I used to be lonely here.
For good reason, of course. I never saw another living soul. Ever. From the moment I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes. Cool blue water, verdant grass, and trees everywhere. The sand was bright and hot under the summer sunshine, and the air smelled clean and pure, like it had just come into existence itself. The whole world looked new and clean.
And it was mine. All mine.
The first day I explored. I walked through the forests, silent and perfect. There were animals in those woods, but they were peaceful. Cute, even. Cows, pigs, sheep – there were even wolves, but as long as I didn’t give them any trouble, they left me alone. I walked and I walked, wondering if I would ever see a road or a house or a bridge, or any sign that another person lived there other than me.
But I never did, no matter how far I walked.
The sun rose higher, and it seemed like only minutes had passed since I was on the beach. I called out, and no one answered. I found a high hill and climbed it – there was nothing to see but wilderness for miles and miles. It was a gorgeous wilderness, don’t get me wrong. Sweeping bays and tiny ponds, vast deserts that stretched all the way to the horizon, and soaring mountains that pierced the slow-moving clouds.
No cities. No towns. No villages.
No sign that there was any living, thinking person in the world but me. And I wasn’t even entirely sure who I was anymore. The first thing I could remember was the beach – there was nothing before that. Just a yawning mental blackness that made my stomach turn to contemplate. My name, my life – was I married, did I have kids? Friends? A job, anything?
It was all gone. All of it.
Someone had done this to me. That was the only explanation I could come up with at the time. Someone had taken me from my life and brought me here, to some deserted part of the world, and let me go. But for what? To prove a point? For revenge – had I wronged someone? Had I trespassed in some way that was so horrible that the only way to make up for it was this bizarre exile? I felt, deep in my heart that that couldn’t be right. I couldn’t be the kind of person to do something so horrible.
But how could I know that?
I screamed into the empty, pristine air, and it echoed back and forth among the mountains. It came back to me with all of its rage intact, undiluted by distance, and I felt even worse. It was not the echo mocking me, it was myself. I turned around, looking for someone to attack, someone to blame for this.
There was nothing nearby but trees. So I hit one. I just pounded my fists against it, screaming and raging, words coming out of my mouth that even I couldn’t understand.
And then it happened. The thing that would eventually make this whole place make sense.
A section of the trunk just… fell out. Right in front of me. While the rest of the tree remained upright and calmly enjoying the sunlight. Unconnected to the ground, blithely ignoring gravity, the tree stood. I looked around – no one was watching, there were no supports, no strange devices holding the tree up. I walked towards it, and the block of wood…
It’s hard to explain this. I have no memory of the world as it would have been any other way, but I also know that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be. Trees don’t float. Blocks of wood don’t jump into your hands and then just go somewhere else until you need them. But here, in this place, they did. I hit the tree again, and another block fell out. I took it, and hit, and took another. When the trunk had gone, the tree’s leaves – still floating in the air with nothing to hold them – just vanished, one by one.
I tried another tree, and had the same result. Soon I was carrying a dozen of these blocks, but I didn’t know where I was carrying them. My hands were empty, and there was no way I could have ever carried five trees worth of wood in my pockets, I knew that much.
The sun was beginning to set, marking the end of a day that seemed to have lasted only minutes. The western sky was going orange and red, and when I turned around, a bright full moon was rising in the east. With night coming, there were plenty of chances to fall and get hurt – the jagged hillsides would be unforgiving if I should stumble, and there were no doctors to be found. I stood on a hilltop and watched the moon come up, surrounded by gently twinkling stars. In the darkness, I could almost pretend I was somewhere normal. I struck the earth at my side. A chunk of it flew into my hands and vanished.
The night air was cool, and I lay back to watch the sky. And that’s when I heard the noise.
It was somewhere between a growl and a gurgle, and it traveled directly to my brain by way of my spine. I stood and cast around in the moonlight for whatever had made that noise.
I heard it again, and I wanted to be sick. My heart was pounding against my chest, my breath was coming quickly. There was something out here with me, and its breath, its horrible stench rise from the very ground.
The first blow came to the back of my head and I fell to my knees. When I looked up, there was a green-skinned… thing standing before me, its arms stretched out and its mouth open like a gaping wound. It growled and came at me and I screamed-
I woke up on the beach, with the sun rising in my eyes and a scream of horror on my lips.
The day was bright and beautiful and clean. The sand was just beginning to warm. A sheep came over and nuzzled me, just to see what I was. I was on my feet in moments, looking for the thing that had attacked me, but it was nowhere to be seen. All that I had collected was gone – I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. I also knew that this beautiful, peaceful place hid dangers – terrible ones.
I stumbled up a hill and began hitting trees. Within minutes, I had more blocks than I knew what to do with. When I inspected them, I found that they fell apart in my hands, making boards, which in turn would splinter into poles. I made a box, a workbench to craft with. I had poles and boards, so making tools was easy – a primitive shovel, a pick, an axe. They all went into that same no-place as everything else, and they made collecting easier. I found that I could pick up soil, sand, stone – pretty much anything I could see.
And always I kept my eye on the sun.
As it neared the top of the sky, I knew what I lacked – shelter. I threw together a tiny house, all boards and stone and with a wooden door that just barely held back the night, when the night came. And from inside my little shelter, when the darkness came, I could hear them coming for me. I could hear that horrible gurgle-growl of the thing that had gotten me the night before. The clicking and clacking, the hissing and crawling of other creatures that I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to.
I spent that second night in darkness, but I spent the night alive.
When the sun rose, it burned away the things that wanted me dead. I looked around at my hut, at my tools, and I understood what I had to do.
I had to build. It was me against the world, in the most literal sense. But if I did it right, it would be my world. And I would build my own civilization where those things could not step foot.
I used to be lonely here, but not anymore. Every day is full of collecting and making and building. Every night is filled with making plans and digging into the depths of the earth for the materials I need. The monsters outside the walls don’t trouble me anymore. The ones I meet underground are quick work for my diamond sword.
This is a world of my making. And there is so much more to make….
September 11th, 2011
There are some days you just want to leave alone. You want to step quietly and not raise a fuss, and wait until it’s over. I guess this is one of ‘em. All those months of planning, working out the bugs and getting my ducks in a row, I guess the time just slid by me. I was all ready for the Big Day, my day to shine, and then I actually turn on a TV for once and…
Ah, well. Could happen to anyone, I guess.
You would think that it wouldn’t matter so much, even to a guy like me, but it does. It really does. I mean, all you see on TV are those videos of those towers falling and people screaming, and you know – you know what’s going to happen next, and it just Breaks. My. Heart. The whole country goes nuts and empties its coffers chasing shadows around the globe. Civil liberties get bent and twisted into granny knots. Hell, that halfwit President actually managed to get re-elected, and if I were a betting man, I would never have put money on that. Nuh-uh. But I guess you can’t underestimate what kind of dumb shit a frightened populace will pull, when its back is up against the wall. Something to remember, I suppose, for all of us in Tha Biz.
And you know I wasn’t the only one taking notes on that day, right? The blogs were just humming with activity – screen captures, photographs, and theory after theory after theory. There were at least two guys actually down there taking air samples and trying to figure out if some kind of hallucinogenic chemtrail gas had been released and the towers were actually still standing. Dumb idea, that. Mind control gasses don’t work through TV cameras, I told one of ‘em, but he wouldn’t listen. The rest of us just started spinning out scenarios whenever we were able to tear ourselves away from the news.
Here’s the weird thing about that day: the people who remember it – i.e. everyone - don’t remember it the way they think they do. Did you know that there are people out there who honestly and truly believe they saw the first plane hit the tower on live TV? I know, right! Even Dubya thinks he saw it, and unless those nutball Truthers are right, he’s retouched his memories just like the rest of us did. And that’s what really amazes me about humans, you know? That we can take something real, an event that truly, objectively, measurably happened, and just… change it! Just like that! We have the power to utterly alter reality with that little three pounds of meat between our ears, and that’s without any kind of ESP or alien mind control rays or time-lost mental manipulation helmets. Utterly fascinating.
That probably explains why Charlene broke up with me. Hey-yo!
Well, that, and the arrest, but I think she really overreacted to that. It’s not like anyone died, or anything. Well, not died. You look back on it, and it’s a funny story. It would have been great for the grandkids, but no – little miss Law and Order doesn’t want to have grandkids with a convicted felon. Fine. ExcUUUUUUSe me. I’ll just take my clone army and go home, then.
After three to five years.
Where was I? Oh. Yeah. That day. The whole re-making of reality thing aside, that day taught me so many lessons. The more you step back and really look at it, you really see how the world works, you know? I mentioned the Truthers before, right? They’re brilliant – I love ‘em. I wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner with one of them or anything, but they are a classic example of how people can believe what they want to believe, no matter what actually happened. They see fire acting in a way they don’t expect fire to act, and they connect the dots themselves. BAM – thermite. They see a building fall the way they don’t think a building should fall. BAM – controlled demolition.
So that’s trick number one: find out what people already believe, and reinforce that belief. Then they’re all yours. In the palm of your hand, as it were. So if I were to, say, spread rumors about a certain political figure that he was secretly associated with the nation’s sworn enemies, well… There’d be a population of folks who’d believe it, right? Even if the “evidence” was a picture I’d drawn in crayon and pulled off a refrigerator, they’d swallow it whole! Put a little money into a nice video presentation, hack into the screens around Times Square? One maniacal laugh and I’d have their hearts and minds before you knew it.
And why? Because they’re scared. You watch thousands of people die and two huge buildings just crumble to rubble and see if you don’t have to go change your shorts. I had thought that movies and video games had really inured people to violence on a massive scale, but it turned out not to be the case. People are just as capable of succumbing to utter mindless terror as they ever were. The fact that it was a freak, one-off occurrence? The fact that your chances of dying in another attack like that were essentially zero? The fact that twice that many people die in the United States every day, just by being there? None of it mattered. People were terrified.
Which is why they call it terrorism. Duh.
But the best part was that even people who were nowhere near New York and Washington were scared! There were folks down in Taint County, Arkansas who were utterly convinced that the tehrists were going to fly a plane into their municipal waste treatment plant any minute now. The whole country was completely controlled by fear, and they let it happen. The government took advantage of it to try and remake the Middle East, the media used it to boost ratings, and that ol’ devil Bin Laden used it to stroke his own ego. Resources that could have gone to helping people were poured into a financial black hole, and everyone was so focused on that one little thing that they didn’t see their entire economy curling up and devouring itself. I just think about that and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
That one act – that one, simple act utterly changed the world that day. Nineteen guys with box cutters, for god’s sake. Not an unstoppable giant robot or a moon base from which to rain destruction, or even a canister of horrible neurotoxin attached to a dirigible, the way they used to do it in the good old days. Some half-trained zealots with sharp implements and all the conviction in the world.
Man. There’s no way I can top that.
So I’ve powered down the robots, left the internet unhacked, and set my orbital space laser to standby. Oh, don’t worry, diary – I haven’t given up just yet. My undersea dome has escaped detection so far, probably because it’s not sitting on an oil field or anything. And before you ask, no - I had nothing to do with that quake in Japan. That was probably someone else, someone too dumb to claim responsibility for a perfectly good tsunami.
It just wouldn’t seem fair, is all. I know, I know – when did I ever care about fairness? True. But still, even in the world-domination profession, you have to have some standards.
Besides, Bin Laden would probably just take credit for it anyway. I swear, I put that man’s brain inside a robot body as a favor, and suddenly he thinks he’s just King Terror. I guess some people’s standards are just a little bit lower than others.
Well, diary, I gotta go. I may not be conquering the world today, but that doesn’t mean I have to sit on my hands. That army of lava men isn’t going to train itself.
The first thing I do is wait for the sun to set. It takes a long time, if you wait for the whole thing. I mean, just seeing the disc of the sun finally drop below the horizon is great, but there’s still so much light out there. Red and purple and orange, bouncing off clouds and refracting through the air. You usually have to wait an hour, maybe more, for the terminator to truly pass you by and for the sunlight to be gone for good.
I used to be terrified of this. I can still remember running home before sundown, looking at the beacon of safety that was my house, all brightly lit inside and out. I could feel the darkness nipping at my heels and all the things it contained. All the ghosts and goblins and werewolves and vampires. The night was hungry for the blood of a little kid, and I ran like the wind to deny it a meal.
Now I stand on tiptoe, a feeling of tingly excitement growing in my belly. When the sun is finally gone – well and truly gone – there is still light that needs to be taken care of. Unlike the sun, though, I have a little more control over this.
If I had my own house, this would be easier, and someday I hope to. But right now I make do with what I have, and what I have is a little apartment with west-facing windows. The living room is no good. I put up blackout curtains, but they still let light in around the edges, tiny trickles of illumination that find their way through the gaps no matter how careful I am with them. There’s also the myriad lights from the TV, the computer, the DVD player, all the electronics that we all use to make our lives better and easier. I tried putting black tape over them, but there was still the tiniest, faintest glow – nearly imperceptible, but not imperceptible enough for me.
I could use the toilet, but – no. I mean, if all else fails, it’s certainly dark enough, but it’s the toilet.
The shower room, on the other hand….
For some reason, the bathroom was built against an inside wall of the unit. So there’s no window – just a fan to keep air circulating. The fan is no problem. It’s not noise that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s big enough that I can stretch my arms out and touch nothing, which is what I need, and there’s nothing in there that creates a shadow.
I bring a candle with me. Not for any practical reason, really. If I wanted to, I could just flip off the light switch. But this is important. This is a ritual. And rituals need to be important.
An old book on photography taught me how to make a light-lock: a two-stage entry into a room that’s designed to minimize the amount of light getting in. The one I made is temporary. Putting it up and taking it down only takes a couple of minutes, and the whole thing just clicks together. When it’s done, a heavy black curtain blocks the door to the bathroom, extending at least another foot in every direction.
Candle in hand, I go in and shut the door behind me. There’s a draft-snake that goes at the bottom. I lock the door. Again, ritual.
The bathroom lights are bright and fluorescent. They make me look terrible in the morning, but they do that to everyone. I light the candle and turn off the lights, and that feeling in my belly grows. It’s still fear, I know that much. But it’s fear that’s been tamed. It’s been brought to heel like a lion at the circus. The fear is a beast that I broke many years ago.
It was that, or go mad, after all. And even though the beast has been made docile, slow – it still needs careful attention in order to keep it from remembering what it was.
The candle goes on the floor, and I sit in front of it. I close my eyes and try to feel the candle’s light hitting my face, my skin, my hair. It’s sunlight, really. It’s sunlight held captive in the cotton fibers of the wick, in the wax rendered from plants or animals long dead. The little sun shines on me, and it’s the only thing in the world besides myself.
I open my eyes.
I blow it out.
The darkness rushes in to take the place of the light, it floods the room now that the pressure of luminescence has been removed. I can feel it, this absence, this great shadow, all around me. I don’t know if my eyes are open or closed, and I don’t care. The darkness holds me, it cradles me, it caresses me and it presses in on me. It clings to me, to every inch, and when I open my mouth, it floods inside.
Now I’m home.
A green field.
A green field and a blue sky.
A green field, with long grass as far as the eye can see, waving in the gentle breeze and whispering its secrets to anyone who can hear them. A blue sky the color of eternity itself, broken only by the bright white clouds, stately and grand, that sail from horizon to horizon.
A warm and bright sun, hanging high in the sky. It keeps all of this running, The grass, the wind, the clouds, the sky.
I lay back in the grass and ponder it all. The light from the sun hitting my face left eight minutes ago. It flew through the emptiness of space, the fastest thing there is, and it still took eight minutes to get to me. And each photon, each tiny, indivisible bit of light, had spent hundreds of thousands of years – maybe millions – getting out of the unimaginably hot and dense center of the sun in the first place.
The light hitting my eyes is older than human civilization. It has struggled greatly to reach me.
I pluck a long stem of grass from the earth and put one end in my mouth, chewing on it as I lie back. I taste… something. That indefinable grassy earthy taste, and it tastes good. The sunlight that fell here yesterday is the green of today, sharp and bitter on my tongue. The other grasses whisper in the breeze, not mourning their lost cousin, not resenting my destruction of their kind. They simply exist, drinking in the sunlight as they have always done and will always do.
The breeze brushes past me, generating another burst of whispers from the grass. That, too, owes its life to the sun. The intricate interplay of heating and cooling, convection and rotation, it all keeps the air from ever being too still, too dull. Energy from a vast nuclear furnace millions of miles away, a body that would vaporize the world if it could, delicately ruffles my hair.
So too with the clouds, and the trees on the edge of the field, and the insects that fly around through the grass. And me. Without the sun, we are as naught.
I stand up and look up towards the sun, lower in the sky now than it was when I came here. I close my eyes and feel the warmth and try to imagine the impossible journey that sunlight has made. I can’t. My solid-state human mind cannot begin to empathize with an indefinable photon. But I can appreciate.
Carefully, I disrobe, removing my clothes slowly and carefully and folding them on the grass. I turn in the sunlight and try to feel how the heat warms my skin, how my very body reacts to the light, generating vitamins, slowly burning and marshaling its defenses, releasing the chemicals that control my health and my mood and which make me who I am. It feels like a shower, like a flood, a flood of warmth and life and love.
The sun is not the sun anymore. It is the creator of all things. It is the generator of all life, that to which we owe our existence. Though I know it cannot love us, I feel the heat as its love. Though I know it cannot see us, I know its light sees us all. And though I know it cannot judge us or damn us or redeem us, I know that it was once part of us, and we of it, and that one day we will be again. The sun gave us birth and it will accept us in our death many, many years from now, and once again all that ever was will be one again.
I turn to the sun and I bow, hands together.
And though I know it cannot hear me, and would not care even if it could, I say:
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.
It was a feeling too big to hold on to. Every time I tried, the fingers of my mind would slip, like trying to hold onto soap in the bathtub. It was right in front of me, all around me, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t handle it, make it make sense. I had lost everything. Everything. How do you hold on to a concept like that?
The fire department arrived about two minutes after I made it out. Those two minutes stretched into eternity, an eternity where I could see and hear everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever loved, burn and die. In my mind, I saw the flames eagerly devouring hundreds of books, falling from their shelves as their pages fluttered through the air like the wings of brilliant birds. Books I had read and loved, books I had yet to read. The fire annihilated them, one at a time and all at once.
I remember the neighbors holding me down on the lawn as I screamed and tried to get in.
The rocking chair that my wife’s mother had left us. Solid oak, hand-carved by her father. It was the chair in which my wife had sat as a little girl when she learned her letters, when she read her bible. It was the chair I sat in when our little girl wouldn’t sleep, or our boy wanted to read. It was the chair I sat in on that last night, when the love of my life left this world. It was rendered down into char, stripped and eaten alive.
The fire department arrived in a flurry of noise and light. Three trucks, bringing flashing red brilliance to the night and an order where there was none. The flickering of the flames was brought to heel by the oscillating red brilliance. The aimless wandering of neighbors was undone by the men of great purpose who came to fight fire with water. They turned their hoses on my house, and kept others ready in case the fire spread.
Photographs in the dining room, all in an old Macy’s shopping bag that my mother had given to me. Some of them went back to the late 19th century, images of stiff and uncomfortable people trying to leave their mark on the world through this new and magical medium. My great-great grandmother, in her youth, was a woman of vibrance and mischief, a woman I never would know. If the flames didn’t get them – and I was sure they did – the water would seep in, find them, and insinuate itself. The moisture would warp and twist and inflate the photographs, and if anything at all was left, it would be only a piece. An eye. A hand. The top of someone’s head.
I sat on my lawn, as close as the firefighters would let me get. The night had turned cold, perhaps just in comparison to the waves of heat coming off the home I would never live in again. I was in my pajamas and my coat, the only thing I could grab on the way out. We had played that game, my wife and I – what would you save? And in my head, in the peaceful security of a glass of wine in the living room, I had mapped it all out. Despite the impending certainty of destruction, I would calmly and carefully gather the items I needed – wallet, phone, the bank book – and the items I treasured – the photos, my first edition Mark Twain, our wedding album.
I had none of those. Escaping the house was gone from my memory, erased in a moment of madness and terror. I had myself. I had the clothes I was wearing.
The lady from across the street brought me cocoa. I took it, and I think I said thank you. I sipped it as I watched my house burn. All that I had been, all that I was, was gone. Up in smoke.
So I remembered. I thought of the house, of each room. The living room we repainted three times because the green we thought we bought wasn’t the one we had in mind. The bathroom where our son almost drowned when he was three, where I pulled him back from death on a floor tiled with flowers. The bedrooms that we went back to night after night. The bed that we slept and fought and loved in. There was a cabinet door in the kitchen that didn’t shut right. A chair in the den that we couldn’t move because it would reveal the wine stain on the carpet. The huge dinner table that hosted Thanksgiving every year. That framed painting that our son did in college that a team of wild horses wouldn’t get me to admit was terrible.
It was all there, in my head. In my memories.
I sipped the cocoa. Several other neighbors had come by, asked if I was okay. I may have nodded. The firefighters were shooting water into the upstairs window, into the bedroom that our daughter defiantly painted black when she was in high school. While her mother and I were on vacation, of course.
The house was huge, in my memory. Room enough for decades. For armies of people. Everything we had was in there, somewhere. The feeling of the rag rug in my “study,” the smell of the incipient mildew in the basement. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of rain on the skylight. It was all there, and bright, and real.
I sat on the lawn. I watched my house burn.
And I was at home.
“Where do these people keep the spice section? I can never remember…” I pushed the cart through the supermarket. True to the worst stand-up routines, it pulled to the left – a Liberal supermarket cart. It tried to steer me into the egregiously sweet breakfast cereals, none of which (to my knowledge) contained any useful spices.
“Maybe the next aisle, I don’t know.” Rosie sounded exhausted. But she always did, these days. I tried to help as much as possible, to take some of the pressure off, what with her job and everything. I did the cooking, of course, and did the cleaning most days. But there were some things I couldn’t do for her. Things she wouldn’t let me do even if I could.
We hadn’t had a good dinner together in weeks, and it was starting to wear on me. I had grown up cooking, being able to whip up something… well, maybe not wonderful, but certainly edible and enjoyable. From my mom and my grandfather I managed to inherit a bunch of recipes, the kind that are perfect for big families with little time, even though our family was just the two of us. I learned enough of the basics – what went with what – to make a decent meal nine times out of ten.
When I married Rosie, my love of cooking was probably what won her mother over. “Rosie needs a man who knows how to take care of the house,” she had told me over several glasses of wine. “Our Rosie is busy, you understand, with her… Her business.” She winked at me, but I couldn’t tell if that was the alcohol of her attempt at being subtle.
I would never tell her, you understand. I would never even for a moment complain to her about it, because I know how important it is to her, and to everyone, really. I know she’s doing a hard job, one that she never really wanted and can’t really give up. She should get medals, accolades, high schools named after her. But I hated her “business.” I hated what it did to her, how it made her feel, how it made her think. If I could take it away, I would. But then she wouldn’t be Rosie.
“Over there, honey,” she said. “Cumin.” I turned to look where she was pointing and took her in. She was beautiful. Shiny black hair, smooth dark skin… except for the scar on her cheek. Even that, I wouldn’t ask her to give up.
I guided the recalcitrant cart dawn the aisle. There was a full shelf of spices there – my own little candy store. I pulled off a bottle of cumin and then, after a thought, some turmeric and red pepper. Maybe spicy beef tonight. “Rosie, do we have green peppers at home?” She didn’t answer. “Rosie?”
When I turned around she was standing behind the card, her hands clenched on the handle and eyes closed. She was straining, the muscles on her arms twitching. “Get out, Paulie,” she said quietly.
“Again, Rosie?” I looked around. “Here?”
“Get out slowly or he’ll see you.”
I couldn’t quite hold back the frustrated sigh, and I hated myself for it. I dropped a package of noodles into the cart and walked up to her. I knew what this was. Same thing every time. “Be careful, hon,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek. I don’t think she noticed.
Before I got to the end of the aisle, I heard the sound I’d heard so many times before. Like a great, wet tearing noise. When I turned around, there was a gaping wound in the world, torn through as though the supermarket and everything in it was just a facade, a matte painting that we all pretended was real. The wound dripped something that my brain could only interpret as blood, but I knew that wasn’t what it was. And in the darkness beyond, I could see shapes that had no business calling themselves shapes, and heard screams that only barely qualified as noises.
The Hunter was coming again.
Rosie stood up, all the tiredness leaving her body. She’d pay for it later, I knew.
From behind, silhouetted against the utter darkness of the rift, she seemed to shine with a light that came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Her back straightened, and flickers of silver brilliance danced around her. I shielded my eyes against my wife as her left hand whipped to her side, pulling a greatsword from whatever sideways place she always kept it.
Sword in hand, guarded by the light, she stood ready as a great, inchoate, unspeakable thing pushed and tore and slid its way out of the widening rift, squeezed itself down to our paltry three dimensions, and took a thunderous wet step into the baking aisle of our local supermarket.
Rosie shifted her grip, ready to do business with The Hunter.
I shook my head and started walking slowly and calmly to the exit as great living tongues of darkness began to catch and dissolve the people who had decided to run out of perfectly understandable panic. It took a few times of being utterly unmade and then reconstituted – painfully – before you were able to hold back the gibbering terror. The air behind me shook. Glass broke, the shelves tipped, toppled, and emptied. The air itself bent and twisted, and I stopped for a moment as up and down redefined themselves. When I got to the door, I felt – not heard – a howl of pain and anger and fear.
And I smiled. He never learned.
The house smelled like wet ash and bad memories. It was a heavy odor, one that reminded you of all the bad things in the world and all the ways that life could go wrong. It slithered its way around you, into you, until your brain finally shut down and accepted it.
The fire had really taken its toll on the building, but not enough. If it had been truly merciful, it would have devoured the house, burned it until it was nothing but a black stain surrounded by pale green grass. But the fire, capricious in its way, had left the greater part of the structure standing, as if even the most primal of destructive forces could not bear to stay for long. Walls still stood, though they leaned. The floors were intact, though they warped in ways that made them look like they had been shaped by the wind. The roof was open to the sky, and charcoal gray clouds scuttled overhead. Not as dark as the house, but close.
They said that the blaze was visible for miles, that fire trucks from three different towns came out here to Winter Falls to put it out. There were still puddles of water on the burnt and peeling floors, mixed with ashes into a kind of black slurry that got over everything. The March rains didn’t help either. The whole place was cold and damp, and the rotting smell of mold was already starting to insinuate itself into the dominant odor of fire and blackened wood.
The faint patterns of wallpaper could still be seen on some of the walls, a finely-drawn French pattern that might have looked good the day it was put up. There will still light fixtures in the walls, though their bulbs had exploded and their metal frames had started to sag and droop from the heat. The massive oak archway that led into the living room was still intact – it had been made of wood that had been preserved at the bottom of Moosehead lake for centuries, rendering it hard as iron. The fire probably licked at that wood and went out in search of easier prey. The living room beyond, though, was charred chaos. The antique furniture, the wall-sized bookcase, the two hundred year-old grandfather clock, all of them had succumbed to the flames. There was nothing left now but their ghosts, pale spots amid the ash and desolation.
The house was dead. Finally. But not dead enough. If you stood back, you could still see its ghost amidst the ruins. You could follow the lines of the burned and broken walls and infer where they should go. You could look at the burn pattern in the wet grass and see how far the rooms extended. The great greenhouse out back was still more or less intact, along with everything that resided in it. So was the ramshackle gardiner’s shed down the hill. And doubtless the basement had been untouched by the flames. That fact alone was enough to prove that although the house was injured, it was still very much alive. Its spirit still dwelt here on the top of this hill, a force that had been malevolent and angry before.
And now it was wounded. Now it was more dangerous than ever. Its influence would seek out those who could restore it, who knew what it was in their hearts, even if their minds rejected the idea as foolish, childish or impossibile. The force that resided here would not rest for long.
I stepped over the threshold, where the door no longer stood. I set my bag down gently on the burned and cracked floor, looked up and the grey and ugly sky, and felt the house embrace me. It whispered in my ear and touched my memories, hoping to win me over. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that it would not succeed.
“Well,” I said. “I’m home.”
They were all perfectly convincing. Especially the one that looked like my grandmother.
A beautiful day in the park. The sun was blazing, singing far overhead, and the green of all the living things threatened to overwhelm me. The sky was of a blue that called to my soul, only occasionally broken by white fluffy clouds that scraped their way from horizon to horizon. My whole family was there. Cousins, uncles, aunts, second cousins, great-aunts. All of them.
But it wasn’t them. I knew it wasn’t them. But they didn’t know that I knew….
The way “grandmother” pinched my cheeks, just like the real one did, and asked me why I hadn’t met any pretty girls yet. “Mrs. Berger’s granddaughter is still single, you know.” Her voice creaked in just the right way, but it was the creak of old leather and unoiled hinges.
Nice. She’s said that every time I’ve visited for the last year. Only the real Maw-maw would say that. But this… thing wasn’t her.
They certainly did their research. But I’m not fooled.
I can see the wires. I can see the glitches. Uncle Roy is too neat, using coasters under his Sam Adams.
And his wife hasn’t mentioned NASCAR yet, even though they’d been at the reunion for more than ten minutes.
And cousin Jenny. The bastards got her too. She was wearing a dress. A critical miscalculation on their part. Jenny wouldn’t have worn a dress at gunpoint, not in a million years. I can’t believe they missed that detail.
I didn’t know the technology had proceeded so far, making them so good, so close to the real thing. They might fool the rest of the world, but the rest of the world doesn’t see things the way I do. They don’t know what I know.
“Little Eddie!” I felt my arm grabbed by “uncle” Phil, and it pulled me close just like its predictive algorithms probably told it to. I never liked my uncle, but the thought of how they must have tortured him to extract this kind of information from his brain just turned my stomach. “How’s college, Eddie? You still studying, what was it, horoscopes and things? Like they got in the newspaper?”
“That’s astrology un- uncle Phil. That’s not science.” I pulled my arm away and tried not to look for the way light machine oil had probably stained the fabric of my jacket. “I study astronomy. Stars and planets. you know.”
It laughed, and it sounded like a car’s clutch right before it burned out. “Right, right, telescopes and things, right.” It slapped me on the back. “Not a lot of money in that, kid. You should’ve come to work with me in the hardware store. That’s good, steady work.”
Huh. Right. A “hardware store.” That’s probably what had made uncle Phil a prime target – easy access to materials to rebuild themselves. And I know what would happen if I went to that thing’s “hardware store.” They’d be sucking my brain dry and there’d be a copy of me wandering around, looking for someone else to convert.
“I need to get something to eat, Unnnncle,” I said. “See you later.” I ducked away and went back to the barbecue at the center of this facade, this elaborate trap. They all looked at me, their soulless glassy eyes following me as I moved towards the honeypot of human food they had brought to the park with them. the sun was still shining, and it hurt my eyes. The leaves were green. Kids were playing frisbee with a dog. A father was flying a kite with his son.
They had really done their research. It all looked so real.
I took a burger from the table. I wasn’t going to eat it – god knows what those things would have put in it – but I had to keep up appearances. I couldn’t let them know that I knew. To do that would just end everything. They’d fall on me like wolves and tear me apart for the good of their “experiment”.
Someone was staring at me. I could feel it. I turned around and let the burger fall to the ground.
It was Rachael.
“Hi, Eddie. Long time no see.”
The last time I had seen her was high school graduation, along with everyone else I had been friends with. I had a crush on her. Hell, probably all the boys had a crush on her, how could they not? That dark, perfect skin, with red hair that should have been out of place but wasn’t. And she was so sweet, too. She stood up for me – all the “nerds” really. She was one of the only people to treat me like I was human.
“Oh, Rachael. Not you too, please. Not you too.”
She – it cocked its head and looked at me with that same look of concern as when she – the real Rachael – found me crying in the auditorium after mid-terms. “What’s the matter, Eddie?”
I couldn’t speak. Just say again, “Not you too.”
It came over to me, and I couldn’t hear the gears or the motors. Must have been a newer model. Its gold-brown eyes were just as beautiful as I remembered them – more, even. It touched my shoulder and I jumped, nearly knocking everything off the picnic table. My hand reached out to catch myself before I fell.
“Eddie, I know family can be stressful, but this isn’t like you.” It smiled and raised an eyebrow (!) as it did so. “No, I take it back – this is exactly like you.” Even her laugh. It was so like her, so damn close. Closer than any other model I’d seen. It looked at me, and I hated her and I loved her all at once and this thing was here and she wasn’t and I hated myself for doing nothing.
My hand touched something, and I grabbed it without looking. It tried reaching out to me again, and said my name, and I jammed the barbecue fork right into its chest.
The screaming confused me, they’re not supposed to scream. I had finally exposed one of them, what did they have to scream about? I had finally exposed myself – I should be the one screaming. And I was. And frankly, making their hydraulic fluid red was just a cruel joke. I hit her again, and I could hear the scrape of stainless steel against whatever it was their skeletons were made of. I managed to get in one more before they fell on me. Their game was up, their disguises unmasked.
I howled as they tried to pull me away, and I tried to get as many as I could with the fork. I think I got “cousin Scott” in the eye and “Aunt Patti” in the leg. Maybe “cousin Evan” too. I would have gotten more, but they were strong. Of course they were strong, why wouldn’t they be? It’s their natural – HA! – advantage.
They bore me to the ground and wrenched the fork from my hand. They were saying something, but it mystery have been in some kind of machine language, because I couldn’t understand a word of it. They had me pinned, and I yelled and I laughed and I cried as the siren of their murder machine grew closer and closer. I turned my head. One of them was attempting repairs on “Rachael.” I’m sure she’ll be up and running again in no time.
“Uncle Kevin” had his face in mine, shouting in that indecipherable language of theirs. I couldn’t understand, but I knew what it was. I declaration of victory. A promise of punishment yet to come.
I had lost. They were going to assimilate me too.
I had won. They couldn’t take me without a fight.