On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. Of course, this being the last night of my Elements series, with the category being “Aether,” there was really only one good choice of stories to revisit: Dream Intervention, from day 148. I extended it a little, but more important was the shift from first person to third. I did it mostly just to see what happened, and it worked nicely, I think. I still don’t know what Cory’s Big Problem is, as he is not being very helpful. Much like in the story…
The dream trembled under Noel’s fingertips. He was barely even touching it and yet he could feel the tenuous fabric try to shrink away from him. He smiled and leaned in closer, trying to peer into the distorted, unfinished vision that lay before him.
Dreams were like that. A dream described by a person after they wake up is nearly impossible to recover. They search for words, they try to make comparisons that don’t make any sense. “She was my girlfriend but not my girlfriend, and for some reason she was a robot, but not like a Terminator robot but like one of those things you see in an auto plant. And made of marzipan.” They make perfect sense to the one who’s in them, and absolutely none from the outside. The internal logic is flawless, but to someone looking in, the whole thing is like a fragile, evanescent soap bubble just waiting to go.
It took a lot of practice to get in and out of them without breaking the whole thing down around you. Fortunately, Noel had had that practice. And a little bit of luck, which he was careful to appreciate. He’d been touching others’ dreams for more than a decade, and had learned the ins and outs of the dream world and the logic that ruled it. Or them, to be more precise. As it turned out, there was no singular dream world – no mysterious realm where all dreams come from. Every dream was a world unto itself, and yet all dreams shared a certain set of rules.
Noel took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and touched – and he was in.
The dream was pretty boilerplate, and about what he expected of a sixteen year-old boy. All of the corners were dark, and nothing was really clear except when Noel was looking straight at it. It was hot and everything felt sluggish and slow. When he moved, it felt like everything happened a half second too late, as though the universe hadn’t been paying attention to what he wanted to do. He focused his mind on the dream, and everything snapped into sharp relief. All it took was a shift of perspective, much like watching a movie and reminding yourself that the guns are shooting blanks and the explosions are largely computer-generated. It took some of the fun out of it, yes, but to someone living in it – or visiting – it might be a lifesaver.
The school hallway brightened a bit as he reminded himself of where he was, and what he was doing there. He heard screams coming from down the hall, so he checked the notebook in his pocket to see what he needed to know about the kid: Cory Shillinger, a football player and probably the best on his team. A bit of a bully, but that often came with the territory. And that wasn’t why he was there. Not to punish him for anything. Just to remind him of something.
Noel knew perfectly well what Cory looked like now, but that would probably just make things worse. Or weirder. He pictured a much younger Cory in his head, at least how he imagined Cory looked when he was younger. Dirty blonde hair, skinny, teeth that hadn’t been fixed up yet. He felt the image wrap around himself like a tight corset, and when Noel called up a mirror on the wall, he looked at least enough like young Cory to pass in a dream. But there was one more thing he needed.
He pulled the badge out of his pocket and pinned it to the faded Star Wars t-shirt he was wearing. The badge had three simple words on it: I AM YOU. Cory would see it, but not really know what it was. It was a symbol, really, and nothing more, and it would be all that was really necessary to convince Cory of who Noel was supposed to be. Dreams operated on symbols, on personal interpretation of things. That was the only way dreams could work and not drive the dreamers utterly mad. Noel could have decided to look like Mark Twain or Marilyn Monroe or Jabba the Hutt, but he figured it would be best not to push his luck.
The real Cory came barreling around the corner a moment later, and Noel banished the mirror. The boy was running feverishly from something that was probably really horrifying, but the way Noel saw it, he was running from symbols that were simply floating bundles of words. “Terror.” “Humiliation.” “Pain.” “Danger.”
The usual stuff.
Cory himself was gorgeous, or at least mostly so. He had the body of a teenage quarterback – all lean and tight and muscled from head to toe. True to so many teenage dreams, all he was wearing was a pair of boxers, and even those were flickering in and out as Noel watched him. His skin was breaking out in sores that pulsed and opened and closed and moved about his body, never settling in one place but never fading away. His hair was falling out, and as he screamed, Noel saw that the boy was missing teeth. It was the grand package of nightmares, and for all the horror and terror, it was only a distraction for what Cory was really afraid of.
Time to get to work.
Noel put himself in Cory’s path and held out a hand. A great wind blew in from behind him, picking up papers and books and even the odd desk or two. It blew from Noel towards Cory, and bent in a tight circle around the boy to blow all the symbolic monsters away from him in great tatters and rags and rage. Cory screamed and wept as the wind blew past him and howled and shrieked horrible things that only he could hear.
Noel lowered his hand and the wind snapped off. Cory dropped to his knees, holding his head in his hands and whimpering softly. Noel let him sit like that for a moment, or however long that was for him.
“Hey. QB,” Noel said in the piping, cheerful voice of a young boy. “You gonna sit like that all night?”
Cory looked up, and Noel could tell that he’d be a heartbreaker if he just had clear skin and all his teeth. Noel shook his head. “This isn’t gonna work,” he said. “Stand up.”
Cory looked at him dumbly.
“C’mon, QB. Stand up.” Noel crooked a finger and the boy stood on unsteady legs. Noel raised a hand to Cory’s chest and laid a hand against his skin. Cory’s form rippled for a moment, and all the deformities and disfigurement faded away as if they had never been. “There you go.” Noel patted his chest with a hand which was his own again, and let it linger there for a moment longer than he had to. He felt the boy’s heart beating, fast and afraid, and it sent a thrill up his arm. If Cory noticed the change, he didn’t say anything, but Noel drew out the moment as long as he could.
“You… um, you might want to think about wearing some clothes,” Noel said eventually. He glanced down, and so did Cory. “But you can take your time.” Noel winked. “If you want.”
He didn’t. An eyeblink later and Cory was wearing his football uniform, pads and helmet and all.
“All right,” Noel said. He shrugged and turned around. There were a couple of comfortable chairs there that hadn’t been there before. “Have a seat,” Noel said. “And take that helmet off. It makes me uncomfortable.” As Cory sat, Noel took another button out and pinned it to the football uniform that he seemed to be wearing as well. Gotta be more careful about that, he thought. This button read YOU TRUST ME. It was blatant manipulation, and for a moment, Noel thought about seeing just how far he could push that button’s power. In the dream, anything was possible, and chances were that the boy wouldn’t remember a thing.
But Noel had tried that before. He’d succeeded, in fact, and it hadn’t worked out well for anyone.
The boy stared at him for a moment. Then he licked his lips and said, “Who are you?”
“Good,” Noel said. “You can talk. You’d be surprised how often that fails in here.” He handed Cory a drink in a cup labeled RELAX. He took it and blew over the top. Hot chocolate, probably. When he’d taken a sip, and the pads deflated from under his uniform, Noel started to talk again.
“Cory,” he said. “You’re in trouble.” He gestured over to one corner of the room, which had gone from being a school hallway to a bare stage. A spotlight clicked on and illuminated a strange tableau. Cory, holding another boy close, their arms wrapped around each other in mid-fall. Look at it one way, and it was the middle of a brawl – the other boy’s feet were about to come out from under him, and Cory was getting ready to pull an arm out for a punch. Cory’s face was a mask of rage, the other boy’s torn by fear.
Look again, though, and they were holding onto each other out of desperation. Cory was trying to hold the other boy up, his arms tightening around his waist and they both slowly dropped to the floor. The anger on Cory’s face warped to pain and anguish. The other boy’s face was still overwhelmed with fear, but it was altogether a different kind now.
Cory and Noel both looked at it, and then Noel turned to the boy. “So,” he said. “It looks like there’s something you might need to talk about.”
“I… I don’t understand,” Cory said. He looked like he was about to cry again, and Noel felt his earlier attraction to the boy fading. He’d hoped there would be a core of strength to him, but if this was his soul laid bare, then he wasn’t worth mooning over.
“Of course you don’t,” Noel said. “That’s the whole point.” He leaned forward, and Cory’s eyes widened. Noel wondered who he looked like now. “You have a problem, son,” he said. He pointed to the tableau again, which was slowly turning in the spotlight. “That over there is a hint to what it is. But without your help, I can’t get to what’s really going on.”
He stood up and crooked a finger. Cory, now dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, followed along to inspect the image more closely. Noel pointed to it. “You know who they are?”
“I know who I am,” Cory said, pointing to his own image. Noel raised an eyebrow. “But I don’t know who he is.”
“Well, then we have a problem,” Noel said. He cracked his knuckles and noticed that he seemed to be wearing a suit now. With black leather gloves. “Fortunately, problem-solving is my specialty. But first, there’s somewhere we have to go.” He reached out to the statue-Cory’s head and tugged on a lock of hair. A door opened up, spreading instantly to the floor, and a dim greyness lay beyond. The faint smell of woodsmoke wafted out.
Cory looked at the doorway. “What’s in there?” he asked.
Noel shrugged. “Damned if I know,” he said. “It’s your head.”
“No,” the boy said, holding his hands up. “I don’t know where I am or what you’re doing, but this can’t be happening. Not for real.” He was starting to change again, his form losing substance. He was beginning to look like a faded photograph, like a wet painting left out in the rain, and Noel cursed under his breath.
“Cory, you can’t go. This is too important.” He reached out for the boy’s arm, and it was like grabbing a handful of oatmeal. “Cory, you need to stay and do this.”
The thing that was Cory shook its head. “No,” it said in a slow, indistinct voice. “Not going.” The shape bubbled and twisted and folded in on itself. And then, without prelude or fanfare, the dream collapsed.
“Dammit,” Noel whispered. He lingered in the non-darkness that was the place where dreams emerged and tried to count all the things he did wrong. In the end, he let himself go back into normal sleep and the normal world. There would be other nights and other chances. But not too many.
Noel slept in the few hours remaining to him. He had to get up early to go to work, after all.
Perhaps he’d see how Cory was doing tomorrow, in class.
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. I decided to go over the first story from September, day 103 – The Ocean’s Claim. I wanted to fill it out a bit more, see if I could figure out a little about the narrator and his father, which I did. I also wanted to figure out exactly what the ocean wanted with him, which I did not. I suppose you can’t have everything… Still, it’s an intriguing problem, and perhaps the next step in the story will reveal itself to me one day.
I was on the beach after my father’s funeral. He had never taught me how to deal with tragedy, since he didn’t believe in the thing. But here it was, and here I was – alone on the beach, staring out at the water and the clouds.
The man had been a surfer his whole life. He never had a job that I could remember, yet we never went without. He fed us and clothed us with the kindness and charity of his friends and neighbors, for whom he would do what kindnesses and favors he could in return. He ran rescue out in the waters, and more than a few surfers owed their lives to his boat and his quick thinking. When things were going his way, he shared with the neighbors, giving them food if they needed it, and what help he could. A good man, my father.
Everyone knew him, too. He would stride into restaurants and be greeted with a chorus of voices. He would make his presence known in a grocery store or a surf shop or a drugstore and we wouldn’t see him until he had drawn the latest conversation and gossip out of everyone he knew. Then he would surf with the men he grew up with, spend long hours battling the waves and come home smelling of seawater and marijuana.
I suppose he raised us well, even though everyone knew that the ocean was what he loved the most. He always had his computer tuned to weather sites, watching the radar as it scanned the skies for him. He was looking for the storms that made the waves, the great banks of cloud and changes in pressure that meant a good day of surfing was on its way. He couldn’t help me with my math homework, and he didn’t think much of tossing a ball around or teaching the facts of life, but he knew the ocean better than he knew himself.
He died surfing, as he always knew he would. When he went out on the water, he had a ritual: he would turn to the land, to the lush greens and the brilliant beach, and the mountains off in the distance, and he would wave to them. Like he wasn’t going to see them again. He told me that he just wanted to be sure that he did that, just in case something went bad.
He hit a wave wrong, as happens to every surfer sooner or later, his board flipped and the fin sliced him open along the side. Big Ed Couto, after a few beers at the wake, told me it looked like the board had filleted him. He said that the blood filled the water, and it was all he could see as he tore at his shirt to tie something off. Ed remembered thinking about sharks, but the sharks didn’t bother with my father. He was the ocean’s, Ed said, which churned and danced with some kind of violent joy as its son bled out his life. He was soon led away by my father’s friends with tears in his eyes.
My father’s ashes were, of course, spread out into the ocean, his true home. It was an awkward ceremony on a small sightseeing boat under a bright blue sky that was being overtaken by clouds. Me, my brothers, Big Ed and a few more of dad’s surfing circle. More wanted to come – we had to turn away an entire flotilla of boats by asking them to respect our family’s privacy.
We dumped the ashes into glass-smooth water, where they sat on the surface for a moment before slowly settling in. I told the captain to turn around. I felt sick. Not seasick – that was something my father would have never tolerated in his oldest son. My head was pounding and my joints were tight. Every time the small boat bumped up against the waves, my teeth would clack together until I tasted blood. My eyes were closed. I didn’t want to look out, to see the ocean that had claimed my father. I stood by the gangplank all the way back to the marina, and waited for the maddeningly slow process of docking the boat, with my eyes itching and my fingers gripping the railing so hard that I swore I could feel bones crack. I wouldn’t even begin to feel normal again until I was on land, and that very thought made me feel like I was betraying him.
But the easing of my illness – or whatever it was – was not enough to get me off the beach. It held me there as if it were waiting to show me something. Wonderful or horrible, there was no way of knowing.
I was offered a ride by everyone who had a car, but I waved them off. Said I would rather walk home, which was not a lie. When they had gone, with the clouds coming in, I went to a fallen piece of driftwood above the high tide line and sat down. The ocean was a slate grey. It moved sluggishly, barely mustering the energy to crawl up the sand to meet me. I took off my shoe and set my toes right up to the furthest edge the water could reach and smiled as it tried, futilely, to touch me. It was the ocean that had claimed my father, the waves that took him and killed him and tore him apart. It would love to get me too, I was sure of it. I moved my toes back just a hair, and the wave seemed to stretch itself just a little more.
The sun was hidden high above the clouds, its light weak and diffuse. The sand was cold under my toes and the constant breeze tangled in my hair. I listened to the ocean for a while, waves coming in and out like breaths of a great beast. If I closed my eyes, I could hear it inhale, exhale, over and over again. I breathed with it, the cold salty air clinging to my lungs until I let it go and then took another breath. I breathed and I sat, and that was all I did, there on the beach.
I flinched when the water touched my feet.
I opened my eyes when it didn’t let go.
The water was pooled around my feet, one bare and the other still in a shoe that would be acceptable for a funeral. I tried to pull my bare foot away and the water clung to it, like a thick jelly. Even when I stood up and put my weight behind it, the water clung to me, stretching but not snapping. I wanted to yell for help, but the beach was deserted. I hopped on one foot and kept pulling against the strange, rubbery pseudopod that stretched up from the shoreline.
That was when the ocean adjusted its grip… and pulled back.
I went flat on my back and felt sand grinding its way into my clothes as the water dragged me down the beach. I scrabbled at the sand and the rocks, finally starting to yell, but I couldn’t slow myself down. The water was up to my thighs now, pulling me faster towards the ocean. I opened my mouth for one more great shout, and that was when I was pulled beneath the waves, dragged feet-first into the somber waters. I flailed, trying to swim up to the surface, but the ocean had me in a full-body grip. My clothes were soaked and dragging me down, and I could feel the heat leaving my body, sucked out by the freezing water. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, far faster than it had been just moments ago. The water stung my eyes, and I sank in the cold darkness, trying to hold on to the last scraps of breath in my lungs.
Then the ocean said my name.
It was the last thing I remember.
I awoke on the beach, staring up at the stars. The ocean air was cold, and I shivered as I sat up. The full moon was hanging low in the sky, but I couldn’t tell if it was nearer to morning or evening, or if it was even the same day. The ocean rested along the seashore, its waves coming in slowly and quietly, as though the waters themselves were looking forward to a night’s rest.
All my muscles hurt when I stood. My hands were cold and stung from the sand, and when I looked at them, I nearly fell to the ground again. On the backs of my hands were tattoos, as black and shiny as the seaweed that rose from the bottom of the deeps. The tattoos were a confusing combination of circles and triangles and writing that seemed to skitter away from my gaze when I looked at it. Lines radiated out from the circles, and when I turned my hands over I found that they converged into new designs on my palms.
In the moonlight, the tattoos seemed to shimmer on my pale skin, and it was then that I noticed the other change that had been wrought: my hands were now webbed.
The ground seemed to come up to meet me as I fell to my knees and looked out over the ocean. “What have you done?” I whispered.
The ocean didn’t answer back.
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. This time I’m taking another look at A New World from Day 76, wherein a man comes back from some time in a mental hospital in order to deal with delusions of a fantasy world – only to realize that it was real. I didn’t make any radical changes to it, but just put in a few sentences here and there to fill in some cracks. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while, so I want to figure out how to do it well.
Adam let the door swing open and stood on the front step, looking into his house. His sister had kept it in good shape for him while he was… away. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been gone, though. A few months in the hospital, but the time before that was indistinct. Cloudy. He touched that space in his memory like it was a sprained ankle, a bone-deep bruise, and then left it alone.
He stepped inside and took a deep breath. The air smelled dry and flat, unused. He dropped his suitcase by the door, which he then shut and locked. The lights seemed too bright, but they were still working, so his sister must have been paying for the electricity. He felt bad, what she had been through. She didn’t have a lot of reason to be so kind to him, and they both knew it. There were too many years apart, too long between just a simple phone call and a chat. But when he asked why, she said, “Because you’re my brother. What else could I do?”
The water in the kitchen sink sputtered a little when he turned it on, but it came out cold and clear. He held his hands under it, letting it fill his palms and then wash away. For a moment, he felt something else. A stream. Snowmelt from high, impassable mountains. A woman, over his shoulder who made him smile.
He spun around, and there was no one there. The memory, too, clouded back over and he couldn’t quite remember what it was he had remembered. But it made him feel sad, whatever it was.
There was no food in the fridge, of course. It had been switched off and was disconcertingly warm when he stuck his hand inside to turn the dial and get the cold going again. There were probably menus somewhere, someplace he could order from. Even being away as long as he had, there would always be delivery menus. He went through a drawer under the phone until he found a bunch of menus from a Chinese place, Jade Hall. The menus, classic red-on-white printing, had a great sinuous dragon flowing across the top, and he found himself staring at it, unable to move, unable to look away. A voice came to him from the depths of his battered and broken memory, and it was terrifying. It resonated like a funeral bell the size of the world and held nothing but contempt for him and everyone else in creation.
“Very well, then,” he remembered it saying. “We are agreed.” There was a smell in the voice, like burning metal.
Adam felt a sudden pain in his arm, like someone had set a burning iron against it. He howled and grabbed at his sleeve, nearly tearing it off as he ran back to the sink to hold his arm under water. A sob broke through his teeth as he held his burned and mangled arm – and when he looked at it, the skin was clean and undamaged. The burning feeling was gone, along with the voice.
The fear settled into his stomach like a lump of iron. “No,” he said. “No, no.” He started walking around the kitchen, gripping at the sides of his head. “This is just what the doctors said would happen.” He was aware that he was talking to no one, but the silence of the house seemed worse. It seemed to be watching him, waiting to see what he would do next. “Oh, hell, damn, damn,” he said, slumping down on the kitchen floor with his hands over his eyes.
Doctor Greer had recommended against Adam leaving the hospital when he did. He called Adam into his clean, wood-paneled office and sat him down, and then looked at him with that weird, avuncular smile he had. “Adam,” he said. His beard gave his voice a gentle, muffled tone that probably went a long way towards calming his patients. “Adam, we want to help you, you know that?”
“Yes, Doctor Greer,” Adam said. He sat up straight and tried to push out a bright and cheerful voice from the back of his throat where it usually wanted to sit like a frog. “I know that. But I really feel like I’m better now.” Smile. This would be a good place for a smile. “I think I’m going to be okay.”
“And that is wonderful to hear, Adam.” Doctor Greer took up Adam’s file and looked it over, as if he hadn’t been treating the man for months. “No more intrusive fantasies? No more of those voices?”
Adam shook his head. “No, doctor,” he said, and it was true. He had gone a long time without flashing back to that strange reality he’d built for himself. Without thinking he had to get back. Greer said it was just an escape fantasy, that it was all brought on by stress. Work, with the cutbacks. His mother’s death. His marriage. Nothing was staying the way it was supposed to stay – stable, reliable, true. The bargain that he thought he had made with the world was breaking down, and the things that he had counted on were slipping through his fingers.
And so he had retreated, the doctors said. He had gone into his mind, into another world where things made sense. Where he could be the hero and impose order on the world and make it make sense. It was a fully-realized place in his mind, far better than the world he just happened to be born into.
He’d gone crazy, in other words. Nuts. Wacko. Or, in psychological parlance, “experienced a near-total disassociative state of mental dissonance.”
And, after a lot of therapy and a regular regimen of medication, Adam knew that they were right. They had to be. He’d gone off the deep end, lost his marbles, and when they found him in that field, laughing and crying at the same time, well, how else could you explain it? What other explanation could there possibly be? That he had gone to another world? That he had become some kind of fantasy hero, battling dragons and saving princesses?
It made no sense. It never had, and when he walked out of the hospital that morning, Adam was ready to face the real world, the true world. The only world that was really real.
“We are agreed,” that burning, horrible voice said again, and it made Adam cover his head and scream. It opened up cracks and fissures and gaps in his mind, and it let other things flow up out from between them. A great mansion gilded and perched atop a high mountain. A woman with eyes as blue as the sky on a late autumn day and skin that was deep, almost impossible violet, and her breath smelled of honey when they kissed. Red skies and rains that burned, and great insects that flew and carried people off only to let them fall from the sky again. A blade in his hand that sang to him and called down the lightning when he needed it.
“It was all a dream,” Adam said. “It wasn’t real,” and he said it again and again and again, but he knew… In his heart he knew.
There was a stone, and that stone was a key.
There was a door, but it wasn’t a door.
There was a path, and it was a path he could not see but he walked anyway and it led him to her. To the keep.
To the dragon and the battle and the promise. And the field.
The truth and the loss hit Adam like thunder and he wept. He cried for a long time, curled up on the kitchen floor.
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. I pretty much fell in love with The Devil Went Down to Friday’s (day 44) as soon as I finished it. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Devil as a character, and I’ve signed on with the view that he was something like God’s beta tester. His job was to test things to see if they were well-made, but with humans he took a little too much liberty. Anyway, I went through this, did a little clean-up and added some dialog here and there. Enjoy.
Lou was well into his third beer when The Devil sat down on the barstool next to him and ordered a gin and tonic.
He was The Devil. Had to be. His skin was pale red. He had a long nose and full, fleshy lips, all set off by a pointy black goatee. He was dressed way too nice for a bar like this, where guys got off their desk jobs for the day, had a few drinks to become people again before trudging home to face the wife and kids.
And then there were the horns.
The bartender brought him a drink as though there was nothing weird at all going on. The Devil thanked him and left a nice tip. When he noticed Lou staring, he nodded, that kind of silent “Hey” that marked the most basic level of Guy Cordiality.
Lou tried to go back to his beer, but kept sliding his gaze over to get a look at the man. The Devil wasn’t doing anything, really. Not offering deals or trying to corrupt the souls of everyone in here – as if that were still possible. He was just sipping at his drink and watching ESPN on the TV hanging above the bar.
Lou ordered another drink, trying to get drunk enough to make a move and say something. Not often you get a celebrity in here, he thought, and that made him giggle a little. The Devil glanced over, and then ordered another drink of his own.
When the bartender brought it over, and The Devil reached for his wallet, Lou found himself saying, “I got this one,” not fully in control of what his mouth was doing. He handed over a ten and told the bartender to keep the change. A horrible feeling curled up in the pit of his stomach as The Devil took the drink and finally turned around to face him.
“Thanks for the drink,” he said. His voice was pleasant. Smooth, Midwestern – the voice of a late-night talk radio host. He took a sip off the gin and tonic and smacked his lips. “Good stuff,” he said. “Not great, mind you. But good.” He took another sip and let out a long, relaxing sigh. “So. Louis P. Hoban. Cerbecorp engineer, husband, father of two and burgeoning alcoholic.” He tipped an invisible hat. “What can I do for you?”
Lou blinked. “You know my name?”
The Devil raised an eyebrow. “You know who I am, Lou.”
The feeling of dread grew in Lou’s stomach. The Devil, he thought, knows my name. He felt the blood run out of his face and a cold sweat pop out on his upper lip. The Devil’s eyes were a dull orange, the orange of a coal that didn’t seem so hot until you picked it up. The orange of an iron left in the fire. They glowed and shimmered as The Devil stared at him, his eyes seeming to grow and pulse and burn, and Lou started to stammer words that had no meaning.
The Devil erupted in laughter that filled the room, and slapped Lou on the shoulder. “Oh, Lou, you poor, sad man. Oh, that was great.” His laughter started to trail off and he wiped a tear from his eye. “Oh, that was nice. I haven’t done that in way too long…” He giggled a little and then tapped Lou’s glass with his own. “Thanks, Lou. I appreciate that.” He took a drink, put it down again and said, “Seriously, Lou. What’s up?”
For a moment, Lou couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you say when The Devil is sitting next to you, sipping a gin and tonic and making jokes at your expense?
“I know what you’re thinking,” The Devil said. “You’re wondering why I’m here. You’re wondering what I’m planning to do to you.” He raised an eyebrow. “Barter your soul? Send you straight to Hell? Tempt you with all kinds of forbidden pleasures?” He chuckled. “Would you like that, Lou?” he asked.
Lou shook his head.
“I could do that. Easy.” He took a sip of his drink. “Look behind you.” He gestured over Lou’s shoulder. “Go on, look.”
Lou turned, slowly, carefully, to look behind him. There was a boy there, maybe fourteen years old, tanned and dripping wet and wearing only a pair of electric blue swim trunks. He was shockingly blonde, and had a brilliant smile that glowed against his sun-dark skin. He stood on the balls of his feet, ready to run off and do something amazing, and his bright blue eyes were calling for Lou to come with him. He smelled of chlorine and suntan oil. He was gorgeous, he was wonderful, and memories that Lou had buried for thirty years slammed back into his head all at once. His skin, his nose, his tongue all remembered as if it had been only a moment. He cried out once, and turned back to The Devil, tears already spilling out of his eyes.
The Devil was smiling. “Evan MacPherson.” He shook his head. “Those two weeks of summer camp were probably the only time in your life you were ever truly happy, Lou.” He shook his head. “Amazing, the things teenagers will do when they don’t know any better. You and Evan were perfect for each other, you know that?” He chuckled and closed those burning eyes. “Yes. Of course you did.”
He snapped. Lou spun around and cried out again. The boy was gone. Just a small puddle of water on the floor by the bar and the faintest smell of a musty cabin in the woods. “Pity it didn’t work out,” the Devil said. “I’m sure your wife and kids are grateful, though.”
Lou took a few deep breaths and asked, “How?”
The Devil reached up and flicked one of his horns. It made a dull thumping noise. Lou nodded, and settled back into his barstool. He took his beer, finished it in one gulp, and gestured for the bartender for one more. They sat in silence until the next drink came, and this time The Devil paid for it.
“You know, Lou,” he said, “I want to thank you for that. It’s so seldom I find someone who has a hurt that big that they haven’t admitted to anyone. Or put up on YouTube. Or publicly crowed about on a TV talk show.” He sighed. “It used to be all like that, you know? Personalized service – one poor, miserable bastard at a time.” The Devil shook his head. “Now…” He shrugged.
Lou licked his lips. “Now… what?” he asked.
“Honestly, Lou, I don’t really have all that much to do anymore. I’ve pretty much put myself out of a job. Occasionally I run into someone like you, and I treasure that, I really do.”
“Why?” It came out as a whisper.
The Devil sat in silence for a moment. “You gave me a secret, Lou,” he said. “I’ll let you in on one in return. Okay?” Lou nodded, and there was another long silence.
“The fact that you can be hurt so deeply, Lou, means that you’re still alive in there. Somewhere.” He poked Lou’s belly, bigger, softer than that summer when he was fourteen. “There’s an innocent part of you that the world hasn’t been able to destroy yet. Not that it hasn’t tried, of course.” He spread his hands in mock helplessness. “You people are so much better at hurting each other than I am. And so much more open to being hurt. Honestly, I find it a little bit shocking.”
The Devil reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one. There was a law against it, but the bartender didn’t say anything. It smelled like a campfire at night in the middle of August. “When I found you people, you were animals. Barely able to bang rocks together. And against Someone’s better judgment,” he said, glancing upwards, “I gave you… let’s call it a ‘boost.’ Intelligence. Empathy. Morality. The whole package.”
He exhaled, and the smoke drifted across the bar in a lazy spiral. “The knowledge of Good and Evil.” He tapped the ash out into a cut-glass ashtray that couldn’t have been there before.
“Problem is, you were still monkeys underneath. Still are, really. Knowing the difference between good and evil doesn’t mean you’ll actually do good and avoid evil.” He looked up at the TV and blinked. The picture changed to a news feed. A murder had been done. Protests against a military funeral. Scenes from a war. Trial of a child molester. A man being executed. He blinked, and the horrors of mankind flickered across the screen. Lou stared into the TV and saw them all – the bullies, the liars and the cheaters. The powerful who stepped on the necks of the powerless, who turned around and stood on the necks of those lower than they.
“I gave you the knowledge of good and evil, the intelligence with which to use it, and put it on top of a screaming, hateful primate brain.” He shrugged, and stubbed out the cigarette.
“Why?” Lou asked again.
The Devil seemed to think about that for a long moment. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “Besides, I was bored, and you were something to keep me occupied. Entertaining, sure. But in the long term, not the best idea.”
They sat for a long moment, the Devil watching atrocities play on TV and Lou trying to figure out what to say next. What could you say to something like that? He opened his mouth, and the Devil glanced over at him, one eyebrow raised. “We’re…” Lou swallowed hard. “We’re not all that bad,” he said, and even he didn’t believe himself.
The Devil dropped the raised eyebrow. “Really,” he said, his voice flat with disbelief.
He waved, and the TVs went black. The lights went out all through the bar. The Devil lit another cigarette, and the flame was all Lou could see. Around him, people were yelling – afraid at first, then angry. Then crazy. The sound of breaking glass and breaking furniture was all around him in the darkness, but he couldn’t see any of it. In the light of The Devil’s cigarette, there was just the two of them.
“You people know how to hurt each other so much better than I do,” he said. “You know your weaknesses inside and out. You know what you’re willing to do and where you’ll draw the line, and then one of you crazy bastards goes on and oversteps that line.” He smiled, and Lou felt sick. There was a scream and a wet snap from somewhere behind him. “It’s admirable, in its own way.”
Lou could hear something breathing behind him, feel the breath on his neck. The Devil’s eyes never moved, didn’t flicker up to see who it was. They stayed on Lou, and he didn’t look around. There was something wet dripping on his skin, something warm and slick running down the back of his shirt that smelled of rotting fish at low tide. The breathing was beginning to sound like words that he could almost understand.
“You people live in a world of perpetual terror, danger, and pain,” The Devil said. Something rough and cold touched Lou’s neck, and dragged itself up towards his ear. “You live in a world that’s already trying to kill you in a million different ways and you spend so much of your time making it just that much worse.” Something heavy rested itself on Lou’s shoulders and his head, and it started bending his head back. He kept his eyes on The Devil’s, but it was becoming harder and harder to do, and sooner or later he’d see the thing behind him, and it would surely drive him mad.
“You people have put me out of a job, Lou,” The Devil said. “You’re your own keepers now.” He stubbed out the cigarette and the world went black. There were fingers on Lou’s face – rough-skinned and sharp, and he could feel the nails come to rest right under his eyes. They smelled like autumn leaves and dogshit and Lou tried to scream.
“Good luck with that.”
The lights came on. The bartender put down another beer in front of Lou. “On the house,” he said, and smiled.
Lou’s heart was racing. His neck hurt and he could still feel something running down his neck. He spun around to look at the bar – everything was normal. There was an office party going on, some couples enjoying their dinner, a few guys in suits at the bar. The TVs were showing football, but no one was watching.
The Devil was gone.
Where he had been sitting there was a folded piece of paper with Lou’s name on it.
His hand shaking, Lou picked it up and unfolded it once. It read, “You’re a good listener, Lou. Thanks.” There was a symbol drawn underneath – a happy face with horns and a goatee. Lou exhaled sharply, something between a laugh and a cry.
He unfolded the paper the rest of the way. In the middle of the page, in simple block letters, was written Evan MacPherson. And a phone number. Local.
Lou crumpled the paper in his hands, and this time he did cry. Quietly, manfully, but he cried.
The bartender came over, carrying a tray of empty glasses. “You okay, sir?” he asked. “Need to call someone to pick you up?”
Lou took a few deep breaths and wiped his eyes. He flattened out the piece of paper on his leg. “No,” he said. “Yeah.” He nodded slowly. “Give me the phone.”
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. When I first wrote “Genius” (day sixteen), it was an experiment in doing a dialogue-only story. No narration, no description, no nothing. Just the words. I think it worked out okay, with some good characters and an interesting premise. For the revisitation, I thought I’d put in a more conventional third-person narrative and see what I could make of it. Let me know what you think!
Kevin took deep, slow breaths to try and keep his heartbeat under control. The tip of the soldering iron trembled ever so slightly, and that wasn’t good enough. This part of the apparatus was vital to the success of the project. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. He took one more deep breath, held it, and let it out as he lowered the iron to the circuit board.
“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart!” He jerked the iron up and away from the board and cursed. He swung the magnifier back, dropped the coil of solder on the tabletop and growled under his breath at his mother. “Don’t make me call you again!” she called.
He wiped his forehead, set the iron back in its holder and counted to ten. “I’ll be up in a minute, mom!” he yelled. He stood up and turned on the light, blinking against the sudden illumination. The basement was cluttered and chaotic, with benches and boxes full of parts and various electronic components, cast-offs from neighbors’ trash and whatever he could scrape together from eBay. He took a battered notebook from one of them and started scribbling on a blank page.
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.” His mother’s voice was starting to sound concerned, but that was the default expression for her. For the last few years, she hadn’t know what to do with her son, and that was fine with him. She and his father had tried therapists and talking to his teachers at school, but they didn’t have any help for them. “He’s a great student,” they said. “Top honors, just… He’s in his own world sometimes.”
Would that that were true. If he had his own world he’d be able to get work done, to stay away from such trivialities as whatever it was his mother had cooked for dinner. It was only after many arguments and a little begging and pleading that he convinced his parents to let him use the basement for his own purposes. He promised not to do anything that would burn down the house or get him arrested, and they’d just have to live with that.
In recent weeks, however, he’d spent more and more time down there. He would come home from school, head straight downstairs and not show his face again until he came up to wolf down his dinner. After that it was straight back to the basement, and he wouldn’t emerge again until morning. They had tried to talk to him about it, as they had tried to talk about so many other things, but whatever he was doing down there was taking up all of his attention.
“Kevin,” she called again. “Your father and I… You’ve been down there all week, and we’re worried about you.” He didn’t answer, but put some extra notes next to an improved circuit design. He may not have finished this one, but maybe that was a good thing. If he just tweaked the design a little…
“That’s it, Kevin. I’m coming down there.”
His head snapped up from his notebook as he head her come down the stairs, in flagrant violation of the agreement they’d made. “What? Mom, no, you can’t – No!” He ran to the foot of the stairs to stop her, but it was too late. “No no no no – awwww, mom!”
His mother looked completely out of place in his basement junkyard. Her pale blue suit was clean and uncluttered, and the only jewelry she wore was a tastefully small cross on a thin gold chain. She looked every bit the professional working mother, but she’d somehow managed to make it look easy. She looked around the basement with an expression of horror and confusion, not only at the chaotic mess of things that was down there, but simply the chaos itself. Up above, in the house that she ruled, such a thing as this would never be tolerated.
“What on earth have you been doing down here?” she asked. She reached out to open one of the battered cardboard boxes and recoiled as dusty cables and connectors spilled out. “My God!”
Kevin took his gloves off and tried to escort her back to the stairs. “Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess.” She walked around him and started peering into everything with the horrified curiosity of a driver passing a fatal accident. “Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -” She picked up a metal basket with a leather chinstrap. The helmet had been festooned with wires, all leading to a thick, canvas-wrapped cable that was coiled in another box. “It looks like my old colander,” she said. “What are you doing with this?”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.” Kevin was acutely aware of the whining tone that was entering his voice and he squared his shoulders. “Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
She put down the helmet and sniffed. “And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like…” Kevin knew what it smelled like, but he was used to it by now. The smell of burned-out electronics was part of the background atmosphere of the basement at this point. She spun around to face him again. “Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
He wanted to deny it, but stopped himself. “Yes!” His eyes lit up. “Yes, mom, that’s exactly it.” He weaved through the junkpiles and gently took her arm, trying to guide her out. “I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
She broke free of him again and approached the door to a walled-off section he had built. “What’s in here?” she asked, turning the knob.
“Mom, no!!” It was too late. The room beyond that door was better than the rest of the basement, at least in terms of neatness. There were small lights in the darkness, a well-organized bench, and shelves of tagged and labeled devices, the successes that had been culled from all his failures.
His mother looked around, and stopped, horrified, when she saw what was on the desk in the middle of the room. “Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?” She approached it, gingerly. There was a great glass jar, its thick walls distorting the dim light that shined upwards from the base. Inside, its neck wired to a shining steel base that was covered in little lights, was the head of their family dog, Racer. She leaned towards it, her hand to her mouth.
It opened its eyes and started barking.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, stumbling backwards from the dog’s head. She backed up against the door, her face twisting between anger and disgust. “Oh God,” she whispered. “Is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Mom, I-” The dog barked again and she whimpered. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!” The dog stopped barking but started licking the inside of its container.
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…” She bent over and threw up on the floor. “Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just…” He grabbed a small towel off a rack and twisted it in his hands. “I’ll clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus…” She wiped her mouth and took a step closer to the thing in the jar. Racer barked again and started panting happily as she approached.
“Mom, I know how this looks,” Kevin said. “Look at me, Mom.” He reached out to touch her and she flinched away, but she looked at him. “I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad.” He tried to smile. “But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side?” She rounded on him, and her usual expression of careful pleasantness was gone. Now his mother’s wide, tear-filled eyes were full of anger, fear, more real emotion than he could remember seeing from her in a long time. “You have your beagle’s head in a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How –” She gestured around to the bizarre-looking contraptions that were on all the shelves. Some of them looked vaguely identifiable, but there were far more whose purpose she could not begin to understand. “And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom!” Kevin got in front of her and tried to recapture her attention. “I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom!” He ran over to the desk and wrapped an arm around the glass case. Racer barked again. “He got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
He left Racer, who whined quietly, and picked up a thing that looked like two old TV antennas stuck together with a copper coil between them. “Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find…” He put it down and started digging through a box under the desk.
“Hold on, mom,” he said. He stood up again with a metronome in his hand, the one they bought for him when he’d expressed an interest in playing the piano. That had lasted for very nearly two weeks. “Okay, Look at this, okay?” He set it ticking and put it on the desk some distance away from Racer, who was watching it intently. “Nice beat,” he said, “four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching?” He picked up the machine off the desk and pressed a small button. The coils began to hum quietly and a soft glow filled the space between the spreading antennas. He adjusted a dial, pointed the whole thing at the metronome and pushed the large red button in the base of the device. He touched the pale glow to the metronome, which immediately stopped in mid-swing, the pendulum leaning precariously to the right. The glow stayed around it, faint and iridescent.
Kevin turned back to his mother, a huge grin on his face. “Isn’t that cool?” He held up the device towards her and she took a step backwards. “Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!” He turned the dial back a bit, just for show.
He gestured back to the shelves. “I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches.” That look of disgust passed back over his mother’s face and she looked like she might want to throw up again. “Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween?” He laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!” He turned back to her.
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.” Her voice had gone quiet.
She walked over to the desk, and rested a hand against the glass case. “Oh, Racer…”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better!” He grabbed her with his free hand and turned her to face him. This time she didn’t flinch. “Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom.” He tried smiling again, letting a note of pleading enter his voice. “Don’t you see?”
She nodded slowly, mechanically. “Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
The nod again. “Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool?” He maneuvered to look into her eyes, but she looked away. “Mom?”
His mother took a deep breath and turned to the door. “Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this…” She looked back at the room and shuddered. “This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.” He gripped the device tightly.
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!” She was already out the door, heading towards the stairs.
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!” She reached a block in the maze of clutter and turned around to find a clear path, a sense of haste and panic entering her steps.
“Mom, no! Stop!” He held up the time-stopper as she approached him, and the pale glow lit up more brightly between the antennas. “NO!!“
She tried to step around him, but there wasn’t enough room. She turned to look as the light embraced her and she slowed down. “Kevvvvv…iii…nnnnnnnnnnn….”
Kevin looked at his mother, who was frozen in mid-step. Strands of hair hung, immobile, and the cross on its chain was dangling off towards the lapel of her suit jacket.
“Oh, mom,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.” He reached out to touch her, but drew back his hand. He didn’t know what would happen if he touched her. He made a mental note to test that out later.
He sat down on one of the boxes and rested the device on his lap. “You’ll be fine like that.” He tried to make himself sound sure. “You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…” He checked the settings on the device and then did some quick math in his head. His eyebrows went up. “Huh. Two point three million years.” He smiled and patted the machine. “Damn,” he said. “I am good.”
His mother stood there, frozen in time and perfectly beautiful. She didn’t understand, and that was no surprise. He’d never expected her to, but rather hoped that he’d be able to show her some of the more amazing things first before letting slip that bit about their dog’s head in a jar. Or the cockroaches. Sooner or later, he figured he’d be able to bring her around – her and his father. But she’d pushed the schedule ahead, and letting her go was far too risky.
And now there was his father to worry about. If she didn’t come up soon…
Kevin picked up his gloves from the workbench and put them on. “All right, then,” he said. He took up the time-stopper again and rechecked the settings. A pale glow bloomed between the antennas. “Dad first,” he said, mounting the first step. “Then dinner.” He smiled grimly.
“Then the world.”
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. This month, we’re going back to the beginning – Happy Birthday. Enjoy.
The day after the Rapture was my birthday. I had hoped for trumpets and celebrations, for the face of God to appear on Earth. I thought the dead would rise again, that the oceans would be as blood and the sky as flame, that animals would speak in the languages of man and utter the terrible truths they had known for so very long.
Before the Rapture, there was the Hype. You couldn’t drive through the city without seeing one of those billboards, or one of those trucks that just drove around all day blasting sermons out of huge speakers. The late-night hosts were having a ball with it, and the Internet did what it does best – relentlessly mock. I joined a Facebook group that promised to loot the houses of Raptured families, and I joked that if I was going to be watching the Tribuations, I might as well do it on a 65-inch LCD TV.
I didn’t believe it, mind you. I wandered away from the church years ago, and even then I had trouble accepting the whole “The Bible is the Word of God” thing. I didn’t even bother to go on Easter and Christmas anymore.
Nonetheless, I found myself looking forward to it, almost hoping that it really would happen. After all, angels coming down from Heaven, the return of Christ Almighty and the torments that would be visited upon the Unsaved, well… How could you not look forward to that? Angels with swords aflame would come flying from the clouds to carry off the elect. I figured music would 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. There would be wonders and horrors enough for a hundred lifetimes, and I would get to see it all.
What I saw on that day 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.
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 managed to hold on through making a double latte. 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. Not turned-off TV gray. Not a foreboding, hard-rain’s-gonna-fall gray. Just a lack of any kind of color. Just gray. The air was heavy and muggy and sluggish, barely moving through the world. What sunlight filtered through the gray sky was weak and attenuated. There was no birdsong outside. There were no insects traveling through the air.
My morning coffee was weak and bitter, my toast crumbled as I bit into it. My shower was lukewarm, no matter how I twisted the knob. My clothes made me itch. My hair lay flat on my head, and my skin was pale and dry and old.
My boyfriend stumbled out of bed and grunted something that was probably “Good morning,” but really could have been anything. He dropped a box on my desk and said, “Huppuhbufduh,” before crawling back into bed. The box wasn’t even wrapped. It was from a box of granola bars that he’d taped shut. Inside was a pair of socks. One of my pairs of socks.
I spent five minutes just staring into the refrigerator.
All that was on TV was cooking shows and home shopping.
The dog didn’t eat. The cat just slept.
That last part, at least, was normal.
So I’ve been sitting here. I’ve been through Facebook and Twitter and Flickr. I’ve gone through all my feeds and my bookmarks and forums. I’ve read through webcomics and funny cat caption sites. I’ve sleepwalked my way through some games, both online and off. And now all I can do it sit. Because I can’t think of anything better 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. Screaming ghosts, empty graves, bloody skies. At least they’d be exciting. Interesting. Something worth writing about.
This just… is.