Let me make a note here, hold on: huge success.
Seriously, folks – not only did I make the 50,000 word mark, but I blew right through it – the official final total was 73,176 words. Which makes me, as they say, a winner!
Before we get into a review of the whole experience, let’s just take a look at the last section, which was broadly based on the aether – a fifth element that, for reasons unknown to me, does not usually appear as a quirky redhead. It was, instead, the substance through which light waves were thought to propagate. A rather clever and simple experiment managed to prove that the aether didn’t exist, however, which makes it perfect for telling stories about other things that don’t exist – ghosts, ESP, spirits of every shape and size.
- Houseguests is a tale of a haunted house, where fourteen boys were tortured and killed. The house is bought by a pair of dedicated skeptics. Because after all – there’s no such thing as ghosts, right? Except for the ones that really do live there…
- The Bad News tells more of Carly Siminsky’s story. Carly is a telekinetic girl, held by the Department of National Security for – allegedly – her own safety. She’s doing well in her training, until she hears something that she cannot endure.
- Spirit Guide, in which a young man is having problems with his date. Mainly because his spirit guide, a floating blue panda bear, is trying to help him get lucky.
- Finders Keepers, a story that may or may not reflect some writers’ bias, is about a woman, a telepath who uses her powers to steal the seeds of ideas from famous authors to build a writing career of her own. The latest author, however, might be harder to get into than she thought.
- Hotline is about a psychic, but not a real one. A young woman acting as a telephone psychic to make money for college. Her last call of the night, however, turns out to be one she couldn’t have forseen.
- Dream Intervention is the monthly revisitation of a story I wrote last month. A man with the power to enter the dreams of others is trying to help a young man with a problem that even he doesn’t understand.
It was a good section, with some fun ideas that popped into my head, and others that actively resisted being drawn out into reality. But I suppose the aether is like that – indefinable, and unreliable. At 12,453 words, it was the second shortest section – probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure anymore.
Most important, though, was that I finished NaNoWriMo with plenty of time to spare, and managed to get a very respectable number of words in before the month ended. How did I do it, you might ask? Very simple:
- I planned. I made sure that I knew what I was going to do for the month, and had keywords set up to give me something to think about while I put the stories together. Aside from providing a seed for the story to grow from (which is pretty much where Finders Keepers is all about), it allowed me to think about the stories during time when I normally wouldn’t write.
- I was regular in my writing. My regular writing time is at night – usually after eight or so, given my schedule, and I need to finish by eleven. That’s not a whole lot of time, but I made damn sure I used it. If I couldn’t – for example, on Wednesdays, when the podcast is due – I would do as much as I could during the day.
- I used all the time I had on my hands. The effect of this, of course, what that I didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. I didn’t read a book all month, or write a review or anything, which seems really out of character and weird for me.
What this means for the future, of course, is that now I have an excellent month to point to and say, “I did that.” Over 70,000 words, and if I print out the whole month, single-spaced, it’s just over 160 pages.
A triumph indeed.
For December, though, I’m going to ramp things down a little. Do some world-building and exploring, look at some of the people and places I’ve created over the last six months and 279,000 words. It should be an interesting little vacation.
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.
Carissa sat at her phone station a full minute before her eight o’clock shift started and took a photograph out of her purse. It was old, the colors muted by the years, but still resonant with meaning. Her mother, dressed in a cheap black graduation robe, holding her diploma aloft with both hands. It was a gorgeous summer day, and she stood a little apart from her mother and father, who were watching with a kind of bemused interest. Carissa’s mother had been the first in the family to graduate from college, and Carissa meant to follow her example.
And if that meant working at a psychic hotline to pay the bills, then so be it.
She picked up her headset and had it settled right as the clock ticked over. She took a deep breath, whispered, “Graduation,” and hit the flashing white button that gave her the first call of the night. The young woman on the other end was convinced that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and it took Carissa about fifteen seconds of conversation to decide that he probably was, and she wasn’t sure she blamed him.
There was only so much you could tell about someone after two years of an undergrad psychology degree, but growing up with three older sisters was a Masters’ course in how to ruin relationships. She threw a couple of well-aimed guesses at the caller – Did he sometimes hide his phone? He’s been behaving strangely, hasn’t he? – and advised her to go look for someone else, because he was just no good for her.
Most of the calls were like that. They were people with fairly ordinary problems who just needed permission to do what they were probably going to do anyway. Those callers were entertaining. There were some, though, that made Carissa’s heart heavy and kept her staring at that picture of her mother all the longer. The people who called for real trauma, for answers that she couldn’t really give. Is my father okay in heaven? Will my baby boy ever get better? When will I ever feel normal?
For those calls,she leaned on the cloudiness of the future. “Events have a way of unfolding,” she’d say, “and none of us can be absolutely sure what the end will be.” She would reassure them that life, on balance, does get better and that a brighter future was waiting for them if they were willing to go get it. Which was not advice that was privy only to psychics, but it seemed to make them feel better.
After a few hours of angry lovers, people who wanted to know about Life Beyond the Veil and a few folks who seemed to just want to talk, Carissa took her final call of the night.
“Welcome to The Psychic Connection,” she said. “I am Roxinda and I am at your service.” Countless movies and TV shows had taught her what people expected to hear from a psychic, and she was sure to deliver – a voice that sounded like she smoked too much, a name that was just exotic enough, and a trace of an accent that had no clear origin. “Let me part the veil and reveal to you what the future holds.”
The person on the other end waited nearly long enough to make her think the call had dropped. Then he spoke. “You’re a liar,” he said. He sounded exhausted. His voice cracked, and seemed to be coming from far away.
“Why would you say that?” Carissa asked. She’d been accused of not being a real psychic before, of course. There were the skeptics who tried to test her and the angry family members who were upset that their mother or brother or son was allowing some so-called “Psychic” to make decisions for them. Carissa had some sympathy, of course. She wasn’t psychic, and she was pretty sure none of her co-workers were either. They were all just really good at figuring people out, cold reading and making the vague and speculative sound precise and prophetic. They weren’t allowed to reveal that, of course. Admitting to not actually being psychic was the fastest way to lose the job, and right now Carissa needed what little cash she could scrape in.
The man on the other end of the phone sighed, and it was heavy and tired. “I know your type,” he said. “You let us give you our money and you wave your hands around and tell us what we should do. and then you hang up, and nothing is ever your problem again.”
Carissa blinked. That was a new approach for her. “Perhaps you could tell me about your problem,” she said. “I feel a great sense of urgency, of a great decision that needs to be made.”
He laughed, and it was a single, short bark. “You could say that, yeah. Yeah, a decision.” He paused, and Carissa could hear the short scrape of a lighter being lit. “I sure do have a decision to make,” he said around what ha to be a cigarette. He exhaled, and it sounded like wind in her ear. “I’m on a bridge,” he said. “A good high one. And I’m just about ready to jump.” He took another inhale. “And it looks like a long, long way down.”
Carissa’s insides froze as he spoke. Part of her wanted to keep him on the line, to keep him talking. But she had no idea what to say to him, no idea what she could say to keep him from jumping. And if she should say the wrong thing? If she said something that made him want to jump? Her mind froze up, and throat closed. After a moment, he said, “You still there?”
She took a breath and had to try a couple of times. “Yes,” she said. “Of course I’m still here. I… I would…” She swallowed, hard. “Sir, perhaps you have called the wrong hotline?”
This time his laugh sounded genuine, if still dark and bitter. “That was good,” he said. “Nice.” Another exhale. “No,” he said. “I called you and I wanted you.”
“Well, then,” she said. “Tell me what I can do for you?” All of her lines fled from her head. She knew what her psychic persona should ask him, but she couldn’t make it come out. Finally she settled on, “How can I help you?”
“You can give me back the life you people took from me,” he said, and all the humor was gone from his voice.
“Sir,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Carissa reached down and grabbed her purse from the floor. “What do you think we did to you?” She started rifling through her bag. There was a notebook and a pen in there somewhere, she was sure of it.
“You’re the psychic,” he said. “You tell me.”
She resisted the urge to sigh. That was always a favorite line whenever she tried to fish for information from people, and it was a hard one to get past sometimes. “Very well,” she said, laying on the accent a little thicker. “This is not the first time you have called us,” she said. The notebook was at the bottom of her bag, of course. She pulled it out and started looking for her pen. “One of our number has helped you in the past.”
“Very good, Saturn Girl,” he said. Carissa didn’t get the reference, but she caught the tone. “And how do you think that turned out?”
She found the pen and quickly scribbled a note on a piece of paper. “You are troubled.” Guy on phone going to kill himself, she wrote. “Your problem remains unresolved.” What the hell do I do? “You are searching for answers to a question you do not know how to ask.” She leaned over to Lizette, the girl who sat next to her, and slid the note onto her desk. “You wish to know -”
“What I wish to know,” he said, “is where the hell you people get off?” The anger in his voice was a good sign, at least from a psychic point of view. Angry people were less careful about what they said, more prone to letting information slip. She tapped the note, and Lizette waved her off. She was on a call of her own, and it looked interesting.
“We are merely conduits,” Carissa said. “We look into the mirror darkly and interpret what we see.”
He barked out a laugh again, and she could hear him lighting another cigarette. “A mirror darkly,” he said. “That’s a good one. You people steal my wife from me, my job, my friends, and all you can do is mis-quote the Bible at me.”
“Sir, I assure you. We stole nothing from you. All we do is advise.”
“Advise?” he said. “You people advised me that my wife was cheating on me with my best friend. You advised me that my boss was planning to get me fired. What the hell kind of advice is that?”
Carissa looked over at Lizette, who had just tapped her on the shoulder. She pointed at the note and mouthed, “Seriously?” Carissa nodded, and Lizette started to write her own reply.
“I am sure that it was advice given in good faith,” Carissa said. She took the paper from Lizette, who had written, Find out where in her loopy handwriting. Carissa gave her a thumbs-up, and Lizette got up from her station. That was a surefire method of getting a supervisor’s attention, and usually not in a good way.
“In good faith,” the man said. “You mean you were making shit up.” His voice was getting tired again. The anger was draining away from it, and Carissa wasn’t sure what that meant. “You were just doing what you do – taking my three dollars per minute and pulling answers from your ass.” He sighed into the phone, and the hairs on the back of Carissa’s neck went up. “I should’ve known better.”
She could picture him. He sounded middle-aged, and the wife and job comment seemed to point that way. He smoked, and that gave her an image of a thinner, sallow man. Standing on a bridge, looking down on the water below. Probably wearing the clothes he woke up in that morning. The tips of his shoes – his sneakers – would be peeking over the edge, and the wind would be cold and wet. She wondered if there was anyone else on the bridge, and why no one had stopped to see if he was okay. It was only 10:30, after all. There should be some traffic. She wrote on her pad, High bridge, little traffic? – and passed it to Lizette, who was showing the original note to the floor manager.
“Sir,” she said. “I understand you are upset. The waters of the future… they can be treacherous. Even we who see can sometimes only see poorly.” She glanced up at the floor manager, who made a twirling motion with his finger over the note. More. “But no matter what we see or do not see, the future is ultimately up to the choices we make. And perhaps a lonely bridge in the middle of the night in your sweatpants is not the best choice right now?” Carissa cringed a little. She always did when she guessed blindly like that.
There was a silence on his end, and she thought for a moment that he’d jumped. Then he said, “How did you know that?”
She wanted to say that he’d given her all the clues. That her uncle had lost his job a year ago, and he was still on the couch, in sweats and a dirty t-shirt lamenting the unfairness of it all. That the caller was probably clinically depressed by now, and one of the features of depression was not caring for one’s appearance. She wanted to say that she had studied this kind of thing, that they’d talked about it in class. That she’d woven the image together out of guesswork and hope.
Instead she said, “My eyes give me the visions. All I can do is trust that they are right.”
And she hated herself for it, even though it worked.
“Please, sir,” she said. “Give life another chance. Tell us where you are, and we can send someone to help you.”
“What,” he said. “You mean like a spirit guide or some bullshit like that?”
Carissa smiled, and wasn’t sure if she was about to laugh or cry. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “But perhaps a friend?” She gritted her teeth. “I feel that there is someone who can help you, but you feel unworthy of his help. You could call, but…”
“But I couldn’t,” he finished. His voice cracked again, and she thought he might be crying. After a little coaxing, he gave her a name and a phone number. She wrote them down.
“Thank you,” she said. “And your name?”
He hesitated before saying, “Leonard,” he said. “Leonard Wells. I’m at the Palmer Mill Bridge.”
Carissa let her breath out slowly. “Thank you, Leonard,” she said. She handed the note to Lizette, who nodded and pulled out her cell phone. “We’ll call your friend for you. In the meantime, can you stay on the line with me? Just so I know you’re okay?”
“I dunno,” he said. “At three dollars a minute…” He laughed a moment before she did. She scrawled another note to the floor manager, who would probably be able to find the right person to get the charges fixed.
She stayed on the phone with him for an hour, her accent fading as she talked. When his friend arrived, she let him go. “Good luck, Leonard,” she said. She pushed the white button on her phone, and dropped her head to her desk. Lizette and the floor manager and a few other people who had realized what was going on started applauding and patting her on the back for her work. Carissa got the rest of the night off after that. When the buzz had died down and the floor manager told everyone to get back to their phones, Carissa carefully put the photograph of her mother back in her purse, squeezed Lizette’s shoulder as she walked out, and left the call center.
She never went back.
Katrina kept herself amused as she waited for the keynote speaker by reading the minds of the people sitting around her.
ZeffCon 2011 was packed. The Allenhurst Civic Center had been chosen because last year’s con couldn’t fit into the Eldewylde Hotel that had hosted it for the years previous. The con’s organizers were, of course, thrilled, since a bigger place meant more attention, more participants, and of course, bigger guests.
And it didn’t get much bigger than the keynote speaker for the con, the man that Katrina was there to see.
Roger Tillman had grown to be one of the most popular new authors of fantasy and science fiction in the last ten years, and the competition to get tickets for the speech was fierce. If she hadn’t gotten in, Katrina would have had to approach him somewhere else in the con to pick his brains. As it was, she could do it from her fifth-row seat at her leisure. Her talents did come in handy sometimes.
The man next to her had a song running through his head that was beginning to get on her nerves. She carefully blocked him out and focused on the large woman sitting next to her, who seemed desperately trying to think of an alternative to the only question she could think of to ask Tillman when he did his signing. Katrina dug a little deeper – “Where do you get your ideas?” She sighed and pulled out of the woman’s head.
Katrina had no idea where other writers got their ideas, but she knew where she got hers: from them.
The first time she’d done it was at a convention in San Diego fifteen years ago. She met a middling mystery author there, whose sales were slumping. While Katrina poured on the praise for the woman’s books, she took her first peek into the depths of an author’s mind.
She’d always been a “peeker,” as she called herself, ever since she started to hear what people were thinking back when she was a little girl. She couldn’t help herself back then – she was curious, and people were just loud. But as she got older, she got better at going in and finding what she wanted. She found it really useful for remembering names, for one, and it made her sales job at the time a lot easier to do.
What she really wanted to do, though, was write. Ever since high school, she’d tried writing short stories and novels, and what she came up with were stories that she ended up hiding in a drawer and forgetting about. Her ideas, she thought, weren’t any good. What she needed, then, were good ideas. And what better place to find them than in the heads of people who’d proven they could write?
In the end, though, she found it much less exotic than she’d thought. This author had her ideas cluttered about like a musty basement. Dull plots and half-formed characters, a title or a first line or two. Things she was probably working on but wasn’t ready to publish yet. Works in progress and works that would probably never get finished. This woman’s mind was a mess.
Katrina looked a little deeper, into the shadows of the woman’s mind, and it was there that she found what she would look for in every writer’s mind afterward. She found the seed of an idea. The grain of sand that would make a pearl, given time and effort. Katrina turned the idea over in her hands and examined it. There was something there about a house where a child was kept in the basement… a father who pretended she wasn’t his… a boy next door?
It would do. Katrina took the idea back with her and retreated back into her own mind. She thanked the author for her time and her signature and headed back to her hotel room. A few hours later and she had the book plotted out in her head. Just the rough outline, with a few important steps to it, but it was there. A few months of work and she’d produced her first novel, Groundling Child, which was published a year to the day after her meeting at the convention.
She’d published it under a pseudonym – Paula Grant – just in case the original author came looking for her. But she never did. As far as Katrina could tell, she never knew that the idea had been stolen at all.
Emboldened, Katrina started visiting more cons and meeting more authors. Each time, she found a seed, a germ of a story idea and took it back with her. Before she knew it, she was writing every day, and selling one or two books a year, in addition to short stories. The critics didn’t rave, but people bought them and within a few years she could go to any airport bookstore and see some Paula Grant novels on the shelves. If she had time, and the clerk was busy, she would stealth-sign them. They usually showed up on internet auction sites and got a good price, since the elusive author had never appeared publicly to promote her books.
But where Paula was something of a mystery, Katrina had become a familiar face at conventions around the country. Anywhere a famous author would show up, Katrina would be there. If she could, she’d even volunteer so that she’d have an even better chance at getting a face-to-face meeting.
This time, though, she’d had to settle for just being a member of the audience. The lights dimmed, and one of the con’s organizers came out to say how honored they were to have the world famous fantasy/science fiction giant speak at their convention. “Ladies and Gentlemen: Roger Tillman!”
The audience went crazy, of course. Some people already had copies of his latest book in hardcover and were waving them in the air as he came to the stage and waited out the applause. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” He said it a few more times before the crowd calmed down.
“Wow,” he said. “I never expected such a reception. They told me that ZeffCon crowds were the best, and I guess they were right.”
Katrina screened out everyone around her. The fat woman was just thinking, Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod over and over again. Shutting her out was like pressing against a wind-blown door, but Katrina managed to do it. She wanted peace and quiet in her head before she went into his. The speech would give her more than enough time to look around, poke into the dark corners and see what she could find. Nobody ever seemed to notice her rifling through their mind, and time seemed to go differently in there as it was.
He was telling some story about how he got started, but Katrina just let it wash over her. She concentrated on a point just between his eyebrows, past the steel-rimmed glasses he was wearing. And she pushed.
On the stage, Tillman stumbled over his words and looked directly at her.
In her head, she heard him ask, WHO ARE YOU?
She recoiled back into her own mind and looked up at him with wide eyes. He seemed to have recovered from his verbal stumble and was back to talking about his high school English teacher, but she knew – she knew that he had felt her go in. And she was pretty sure he knew who she was.
Katrina picked up her jacket and whispered, “Excuse me” as she moved past the other convention-goers. The looks they gave her were anywhere from shocked to annoyed, and if she was listening she would have heard them think some very nasty thoughts. But she’d closed all the doors and windows, as it were, and got out of the main hall as fast as she could.
The rest of the con was sparsely attended during the keynote. She made her way to the art room before she found a place to sit down and gather her thoughts and figure out her options. It had been dark in that hall. He probably didn’t get a good look at her face, and so he probably wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a crowd by sight. But if he was anything like her, he might not need to see her. He might be able to find her no matter where she went. She started going through her bag to find her hotel key when she felt a certain… pressure coming towards her.
It was like a noise, but not a noise. Like a wave that was coming in from far away when you went to the beach, but not quite that either. It was the way the wind changed before a storm or a song started to build before it reached a crescendo. By the time she realized what it was, it was too late.
Roger Tillman came running around the corner, his mind blazing like a beacon to hers.
When he saw her, he grinned, and that beacon switched off instantly. The feeling of pressure vanished, and Katrina put a hand to her head. He stopped a few steps away. “Wow,” he said. He was smiling madly and couldn’t seem to keep still. “Just… wow.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I had to say that I wasn’t feeling well and cut the speech short, but I assured them they loved what they’d heard.” He tapped his temple and winked. “It’s just that…” His voice dropped to a whisper, and this handsome man looked like a kid for a moment. “It’s just that I’ve never met anyone like me before. I couldn’t let you get away.” He reached out for her, but she shrank back.
“Thank you,” she said. “But I really didn’t mean to… do that. I just wanted to…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Wanted to what?” he asked. He glanced around. “Are there more of us here or something?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “No, I’ve never met anyone either.” She didn’t dare look him in the eye, for fear that she’d reveal what she was trying to do. She’d read his books and loved them, and idea-borrowing aside, she looked up to him as a fellow writer.
No. As a writer. There was no “fellow” about it, of that she was sure. She was pretty certain that he didn’t pluck ideas out of people’s heads, and that would make all the difference.
“Listen,” he said. “I know there’s something you want to say. I can feel it. If you’ll just -”
“I have to go,” she said. She picked up her bag and tried to smile. “It was very nice meeting you, Mr. Tillman. I… I have to go.” She turned to leave, and that’s when she felt his hand on her shoulder.
She was running through a forest. It was deep and dark, and the bundle in her arms was moving. “Hush,” she said to it. She leaped with long, strong legs over fallen trees, and the wind rushed through her hair. There was no other sound but her footsteps and her breathing.
And the thing behind her.
She couldn’t see him, but she knew he was chasing. He was a force unto himself, tearing the great trees out by the roots as he pursued her. Great vines spiraled down from the trees, and she had to slice through them with her dagger before they could grab hold. She held the bundle tightly to her chest as she jumped across a chasm that opened up in front of her, curled up in a ball to fly through a wall of flame, and rolled back to her feet on the sand-swept desert floor.
Spikes of stone and brick shot up around her, blocking her path. A great whirlwind dropped from the swirling clouds overhead and moved as she moved. From behind, she could hear him.
“It is over,” he growled. “Give it to me.”
“Never!” she screamed, and she held the squirming bundle close. “You can’t have it!” Iron chains erupted from the ground, wrapping around her legs, her arms, her shoulders, and dragging her down. She held on as tightly as she could, but when he came close, it was a matter of only a moment before her treasure was revealed to him.
It was wrapped in rotting cloth, stained and fouled from years of use. Inside was the dried, rotted corpse of an infant, long dead. Its skin was gray and flaking away, its eyes dark hollows in a fragile skull. Beetles crawled across it and onto her fingers. She screamed and dropped the dead thing to the ground, where it exploded in a puff of dust. Her heart full of rage, she looked up at the man silhouetted by a giant and angry sun and -
Roger took his hand away and looked shocked when she spun on him. She glared through tear-filled eyes and then looked away. There was a small crowd gathering.
“Wait,” he said quietly. “That’s it?” He started to smile, but the tears running down her face were enough to set him straight again. “Katrina – Paula, that’s your big secret?”
She nodded. “I hope you’re happy,” she hissed. “You’ve ruined me.”
He took a step back, and this time he did smile. “Katrina, I bought two of your books in the airport to read on my trip.” She glanced up at him. “Seriously – they’re in my bag right now.” He took her hand in his, and she flinched. Nothing else happened, though. “They’re really good, Katrina.”
She shook her head. “They’re not mine,” she said.
“Of course they are.”
“No!” She pulled her hands away and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I found those ideas in other people’s heads. I went in and I took them and I wrote some books.” She wiped her eyes. “But they’re not really mine.”
Roger turned around and leaned against the wall. “Katrina,” he said. “Ideas are…” He wave a hand in the air. “Ideas are a dime a dozen. People have ideas all the time, and they ignore them or throw them away or let them fade. Any schmuck can have an idea.” He stood up straight and looked her in the eyes. “What makes you a writer is what you do with the ideas. You did the hard work. You put in the time and the energy to write them. You figured out the characters and papered over the plot holes and wrote and re-wrote.” He chuckled. “Believe me, I know what it takes to put a book out, and I know you did the grunt work.”
Katrina didn’t say anything. She looked away.
“Look,” he said. “I get ideas from all over the place. A word on the street, a phrase in a song, a weird sign or a guy in a restaurant or just some bizarre combination of thoughts. That doesn’t mean they aren’t mine, and it doesn’t mean the stories I write aren’t mine either.” He shrugged. “Okay, so what you’re doing might not be the most ethical thing in the world, true. But I’ll tell you this: the woman who wrote those books can get her ideas from anywhere she wants, as far as I’m concerned.”
She sniffed, and finally looked at him. “You’re not going to tell anyone?” she asked.
He laughed. “Who would believe me? However,” he said after a pause, “it might make a good short story.” He winked. She smiled, despite herself.
See you around, he thought to her.
She lifted a hand to wave. See you. The crowd followed him out of the art room, a few people lingering to see who this woman might be that had caught his interest. Katrina smiled at them and took up her bag.
He was right. It would make a good short story.
But this time, it wouldn’t be hers.
Adam refilled his date’s wine and took a moment to notice how lovely she looked in the low lighting of the restaurant. She had curves to her, which he loved, and skin that seemed to glow in candlelight. Her eyes were as dark as her long, curling hair, and she always seemed to be waiting for the punchline to a joke that he didn’t know.
That wasn’t going to stop him from trying to tell them, though.
“Hope you like the wine,” he said.
“It’s lovely.” Carlana tapped her glass against his again before she took a sip.
“Glad to hear it,” he said. “But next time I should probably remember the antidote.”
Carlana grinned around the rim of the glass. “Ah.” She put it down and leaned forward. “But what you do not know is that I have spent years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”
Adam blinked and said, “Oh my god. Marry me.”
Their laughter drew attention from the other tables, but they didn’t notice. They were having too much fun. His brother had set them up together after Adam had gone through a long spell of being single. He hadn’t minded, really. Being single had its perks. The free schedule, the lack of a need to clean all the time or close the door when he peed. But after a while the quiet and the solitude had gotten to him, so he’d asked Marv if he knew anyone. The result was what was turning out to be the best first date he’d ever had.
Adam ignored the voice and went on flirting. “So how is it, working at Qualis? I hear gaming jobs are really tough.”
She shrugged. “No more than any other job, really. There are some tough days, and it can be a little much being The Girl sometimes…” He could hear the capital letters she put on it and could only imagine. He worked at a small bookstore, and was the only guy there. But other than being the one person who seemed to be able to get heavy things off of high shelves, he hadn’t really noticed any kind of strangeness to it. He knew some gamers, though, and he could easily picture how they’d devolve around a gorgeous woman like this.
It turned out she’d worked on one of his favorite games, Stonecracker Kingdom, and they spent some time talking about the puzzles that were the heart of the game. “Are you sure you can’t tell me how to get the key out of the cage?” he asked.
She just shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Gotta figure it out.”
“Or look it up online.”
She put her glass down. “Oh, you’re not one of those, are you?” He almost thought she was serious for a moment. “Because if you are, then I think we’re done here.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “I assure you. I figure them all out on my own, bleeding from the eyes or no.”
“Good to hear,” she said. “Bleeding from the eyes is actually a beta feature.”
C’mon, man, kiss her!
He coughed slightly. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” he asked. “Call of nature and all that.”
She raised her glass and said, “Be careful in there.” He was grinning all the way to the toilets, but the grin dropped once he got into the stall and locked the door.
There was a small blue panda bear hovering about a foot above his head. He reached up and grabbed it by the neck, dragging it down in front of his face. “Shut up!” he whispered. “I am trying to have a date!”
The bear looked completely unimpressed. “Yeah,” it said. “I know that. And all I’m trying to do is my job.”
“I don’t need you to do your job,” Adam said. “I need you to leave me alone!”
“You need to get into that girl’s pants before the week is out, kid.”
Adam wanted to scream. “That’s the kind of advice I really don’t need right now!” He let the bear go, and it hovered just out of arm’s reach. “You do that, and there’s pressure on me. There’s pressure on me, and I start to get nervous and nobody’s getting anything!” He had to drop his voice back down to a hoarse whisper. “Got it?”
The bear shrugged and did a slow somersault in mid-air. “Suit yourself,” it said. “But she wants you to kiss her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Kid, I’m your spirit guide. I know everything you need to know, and I’m telling you – she’s ready to go.” The panda spun to face him and made little thrusting jabs with its hips. “You play it right and you can leave that porno folder closed for once.”
“Oh, for the love of god…”
Adam leaned his head against the tiles and counted his breaths. He’d had the panda for a few months now, and the fun of it was starting to wear thin. He had no idea where it came from, or why it chose him, but from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep – and as far as he knew, all night – this little blue panda was there. Telling him what he should do in all kinds of situations. Talking to his boss, buying furniture, walking around the city. The bear didn’t always talk – most of the time it just hung out, doing whatever it was spirit guides did when they weren’t guiding. When it did talk, though, it was pretty insistent on getting its way.
“Look,” he said after a few minutes. “You have to let me make my own decisions, okay?”
The bear shrugged. “Well, yeah. Fine. But it’s my job to offer advice, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” It tapped its wrist. “She’s probably wondering where you are, by the way. Every minute you spend arguing with me is a five percent decrease in your chances of doing the nasty anytime soon.”
“See? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about!” Adam’s words were coming out in a hoarse rush. “I’m gonna go out there, and have a nice time with a lovely girl, and if anything happens, then it happens and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t and I don’t need you or anyone else nagging me about it. Okay?” He jabbed the flush button for the toilet. “Now shut. The hell. Up!”
Adam yanked open the stall door. There was an older gentleman at the mirror, combing his hair and watching Adam from the corner of his eyes.
“Trouble, young man?” he said.
Adam took a deep breath and forced on a smile. “First date jitters,” he said. “Nothing to it.” He took his hands out of the sink and let the water shut off.
Ten percent and falling.
Adam winced and smiled again. “Gonna be fine.” He yanked a towel from the dispenser. “Juuuust fine.”
The desert lowland was full of cars, stacked on on top of the other. Some of the stacks were of only a few cars, others more. Their flaking paint and broken windows gleamed in the setting sun.
A disordered pile of cars shifted and lurched, and a late-model Tulay pickup lifted out of the mess and started to float over to a tall stack of cars nearby. This stack was fifteen cars high already, and swaying dangerously. Broken glass and metal littered the site around it, as well as cars that had been destroyed beyond recognition. The pickup floated slowly to the top of the stack, where it paused and then very gently settled down on top.
The great tower of cars swayed for a moment, and the faint groan of metal and crackle of glass filled the air. Its fall seemed inevitable, as if even the sunlight might push it over from the side.
But the stack didn’t fall. It swayed and then settled down. And then stopped.
In a tent set up some distance away, a girl with long, braided red hair collapsed into a folding chair to the applause of the men in suits gathered around her. One of them gave her a cup of water, which she swallowed immediately, and then gave her another. She was sweating and slouched in the chair taking deep, heaving breaths with her eyes closed, but under the exhaustion, there was a definitely look of accomplishment on her face. The man who gave her the water put a hand on her shoulder. “Great work, Carly,” he said. “I mean it. Really good.”
She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. “I didn’t think I was going to make that last one, Martin” she said. “I seriously thought the whole thing was going to come down. Again.”
“Well, you did a fine job. You should be proud.” He patted her on the shoulder again and then left to talk to some of the men in suits. They let her sit there for a while. She looked out at the sunset while she caught her breath and felt the warm glow of achievement. True, stacking cars wasn’t the most complicated thing she’d had to do, but they’d set her at it all day. Two cars, three cars, five… As many as she could. Martin had said this was a test that the facilities administrators had come up with, but he couldn’t exactly explain what it was they were testing. In the end, all she could do was shrug and stack the cars.
Maybe if she stacked them well enough, they’d let her go home.
She tried not to think of home too much, if she could. She had been training at this facility now for, what was it? Five years? Six? She knew why, too. They told her almost every day. It was vital that she be able to control her powers. That she not hurt anyone else ever again. That she not kill anyone else ever again.
That still got to her. She’d never meant to kill anyone. Not ever. But they told her that she did. And not just a few, either.
Over a hundred.
The number was enough to make her stomach clench and steel her resolve. She would train as hard has she had to, as long as she had to, as long as it meant that she wouldn’t be a danger to anyone. If that meant stacking cars in the desert all day, then so be it.
But still… she was starting to forget things from home. Her mother’s face. She wondered what her little brother was doing, if he was in high school yet. That reminded her that she would have graduated by now. Her friends were probably all in college. Some place she’d never go. Somehow, she thought “trained for five years in a government facility out in the desert” wouldn’t look good on her admissions paperwork.
They took down the tent and folded up the chairs and decided to leave the cars where they were for the moment. Carly figured that her next task would probably be taking them down again, and maybe taking them apart. Or crushing them into little balls. Or making sculptures out of them. She never knew what the next test would be, and Martin confided in her once that he didn’t know either. He just got the framework in his email every night and had until morning to make sure he knew what she was supposed to do.
After a short ride back to the facility, all Carly wanted to do was take a shower and go to bed. No matter how it looked, lifting cars with your mind all day was tough, tiring work. But it certainly was better than she could have done even a year ago, and that in itself was something to be proud of.
One of the staff, a young man in over-large glasses, met her when she got off the mini-bus. “Miss Siminsky?” he said. “Deputy Director Stassi would like to see you.”
She sighed. So much for shower and bed. “All right,” she said. She followed the young man. She’d only met the Deputy Director a few times, and she didn’t like him much. He talked to her like she was a bomb that was about to go off. A slightly stupid bomb, at that. But he was the connection to the outside world that she’d need to get out someday. He worked with the Secretary of National Security, and if anyone could get her home it would be him.
She closed the door of the office behind her, and Director Stassi stood up behind his desk. “Miss Siminsky,” he said with a broad smile on his face. His eyes darted to the corner of the office where a camera had been installed, and it ruined the attitude. “Thank you for coming. Please, have a seat.”
Carly fell into a chair and resisted to urge to put her arms on his desk and just fall asleep right there.
Director Stassi sat behind the desk. He was sweating slightly, but she took no notice of it. “Miss Siminsky,” he said, “I heard about your performance this afternoon. I must say that I’m very impressed, and I’m sure the Secretary will be just as thrilled as I was.” His smile had too many teeth in it.
“Thanks,” she said.
His smile slipped a little and he cleared his throat. “Um. I have just a one thing to go over with you and I’ll let you go. But, um. I’m afraid it’s a bit of bad news.”
That caught her attention, and she sat up straight. A dozen different scenarios unspooled in her head, each of them worse than the last. “What is it?” she said. She noticed the pictures on the wall behind the Director start to shake and she willed them to stop before he realized what was going on.
Director Stassi folded his hands in front of him. “Miss Siminsky, I know you’ve been asking about when you can… you can go home.” He ran a hand through his hair, and then tried to rub the sweat off on his jacket sleeve. If he was trying to look calm, he was failing utterly. “I hate to be the one to break it to you, Miss Siminsky, I really do. And I hope you understand that I’m just the messenger here…”
“What?” she asked. “What is it?” Her voice was small and she hated it.
“You… um…” He cleared his throat again, and his next sentence came out all in a rush. “You can’t go home.”
One of the pictures fell off the wall, and Stassi jumped. Carly tried to speak a few times before she said, “But… why?”
He loosened his tie. “Miss Siminsky, I hate to remind you what happened when you… when your powers emerged. You…”
“I hurt a lot of people,” she said. His habit of trying not to finish sentences was getting on her nerves. “Is that it?”
“You killed a lot of people, Miss Siminsky,” he said. “And you terrified a lot more.” He took a deep breath. “Including your mother.”
“My mother?” she said. She stood up, and the chair slid across the floor. “What about my mother?”
He stood up as well, and took a small black voice recorder out of his jacket pocket. “To be frank, Miss Siminsky, your mother is… afraid of what you might do if you come home. We tried to reassure her that you were getting better, that you were gaining control, but…” He put the voice recorder on the desk. “This is what she said to us.” He pressed play.
A voice came out, muffled by traveling along a phone signal, but unmistakably her mother’s voice. “My daughter is a monster,” she said, “and I hate to think what she could do if she was free. Keep her away from everyone. Keep her away from me and my family.”
Director Stassi’s hand shook as he picked up the voice recorder and it crumbled in his hand. He looked up sharply at Carly, and then slammed against the wall. “Carly!” he yelled in a strained voice. “Please, Carly let me -” His voice choked off and his eyes went wide as he pressed against the wall. His ribs popped and cracked and blood began to run out of his mouth and nose. Bruises blossomed on his skin as blood vessels burst, shards of bone began to jab out, slicking through his suit, and his whole body started to flatten out. His skull made a great cracking sound as it shattered, blood and brains bursting out around him.
Carly let him fall to the floor, and she turned slowly in the air in the middle of the room. The walls started to shake, and cracks burst open in the floor and the walls. The lights went out and sparks began to fly from broken electrical cables, and Carly raised her hands in front of her.
Her senses stretched out around her. She felt the walls and the floors of the facility, a labyrinthine structure that extended deep into the desert. She felt as though she was in every place at once, all the rooms and all the walls, and if she just clenched her fists then the place would crumble. Everyone in this viper’s nest would die, and then she would be free. If that was what it took, then -
The pump they’d implanted under her skin vibrated as it dumped sedative into her bloodstream. Carly screamed in rage and frustration as she felt the drug take hold, and the office walls exploded around her, splinters flying like lethal missiles. None of which touched her.
She dropped to the floor as the shaking stopped, and she wept. Her hands were clean against the filthy, broken floor, until a small rivulet of blood made its way to her littlest finger. She tried to pull her hand away, but she couldn’t find the energy. She heard shouting, but it was from so far away that she didn’t care anymore. All she could do was slump to the floor and cry.
Darkness took her moments later.
When Carly woke up, she was in her bed. In restraints. She still felt… fuzzy around the edges. The pump in her side vibrated once, and she closed her eyes again. When she did, the mangled body of Director Stassi was in front of her, slowly being crushed by a force he couldn’t see and couldn’t understand.
I did it again, she thought. She cried quietly.
A while later, Martin came into the room, and she tried to sit up. “No,” he said. “Don’t do that. The restraints won’t…” He grimaced. “Just relax.” He had the clipboard he always carried, but he didn’t look at it. He just stared at her for a while before he said, “How are you feeling?”
Carly shook her head, and it felt slow and unfocused. “I think I killed someone,” she said.
He nodded. “Yeah.” She squeezed her eyes shut and took a few deep breaths. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They understand you were… upset.”
“Is it true?” she asked. She opened her eyes and looked at him. “About my mom, I mean? Is it true?”
Martin sat in the chair by her bedside and took her hand. “Carly, I am so, so sorry. I can’t begin to imagine…”
He let her cry for a while.
When the sobs passed, she closed her eyes again and said, “What do I do now?”
This time he did look at his clipboard. “Well, we’re letting you have a break for a while. To, um. Process.” He flipped a sheet over. “You’ll have a counselor come to see you in about half an hour. Ms. Hilbert.” He looked over at her and smiled, but it didn’t have much effect. “She’s really nice. You’ll like her.”
“Whatever,” Carly whispered.
Martin looked at his printouts again. “And we’re going to set you to work on some more precision tasks later. When you’re… when you’re ready.”
Carly didn’t move. She didn’t nod. She didn’t say anything. After a minute or two, Martin excused himself and left the room, closing the door quietly.
There was an emptiness in her mind. A greyness. A dull hum that blocked out other sounds. She just stared at the wall across from her, and every time a thought came to her mind, she shoved it away. Finally, though, there was one thought that she couldn’t keep down. It ran through her head, a single loop over and over again.
I am a monster. I may as well be the best monster.
Training would start again soon. Carly was ready for it now.
My husband and I bought a haunted house.
We got a great deal for it, too. Even in this day and age, people have a thing about buying a house where – allegedly – the dead still walk and unquiet spirits roam free to terrorize the living. A good haunting knocks at least ten percent off the list price. More if it was due to something particularly gruesome.
Our house was the one where Willie Heckle killed fourteen young boys over the course of ten years.
I certainly wouldn’t make light of it. That kind of crime is… well, it’s unthinkable. In this city, his name is pretty much the go-to name for parental horror. Fourteen kids. He buried thirteen of them in the basement floor. The story goes that after the police raided the house, killing Heckle in a shootout, one of the officers found boy number fourteen. It’s said that the cop was so horrified by what he saw that he put a bullet in the kid’s head right before he put one in his own.
So yeah, this house has a history, and our agent tried to steer us away from it good and hard. But let’s face facts here. Hardwood floors aren’t easy to come by, and for all his horror, Heckle kept the place in great condition. Even after all these years, it doesn’t need nearly as much work as some of the other places we looked at.
But here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as a permanent evil stain that resides in a place after the perpetrator is gone. Bloodstains, yes, but those were ripped out by one of the previous owners. But Ari and I were very firm on this when the broker brought it up, when the neighbors came around to welcome us to the neighborhood, when our parents called because they’d found out where we were living: there were no such thing as ghosts, and there was nothing there except the two of us.
We were, of course, wrong. But I’ve always said that’s the hallmark of a true skeptical thinker: when presented with evidence that inescapably, undeniably disproves your position, you have to abandon it and take up another. It just took us a while to figure it out.
The first thing we noticed were the footprints.
Ari mentioned it to me over breakfast one morning, about a week after we moved in. “Savannah, you forgot to put down the bath mat when you took a shower this morning.”
I looked up from my paper and then ran a hand through pillow-tangled hair. “I haven’t taken a shower yet, hon,” I said.
He looked at me and then glanced up, towards where the upstairs bathroom was. “Really?” he asked.
“Ari, if this is what I look like after I shower, then I hate to think what I look like before.” I went back to the paper.
“Huh,” he said. “There were wet footprints all over the bathroom. I thought that maybe you…” He stopped in the middle of his thought and then shrugged. “Probably nothing,” he said.
By the end of the day, I had forgotten about it, and I figured he had as well. But that wasn’t the only weird thing that happened in the house.
It was pretty textbook, really. Doors would close that we had left opened. I’d come downstairs and all the drawers in the kitchen would be sticking out. The TV would turn on in the middle of the night. And we had logical, rational reasons for each and every one of those occurrences. If it wasn’t the house settling or warped wood or a short circuit, it was probably just our own faulty memory leading us down the garden path. To our credit, neither one of us even thought about blaming a ghost.
My mother, on the other hand, had no problem with it.
She was supposed to stay for a week while she visited some friends in the city. She lasted very nearly twenty-four hours. As she threw her things back into a suitcase the morning after she arrived, she said, “I will not stay in this house a moment longer than I have to.” She spun at me and pointed an accusing finger at me. “And neither should you!” Her eyes rolled from one corner of the room to the other. “There’s evil in this house, Savannah. I saw it with my own eyes.”
I sat on the bed. “Really, mom?” I asked. I tried very hard to keep a condescending tone out of my voice, but judging by her narrowed eyes I was pretty sure I failed.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” she said. “I heard something that sounded like crying. So I got up, and right there -” She pointed to a space next to the bedroom door. “Right there, as clear as I see you, Savannah, I saw a little boy. He was curled up in a ball and crying.” Her eyes started to shine, and that’s when I started to get worried. My mother has always been a paragon of self-restraint, and for her to get emotional like this would take a lot. Ghost or no ghost, she thought she saw something, and it really disturbed her.
“Okay, mom,” I said. “I’ll book a hotel room for you downtown. How’s that sound?”
She went back to the suitcase and snapped it shut. “That sounds fine,” she said. “But I want you and Ari to get out of here. This is not a good place to raise a family, Savannah.”
I very nearly rose to that argument, which was an old one. I wanted to have kids, but I just didn’t think we were in a good enough position to raise any. Ari’s teaching salary was low enough, and I wasn’t making a whole lot as a copy editor for an ad company. We had decided to put off having children until we were sure we could take care of them, and that didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon. No matter what my mother wanted.
I saw her off in a taxi and told Ari when he came home that I was worried for her health.
Pretty soon, the strange became the normal. There were no bleeding walls or portals to hell in the closets. Just little things – a toothbrush out of place one morning, all my clothes off hangars the next. Nothing dangerous, but a lot of minor annoyances that we learned to deal with. And we never, not so much as once, blamed it on ghosts. We were enlightened people, after all.
That made it all the weirder when we saw the ghost for the first time.
It was during Thursday night TV. Ari and I were on the sofa, as usual. He was grading essays, I was watching a police drama when the TV snapped off, as did the lights. “Aw, hell,” he said. He handed me the essays, got up, and headed to the kitchen. He came back a few moments later with a couple of flashlights and his cell phone. “It’s always something,” he said. He called the power company, and they said they’d look into it, but they hadn’t gotten any other reports of a power outage. Indeed, when I looked outside, all the other houses seemed fine.
When I turned around, there was a boy standing behind behind the sofa, watching Ari, and there was no way I could describe this boy other than to say that he was a ghost.
He was naked and white and glowing. Dark hair nearly covered eyes that looked blankly out of a face that seemed to be observing Ari with curiosity as my husband graded essays by flashlight. I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a character in a bad horror movie – I screamed.
Ari jumped up, dropping the essays on the floor, and when he saw me and looked where I was looking, he screamed too. We stood there, holding each other, yelling over and over again wordless syllables of horror and shock. This boy – this thing - was in our house. What was worse, if he was what we thought he was, then he was proof that all we thought we knew was a lie.
That’s not a problem that you can really get over without some screaming.
When we took a breath, the ghost looked up at us, crossed his arms and said, “Are you done?”
No. We weren’t done.
A few minutes later, the ghost was actually looking bored. He leaned up against the sofa, his chin in his hands and his blank eyes on us. We were terrified, unable to move. Nothing we had ever experienced had prepared us for something like this.
“Hey,” he said, and gave us a wave. Ari and I both flinched.
The boy sighed, and walked through the sofa, which made me feel sick to my stomach just to watched. Then, casually, he sat down. It was hard to tell, but he looked about eleven or twelve, but of course was probably much older, if such a concept applied to things like him.
“Look,” he said. “If you’re going to just stand there and freak out, this is going to be a long night. So why don’t you take a seat and we can talk.” He patted the sofa cushion next to him.
I wish I could say that I drew myself up and faced my fear. That I put reason over emotion and vowed to face this thing head-on, whether it was a ghost or something entirely different. I wish I could say that I was brave.
Actually, I ripped myself out of Ari’s arms, bolted upstairs to our bedroom and locked the door.
I leaned against it in the darkness, as if to hold it shut against whatever might come through. I was breathing heavily and might have been crying.
It was only a moment before a new voice said from behind me, “Lady, you really need to pull yourself together.”
The boy sitting on the edge of my bed was like the first one, only a little heavier. He was tapping his foot against the floor and had a look of impatience on his face. He stood up and came towards me, and I backed up against the bedroom door. A few feet away, he stopped, put his hands on his hips and said, “So. You gonna help us, or what?”
And that’s where I finally passed out.
Before the storm, we made ourselves ready.
We went to the supermarket, trying not to hurry but frantic that we would be too late. The shelves would be bare and the thought that we would be left with nothing but the scraps of what everyone else had left behind such was unthinkable, and so we drove faster, bravely ignoring the further risks that would come from police attention. When we got there, the race began. My wife and I each took a shopping cart and started at opposite ends of the store. We had no list, we had no plan. We had nothing but our own fervent desperation to be out before the storm came, before it was too late to do anything.
I nearly ran through the store with my cart. I wove through the lazier shoppers, I skidded around corners and nearly knocked over displays. The deli would take too long – processed meats and cheeses would have to do. Canned green beans and peaches, dried pasta and bags of bread, chips and dip and everything that I rationally knew we wouldn’t need but my desperation wouldn’t let me leave without. My cart filled to a dangerous level, and I risked crushing or losing things as I flew.
I took the last can of chicken soup right from the grasp of a little old lady. To the end of my days I will remember the look of impotent rage and sorrow that crossed her face before I sped away, pursued by my own demons of shame and fear.
She would have to fend for herself. The storm was coming.
At home, we rushed from room to room, making sure we knew where everything was. The storm would leave ruin behind, that much we knew, so we hid away everything that might fly and break and crash when it hit. The windows were closed tightly. Everything that could be put away was put into cupboards, boxes, crates. Our television and game systems went into the basement with the computers, the laptops and the stereo. They went into the farthest, safest corner we could find, and then the door was locked and the key put into the freezer. We would definitely remember it there.
My wife was nearly pulling her hair out in frustration that we couldn’t get enough done. The storm was coming.
We did all we could. We looked around our home, the place we made together and called our own and we knew in our hearts that it would not escape unscathed. We knew that it would never be the place of safety and comfort that it had been before. I cried a little. So did my wife. We held each other on the sofa and waited. Every sound from outside seemed like a threat, a warning – a promise of the horrors that would inevitably descend upon us.
There was the sound of a car coming up the driveway. We looked at each other, and I could feel her heart racing as I held her close. The sound of doors and shrieking and yelling, shrill howls and malicious laughter.
The doorbell rang. From the other side, we heard my sister call out. “Joanie? Phil? I’m here! And I brought the kids!”
The storm broke.
The sun rose on The Drop six weeks later, and Crown Prince Calaris was no more confident in his brother’s project than he had been before. If anything, he was more sure that this would be the day he saw Rissandir die.
The flying machine had somehow gotten bigger. After the failure with the dragons, Rissandir spent every day in his workshop, testing and weighing and experimenting with materials. He had hunters and farmers bring him more dead birds so that he could study them, and what resulted was a strange, honeycombed design covered in stretched and waxed canvas, with wings that curved back and a beak that jutted out to a sharp point. In lieu of feathers, the wings and the tail had small flaps that moved up and down, side to side, all controlled from the driver’s seat.
The dragons were strapped and secured to the underside of each wing, and Rissandir stood in the seat for the driver and looked out at the waters past the Drop.
To his credit, and perhaps because he knew what Calaris knew – that failure was most certainly an option – Rissandir had invited only his brother and Canucog, the Royal Magician. Calaris was still surprised that the wizard wanted anything to do with it. After all, he had the ability to create magics that allowed people to fly, and here was this upstart prince trying to do it mechanically. But the wizard just smiled when Calaris asked, saying that there were many ways to explore the world, and that he respected curiosity in all its forms. For that reason, he created the dragons that would push the flying machine forward at a fast enough speed to, Rissandir believed, catch the air and launch him into the sky.
If they didn’t just rip it apart again.
Rissandir looked like he’d never stop smiling, and Calaris found himself trying to etch that smile in his memory, so that he would have one good thing to recall after his brother fell to his death. He’d spent those six weeks, like the ones before, trying to convince his brother to give up his insane project. He tried to approach it logically, to explain that something made of wood and metal and fabric was so heavy that it could never do anything but fall.
Rissandir looked up towards the far mountain peaks. Sharp eyes could spot the tiny black forms of the silver-tailed eagles that lived out there, prized for their feathers and their talons. “How much do you think one of those eagles weighs?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Calaris said. “What does this have to do with -”
“As much as a dog, maybe,” Rissandir said. “And yet they fly just fine.” He reached down and picked up a pebble. “This weighs a lot less than even a sparrow.” He let go, and the pebble dropped to the ground. “I don’t think weight really matters, Cal,” he said. “It’s all about shape and speed.”
Later, Calaris presented another argument while they were at their studies after dinner. “Sand, you know you’re a prince.”
“I am aware, yes.”
“Well, there you go. We can’t have a Prince of the Realm risking his life the way you’re doing.” Calaris walked over to his brother’s side and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s vital to the kingdom that you take care of yourself.”
Rissandir chuckled and went on with his figures. “Cal, you’re the eldest, and you take fewer risks than any other person I’ve known. You’re not going anywhere.” He glanced up. “And even if you and I are gone, there’s still Lennick.”
“Then we’d best not die for a while.” He returned to his studies while his brother fumed.
Calaris couldn’t understand. They had been taught from birth that they were vital to the succession of the throne and the survival of their kingdom. They were royal blood, which meant that they had to hold themselves above the kind of things that normal people got to do. No choosing who you would marry, no going out hunting on a whim, no just playing about with your friends – if you even had friends. They’d been born into this life, and Rissandir was just sitting there, ignoring it.
He grabbed his brother and spun him around. “Rissandir den Raud, as the Crown Prince of Ardenspire I am ordering you to put an end to this flying machine nonsense right now!”
Rissandir looked up at him, shook his head and returned to his work. “Good luck with that,” he said, leaving his brother to fume. And he was right. There was nothing that Calaris could do to change his mind, and finally he had given up trying.
Now his brother was ready to launch himself into oblivion. He’d got his hands on some heavy leathers and had some kind of protectors over his eyes as he looked off into the sunrise. The sky was turning blue and clear. At least they’d have a good view of his crash.
“I just want to say a few words,” Rissandir said. “Flying is not -”
He cut himself off and looked towards the castle. Calaris turned to look and saw the familiar heavyset figure of their father trudging across the field towards them. He looked up at his brother and grinned. “It was nice while it lasted, Sand.”
The king was out of breath when he arrived. He was a man who excelled as an administrator of a great kingdom, but was not known for his physical fitness. His father had been a warrior, who crushed the enemies of Ardenspire under his heel. He’d lost four sons in battle, leaving him with the brainy, combat-shy fifth, who turned out to be exactly what a kingdom at peace needed. He set up new courts and channels for his subjects to address their grievances, re-arranged the local governments of towns and villages so they would be more accountable to their people and spent days making minute adjustments to levies, tariffs and taxes. If he’d had a more outgoing personality, he would have become the most beloved king in the history of Ardenspire, but he didn’t like meeting people and hated to leave the castle unless it was necessary.
“I thought I’d come out,” he wheezed, “and see for myself what it is my son is doing.” He looked over at Canucog, who seemed concerned that his king had actually walked out this far.
“Prince Rissandir is attempting suicide, Father,” Calaris said. “You really should stop it.”
“Don’t listen to him, father,” Rissandir said, jumping down from his flying machine. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“Yes – you’re making work for the royal undertaker.”
“Dammit, Cal, will you stay out of this? It doesn’t concern you!”
“It damn well does concern me, Sand – I’m your brother and I will bloody well -”
The king’s shout boomed across the plain and both princes stopped arguing. Their father never shouted. Calaris looked down at his feet, ashamed, while Rissandir crossed his arms across his chest and looked ready for a fight.
“Wizard Canucog has told me about your project, Rissandir,” the king said. He walked over to the flying machine and patted it on the side like a horse. “You really think you can make her fly?”
“Absolutely,” Rissandir said.
The king looked over at the wizard, who seemed to think for a moment before he nodded. “All right, then,” the king said. “Off with you.”
Rissandir jumped up into the driver’s seat while Calaris put his head in his hands. His father put his arm around him and said, “Your brother may be a little crazy, son. But if this works?” He had a strange, faraway look on his face. “If this works, then it’ll mean a whole new world.”
“Yes,” Calaris said. “I suppose it will.” He was imagining a world without his little brother, and it hurt him more than he ever would have been willing to admit.
Rissandir stood in the pilot’s space and looked down at them. “I wrote a little speech,” he said, blushing. “It seemed the right thing to do.”
The king put his hands behind his back and smiled through a few days’ growth of beard. “Let’s hear it, boy.”
He cleared his throat. “Flying is not a new thing for our family,” he said. “King Alden den Fevre led his twelve bravest through the air against the tyrant king Vysoli. With the flying rings they wore, they were able to soar through the air and defeat their gravest enemy.” He looked down at the wizard. “And if I asked, you’d give me one just like it, wouldn’t you, Royal Wizard?”
Canucog chuckled. “I don’t know about ‘give,’ young prince.” Everyone laughed gently at that, even Rissandir.
“But that’s just it,” Rissandir went on. “Isn’t it? If we want to fly, then flight is given to us. If we want…” He searched for what he wanted to say. “If we want clean clothes, there’s a simple talisman for that. If we need to sleep well, we are given an amulet.” He gestured to the faraway castle. “Half that castle was raised by magic! Given to us.”
He paused to take a breath. “Given to us,” he said again. “Not earned.” He took a moment, and Calaris looked to his father. The king’s face was hard enough to read, and the wizard’s gave away nothing at all.
“Maybe because we’ve been at peace for so long,” Rissandir said, “but we’ve forgotten what it’s like to work for things. To make things. To earn things.” He glanced out towards the villages beyond the castle. “The people of Ardenspire – the common people – they work and make and earn. We in the castle ask for things and they are given to us.”
He took off a glove and gently caressed the machine he’d built. “If this succeeds,” he said, “it’s due to my own skills and talents. If this fails…” He made sure to look right at Calaris, who looked away. “If this fails, then it’s due to my own mistakes and impatience.” He patted the machine and put his glove on again. “Either way, this is mine. I worked for it. I made it. I earned it.”
Rissandir put the protectors down over his eyes. “Let’s go,” he said.
Canucog led the king and Calaris away from the flying machine as Rissandir sat down in the driver’s seat and started fastening straps around himself. He pulled some levers, took a deep breath, lifted the control wand and shouted, “Ogari!”
The dragons roared to life, much more powerfully and louder than they had the last time. Calaris put his hands over his ears, and saw that his father and the wizard had done the same. The howl of the dragons seemed to go on forever until slowly, the flying machine began to move forward.
It moved slowly, but picked up speed. Soon it was rushing along faster than a man, faster than a horse – faster than anything Calaris could compare it to. By the time it reached the edge of the Drop, it was hurtling along at such a speed that Calaris wondered how his brother could stand it. In a tiny, dark corner of his heart, he wondered if Rissandir might be dead already from going so fast.
The machine reached the edge and, in his mind, Calaris saw it drop. He saw it disappear over the edge, and the roar of the dragons become fainter until they were lost in the crash of the waves a hundred feet below. He knew he could run to the edge and look down, and perhaps catch a glimpse of his brother’s broken and battered body before the waves tore it from the rocks and washed it out to sea. His eyes filled with tears and he started to repeat Rissandir’s name over and over to himself.
His father tapped him on the shoulder, bringing him back to himself. “Look, boy!” he said, pointing out over the ocean. “I’ll be damned.” His face was full of awe.
The flying machine was flying.
He couldn’t make Rissandir out at this distance, but it was moving deceptively slowly through the air, turning in a great and lazy curve to come back to them. As he came closer, they could hear him cheering and laughing, and now Calaris was crying for an altogether different reason. His father was hooting and calling Rissandir’s name, and Canucog was just watching the machine fly by with wide and excited eyes.
The flying machine roared over their heads, trailing Rissandir’s triumphant whoop behind it, and turned out in the other direction, towards the castle. They watched as it circled the great keep twice, and wondered what the people there would think of it. There hadn’t been true dragons in the world for a thousand generations, and Calaris hoped that no one would think that they had suddenly come back.
The flying machine came back towards them, flying low. The wooden wheels grazed the close-cut grass as Rissandir lowered the machine, and then they touched the earth.
And then they shattered.
The struts they’d been attached to gouged great furrows in the earth, but that wasn’t slowing it down at all. Calaris, his father, and the wizard all moved as fast as they could to get out of the way of the thundering, screaming machine as it barreled towards them – and the Drop.
Calaris screamed his brother’s name as the machine passed them, and in that terrible slowness of the mind’s eye, he could see Rissandir pulling at the main lever, his teeth clenched and his arms rigid with the effort to stop the thing that he’d built.
As the machine got closer to the edge, Rissandir jumped out. He rolled a ways along the grass, coming to a stop just a few feet from the edge. He clutched at his arm and raised himself up just enough to see his great creation fly once more – off the edge of the Drop.
This time, it did not fly. It went out a bit and then dropped gently down towards the water. The crash of wood was barely audible at this distance, and when they ran to look over the edge, all that was left of the flying machine was splinters and scraps of canvas and rope. The waves, unstoppable as ever, beat at the cliff and broke up even those pieces into smaller ones. Rissandir’s flying machine was gone.
Behind them, the young prince was laughing.
They turned as one to look at him. His leathers were torn and he was bleeding from his cheek. He was cradling his right arm, and it was easy to see how it bent at a terrible angle. He was pale, with tears running down his face, but he was laughing nonetheless.
Canucog ran over, already taking a small lump of amber from the pouch at his belt. It started to glow as he chanted to it, but Rissandir waved it away. “No,” he said. He was breathing heavily, but his eyes were clear and bright. “No,” he said again. “Not like that.”
“Your highness,” the wizard said, “if I do not heal this now, the recovery process will be long and painful. You may not have the use of that arm for quite some time.” The wizard’s tone was warm and concerned, and Rissandir nodded.
“I know,” he said. He looked back out towards where his creation had fallen. “I earned this,” he said quietly. “I want to keep it.” Then, with a smile still on his face, he passed out.
The wizard looked over at the king. “You heard the boy,” the king said. Canucog shrugged and put away the amber. Then he gestured and said a fluid, quiet word. A blue glow surrounded Rissandir, and the young man began to hover slightly off the ground. “Calaris,” the king said. “Take your brother home. We’ll talk more about this when he’s well.” The king gestured to Canucog, who joined him at his side, and the two walked towards the castle, speaking quietly as they went.
Calaris looked down at his brother, still smiling and now glowing faintly blue. Carefully, trying not to jog his broken arm, Calaris lifted his brother up. Thanks to the wizard’s magic, Rissandir weighed next to nothing. “C’mon, you,” he said to his brother as he pulled him along through the air. “I knew I’d get you magicked into the air eventually.”
Healing would take a long time, that was for sure. Calaris was sure that Rissandir could keep himself busy, though. By the time his arm healed, he would probably have an all new flying machine designed and ready to build. In a year, he would be in the air again.
And maybe this time I’ll help, Calaris thought.