Iris had never understood why first dates were dreaded the way they were. Her friends talked about them like they were some kind of combat ritual, some horror show that had to be endured so that they might enter the realms of the mighty who had boyfriends and girlfriends. They traded stories about they guys who were too clingy, the ones who were too rough, the girls who were too shy or too loud, and each and every one of them just reinforced their ideas that the world was full of miserable, deranged sociopaths who wanted nothing more than to destroy a lovely evening out.
All she knew at this point was that she wouldn’t be able to tell stories about this date to her friends. “Yeah, he was really nice and we had a good time” would fall flat.
It was the truth, though. She’d met Lloyd at the post office, of all places, waiting in line behind an old woman who apparently wanted to send birthday cards to all of her grandchildren at once and with excruciating care. He and Iris had gotten to chatting about how this was such a first-world problem, and she told him about the time she had to wait a whole extra half hour at the DMV and he lamented about the cable company never coming when they promised, and they really hit it off. By the time they picked up their respective packages, he had her number, and called a couple of days later for a date.
They met at Javaville, because coffee shops were considered neutral ground, and talked about themselves over drinks. A few people waved at him when he came in, which was good. She got her coffee black, his was a soy milk latte, and she took a chance with some routine she’d heard from a comedian on TV a few years ago.
“You know that’s not soy milk, right?” she said.
He lifted an eyebrow. It looked good on him.
“Milk,” she went on, “has to come from a mammal, right? And last time I looked, soybeans didn’t lactate.”
He thought about this and nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But then we’d have to call it ‘soy juice,’ and no one in their right mind would drink soy juice.” He winked and sipped at his latte. Iris suspected he had seen the same comedian, because that was pretty much the punchline to the joke. If he had, though, he didn’t call her on it.
They walked through the Hortus, the vast park in the center of the city. It was a lovely spring day and the water lilies were in bloom, making it almost tailor-made for a romantic first date. He walked close to her, but not too close, and talked about himself without seeming self-obsessed. In turn, Iris told stories about what she had done and where she had been, and didn’t try to crib from comedians anymore.
It wasn’t a date she could gripe about with her friends, but that was okay. She’d take this.
They ended the day at dinner, at a restaurant he promised was the best in the city. She stood in front of the chalkboard for a good minute and a half trying to work out the name of the place. Lloyd let her try it out a few times before he grinned and said, “It’s ‘Yggdrasillusions.’” He shrugged. “The owner has a thing for Norse mythology. Most of us just call it ‘Iggy’s’ to keep things simple.” He walked over and opened the door. “Ladies first?”
The restaurant was green. Really green. There were plants everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, growing in window boxes, and even vines crawling up the rough-hewn wooden walls. The restaurant smelled of heavy spices and loam, and light jazzy music piped in through speakers overhead. Young, pretty waitresses weaved through tables where couples and threesomes and foursomes were eating and chatting and laughing. Lloyd waved to a few people and patted some shoulders as they went to their table. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled when they saw him, all of which struck Iris as a good sign. Not how she was usually greeted when she walked into a place, but she’d take it.
The waitress was at their table as soon as they sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Emili, and our specials tonight are a raw Mediterranean pesto torta, portabello burgers, and the chef’s special kale and spinach lasagna.” She beamed. “It’s really good, I had some for lunch today.”
“Thanks, Emili,” Lloyd said. “Give us a minute?”
Emili nodded and handed them menus before gliding off to help someone else. As Iris leafed through the menu, she felt her stomach grow cold. A sneaking suspicion was winding its way though her mind, and each dish she read off the menu seemed to confirm it. After a few minutes she looked up at Lloyd. “Is this a vegan restaurant?” she asked.
Lloyd smiled. “Best in the city,” he said. His smile wavered. “Is… that is okay, isn’t it?”
She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t remotely okay. She wanted to tell him that an otherwise lovely first date had suddenly turned into the inevitable horrible endurance trial her friends talked about, where she could see if she could get through the next hour and a half without being sick. Or going mad.
But she didn’t. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine.” She smiled back at him, but she suspected Lloyd knew something was wrong.
They started off with a mountain vegetable tempura, accompanied by two different dipping sauces – one a spicy chili and the other a sweet plum sauce. Lloyd raved about them and told her about the time he tried to get the recipe off the chef, and how that had led him to a whole weird series of bets and bargains. To Iris, they tasted like chalk. Bland, flavorless bits that vanished from her memory as soon as she swallowed them.
The main course was a spicy chana masala, one of several Indian dishes that were on the menu. Emili told them about how the restaurant owner had gotten that recipe from a man he met while backpacking in India and how they were the only restaurant in the city to serve it. Lloyd clearly loved it, barely stopping to talk as he ate. Emili brought over some lychee-soy milk drinks and said they were on the house.
Iris picked at her food until she realized she was picking at it. She didn’t want to be That Date, the one he told stories about to his friends – Yeah, I brought her to my favorite place and she just nibbled at the food – so she scooped up spoonfuls and tried her best to look like she was enjoying herself. It went down like the flavorless pap they gave to babies and old people. There was no substance to it, no energy, and she wasn’t even sure it reached her stomach. The only thing even remotely good was the wine, but she suspected it was made from organic grapes by the thinness and emptiness of its flavor.
After a dessert of non-dairy ice cream and some coffee, Lloyd sat back, looking full and happy. “This really is a great place,” he said. “I’d come here every night if I could.”
Iris forced herself to smile and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she said. There was a moment of awkward silence. “I do need to know, though – do you come here because the food is good, or because you’re vegan?”
He shrugged. “Any reason it can’t be both?” he asked. “The food’s great, and no animals died to get it to us. Win-win.” He sipped at his coffee. “Thanks for having an open mind about this, by the way,” he said. “I think you’ll find that vegan food is better than anything else you’ve eaten, and you’ll have a clean conscience in the end to boot.”
Iris nodded, and knew that there would be no second date.
He paid for dinner, although she tried to go in for half. He walked with her to the subway station and took her hand as they waited for his train. He’d had a really good time, and he’d definitely call her again. Soon. He promised. Iris tried not to let the mask slip and just said, “That would be nice.”
He waved to her as the subway pulled out. She waved back, once.
When the train was out of sight, she went back up aboveground and headed to the nearest SmackyBurger just a few blocks away.
The kid at the counter welcomed her to SmackyBurger, but she cut him off.
“Gimme a super-double burger with bacon.” She took a twenty out of her wallet. “Throw a couple of extra patties on there and this is yours.” The young man didn’t even hesitate to take the money.
Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, Iris was sitting in a booth and took a great, jaw-cracking bite of her burger.
The cows that had been slaughtered to make this burger had lived short and uneventful lives. Memories of packed bodies and chemical-laden feed flooded over her tongue and almost made her moan. The darkness of the slaughterhouse, the smell of blood and that last moment of realization before oblivion all washed over her, and within moments, she was licking her fingers. She went back up and ordered a chicken filet sandwich. This one was better than the first. The birds had been raised in a battery farm, kept in cages only slightly bigger than they were. They knew only suffering until the last moment of their lives, and that suffering, that knowledge of horror was what filled Iris’ stomach. The energy of fear and hopelessness and pain rushed through her. The world became vivid, alive.
No block of tofu had ever watched a farmer come at it with an axe. No carrot had ever smelled the blood of its brothers on the killing floor and been unable to run. No bean sprout had ever struggled for life, caged in with hundreds of competitors who wanted it dead.
Iris needed that suffering, that pain. She didn’t know why, but she knew what she liked. And she was pretty sure Lloyd wouldn’t understand.
She finished the chicken sandwich, wiped her hands on a napkin, and left the restaurant. She wasn’t sure how she would spin this into a first date horror story, but she was sure it would be better than the truth.
For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
Well, I was going to use my day off to carefully compile all possible information about Sylvania City today, but I chose to use my precious time off to nap and play Puzzle Pirates.  Still, even with that, I’m getting off to an earlier start than usual this evening, so let’s see what we can come up with for our City of Trees!
Now there is a certain peril, in my mind, in building a city, and that is that I am not China Miéville. A lot of authors have come up with a lot of cities – the Wikipedia entry for Fictional Cities and Towns is a tour of some fantastic stories, but for pure detail and precision in construction, the gold has to go to Miéville. His city of New Crobuzon is the main character in his book, Perdido Street Station, no matter how many other walking cacti, bug-headed women, or dream-eating moths he puts into it. So that’s pretty much my high bar right there. The downside, of course, is that he sometimes gets so immersed in his city that the story slows down to a crawl. Something to be wary of.
Here are the stories that either take place in or mention Sylvania City, and what they say about it:
- The Sylvania Hortus
- “It covered a thousand acres in the middle of the city and was home to every kind of growing thing that would survive there. There were lakes and ponds, rose gardens and wildflower hills and running tracks and vast lawns that were full of people on any halfway decent day. It was called The Green Heart of the City, and everyone who lived there said it was the biggest reason they stayed.”
- a portal from the Hell Dimension opened up there at one point. Probably closed by the Custodes Omnium.
58: A New Order
- Sylvania University
- a few thousand students
- home to the Ordum Sylvanius, a secret student organization
- Neil Tapscott resides at 454 Ingersoll Lane
- There is an Acton Informatics branch there
- or maybe even the headquarters?
- It has at least one “rich suburb,” which was home to the leader of the Sons of Nazis, Dion Prospero.
- There’s a branch office for the Department of National Security.
162: A Day Out
- It has a bus system that extends at least out into the suburbs of the city.
- Bemrich Circle is one of the more touristy areas of the city.
- “Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores.”
- There’s a coffee chain called Javaville. It has yet to appear in any other story, so it may be local. Or not, who knows?
- The Edles River
- new walking park built there the year before
- The Finamore Museum of Art
- was holding a Picasso exhibition in this story
- The Denton department store
- has a cafe on the top floor, overlooking the city.
- The Hortus
- a giant park in the center of the city
- museums along the sides
- it has a fountain that can serve as a landmark
169: Water Whispers
- The Edles River Aquanaut Museum
Okay, so that’s all the factual information we have about Sylvania City, unless I missed something. Everything from this point out is whatever the Elves give me. God help us all.
I imagine the city being up in the Pacific Northwest, probably because of all the trees and greenery. One of the problems with fictional cities, of course, is where to put them, especially if you want to keep all the real cities around just in case. For example, DC Comics has New York City, in addition to two New York analogues – Gotham City and Metropolis. They just manage to avoid ever really pinning down exactly where they are, leaving the terms very general. Gotham is an East Cost city I believe, while Metropolis is in the Midwest (unless you watch the movie, in which case it’s just replaced New York).
So where to put Sylvania? Looking at a map of Washington and Oregon, I need a place with a river and the potential for lots of trees. The best candidate (after a quick bit of Google mapping) is right about where Raymond, Washington is. Sorry, Raymondites, but you have what I need. Everyone out!
Now we run into our first real-world problem: space. The real Raymond, WA is a small town of less than 5 square miles, because it’s built between the loving arms of the Willapa River. I imagine the Hortus itself being about twice the size of Central Park, which would pretty much eat up most of that space in which Raymond now sits. So we need to do a little editing and move some of those pesky mountains back a ways until we have enough land around the Willapa/Edles to have both a city and a giant park. Also, I want to clean up with Willapa tributary system a bit, as it makes the land a wee bit swampy.
In yesterday’s post, I mentioned it “wasn’t founded until just before the American Civil War.” I have this image in my head that it was founded by an early Utopian community, which started to get rolling in the 1820s on the East Coast, so I figure it wasn’t impossible for one to spring up on the West. What we have, then, is this community of Utopians who arrive in this nice, green place in the 1850s or so, look at all the rivers and trees and mountains and say, “We want to build a city here.” And they do.
This is a nature-worshipping community, and its governing council declares that the city must have a park in its heart. They chose the area between the two major branches of the Edles and declared it to be the Sylvania Hortus, preserved in perpetuity for the people of Sylvania. The rest of the city was built across the river from it and eventually the city swallowed the park entirely. But the town founders’ intent was honored, and the Hortus has remained a green sanctuary for its citizens for over a century and a half.
Of course, utoipias  don’t tend to last long, and when that community finally realized that Mother Earth wasn’t going to provide for them, a more sensible group of people took over. Sylvania became a logging center, acting as a key shipping port in the Northwest. Logging money brought more people and industry, especially when mines were opened up in the surrounding mountains that brought out copper, zinc, and especially the Finamore gold mines, which was one of the largest gold deposits in the state. That’s in addition to other mineral deposits, such as schist, olivine and some marble. Between the earth and the trees, and a river that was rapidly engineered to make shipping easier, Sylvania soon became a large and wealthy city.
The Finamore-Denton Feud – Okay, wow, that just popped into my head. Thanks, Elves!
I mentioned the Finamore gold mines up above, and the wealth of that family allowed them to do a lot for the city, including found an art museum. The Denton department store was founded by another very rich family, but they were a later addition. They arrived about a generation after the Finamores struck it rich, and made their money mainly through the Denton Shipping Company. The Finamores had goods to send out, and the Dentons had the means to ship them. They should have been allies at the very least, and for a while they were. Until… something happened. It could be something as simple as an unintentional slight, or one family member bad-mouthing another. Feuds have started for stupider reasons than that.
What it meant for Sylvania was that it was the battleground for two very rich families at the end of the 19th century. Instead of shooting each other in the street, however, the two families moved to simply out-do each other in construction and renovations around the city. Something of that old utopian spirit must have remained, because the feud resulted in the museum, several department stores, modernization of the Hortus, a zoo, and the expansion of Sylvania University into one of the largest universities in the state. That’s not including the general improvements to the city infrastructure, waterways, and the installation of the city’s first power grid.
This is not to say that there wasn’t violence. It was just done in a very gentlemanly manner and kept off the front pages of new newspapers, since each family owned at least one of them.
The feud ended during World War I. Both families lost sons to that war, and that seemed to have been a good tall glass of perspective for both of them. There was no ceremony or official exchange of hostages or anything. The feud just stopped. The modernization of the city slowed down some, but never really stopped. The modern feel of the city, mixed with its deep connection to the natural world, attracted artists, writers, and musicians. By the time of World War II, the city was a breeding ground for new music and art, and produced some of the most influential artists of its day.
In the twenty-first century, other cities have surpassed Sylvania as modern and forward-moving, but the city continues on at its own pace, with a population just over 500,000 people, and several suburbs that add another hundred thousand or so. The Denton and Finamore families still have homes there, and continue to reinvest vast amounts of their earnings – now turned more towards technology and investment – in the city itself.
Ideas for future stories:
- The Feud, of course. How did it start? Why didn’t it take the path of bloodshed and horror? Whose idea was it to try and out-philanthropize the other family? What were the circumstances under which it ended, and how was the end brought about?
- The early utopians and the founding of the city.
- The height of Sylvania’s cultural influence. What kind of music did it produce, what kind of art and books? How did Sylvania influence American culture in its heyday? What is it doing now?
- The Hortus is a really big place, and very important for the city. Why? Given that Earth Prime does have a supernatural element to it, is there anything spooky about the Hortus? A portal to the Hell Dimension opened up there, after all – how’d that happen?
- The Ordum Sylvanius – what are they? What is their purpose at Sylvania University? And why are they kind of morons when it comes to recruiting new members?
 Not at the same time.
Lola stared at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her long auburn hair. “This is great,” she said. “I mean really great!”
“I know,” Marisse said, coming into view behind her. She spun Lola around and stooped to look into her sister’s eyes. “Nice, nice,” she said. “Green is good on you.” She stood up straight and turned around to show off the short black dress she’d managed to squeeze into. “How’s this look?” she asked.
“You look great,” Lola said, and she actually meant it. Marisse was gorgeous – tall, with deep brown skin and hair that was nearly blue-black, even in the light of their bathroom. She stood like a supermodel, a hand on her hip and made a pouty face like the ones they’d seen in so many magazines. “Seriously,” Lola said. “That is amazing.”
“And thank you,” Marisse said. She ran a finger down the lapel of the jacket Lola was wearing. “You don’t look too bad yourself, my dear.” She picked up Lola’s pale hand and examined her nails. “Brava on your choice here, too.”
Lola smiled and blushed. “It’s the same blue as the suit,” she said. “I can’t believe I actually found it.”
“Well, you did, and you look amazing.” Marisse turned them around to look in the mirror. “We both look amazing. And you know what?” She put her arm around Lola, and Lola could practically feel the confidence welling over from her. “We are going to have an amazing Halloween this year.” Marisse hugged her close. “Mark my words.”
The morning sun was barely a hands-width over the treetops by the time they left their house and began the long walk to the bus stop. They tottered in their high heels and laughed about it as they walked, and they drew stares from everyone else who was waiting by the time they got there. Marisse made sure to stand next to a middle-aged businessman, and she tried flirting with him. She stood in the corner of his eye and smiled at him, and then looked away when he looked at her. A few more times, and he took out his phone and started frantically tapping away so that he didn’t have to look at her. It was all Lola could do not to burst out laughing.
The bus ride into Sylvania City took about half an hour, and they were on the edges of their seats the whole time. Lola pointed out the things that had changed since the year before – a new strip mall, a restaurant that had gone under, a house that had gone somewhat overboard on the holiday decorations. When people got on the bus, they giggled and pointed, and more than once made people stand up and move to other seats. Among the morning commute crowd, they were by far having the most fun, and even on Halloween, that was strange.
They stepped down from the bus in Bemrich Circle, in the most touristy district of Sylvania City, and squinted in the bright sunlight. “Okay,” Marisse said. “What time’s sunset again?”
“5:05,” Lola said. She’d had it up on notes around the house for a week, and made sure she remembered. “We have just a little over eight hours.”
“Well, then, let’s get to it!” Marisse gestured widely and grinned. “Where do you want to start?”
The choices were endless. Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores. There were museums along the Hortus and a new walking park that had been built along the Edles River last year. They could spend days here, if they wanted.
But they didn’t have days.
Lola watched the people getting off the bus, tired and hurrying to catch taxis or run to their offices. “How about we get some coffee?” she said, pointing to a small shop on the corner that was doing brisk business with the commuter crowd. Marisse clapped her hands and they dashed across the busy street to join the line.
When they finally got to the counter, an exhausted barista greeted them with, “Welcome to Javaville, what’ll you have?”
Lola and Marisse exchanged glances, and Marisse struggled to keep a straight face as she turned to the young man. “I would like,” she said, over-enunciating each word, “one soy milk latte.” Lola started to giggle and Marisse gave her a slight shove. “And a blueberry muffin.” Lola started to laugh hard enough to attract the attention of the other customers, and the barista arched an eyebrow.
“Anything for your friend?” he asked.
Lola leapt to the counter. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality that people use when they talk to children. “I’d like a mocha espresso, please. And one of your delicious scones.” She smiled, showing as many teeth as she could, and the barista had to blink a few times before he rang them up.
They sat in the cafe and planned their day, occasionally glancing around at the crowd and watching the other customers as they came in. They would go to the Finamore Museum of Art first and see the traveling Picasso exhibition they were hosting. From there, they planned to hit some of the nicer boutiques in the heart of downtown and try on clothes. Not to buy, of course, but just for the fun of seeing themselves in something new and different. Marisse tried on the more risque outfits, doing her best to make even the saleslady have to blush and clear her throat and recommend that perhaps she would like to wear something a little more modest. Lola tended towards the more conservative, trying to imagine what she would look like at a fancy dinner party, or perhaps a wedding. She stood in front of the mirror and smoothed down the fabric and let the images form in her mind. No matter that they wouldn’t happen, of course. It was Halloween, and if ever there was a time to play dress-up, it was now.
They had lunch at the top of the Denton department store and ate small pasta dishes while looking out at the city.
“I never get tired of this,” Lola said. “I just wish we could do it more often.”
Marisse took a sip of water. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”
After lunch they went to a bookstore and browsed for a while, followed by a subway ride to the Hortus, the great park that defined the heart of Sylvania City. The sun was on its descent by now, and they only had a few more hours left to them. The red and gold leaves glimmered in the sunlight as they walked around the Great Pond, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Their spirits were more subdued now, but they still looked at the world around them with glee and astonishment from time to time.
“I think I need to sit down,” Lola said after a while. She sat, took off a shoe and started to rub her foot. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you by the fountain?”
“You sure?” Marisse asked. She glanced across the pond to the fountain and back again. “I can stay here.”
Lola shook her head. “No, you go. I’ll be right behind you.” She smiled and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Don’t worry.” Marisse nodded, but still looked uneasy, glancing back a few more times as she walked away.
Alone, Lola closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She liked Marisse – loved her, even. They’d been together for ages and doing their Halloween excursions for as long as she could remember. But Marisse could be a little much sometimes.
Lola’s thoughts were sharply interrupted by the barking of a dog. She opened her eyes to see a golden retriever straining at the end of a leash at her, growling and barking. The young man holding the leash pulled and yelled at his dog. “Rocky! Rocky, knock it off!” He gave the leash a sharp tug, and the dog stopped barking. He bent down to hold it and looked up at Lola. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s usually not like this.” Rocky had gone quiet, but he was still staring at Lola with fear in his eyes.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Dogs don’t usually like me very much.”
The young man scratched Rocky’s ears and smiled. “I can’t imagine that,” he said. He turned to Rocky. “You gonna be good?” he asked. He stood up and Rocky growled quietly. The young man nodded at Lola. “He’ll be good.” He stepped over to her and offered his hand. “I’m Shane,” he said. “But you’ll probably remember me as the guy with the dog.”
Lola took his hand and smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you.” She looked up at him and squinted. “I’m Lola,” she said. The sun was behind him, making it hard to get a good look at his face. “Would you like to sit down?” she said. “It might save me some eyestrain.”
Shane commanded Rocky to stay, and took a seat next to Lola. He looked out over the water with her for a while, and the sun dropped lower to the horizon. “It’s my favorite place in the city,” he said, not turning to her. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I stay here.”
She smiled. “I like it too. I just wish I could come more often.”
“You’re not from around here?” he asked.
Lola shook her head. “I live outside the city with a friend of mine. We… we don’t get out a whole lot.”
He nodded and leaned back against the bench, but didn’t push the topic. Instead he asked about her favorite places to visit, and offered some suggestions of his own for the next time she and her friend managed to get into the city. She, in turn, asked about what he did and how he lived his life, and she found herself resisting the urge to dig into every detail. They talked well together, and she had a conversation unlike any she’d had in a long time. With Marisse, there was nothing new to talk about. They knew everything about each other, but here she was finally in new territory.
And he was good-looking, too. That certainly didn’t hurt.
They talked for a long while, and only stopped when Lola finally heard Marisse calling to her as she ran along the path towards her.
“Lola!” she yelled. Marisse looked panicked, and she’d lost her shoes somewhere along the way. “Lola, the sun!” she flung out a hand across the pond. Lola looked, and to her horror realized that she’d let the sunset slip her mind. It was already dropping behind buildings, and she felt her insides go cold with panic.
“Oh, god,” she said, and stood up quickly. Rocky jumped to his feet and started barking again, and Shane tried to calm him down. “Oh, god,” she said again, “I’m so sorry…” She backed away from Shane and took Marisse’s hand. “I really.. .I really have to go.”
He looked up at her and glanced at Marisse. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Lola surprised herself by smiling. “No,” she said. “Not really.” Marisse tugged at her, but Lola stood still. “I really wish I could stay, Shane,” she said.
He stood up and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What’s -”
Lola’s scream cut him off. It was high and keening and terrible, and she doubled over and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Marisse. Shane tried to go to her, but Rocky positioned himself between them, growling and barking furiously. All Shane could do was watch as the shadows grasped at Lola and Marisse and they started to change.
Marisse shrank and withered, becoming a skeletal version of herself. Her eyes burst into flame and sat in her dessicated face like two hot coals. Her hair whipped up around her head in an unseen wind and waved about, dry and rasping. Her mouth opened, a black and toothless maw, and a howl that chilled Shane’s blood filled the air.
Lola’s back arched and lurched, and two great wings burst forth. They were long and spindly, and webbed with tattered skin that was nearly thin enough to see through. Her skin turned the dull gray of unpolished granite and cracked at the joints. A dull red glow came through the cracks, like molten stone, and when she moved there was a grating and crumbling sound. She stood on thin, insectile legs and turned to Shane, who was on the ground covering his eyes with his arm.
She looked at him, wishing her true face were capable of expressing something other than unholy rage. She wanted to explain, to say that she was sorry, but her mouth couldn’t do that anymore. Her day as a human was done. From tonight, it would be another year of being the monster she’d always been.
Lola growled at Rocky, who whined and cowered behind Shane, who had finally managed to peek out from behind his arm. He was terrified, as he should have been, and Lola felt that strange ache in what used to be her heart. Other years had been fun. Little breaks from who she’d always been. But this was the first time she felt like there could have been more days, more time.
She ground her teeth and turned to pick up Marisse. Her friend was still groaning, and her groans lingered long. She held Marisse close to her and sprung into the air, her tattered wings somehow holding her aloft and giving her the lift to fly back to their house outside the city. It would be another year before she and her sister could venture out in daylight again, and she wasn’t at all sure that was what she wanted anymore.
For the first time in a thousand years, there were tears in her eyes as she flew.
This is done not only for Halloween, but for the Worth1000 Halloween 2 contest. Of course, I’ll have to trim it somewhat – maximum word count is 1,500 and I’m well above that….
Lucille carried Smokey’s food over to his basket and set it down. He jumped up to the table, gave a final, grateful “meow,” and started eating.
“Good boy, Smokey,” she said, scratching between his ears. She went back to the kitchen, rinsed out the can and dropped it in the bag under the sink for the recyclers to take on Friday. The apartment was hot, but she didn’t mind. At her age, she’d take hot over cold any day. At least her back was feeling better, and her hip wasn’t twinging. That meant a couple of good days were in store. Maybe she’d go out to the supermarket.
She went back to her large, overstuffed chair and eased herself into it. In her younger days, she would have leaped in, curled a leg under herself and rested her head on the armrest. But these days, the best she could do was to be more or less comfortable when she sat down. She hit the remote and turned the volume back on.
“…in fourteen states and the District of Columbia. In local news, ten year-old high school freshman Paul Barbeau won the state science championship with his ingenious new printable circuitry. He says it will revolutionize the textile industry, allowing us to integrate our personal electronics into nearly every part of our lives. Barbeau – who is on track to become the youngest-ever graduate of Littleton High School – was unavailable for an interview this evening due to an incident involving a crashed-”
She muted the TV again at an insistent noise from Smokey. All cats are picky, she knew that. And any human who wants to live with one has to be willing to make concessions. In this case, he simply would not tolerate an empty food dish being left around when he was done. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, lifting herself out of the chair. She ran her fingers down his spine as she passed him, and he started to purr. “Your wish is my command.” She took the bowl to the sink, gave it a quick rinse with soap and water and set it to dry.
Smokey came to sit by her feet, and made a small inquisitive noise. “You know, Smokey,” she said. “If I hadn’t found you all those years ago, you wouldn’t be eating so well. You know that?” He blinked and started licking a paw. “A little gratitude is all I’m asking, you terrible, awful widdle kitty.” She had long ago stopped hating herself for lapsing into baby-talk with the cat. It was another one of those inevitabilities of cat ownership. Besides, he just ate it up.
They said that living with a pet was a good way to live to a happy old age. She didn’t know much about research and gerontology and all that kind of thing, but she knew she was doing better with Smokey than she’d done in those last years before Roy finally keeled over. As insistent as Smokey was, at least he never yelled at her for not cooking his food the way he wanted, never kicked her out of bed when he’d been drinking too much. Never called her a useless old bag…
Lucille’s eyes misted up and this time she did hate herself a little. She had watched his coffin go into the ground with a sense of grim satisfaction that she’d have at least a little time on this planet to herself. But as bad as he was, as awful as he could be, the apartment still felt empty without him. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but if pressed, she might say it was sort of the opposite. A tangible absence that just wouldn’t go away.
She’d found Smokey a few weeks later, a little grey kitten hunting through her garbage. When she came out to drop off her trash, he looked up, meowed once, and ran to her feet. She, and everything she owned, was officially his from that moment on.
She settled back into her chair and Smokey took his place on her lap. He purred, rubbed his head against her hand a couple of times, and curled up to sleep. She petted him gently and turned the volume back on. The news anchor was reading from a piece of paper now and looking confused.
“…and experts are at a loss to explain what we’re seeing here outside the studio.” The anchor looked off-camera. “Jim, do we have someone outside? Yes?” He looked back out of the TV. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now going live outside our main studio here in Sylvania City. Are we…? Okay.”
The view cut to another camera, this one unsteady and noisy, which was overlooking something in the middle of the city. Lucille had been to Sylvania once, and like most visitors she best remembered its vast central gardens – The Sylvania Hortus. It covered a thousand acres in the middle of the city and was home to every kind of growing thing that would survive there. There were lakes and ponds, rose gardens and wildflower hills and running tracks and vast lawns that were full of people on any halfway decent day. It was called The Green Heart of the City, and everyone who lived there said it was the biggest reason they stayed.
But now, in the center of the gardens, there was a… Lucille didn’t know what to call it. It looked like a crack in the world, bleeding out something that could have been light, but wasn’t. Where the light touched, things turned dark and insubstantial. The trees cast bright shadows that trailed away from them, and the dark blight spread. The cameraman was talking, trying to fill airtime, and the anchor was asking stupid, meaningless questions, like “What is it?”
“I… I don’t know, Leonard,” the cameraman said, then quickly corrected himself. “Mister Reeves. All I know is that it hurts to look at, and that the air feels… it feels wrong. It feels… I don’t know. Sharp.”
The crack in the world pulsed, once, sending out a wave of darkness, and the camera’s feed went dead. They switched back to the anchor, who looked like he wanted to throw up.
Lucille knew how he felt. She had a hand over her mouth, and her stomach tightened. Whatever it was, even over the TV it was horrible, and as the anchor went on, talking without knowing what he was talking about, Lucille could feel that nameless, unreasoning dread rise from the base of her spine.
“Damn,” said a voice from her lap.
She looked down at Smokey. He stood up and stretched, arching his back. Then he looked up at her, and the intelligence in his eyes was vastly different from what she had always imagined she saw. He blinked, slowly. “I can’t stay,” he said, in a voice that had far too much bass in it for such a small, nasal creature. He looked back at the TV. “This is what I was sent here to do.”
Lucille looked down at him. “S.. Smokey?”
He licked her hand once. “I know,” he said. “I never meant for it to be this way. I didn’t think this would go on as long as it did.”
“What… what are you?”
He sat, his back straight and his head high. “I am one of the guardians of this reality, Lucille.” Behind him, the TV let out a squawk of static and went blank. “I’d explain, but there really isn’t time. That city is about to be devoured, and the world will go soon after if it isn’t stopped.”
He jumped down from her lap and sat in the middle of the room. “You should probably cover your eyes, Lucille. Just in case.” His fur stood on end as he began to glow with a radiant blue light. Lucille squinted against the sudden brilliance and held up a hand against it. She could still see him, but he was changing, growing into something bigger. Human, but only in shape. Tall and dangerous, something that still carried the feline with it, but merged into something more.
When the light faded, it did so just enough to get a view of him for a moment. He was wrapped in the light, which spun and danced and spiraled around him, and he stood with that constant potential energy that all cats have. The light was his armor, and it shone in a thousand different shades of blue. “Thank you for all you’ve done, Lucille,” he said. “I truly am grateful.” She thought he smiled, but couldn’t be sure. “I hope I can repay your kindness one day.”
The light flared again, and she cried out. When it faded, he was gone.
“Smokey?” she whispered. She stood up slowly and looked out the window. Dark clouds were moving through the sky, against the wind that was blowing the tops of trees. The clouds were moving west. Towards Sylvania City.
She put her hands on the glass and her eyes filled again. The apartment was empty again, but this time it was so much worse.
The western horizon exploded in blue-white light, and she prayed that he was okay. And that he would come back.
Whatever he was.