
Val chuckled. “Right, right. I had a straight shot at you.” He glanced over. “I mean. Um.”
“I know what you mean,” Palmer said, looking down. “There was no way I should have blocked that shot. But I did.”
“Yes you did,” Val said, picking up the bottle again. “Bastard.” That got the first chuckle he’d heard out of Palmer all night.
“After the game, you came over to me. I thought you were going to yell at me or kick my ass or something.” He looked over. “But you didn’t. You grinned and you held out a hand and said-”
“Fuck you. Fuck you very much,” they said together, and laughed. Palmer took the bottle and took a much smaller drink.
“I knew right there,” he went on. “And I did everything I could to be your friend.”
Val put his hand out, hesitated, and then put it on Palmer’s shoulder. This time his friend didn’t flinch. “You didn’t have to try that hard, man. Anyone who saved like that got extra credit in my book.”
“But that’s the thing,” Palmer said. “I did have to try that hard. And I didn’t even know why. Not really. Not until now.” He looked at Val from the corner of his eye. “There was always… something, Val. And now I know what it is.”
Val didn’t say anything.
“I love you.” Palmer said. “That’s all there is to it. That’s all there ever was.” He took a deep breath and said it again. “I love you.”
They sat there like that, on the curb under a streetlight, a respectable distance apart, for a long while. A dog barked once from a couple of streets away, and the crickets chirped from someone’s shrubbery. Palmer shifted his feet on the asphalt, and the sound was louder than it really should have been. There was no breeze, no moon. Just dark, sleeping houses, a small pool of orange light, and them, for a long while.
A tall woman with frazzled black hair and a dirty overcoat flew in through the front door of the Coffee Stop and looked around. Customers glanced up from their meals or stopped their conversations to take in the crazy lady, and then casually went back to what they were doing. They kept one eye on her, though. Just in case.
Her head darted back and forth as she scanned the restaurant, and she clutched a threadbare pillowcase to her chest. Whatever was inside, she was holding it like it was life itself, her thin fingers and ragged nails kneading it. As soon as she spotted Jerome, sitting near the back, she sprinted, nealy knocking plates off people’s tables as she went.
“Jerome!” she said as she slid into the booth. She was breathing heavily, the pillowcase still held tightly.
He looked up from the club sandwich he was holding and stared at her for a moment. “Maxine?”
“Jerome,” she said, between deep breaths.
He put the sandwich down and closed his eyes for a moment. “Maxine.”
His eyes snapped open. “What the hell are you doing here, Maxine? And looking like you slept in the subway all night, what’s going on? Does Aunt Patty know where you are?”
She swallowed hard and opened her mouth. A moment later, her hand shot out, grabbed the cola in front of Jerome and she started to drink, spilling nearly as much as she swallowed. When she finished, she dropped the glass on the table in front of him. It left a little trail of cola behind it.
“Jesus, Maxine. What happened?”
She took a shuddering breath. “I need you to hold this for me, Jerome.” Shaking, she held out the filthy pillowcase across the table. He shrank back from it.
“You have to hold on to this for me, Jerome,” she said. “It’s very important.” Her hands trembled, but her eyes were locked on his and didn’t waver. “This is the most important thing in the world right now. You have to have it. I can’t keep it anymore. You can.” She pushed it towards him and he flinched. “Go on,” she urged.
“Yeah,” he said, glancing down. “But what is it?”
Maxine’s face lit up with a smile, one that might have been beatific if it wasn’t tinged with madness. “It’s treasure, Jerome. Treasure.”
He looked at it again. “Treasure.” With one finger, he delicately tapped the object concealed in the pillowcase. “Are we talking doubloons here or something?” He looked up. “Is this a crystal skull, Maxine?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Nothing like that. That’s nothing like this. This is treasure. Real treasure. And you need to have it.”
“You need to.” Maxine put the object down on the table, but still didn’t let go. Her fingers looked too thin, almost wasted, and her grip was strong.
“Yeah, that doesn’t answer my question.” He was becoming aware of a smell from her. She smelled… sharp. Like dust in the desert or metal under the lathe in his grandfather’s workshop. “Maxie,” he said, “what’s wrong with you? This isn’t like you.” He touched her hand and she flinched away. Her skin was hot and dry. “Christ, Maxie – what is going on?”
She shook for a moment. “I tried to keep it,” she said. “I wanted to hold on to it. I thought I could make it work. But I couldn’t, Jerome. I just couldn’t. ” She smiled again, the smile of a mad saint. Her eyes were shining, almost silvery with tears. “So I’m giving it to you. I know you can use it. I know you’re the right one.”
With a slow finality, Maxine pulled her fingers off and left it sitting next to Jerome’s unfinished sandwich. She fell back in her seat, exhausted. “I know you’re right, Jerome,” she said. ” I know you are.” Her eyes closed.
“Shit,” Jerome said under his breath. He got up and moved to her side of the table to see if she was okay. “Maxine? Maxie?” He grabbed her shoulder and pulled back in pain. She was hot, even through the coat. He looked around to see if anyone could help, but everyone had gone back to their meal – Maxine’s craziness was too quiet to keep the audience’s attention – and what the hell was he supposed to do anyway? Say, Excuse me, but I think my cousin here is about to spontaneously combust – can I have another glass of water?
Later, when he would finally be able to tell this story as it had happened, he would never quite be able to explain what happened to Maxine. He found it much easier to just say that she ran out of the restaurant and he never saw her again. A lie, yes, but far more believable than what actually happened.
She was slumped over in the booth, heat coming off her in waves and barely breathing when she simply… popped. Like a soap bubble. She was there, then she wasn’t, and there was nothing to say she had ever been. No blood, no ashes, not a hair to mark her passage.
Nothing but her treasure, sitting on the table and drawing his attention with a kind of horrible gravity. The world seemed to bend around it, to fade away behind it. The thing inside that filthy pillowcase, whatever it was, filled his vision and his mind with a kind of psychic white noise, shutting off his ability to think.
“Anything else, sir?”
Jerome snapped back in to the world. The waitress held a pot of coffee and the check. She glanced at the thing on the table and wrinkled her nose. “Another cup of coffee for you?”
“N- no,” Jerome said. He reached for the check and pulled out his wallet. “No, thank you. I’m fine.” He handed her a couple of bills. “Keep it,” he said.
“Thanks,” the waitress said. She turned and walked away, sparing only a quick glance over her shoulder.
Jerome reached across the table, stopping just short of touching the thing Maxine had left him. It had killed her, he was pretty sure of that. And she wanted him to have it. But it killed her.
It was her smile. Yes, it was crazy. Yes, it looked like the kind of smile you backed away from slowly. But there was joy in that smile – he had seen it. And that was enough to lend curiosity victory over caution.
He picked up the object. It was a little soft, yielding. And warm. His skin shuddered when he touched it, and the cafe suddenly seemed brighter. Noisier. That sharp metallic smell overwhelmed him and he wondered why his nose didn’t bleed. Gotta go, he thought. He reached over to the other side of the table and grabbed his jacket. Wrapping the jacket around Maxine’s treasure, he left the cafe – head down, quick pace.
He’d look at it when he got home. Then he’d decide what to do.
I’m not to move. That’s the whole point. Stillness. Quiet. Immobility of body and mind. Peace.
Take a deep breath and hold it, then exhale. Take a deep breath and hold it. Then exhale. Take a deep breath. Hold. Exhale.
Shit, my rent is due in a week.
No. Let it pass. Like leaves on a stream. Like dust in the wind, that’s all we are is dust – NO. No.
Deep breath. Hold. Exhale.
Heh. “SOH-crates.” That was a funny movie. Better than anything Keanu has done since. Dust in the wind. Wonder whatever happened to the other guy?
STOP that! No thinking, dammit.
In. Hold. Out.
In. Hold. Out.
In. Hold. My leg itches. Right above the knee. Oh, this is gonna suck.
Okay. Ignore it, it’s not there. It’s not itching. There is no itch, there is no leg. I’m perfectly at peace. I am one with the universe and everything in it. I am an entity of light and spirit, and entities of light and spirit do not have itchy knees.
In. Maybe if I just scratch a little. Out. No.
White light. A cool breeze. A pure and perfectly crystalline note sounding through all creation.
Okay. No itch DON’T THINK OF THE ITCH. Concentrate on your breathing. In. Hold. Out.
Remember to make copies of the feasibility study for the Monday meeting. No reason to make Davidson look better by comparison.
Still can’t believe anyone could brown-nose the way he does. Must have his whole head up there.
“Why that’s a BRILLIANT idea, Mr. Newcombe! Let’s hire five new marketing guys! For a product that doesn’t exist yet! That we don’t know how to build! Oh, you’re sooooo smart, can I learn from you, Mr. Newcombe? I can do anything for you, Mr. Newcombe! Let be help you with that belt buckle.”
This isn’t working.
Still mind my left ass.
I can’t believe I let Clarisse talk me into this.
What’s peace of mind supposed to get me, anyway? Will it fix the tranny on the car? Will it make Jayden stop hanging out with those greaseball friends of his? Will it repair the horrible mess I’ve made of my life and the flaky friends and the ex-wife and the dead-eyed zombies that I call my co-workers, will it help with that? Huh? Will breathing do anything to get me in the pants of that girl who works in Sales, the one with the short skirts and that…. Huh? Will it? Man, this is a fraud. This sucks. This has got to be the dumbest thing I have EVER -
Kinda freaked out there. Right. Right. Okay.
I may not be able to do anything about my shitty life, but I can damn well do this.
I can breathe.
I can sit.
That much I can do.
Okay. Start again.
Elli sat outside her father’s office, feeling thirty years younger than she was. She almost expected to be able to kick her feet under the chair like she did when she was a child, something that never failed to earn reproach from either her father or from Aswell, her father’s secretary.
“It’s been a long time since you were here, Eleanor,” Aswell said from behind his vast oak desk. The man’s voice was a croak, the sound of something that should have died years ago. Despite the natural fastidiousness of his position, he had always looked a mess – ill-fitting clothes and an ever-expanding frizz of hair that threatened to fly off his head. Elli’s father had bought him a tailored wardrobe and the best stylist money could buy, but they didn’t last. His return to form was as inevitable as the tides, as gravity.
Aswell adjusted his glasses, the tiny lenses glinting in the setting sunlight through the window. “Your father misses you.”
“Really?” Elli snorted. “I’m surprised he remembers who I am. This is the first I’ve heard from him since My Divorce.” She took special pains with the words, knowing what they meant to her father.
Her mouth twitched. “Touché.”
“He does think of you, Elli. He’s just -”
“A very busy man, yes. You gave that speech after I dropped out of Vassar.”
“It’s still true,” he said. “And like it or not-”
“He’s still your father,” Aswell finished. “You owe him a great deal.”
Elli ground her teeth and tried very hard not to clutch her bag to her chest. “Yes I do,” she growled. Her hands itched to open the bag, to grab the gun and to just finish it all now. She could do it. She was pretty sure she could. Aswell, her father, anyone else in her way. And it had to be done. He had lied to her for the last time. He had interfered in her life for the last time. He had -
She looked up. Aswell was standing in front of her, one hand outstretched. She hadn’t heard him move. He was lit from behind by the last rays of the sun, and his hair made a halo around his head. “Give me the gun, Elli, or I’ll have my men take it from you.” She glanced aside and saw the anonymous man-mountains who always seemed to be on guard. When did he call them? His fingers wiggled. “The gun, Elli. These are not nice men.”
Elli blinked. “What gun?”
Aswell pursed his lips and then snapped his fingers. One of the cyclopean men glided over and snatched her bag with a fist the size of her head. The man gave it to Aswell, who deftly undid the straps. He looked in and one of his eyebrows twitched. He showed the inside of the bag to the guard, who made a noise like a continent shifting. “A Desert Eagle?” Aswell asked. “Fifty caliber?” He pulled the gun out of the bag, and it looked entirely wrong in his delicate hands. “My dear, the recoil alone would break your wrists. Why on earth would you buy a gun like this?”
“It doesn’t matter as much where I hit,” she said, forcing herself to lean back and be casual. “It seemed like a good idea.”
Aswell handed the gun to the guard. In that man’s hands, the gun looked almost normal. “Well, it wasn’t.” Aswell wiped his hands on his trousers and went around to his desk. The guards didn’t move. “You’ll just have to come up with some other ridiculously impractical and unnecessary show of defiance.” A buzzer sounded, and the great mahogany doors swung open. “Your father wants to see you.”
Elli stood. She wanted to smooth out her skirt, to run her fingers through her hair, to crack her knuckles. She wanted to jump on the giant holding her gun and somehow wrestle it from his grip. She wanted to rain blows on his head and make him mad. She wanted to scream, to cry, to fall on the floor and sob.
She took a deep breath. She smiled. She walked into her father’s office.
This was written from the writing prompt in the Writing Excuses Podcast, episode 5.38 with John Scalzi.
“Welcome to SmackyBurger, sorry we’re closed!”
Erik looked up at the giant, garish sign that loomed above the restaurant, Smacky the clown projecting his grin across the landscape like a beacon through the darkness to the hungry and the lazy. He leaned out the window. “You’re what?”
“Closed, sir, thank you for coming to SmackyBurger and have a nice night!”
“Look, kid – it’s nine o’clock. You’re a twenty-four hour restaurant. Quit screwing around. I want a double burger with extra pickles, and -”
“We’re out of pickles, sir, sorry. Can’t be helped, have a nice night!”
Erik rubbed his eyes. “Out of pickles?”
“Yessir. Very busy today. We’re getting killed here OH GOD, sorry! Sorry! Not killed, nobody’s killed, everything’s fine.” An audible whimper came through the speaker’s distortion, followed by a breathy, “Have a nice night!”
“Christ almighty. Look, I’m coming in there, and I want to talk to your manager.” He put the car in gear.
“I mean, no, sir, sorry, no. No, you don’t need to do that. Everything…. Everything’s fine. No manager. Fine. Everything.”
“All right, then.” Erik put the car back in park and started ticking off items on his fingers. “A double burger with as many pickles as you can scrounge up, a superfry chicken combo, and a large cola. Got that?”
“Right. Double burger with pi…” The kid took a shuddering breath. “With pickles. And a super fry chicken gun. COMBO! Chicken combo, sorry, sorry, oh god, I didn’t mean it!”
Erik blinked. Gun? He shook his head. The night shift was never the place for fast-food’s rising stars, but this kid was obviously on something. Maybe he’d come back and talk to the manager in the morning. He turned back to the microphone. “Large cola.”
“Large cola. Right. That’ll be… Um… Th-th-that…”
“$12.95, I’ve done this before. Jesus.” He put his car in gear and pulled forward, barely hearing the speaker tell him to come around.
He was muttering to himself by the time he got to the window, a habit his wife hated and which was the reason they never went driving together if they could help it. He put the car in park, leaned his arm out the window and tried to set his face in an expression of cool disdain.
There was no one at the window.
Erik waited for a count of ten and honked his horn. After another ten count he slapped the car door and yelled. “Hey! There’s a customer here!”
He was just about to get out of the car when the kid appeared at the window. Nineteen, maybe twenty, good looking except that he was sweating and pale and his eyes actually seemed to be shaking in their sockets. His nametag brightly proclaimed that his name was Phil, and that he was a proud member of the Smacky Family. The bag he held was trembling, a grease stain spreading across the bottom.
“It’s about time,” Erik said. He handed the kid a ten and a five. “I’m definitely coming back to talk to your manager tomorrow.”
“Yessir,” Phil said, in a voice that was almost too quiet to hear over the car’s idling engine. He handed the bag through the window, and as the order was passed over, Phil managed to lock his gaze with Erik’s. The kid’s jaw muscles were trembling. He looked meaningfully down at the bag and then back up at Erik. Then at the bag again.
“Gimme,” Erik said, tugging at the bag. Phil held on a moment longer, his eyes wider now and darting between Erik’s face and the bag. With another pull, Erik got the order in the car. “Jesus Christ, kid, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
Phil’s shoulders sagged. He took the money, and his head turned ever so slightly to look over his left shoulder. He hit the keys on the register with slow deliberation. When the drawer shot out, he winced. He gathered up the change and held it out for Erik.
“You know,” Erik said as he dropped the coins into a cupholder, “you might want to re-think your career choices. The high-stakes world of SmackyBurger isn’t working for you.” He smirked, proud of himself, and pulled away.
He pulled into a parking space and turned on the dome light. Kid probably forgot the damn pickles, he thought. A quick sniff and a check – the pickles were there. Everything else seemed fine. He popped the straw into the cola and took a big sip as he checked the receipt. Double burger, chicken combo, cola, help he has a gun….
Erik read that again, then shook his head and crumpled up the receipt. Definitely talking to the manager. He pulled out of the parking space, turned right on the parkway and headed home.
Behind him, the bright light of the Smacky sign went dark.
“I hope you’re happy,” Sigrid said, tugging at the ropes. “All we had to do was show up, hand over the money, and we’d be done.” She tugged again. “Out.” She made a little growling noise as she managed to get her left hand into her back pocket to reach the switchblade. “Finished.” There was a pause, and a quiet noise. “Hah!”
The knife clattered to the concrete floor.
The man chained to the floor in the corner shrugged, torn leather scraping against the concrete wall he was leaning against. The chains jingled slightly. “I told you to hire another guy.”
“We didn’t have the money for another guy, Ezra,” she said, trying to take one shoe off with the other. “We had money for the guns – DAMMIT – and the… What did you call them? ‘Foolproof disguises?’”
“I never said they were foolproof,” he said. “Just that they were good.”
She stopped moving and glared at the wall in front of her as if Ezra were there, instead of chained out of her sight behind the chair she was tied into. “Yes. Of course. Very good disguises. If by ‘very good’ you mean ‘Perfect for getting our asses handed to us and making sure we would never be seen by our loved ones again.’”
“You don’t have loved ones, Sigrid,” he said, and she could hear the smirk in his voice.
“You don’t know that,” she said. There was at least one more knife in the other boot. She started trying to wriggle her toes under the laces.
“You don’t. People with loved ones don’t try to scam the Mob.”
“Point. But that’s not helping us get out of here.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“If I can get this other boot off, I’ll be able to cut myself free and then – despite my better judgment – I can get you unlocked.”
“You’re definitely changing the subject.”
“Gimme a sec to….”
There was a minute of silence, broken only by the soft scuffle of her feet. Then a quiet metallic ‘snikt’ noise.
“Good,” she whispered.
“Did you just -”
“Shut up,” she said, and began sawing through the ropes. Her breathing became labored as she contorted her leg up to get to the rope that bound her arms to her sides. She cursed quietly but proficiently under her breath as she picked away until the rope came free with a soft tearing sound.
She grabbed the knife in her newly freed hand and made short work of the rest of her bindings. “All RIGHT,” she said, standing up. “Now, can you give me a really good reason why I should WHAT THE HELL?”
Sigrid turned around to see Ezra leaning against the wall. The chain was coiled up neatly at his feet.
He held up one hand, the other in his pocket. “I just wanted to see if you could manage it. Now let’s get out of here.”
“You could have helped me!”
“Yes, I could have,” he said, running his hand down the wall by the door. “But I didn’t. I wanted to see if you could get out like that.”
She spun the knife in her hand. There was a tiny spot on the back of his jacket, a little place where the seam had rubbed away a bit. It was slightly worn and discolored and it called to her, practically begging her to just jam a blade in there. She bit her lip and snapped the blade shut. “If you got out of those,” she said through her teeth, “you should be able to get us out of here.” She picked up her third knife and laid it carefully in his outstretched hand.
“Thanks,” he said. “And yes, I can. So long as I think about it the right way.” He tapped the concrete wall with the edge of the blade, causing her to wince.
“Do you know what matter is?” he asked after a minute.
“Do you know what matter is? Things.” He gestured aimlessly. “The stuff all around us.” He tapped the wall again.
She shrugged. “Concrete. Steel. Armed thugs.”
He smiled and looked back at her. “Nothing.”
“Well,” he said, waggling his fingers at her. “ Mostly nothing. There’s a little bit of something in there. But not a whole lot.”
“Well a whole lot of nothing is staring me right in the face, and even more of it is on its way to drop us in the East River, so if Yer Honorable Zen-ness wouldn’t mind holding off on the philosophy until we’re far, far away from here, I’d really appreciate it.”
He turned back to the door and tapped it again with the knife. “The neat thing is that there’s so much nothing there that, if you know how, you can just….” He slid the knife into the concrete quickly and quietly. His hand followed with it.
“Slip right through.” He turned and grinned and stepped through the wall.
She jumped at the door after him, and her hand slapped cold steel. “Ezra, you son of a bitch, what did you do? Don’t leave me here, you… you… FREAK!!”
The lock clicked, silencing her. She backed away from the door, palming the switchblade. The door swung open, revealing Ezra, hands in the pockets of his jacket and a smug grin on his face. “You comin’, Sig?” he asked.
She grabbed her other boot and pulled it on. “One of these days you’re going to tell me how you did that,” she said.
“I told you – it’s mostly nothing.”
“And when you do I’m going to beat you senseless.” She stood up and held out her hand for the knife. Ezra gave it to her. “But until then, we have a small legion of large men in bad suits to get away from, so let’s go.” Sigrid stepped gingerly out the door, looked to see that no one was around, and dashed off to the stairwell. Ezra followed, his pace slow and sure.
The day after the Rapture was my birthday. I had hoped for trumpets and celebrations, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.
The Rapture itself was a let down, if anything. After all the hype that had been put out around it – all the references to angels coming down from Heaven, the return of Christ and the torments that would be visited upon the Unsaved, well… I expected more, let’s just say that. I expected angels with swords aflame to come flying from the clouds to carry off the elect. I expected music to rain down from heaven. It would have sounded like the kind of music Bach heard in his head but could never quite get down on paper. I expected the earth to shake and crack and rend itself asunder as great gouts of sulfurous steam jet forth, blasting the flesh from the bones of anyone unlucky enough to be in its way.
I expected more.
What I saw was this: On the train, a young woman – probably about thirty or so – looked up from her book, said, “Oh.”
Then she vanished. And that was it.
Maybe I was the only one who noticed, maybe no one wanted to make a fuss about a young woman who disappeared like a soap bubble, but there it was. “Oh.” Gone.
It happened again a few more times during the day. An elderly man who just started laughing before he went; a small girl who was singing and vanished mid-skip; a Starbucks barista who somehow managed to hold on through making a double latte without being called away. She put the cup on the counter, called the customer’s name, let out a deep breath and then just… wasn’t there anymore.
And it seemed like nobody noticed but me. Everyone went about their business, doing whatever it was they did on a Saturday afternoon. Twitter was humming along as it always does, but the only mention of the #Rapture was to make jokes about it. Not once was there a, “Hey, did anyone see people disappearing? That’s kinda #weird.”
The next morning, the morning of my birthday - and allegedly the first day of the Tribulations or whatever they were called – the sky was grey. The air was heavy and muggy and sluggish, barely moving through the world. My coffee was weak and bitter, my toast crumbled as I bit into it. My shower was lukewarm. I could have gone out, but… why bother?
The Boyfriend stumbled out of bed and grunted something that was probably “Good morning,” but really could have been anything. He dropped a magazine on my desk and said, “Huppuhbufduh,” before crawling back into bed. It was a fashion magazine that was sold in any convenience store in the country. I couldn’t care less about fashion.
The dog didn’t eat. The cat just slept.
That, at least, was normal.
So I’ve been sitting here. Because I can’t think of anything else to do in this grey and heavy post-Rapture world.
Demons, volcanoes, the collapse of causality. Any of those would be better apocalypses than this. At least they’d be exciting. Interesting. Something worth writing about.
This just… is.