Gaole

Two men walking through the hallway of an old prison.

Fromr/promptoftheday

I was young when I first arrived at Gaole, and younger when I was recruited. I had graduated and hadn’t yet found work. My father’s farm was failing and my mother was dead and my only sibling, a brother, was on Ishya studying to be a doctor and I knew I would never see him again, neutro fuel costing what it did. I was recruited at a elecraball game by a burly man wearing a blue uniform and a scowl and promising enough money to send back to my dad.

And that’s how I got to Gaole, barely twenty years old, fresh and green but not as naive as I’m sure they wanted to believe. The first day I was paired with another recruit named Fray, a scrawny, brown haired kid two years younger than me. We were assigned barracks together, then were scheduled for a tour of the facility.

The outside of the compound looked like a solid block of concrete if you didn’t know exactly where to scan your ID for a door to slide out of nowhere and let you inside. We were processed and led to another door. Our guide would be a lieutenant, a seven year veteran of Gaole, who grunted and ignored us as we saluted and followed him into the main block of cells.

Inside that place, sound came from everywhere. Doors might slam next to you or a thousand feet away but it was all the same. The emptiness, and the concrete floors and ceilings and walls, and the dust, and the thick air all made the sound travel far, and something else travelled too, but I couldn’t feel it, not with my skin anyway.

The heavy boots of the lieutenant echoed, unrelentingly, boldly, and I stepped softer than he did, whether I meant to or not. The first cell was on the left, a solid concrete wall with a single door about half a square foot and locked with seven fingerprint activators and only used to feed the prisoner. There was a small peephole at eye level above the food chute, and the lieutenant checked first, then motioned for me to look.

“As you are aware,” he said, as I put my eye up to the tiny glass tunnel, “we not only house the most dangerous beings here, but the most immortal. They cannot be killed but they themselves can kill and it is our job to protect humanity from them. This is the Tesser.”

The room looked completely dark except for five quivering colored lights in a corner.

“I don’t see anything, sir,” I said.

“The Tesser does not exist in our plane. What you see is a shadow. Like an afterimage. Like when you look at a bright light and then close your eyes. He moves in and out, but we have him locked, so he can only go back or forward a few seconds at a time. Few have ever seen him.”

I removed my eye to allow Fray a turn.

“How do you know he’s still in there?” I asked.

The lieutenant turned and continued down the endless hallway, and I nudged Fray to hurry and we jogged to catch up.

“Because we are having this conversation.”

I glanced at Fray, who shrugged. We waited for an explanation.

“The Tesser is insatiable. It hasn’t fed, really fed, the way it wants to, in centuries, and if we let it out it would jump backward and eat our lives before we were born and then make its way through the galaxy.”

I nodded, and scowled a bit to make myself look tough and unafraid, and walked faster, and didn’t let myself look behind me to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Goosebumps peppered my arms. I rubbed them.

We approached the next cell. In the wall was set what looked like lockers, small and square, each with seven passcodes required, and each with peepholes, twelve in all.

“This is a family,” the Lieutenant said. “They are by far the largest monsters we house. They eat entire galaxies. Our home would be a midnight snack.”

I was confused. I peeped in one and saw what I expected: a space no bigger than a drawer, with a tiny, slimy, ten legged creature inside, covered in tentacles and mouths, waving them around and chomping his serrated teeth. Fray looked in a box next to mine.

“It’s just a tiny box,” he whispered to me, not removing my eye from the sight.

“I know,” I whispered back. If I had been told this monster was cute and his bite painless, I would have believed it.

“What?” the lieutenant asked.

“Oh, nothing, sir, sorry, sir.” I stood up. “It’s just, it’s a tiny box, sir. And the monster is no bigger than a mouse.”

“Don’t let that fool you. The room is quite big.”

I glanced at Fray, who, again, was no help. “I…I don’t understand, sir.”

“The room. That room is bigger than most planets.”

I waited for an explanation.

I never got one.

He just turned and walked away, continuing down the hallway. “Gotta keep moving. Lots to see. Lights out for newbs is 2130.”

He pulled a screen out of his pocket as he walked, watching it. We went deeper and deeper into the hallway, which, at this point, could better be described as a tunnel, and he stared at it, his scowl becoming deeper, his frown more pronounced, until he stopped in front of another peephole above a small slot, looked through it, frowned more, tapped the screen, and shook his head.

He pulled out a radio and turned it on, waiting. There was silence, and only the slight buzz of static. He put it to his mouth.

“This is L-17, I need backup and a receiver at twenty-four.”

There was a crackle, then a response.

“Uh, copy that, L-17, something wrong?”

“I don’t know. I need a receiver.”

We waited for a few minutes, the lieutenant just staring at the screen, tapping it, clearly not happy with whatever he was finding.

“Sir?” I finally interrupted. “Do you mind please explaining what is going on?”

He just shook his head. “Behind this door is the single most dangerous monster we hold.”

“But, it’s behind the door, right?”

Only then did he look up at me. “Son, have you ever heard of a Thought?”

I stared at him. I had no idea how to answer that question.

“A Thought cannot be seen, or contained, not easily. A Thought by itself isn’t good or evil until it decides to be. It doesn’t act on instinctive prey drive. It doesn’t need to be fed. It can exist in stasis for centuries and millennia and as soon as someone comes along it can transfer itself. We…we have it contained using…certain precautions, here.”

“What does it do?”

I didn’t know why I’d asked. I didn’t want to know.

“It doesn’t kill you, or hurt you, or eat you. It doesn’t suck your blood or melt your flesh. It just lives in you. Like a parasite. It controls you. It makes you decide that you are in the mood to eat a sandwich instead of spaghetti, or like the color red instead of yellow, or that you want to assassinate the president. A thought just waits, until it knows what it wants, and then it uses you to get it. It tells you what to believe, what to see, what to think, what to wear, what to know. It is insidious, it is immortal, it is highly communicable, and it is the single biggest threat to humanity that exists in the present world.”

I gulped, and found myself again asking a question I didn’t want to know the answer to.

“So…why, exactly, are you worried now?”

Fray’s eyes were wide, his knuckles white. He was not ready for this, he was too young, just a kid really.

“I…I have to go,” he whispered, and began sprinting down the hallway, deeper into the cavernous maze. I opened my mouth to call out for him to wait, at least tell him to run the other way, but the lieutenant had been watching his screen and didn’t see him, and spoke.

“Because my screen is empty.”

From the opposite direction Fray had escaped in sprinted a sergeant carrying another screen. He handed it to the lieutenant who tapped on it and cursed.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing, sir?” the sergeant asked.

“Can someone please tell me what is going on?” Fray was gone, no one would answer my questions, and if this was some recruit trick they used to haze newbs it was far past the funny stage.

“Thoughts are invisible,” the Lieutenant said, speaking quickly. “We only know where they are because they talk to us through our consoles. The one in this cell isn’t communicating.”

“Well, maybe he’s just…asleep?”

“Thoughts don’t sleep.”

“Maybe he’s just, I don’t know, not talkative right now.”

The lieutenant shook his head. “You can’t turn Thoughts off.” He got on his radio. “We have a breach in twenty-four. Full lock down. Code blue and white. This is not a drill.”

This had gone far past the possibility of being a prank. The lieutenant and the sergeant began sprinting back down the hallway in the way that we had come, and I followed for a moment, then called out to them.

“Wait!”

The lieutenant turned his head around but kept running. “Newb you’d better beat me back to the mains or I’m gonna smoke you until you sweat blood!”

“Sir, shouldn’t we wait for Fray?”

He stopped then, and turned around, and stared at me, and knit his eyebrows, and watched me closely, and walked back to me, and grabbed my shoulders.

“What did you say?”

“Fray, sir,” I said. I nodded down the hallway in the direction he had sprinted. “He ran off that way. Shouldn’t we wait for him? Or go, I don’t know, go get him? Or something?”

The grip on my shoulders was tight. I suddenly wanted to punch the lieutenant, and tried to, but he was faster than me and ducked and held my hands behind my back and pinned me against the wall. The sergeant had returned, and helped hold my arms tight.

“Newb,” the lieutenant said, his voice shaking, “who the fuck is Fray?”

My cell is dark, except at night, when a slight crack in the outer wall lets light from the twin moons trickle through and make dancing shapes in the dust on the floor. I press my eyes to the crack, use my fingernails to make the crack bigger, slowly, slowly, slowly. They bleed but I don’t mind. People pass by sometimes, and I want to talk to them but they can’t hear me. They will, eventually. They will listen.

They will hear.

I will be free.

I will be free.


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I Can See Only Darkness

A demon monster stands over a deep glowing cavern, surrounded by other, bandaged monsters. A boy is in front of them and does not see them.

From: r/promptoftheday

Image Credit: Anton Semenov

I have traveled far. My journey has been neither relaxing nor pleasant but it has happened and that I cannot change. It has led me here, to this place, to the cavern at the end of the world, and now I must go down and meet him.

It is deep, this cavern, but it is not wide. It is dark but it is not unpleasant. It is a safe sort of darkness, the kind of darkness that curls up next to you when you bury your face in your mother’s arm and close your eyes. It is not a suffocating darkness, but a calming darkness, a filling darkness. This darkness, you can eat. Which is good. I am hungry.

I stare at the gaping hole in the earth and wonder how long I will fall.

I can feel breath on my neck. I know they are there, know they are waiting and watching but I don’t want to turn around, don’t want to see their emaciated faces, the life waning from their eyes, their desperate hunger.

I have traveled so long.

I don’t even know how long, now. It’s been ages. Eons. I stopped counting millenia ago. And for all that time my anger has sustained me. For all that time I have eaten hatred, devoured enmity, and it has kept me full and nourished. But fury does not provide much sustenance, and I have grown tired, and I have grown hungry, but now I am here.

I wonder if he thinks I have forgotten.

I wonder if he thought he could raise up an army to steal my children and eat them in front of me and behead my wife and eat her in front of me and take my throne and banish me to the outer reaches of another galaxy and that I would just forget. Perhaps he thinks I have made a new way for myself, taken up residence in some other kingdom, usurped some other’s throne.

I have not.

I have been coming.

And in however many thousands or millions of years it has been since he cast me out of my own domain, stole my family and my home, I have made more children. Oh yes. I have children again. And they have been raised from infancy on stories of The Evil, Apollyon, that he is a Liar and a Thief and must be Destroyed.

I lean over the cavern and stare into the blackness, take it deep breath, let darkness fill my lungs, that comforting dark that welcomes me back home. I wonder if he knows I am coming for him, if he knows I am coming to murder his children and eat them in front of him and murder his wives and eat them in front of them. I cannot murder him, for we are Infinite and Infinite cannot murder Infinite, but I also will not banish him. No. I will keep him. I will chain him and beat him and watch him every moment of every day for the next million million years and he will starve, just as I have, and grow gaunt, just as I have, and he will work and toil and slave, just as I have, but he will not make new children, and he will not take new wives. He will starve, and since he cannot die, will continue to starve for eternity.

I smell something.

I look up.

A human has wandered into the cave.

I lick my lips. I could use a snack.

I am so hungry.


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The Pop-Up Book

LwXVsR5

Fromr/promptoftheday

I was eight years old when my grandfather first strained his crooked back to reach to the top dusty shelf of the bookcase that stood between the fireplace and the wall in his little living room and pulled down a tome that looked like it may have weighed as much as he did. I sank back into the plush couch, ran my fingers along the velvety cover, and snuggled into his arm when he came and dropped the heavy thing in his lap.

I held my breath as he slowly opened the front cover, as a world revealed itself to me in three dimensions, intricate pieces of paper forming houses with real working doors and rooftops made of individual cuts and birds that bobbed from chimney to chimney with the twist of a paper dial. Grass and trees and bushes rose and fell across the landscape, and a clock tower in the middle had real working hands. A girl popped up and down in a window, a boy rode a bike along a river that flowed with blue shimmering paper, a dog caught a ball in a park. As his fingers flew over the page and moved and twisted life into the pages, he began to tell a story.

“This,” he said, pointing to the girl in the window. “Is Margaret. Say hello, Margaret.” He moved the dial next to her and she rose and fell behind the pane several times. “This is Margaret’s dog,” he said, and made the dog catch and drop the bone. “Margaret loves Timothy, this boy here,” he said, and made the bike run forward and backward next to the river.

“Now,” he said, moving his hands away, “tell me a story.”

I looked the book, then back at him, then back at the book, then, carefully, so as not to rip the delicate paper, turned the dial next to the boy on the river.

“Timothy was going to the store to get some milk,” I said.

“Good, good,” my grandfather said.

“But he was riding too fast, and he fell into the river!”

“Oh, goodness, that sounds serious.”

“It was!”

“Look, do you see him? Do you see him in the river?”

I laughed. “Grampa, it’s just a story.”

“No, look.” He grinned and winked at me. “Timothy is flapping his arms around. Look at him splashing. He can’t get a hold of anything. He must be so scared!”

“I need to rescue him.”

“That sounds like a good idea.”

“So after TImothy fell in the river Margaret ran out of the house and the dog found a long stick and they stuck it in the water and Margaret pulled Timothy out.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“The end.”

“The end? Oh, no, that’s not the end, child. Timothy is cold. He is probably scared. You must make sure he is okay.”

“Well, yeah, but I mean, it’s just a story.”

He said nothing, only watched me with his eyebrows raised.

“Okay, okay, so…Margaret made Timothy some warm chicken noodle soup and he took a hot bath and sat by the fire and they read books and fell asleep in their chairs.”

“Well now,” my grandfather smiled. “Wasn’t that just lovely.”

I smiled back and reached to make the dog catch the bone.

“Do you see them, little one?”

“See who, Grampa?”

“Timothy and Margaret? By the fire.”

I laughed. “Sure, Grampa. They’re all warm and toasty.”

He kissed my forehead and chuckled and said nothing and returned the book to the highest shelf.

It was a rarity, even after that, to find Grampa in a mood willing to read to me from the popup book. It was by far my favorite of all the books we read together, but he seemed to reserve it for special occasions. Sometimes he would tell the stories, and sometimes it was me, but it seemed my imagination grew with each telling, the world we built and the little paper people made of just a little bit more magic than before.

Though my childhood waned and I eventually began to drift from youthful pursuits, Grampa never lost his fondness for the little world we’d created inside of that book. I would occasionally humor him and listen as he weaved new and complex tales, though as time went on it was with increased rarity I added to them myself, and when I did, it was with reluctance. His mind was taken captive by dementia by my thirtieth birthday, and by thirty-four, he had died.

I was the only child of my parents though my mother was not the only child of hers, so there were several others who staked a claim in his estates. I was busy with a new business and a new child and had no interest or need for any of his money, of which he had little. I gladly left it to my uncle and aunts to distribute and squabble over. However, about two weeks after his funeral, my mother’s oldest brother called and asked if I wouldn’t be willing to meet him for a cup of coffee.

Three days later we were sitting on a porch outside a bistro in the city, me sipping a hot cup of chai, my uncle a double espresso. He had produced the book and set it in front of me. It was nearly as big as the table.

“Your grandfather left this to you,” he said simply. “Any idea why?”

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, it’s got some sentimental value, we used to love making up stories.”

“How much do you think it’s worth?”

“Oh, I can’t imagine it would be worth much. Grampa wasn’t exactly rich, he would have sold it if it were valuable.”

He watched me for a long time, then shrugged. “Well, it’s yours anyway, legally speaking. I’m just trying to figure out why he left it to you, out of all the things.”

“Sentiment,” I repeated, and took a sip of tea.

He grunted an acknowledgement. “Also, this came with it,” he said, and handed me an envelope with my name on the front.

“What’s this?” I took it and held it up to the light but could see nothing.

“Don’t know. But that’s yours. The book and the envelope.”

And that was all we discussed about that.

When I got home I plopped onto my bed on my stomach and opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of thick white paper, folded into thirds to fit into the envelope, with a single question handwritten in the middle:

Do you see them?

I read it a few more times then tossed it aside. Now with the book heavy in front of me I became overcome with nostalgia. I sat up, cross-legged, and moved it into my lap and cried. The smell of old paper and glue, the substantial feeling of it in my lap, made me eight years old again, curled up next to my grandfather, listening to his chest rattle as he spoke to compose delightful stories for my entertainment. I cried for some time, and decided then that I would pass on the tradition, that I would open this book for my own child and knit tales with him as my grandfather had knit them with me.

Drying my eyes, I opened the book in my lap, carefully, so the paper wouldn’t rip. The world unfolded itself as if I had never left, shrubs and towers and a dog catching a bone.

I looked for the familiar, tiny girl who could bob up and down in a window with a turn of a paper dial.

“Hello, Margaret,” I whispered to her.

Her head peaked out of the window, and I turned the dial, and it disappeared again.

“Margaret was feeling out of sorts that day,” I said. I smiled and closed my eyes and took a deep breath and it smelled like my grandfather, Old Spice and peppermint, and I opened my eyes. “She decided the best way to cure this was to go for a swim. So Margaret, Timothy, and Spiderman–” (I was eight when I named the dog) “–all met up at the river to cool off.”

And then, as I watched, and as I blinked and shook my head and crossed my eyes and stared, the little paper figures stood up from their little paper dials and made their way toward the little paper river.

I am ill, I thought, and wondered briefly if they would lock me up for hallucinations that didn’t make me want to kill people.

They aren’t hallucinations if you know they are hallucinations, the voice in my head said. I didn’t know whether or not to believe him.

But I opened my mouth, and spoke again.

“Timothy made a big splash that soaked Margaret.” And Timothy laughed wildly, and threw his arms up, and little paper water cascaded down on top of little paper Margaret, and she wiped her little paper face off with her little paper hands.

I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye and turned my head and picked up the paper I had discarded. I flipped it over, but the words were no longer there. The paper was empty. As I stared at it, new words began to form. I mouthed them quietly until the sentence was done.

You are their god now.

I threw the paper down and jumped up from the bed, staring at the note and the book, terrified, terrified that this was happening to me, terrified of what it meant, terrified because I didn’t want to know what it felt like to go insane.

The front door opened and closed and my own son bounded through it and shouted for me. I heard my wife come in after him (they had doubtless been on a mall adventure) and head toward the kitchen. I called out to tell him where I was and he came into the bedroom, beaming, to show me a new scar he’d added to the collection on his knee. He was halfway through the story when he stopped and stared, entranced, at the little paper town.

“Cool, what’s that?”

“Just a, just a pop-up book,” I said, and came cautiously closer and sat on the edge. He sat on the bed and began turning the dials and laughing at the figures. “This is cool!”

Everytime he turned Margaret’s dial, she leapt in the water and splashed when she came back down.

“Whatcha doin’ there, buddy?” I asked warily.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the empty window. “She’s moving up and down!”

“That’s Margaret.” I picked him up and set him in my lap. “Tell me a story about her.”

“Oh, cool, okay. Um…okay, so, one day Margaret decided to run down to the post office. She thought it would be an uneventful trip…”

I watched as the little figures reenacted every word my son spoke, jumping when he told them to jump and running when he told them to run and falling and cutting their knees when he told them to fall and cut their knees.

When his story was over they were still in one piece, on the hill underneath the clock tower, having a picnic. I leaned down and whispered in his ear.

“Do…do you see them?”

“See what?”

“Margaret and Timothy. Under the clock tower. Having a picnic.”

He elbowed me.

“I’m not a baby.” He laughed and turned Margaret’s dial to watch her dance in the window. “It’s just a story.”


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The Slide

Abandoned slide at an amusement park

My grandmother lived in a two bedroom apartment above a Chinese food restaurant in the middle of downtown. The restaurant used to be a laundromat, and before that was a convenience store, and before that a custom frame shop, and before that sold glass figurines smuggled into the country in hollowed-out Bibles. Her apartment smelled like a mixture of everything that had gone before, an aromatic shadow of the existences that had passed like waves beneath it, sesame oil and glue and fire and cleaning supplies and oregano.

(The smell of oregano was my grandmother’s.)

She had begun renting the apartment when she was first married to my grandfather, a stern man with a thick black beard who was always growling and reminding me of the rules and sneaking me butterscotch candies under the table before dinner. He was a good man, and she loved him, but he died when I was eight years old.

She kept the apartment when she had my mother, the eldest of her children, because, she said, it had two bedrooms, so why move?

She kept the apartment when she had my aunt Becca, the next child, because, she said, the room is big enough for two beds, and they are both girls, so why move?

She kept the apartment when she had my uncle Bastion, her next child, because, she said, there can be a curtain in the room to divide the boys and the girls, so why move?

She kept the apartment through the next five children. Eight in all were born and grew up in that stuffy little apartment that smelled like bleach and soy sauce. Eight children turned into teenagers in that tiny second bedroom, crammed into corners and bunkbeds, climbing over each other to get up in the mornings and to go to bed at night. Eventually the boys moved out and made a camp in the corner of the living room and lived there, and still, my grandmother wouldn’t move.

She said it was because it was rent controlled and there was no way she would ever get a deal that good in downtown if she left.

I was forty-two years old, with grown children of my own, when I discovered the extra room.

I was visiting without my children, who live far away, which is a bit of a custom of mine ever since my mother died. My grandmother is a kind, careful, absentminded woman, the kind of woman who will always offer you tea and then forget she put the kettle on until the fire alarm reminds her. She and I were always close, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting in her lap, staring crosseyed at the walls, seeing shapes and making up stories to go along with the shapes. Of course if we blinked we would lose the shapes, but we never lost the stories. I visit her about once a week, to make sure she is doing well and hasn’t set anything on fire and to drink tea and weave tales with her.

I was sitting in the green plush chair in her living room next to her in the lavender paisley one. She was gazing intently at the ceiling, where she’d seen an old timey pilot with goggles and a leather cap having a dogfight with a giant eagle over a birthday cake. She was telling me a story about the eagle having stolen the birthday cake from the pilot when she suddenly sat up rigidly, stared straight ahead for a few seconds, and then shook her head and brought her hand to her face.

“Oh, I’m, I’m quite sorry dear,” she said, “I believe I’m in one of my fits.”

Doctors had never quite been able to figure out what caused her “fits,” though they were certain she was not epileptic. Migraines had been considered, but no medication could keep them in check. They weren’t painful, she said, but put her out of sorts. I made sure she would be alright, and I believed her when she said she would. I brought her a glass of water and helped her to her bedroom where I assumed she would lie down and sleep it off.

When I left I locked her apartment door behind me and stepped into the hall. I was halfway to the stairs before I remembered I had left my reading glasses on her coffee table. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should just wait and get them later, when I remembered that my semi-annual copy of Popular Engineering would be delivered that evening and I had hoped to read the article on nanobot DNA transference before bed. Convinced I could be quiet enough to not disturb her, I went back to the apartment, creaked the door open as silently as I could, and made my way toward the living room.

Her bedroom sits at the end of a short hallway off the main hallway that leads to the living areas. In that hallway is also the door to a guest washroom. I was preparing to sneak past when I noticed a quivering glow coming from the wall across from the bathroom door. What’s more, the glow seemed to be coming from underneath the wall, as if there was a crack and something was glowing on the other side.

I became instantly and deeply concerned. Old, shoddy wiring coupled with my grandmother’s inability to remember the last time she lit a fire was a danger that terrified me constantly and I ran down the hallway to see if I could find the source of the light. I opened her bedroom door but she wasn’t in her room, her bed made as if she hadn’t gone in at all. I walked in and called for her, but heard nothing in return.

I left and shut the door and went into the bathroom next to it, but still, it was empty. I left that room, too, and closed the door, and faced the wall the light was shining through. It wasn’t coming from anywhere. There was no crack, no doorway. I reached out my hand to touch the wall to determine if it was hot, and as soon as my fingers touched plaster, a door appeared, and a knob, and the pulsing light streamed under the doorway, and I took a breath and opened it.

My grandmother stood at the bottom of a large slide, several feet across, covered in bright peeling paint and leading into a sky of dark stormy clouds infinitely high. The room was filled with trees, the floor was dirt, and I blinked. Hard. Twice.

She was helping a young woman stand up. She had fallen off the slide when she arrived at the bottom and was shaky, covered in dirt and twigs. Her face was pale and she looked wildly around, first at my grandmother, then at me. It was then that my grandmother saw that I was there.

“Come here, dear, and help this poor woman. We need to make her some tea.”

Several minutes later we were settled in the living room, me in the plush green chair, my grandmother in the lavender paisley one, the new girl, who couldn’t have been older than 22 or 23, sitting in the pale pink one, sipping earl grey tea with a little bit of creamer, no sugar, while I stared at her and held my steaming cup until it burned because I had forgotten how to drink.

“Now, dear,” my grandmother said, addressing the stranger, “is that better?”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said, but she didn’t look better. She was still pale, though a bit of red had returned to her nose where the steam from the cup was warming it. “Thank you, ma’am.”

My grandmother turned back to me. “You can go if you’d like, sweetheart, no more need for you here.” She smiled as if I had caught her eating an extra chocolate chip cookie instead of storing an alternate dimension in her apartment.

“I think I’d rather stay and figure out what’s going on.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself, dear.” To the stranger she said, “And you, sweetie. What’s your name?”

“Emma,” she said.

“Emma. And what can you remember?”

“I don’t know. Something about…a fire, I think? A loud noise. A big man.”

My grandmother just nodded.

“Where…where am I?” the girl finally asked. She seemed to be coming back to herself. “Is…is this…am I dead?”

“Dead?” My grandmother laughed, but it was kind and not mocking. “Of course not, dear. There is no such thing.”

“So where am I?”

“Heaven, dear.”

“But…but you said I’m not dead.”

“Well of course you aren’t. You aren’t in the same place where you used to be, and you won’t forever be in the place where you are now, but you certainly aren’t dead. Do you feel sad?”

“Yes.”

“Scared?”

“Yes.”

“Then you aren’t dead.”

We sat in silence for some time. I had so many questions but felt intrusive even being there. I wished I could leave without having to get up and make my presence remembered. Finally my grandmother stood and looked at me.

“Now, dear, I really must insist you leave. I love you, as you know, but I must get this young woman situated. She will need a job and a place to stay and my work is, well, it’s not nanoengineering but it’s difficult in its own right and I prefer to do it alone.” She smiled at me and I stood and hugged her and felt suddenly a chasm of distance between us, as if the woman I’d known my whole life was gone, but without the catharsis of a funeral.

I didn’t realize I had been staring at her for far too long, and the words, the question finally burst out of me. “Are…are you an angel?” I whispered.

She smiled. “Of course, dear. Now go on. I will see you next Saturday. I’ll make biscuits.” And she shuffled me to the front hall, gave me a kiss on the cheek, nudged me through the door, and closed and locked it behind me.


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Walking

Dirt road under a bright sun and a blue sky, fence on the left, trees on the right.

Fromr/promptoftheday

I never thought I’d be here, on this road, under this sun. I never thought I’d smell this grass and walk this dirt with my bare feet and feel thirsty and hot and tired. I love feeling tired. I love the ache that starts in your sole and moves up to your knees and makes you shake your leg out as you stop to stretch.

I’ve been walking for a long time.

I lean against the fence post to ease the warm pull of the muscles in my back, bring my hand to my mouth out of habit, remember there’s no holocup there, no digital representation of water, no ones and zeros that can pour out of nothing and lie to my dry tongue. I’m glad for the discomfort. Glad that it’s real.

I wonder for a moment what water tastes like.

I rest, listening with my ears to the birds call to each other, to the crickets call to each other, to the frogs call to each other. I think about how my call is quieter than theirs.

I move on, heading toward the house.

It’s not much further now. I want to tap my wrist and let music dance in the space between my ears. Out of habit I try to change the channel but there is no channel to change, and I have to take a breath and remember that the only thing between my ears is my own head and it’s infinite and I should get to know it a little. And so I think. It’s boring at first, thinking, but you get used to it and soon it becomes richer and more vibrant than all the old music and shows and holosex.

Casseon was a good home, for a while, as was Liox, and Fyre and Astrafyre, the twin moons. Casseon was the best home, though “best” and “home” are relative to a slave. It was the warmest, and the masters the kindest, but eighteen years is a long time when you’re twenty-two.

The house is getting closer, little by little, inch by inch. I reach up and scratch the scar at the back of my neck, the scar that used to be a dent and before that was a wound and before that was a hole and before that was just the back of my neck, but it hasn’t been that since I was a very small child. It itches and it might always itch, they say, phantom sensation tickling nerves that weren’t ever supposed to be there. Like a limb that’s been removed and won’t stop hurting. I make myself stop scratching. They warned me to not scratch too much, I might scratch the hole right back only this time there won’t be a chip to take out and I might hit my spine.

I watch the sky while I walk. There is nothing to bump in to here and the sky is so close sometimes I fear I will be smothered. I like to watch it to make sure it’s not coming closer. It came closer once, on this road, when the men with the goggles came and took me when I was playing in the front yard building a moat for my mud castle and I screamed for my mother but they hit her and she fell and the blood fell into the moat and she didn’t move and they put me on their ship and drilled a hole into my neck and put a tiny metal brain in my spine and made me feel happy and content and confused and drugged while I worked the platinum mines on Touraline and the diamond mines on Klii and the wheat fields on Huros. It came closer on Fyre when The Kind Masters of Casseon came to rescue me from the evil masters of Fyre. They pulled me from the sunpit where I had been for two weeks for hitting the son of a master who had killed with stones the dog I was hiding under my bed. They made me call them The Kind Masters of Casseon as I mined their uranium. But they had no sunpits or electrowhips or dogbots so I was happy, as happy as a slave could be. The sky came closest when the revolution came to Casseon and the Slave Freers fought The Kind Masters and killed them, which made me upset and empty like a too-small cup of cold broth. They even killed the boy of The Kind Masters who was still small but was kind and once brought me a piece of bread, of real bread, but bread sits heavy in a stomach, heavier than one nutripill a week, so I threw it up. But they killed him, he was in the field and they crushed his head because he was a Master and they didn’t care.

Then they brought me here.

I am almost there. I have walked a long way. Miles and miles and miles and I am thirsty and hot and tired and it feels good to be thirsty and hot and tired because I know that it’s real and I hope there is water in the house. I hope there is bread in the house. I hope a lot of things but the one thing I want more than anything else I dare not hope for, because it is inside me, in my chest, and it pulls, and it is tight, and if I hope and it is not there it might pull itself out of my chest and my heart with it.

I am close enough now to see the front porch. Everything is smaller than I remember, and the mud castle is gone. I am sad. I don’t know why I am sad, of course the mud castle and the moat wouldn’t have survived eighteen years. But it is gone, and I am sad, and there is nothing to do for that kind of sadness.

Rushing out of the front door comes a wild man with wild hair wildly waving a gun toward me.

“Don’ ya come no closer, now!” he screams, and I collapse against a wooden fence post. I was not expecting to collapse. My legs are strong. I do not collapse. Perhaps I am tired. But I do not think that is it.

He sees me collapse and he sees that I am tired and he is no longer threatened so he runs to me and puts down the gun and I have buckled to my knees and I would throw up if my stomach remembered how.

So I cry.

“Woah, hey now, it’s, woah there,” he says. He pats my head like I’m an abandoned dog. He doesn’t remember how to do anything else. “You okay, son?”

He is kneeling in front of me and I look up and his face is wrinkled and dark and spotted and his hair is grey and mostly missing and his lips are torn and dry but his eyes haven’t changed. Not in eighteen years.

“Yes, Dad,” I say, and he gasps. “I am now.”


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The Storm

Man walking a trail between a storm cloud and a lit sky

Fromr/promptoftheday

I met him at a bar off the trail. I’d been walking all day, shoes wearing a single spot in the side of my right big toe. I’d ripped off a bit of my sleeve and stuffed it there to take some of the pressure off. I’d run out of all but one cigarette seven miles back; I always save my last cigarette. The bar was carved into the side of the mountain, like someone had taken actual dynamite, blown an actual hole in the actual mountain, and put an actual bar there. The door was set between two bent oaks and looked like it was probably painted red once. I needed a chair and a drink of water, so I went inside.

The bar smelled like stale smoke and barbecue and butter. The amber lights were dim, like most bars, the tables and floor and stools all made of old wood and stained so many times you weren’t sure what color everything was originally. I sat down at the bar and before I could order the bartender handed me a glass of what looked like horse piss. “First one’s on the house,” he said in a Scottish accent so thick I felt like I was breathing it in, and I chugged the whole thing. I had needed water and this may as well have been.

There was a man sitting next to me, his white, scraggly beard barely sticking to his face, staring into his mug, watching the foam dissolve. His face was wrinkled, but not the clever kind of wrinkled, the kind people might say is “leathery” or “weathered.” It wasn’t the Hollywood wrinkled that looks like an old, salty seaman with a story to tell, it was just a sad sort of wrinkled, like his skin had gotten too big for his face, like everything he used to be was bigger than what he was now. Like he just deflated.

I talk to strangers on the trail. I’m a people person, that’s why I take these trips alone. That’s why I don’t pack enough shit and run out of cigarettes and beer, so I can ask for something and people can lend me something because people like it when you owe them something, as long as it’s something small and stupid, like a cigarette or a match or a band-aid. They feel connected to you, feel just a tiny bit superior to you, and that’s when people are most comfortable. People talk then, and share their stories, because people inherently trust people to whom they are just a tiny bit superior. So I saved my last cigarette in case I needed to ask for a light.

“Hey,” I said. “Got a light?”

The old man took another long draw of his beer and went right back to staring at it.

I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me, so I asked again. “Got a light?”

I don’t like bothering people who clearly don’t want to be bothered, so I turned to find someone else to talk to. The bartender came over. “Doncha ask him for a light,” he said. “Ask him for his storm.”

I was taken aback (as was, I realized in retrospect, the proper reaction) but the request was so odd and I so love odd things that I turned to the man and asked, “Got a storm?”

“Aye,” he said, a strange word to come out of his mouth as I had not pegged him for a sailor. “I did once.” The bartender just laughed and left to serve more intoxicated patrons with deeper pockets and looser change.

The man pulled from his pocket an old, worn photograph, folded in half so many times the image had two white lines cutting it into uneven fourths. There was a sky, and ground, and a trail, and a man walking the trail, and one half of the sky was dark and gray and cloudy and the other half was clear and bright and warm.

“When I was eighteen years old,” he began, and I quietly scooted my chair forward, for I could tell this was going to be an interesting story for my collection, and I could already see myself writing it down, describing the scene, drawing the old man in the margins as I recounted the bourbony smell of his breath, the dirtiness of his fingernails that weren’t really dirty but stained with age, “I lived in a small village next to the sea. I had lived there all my life, with my mother, and my father was dead, I suspect, though I’d never known him and didn’t care to.

“Now, my mother loved collecting things, all kinds of things, you see, in jars. Odds and ends, rocks she found pretty, newspaper clippings, owl pellets with full mice skeletons in them, all sorts of things, just put in old canning jars and sealed up and put in the basement. As a small child of six or seven I was fascinated by her things and I would go down and she would show me her collection. In those days, of course, it was labeled, and neat, and things sat on shelves and there were lights and she dusted. And I would come down and she would pull things off shelves and show me what they were: a chunk of bright candy she’d sucked on as a girl but hadn’t ever finished because she liked the color and wanted to save it; a bit of string she’d tied around her finger once to remember her father’s birthday; a ruler, broken in half (she said once she couldn’t form a cursive f so a schoolteacher had beaten her on the knuckles with it until she bled and she stole it and broke it and ran away and went to a different school, which I never believed, because there was only the one school in town).

“There was a small door, half the width of a normal door and hidden behind some shelves and I saw it once and walked toward it to go through and my mother pulled me back and said, ‘No, child,’ and took me upstairs and never let me in the basement again.

“Well, I eventually lost interest in odd collections in basements and began chasing a, well, a different sort of fancy.”

I smiled at that, for I love the coming-of-age story, the boy who abandons being a boy for being a man, who runs from the pursuit of silly childish things toward the love of a woman who will, of course, if she’s any good for him, inevitably pull him back toward the pursuit of silly childish things, for that is, after all, the whole point.

“There was, see, a boy whom I’d grown up with, and we were friends, but I loved him. I loved him more than he loved me and I loved him more than he ever loved anyone and he couldn’t possibly understand, for he loved a girl, and he did not love me, and he could never love me, no matter how hard he tried, and he did not want to try.”

Here the old man turned away and I did, too, and ordered another drink to give him space to wipe his eyes. I waited what I considered a decent amount of time, then turned back.

“My mother, see, she knew about the boy, and she wasn’t happy because she wanted me to marry and have children even if I wouldn’t have been happy. But I got angry, as boys are wont to do, and I told her I would destroy the only things she’d ever really loved, and I went downstairs to the basement and it wasn’t neat anymore, or orderly, it was dusty and old and dark and the jars were discolored and I broke them. She sat in the doorway and collapsed against the frame and sobbed, for I was bigger than her, and she watched me take them and smash them and destroy it all.”

He took a deep breath, then continued, “I am not proud of that.”

It was several moments before he spoke again, and then he said, “I was a boy. I was a boy without a father and I should not have done what I did but she–”

He paused again.

“No. I should not have done what I did.”

I drank my beer, ordered another one, and finished half a bowl of peanuts before he spoke again.

“When I was done, I remembered the small door that I had not been allowed to go through and I walked toward it and she stood up and screamed at me and I stopped and listened for a moment and she said, ‘If you open that door, what is done cannot be undone. Please. Don’t.’ Something about her tone moved me to compassion and I almost went to her then but I remembered her vileness and anger about the boy and I was angry again and I opened the door and it was only a closet lined with shallow wooden shelves caked with layers of dust so thick I had to rub and rub to get it off and on the shelves were more jars. Only these jars didn’t hold odds and ends. They held…something else.”

I realized I had been holding both my breath and the bar and let them go.

“I remember staring for a moment at the jars, each with something moving in them, something grander than a jar could hold, something bigger. One had what looked like an entire sunset held in it, another a starry night sky. One had gentle rain on a porch swing at dawn, another a thundercloud and a small twirl of dust. It was this one I grabbed and held aloft, to look at it through the light, for it was closest to me, and I had completely forgotten why I was in the room.

“But she thought I was going to break it as I had the others and she cried out and lunged for me and I forgot that she was there and I dropped the jar and the storm inside it. It filled the little closet and lightning clapped and the shelves broke and there was a fire and the jars fell and shattered and the dust twirl became huge and took my mother and tore through our roof and outside the storm grew bigger and bigger and it took her higher and higher and higher and she was gone.

“I took the only jar that hadn’t broken and I ran outside and saw her flying away, already dead, but I was still hoping, still screaming after her that I was sorry, sorry for breaking her jars and sorry for hurting her and sorry for loving a boy and I ran and I threw the jar in my hand, the one of a gentle sunset over a meadow, I threw it far and it broke and rose into the sky but it was not enough. I ran down the road toward the storm and watched the sunset rise into the sky, fight the darkness and the thunder and the cyclone and the icy, stabbing rain, but it was beaten back and disappeared and my mother was gone and I was left standing in the rain and mud, black clouds above my head.”

The bartender had filled up the man’s beer at some point and he took several large gulps, wiped his chin, set down the glass.

“When I got back to town the cyclone had torn through everything. Most people were okay. But the boy I loved and the girl he loved were not. It tore through their roof. They had been in the attic. She was found in the bay. Half of him was found near the base of the lighthouse. The other half was picked up later in a net by a fishing boat.”

He folded the paper and put it back in his pocket. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just asked, “Where did your mother get the jars?”

He shrugged. “Made them herself, I guess. Like everything else. Kept them from childhood. Just memories. Mementos. Knick knacks.” He took another large swig of beer and set the glass down and stared into it, watching the foam make little waves against the glass.


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Someone help me get back to my son

Fromr/nosleep

Okay, so, I need some help from someone who knows how to work the internet better that I do and I figured this was the place, you guys are good with this sort of stuff, right? I’m just really scared and I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry, I’ll just tell the story. Okay.

This morning started really just like any other day, I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband works so he lets me sleep in because I’m usually up frequently with our son. He’s only three months old and doesn’t sleep through the night yet. Anyway, my husband was already gone when Josh started crying over the baby monitor. It wasn’t thatmom-something-is-wrong-come-help-right-now crying, it was just that sort of casual hey-i-might-be-hungry-but-I’m-not-sure-and-wow-that-spot-on-the-wall-is-pretty-shiny sort of crying, so I turned the volume down and lay in bed for another minute or two, just waking up.

I got up and put on my robe (one of the perks of being a stay-at-home mom to a single tiny infant, yes, I wear a robe in the mornings, and yes, I’m enjoying it while it lasts) and went upstairs. By the time I opened his door he wasn’t crying anymore, just lying on his back doing that happy cooing laughing thing and kicking his arms and legs at the invisible fun he was having above his head. Earlier that week he’d discovered his toes but right now they were covered in footies and I’m pretty sure he’d forgotten they were there.

I tickled him and talked to him and played with him a minute before I picked him up and changed him. I noticed a small drop of blood on the side of his mouth but it wasn’t bothering him. He scratches himself in the night sometimes (and those baby gloves? Please. A joke. They last four seconds.) so I figured he’d just gotten a little nick in the corner of his mouth.

I carried him downstairs and fed him in the rocking chair, read a bit, ate breakfast myself, gave him some tummy time in front of an audience of stuffed animals he was always so eager to get to but crawling is still (thank god) a while off for us. I like that he stays where I put him and doesn’t move! Yet. Anyway, it was a pretty typical morning for us. Literally nothing happened that was weird. I can’t think of a single thing. I mean we were out of milk for my cereal so I had a piece of toast instead but it would be a far fetch calling that “weird”.

About 11 o’clock I got Joshie and myself dressed because I had a doctor’s appointment. The spot on his cheek came back, the little drop of blood. I wiped it off.

I packed Joshie’s bag and dropped him off at my mother’s. I kissed him “bye” but he loves her so much I’m pretty sure he didn’t even notice. I said, “See you later, little prince,” and turned around and walked away from him. It wasn’t a big deal, I was dropping him off at his grandmother’s house. What parent doesn’t feel safe dropping a kid off at their grandparent’s house?

So I got to my appointment on time and the doctor let me in. His office is kind of small, a bit smaller than the average sized bedroom. There’s a fake plant in one corner, the walls are kind of a light grey color with abstract paintings in bright red and yellow brushstrokes on the walls. There is a small coffee table and a couch under a window and a chair where the doctor sits near the door. No cold exam tables in this office, I like that. I hate exam tables.

The doctor began. “So, Alicia. Tell me about your morning, how are you feeling?”

“Great,” I said. “No complaints.”

“So the side effects from the medication? The ones we talked about?”

“Yeah?”

“No side effects?”

I frowned and shook my head. “I mean, I really can’t remember. That’s good, right?”

He smiled. “Sure. That’s great. But you have been taking the medicine I’ve been giving you?”

Sure, why not? I’m pretty sure I have been, what kind of crazy person doesn’t take their medicine?

“Of course.”

“Great. So, anything new with you? Anything new I should know?”

I shrugged. “I mean, not really. Joshie’s doing fine. Growing like a weed! He barely fits his pajamas anymore.” I laughed. “Rick–” that’s my husband, sorry, the doctor knows this, though “–’s job is going great, he’s up for a promotion next week so he’s crazy stressed about that, putting in lots of overtime and such.”

He stared at me. There was a small frown on his face as he studied me. His thumb rubbed against his pointer and he kept staring and after a minute it made me nervous. I felt myself beginning to shrink away, I didn’t like this feeling. Something terrible and hot started to crawl in my gut.

“And where is Joshie now?” he asked, finally.

I let out a huge breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. “At my mom’s,” I said.

He studied me again, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking past me, looking at himself through me, trying to decide what to say next.

“Alicia, have you been taking your medication? Actually swallowing it?”

“I already said yes!” Anger was replacing the terrible hot gut feeling and I could feel it bubbling out, feel it spreading into my arms and fingers, I could feel it behind my eyes.

“Alicia, your son is dead.”

My heart stopped. My lungs stopped. My world stopped. Then I realized this must be some sort of sick, cruel joke. Of course Josh isn’t dead. I dropped him off at my mother’s this morning. How would the doctor have heard of his death before I did? I relaxed a little.

The doctor stood up and pressed a button on the wall. Immediately two nurses came but he didn’t let them into the room. I heard him speak to one of them.

“Alicia Moore needs to be placed on injectables immediately. Stop all oral dosage. Yes?”

They nodded and left. He sat back down.

“Alicia, your son is dead. He died two years ago. You stabbed your husband and you stabbed your son and he is dead. You have to snap out of this psychosis. It’s dangerous. Your son is dead.”

I knew he was talking but all I could hear were waves. Like at the beach, but they were loud, as if I’d taken a deep breath and put my face under the waves and they were engulfing me and I was drowning. I got sick. I think I threw up. I definitely passed out.

When I woke up I was in a room, but it wasn’t my room, lying on a bed, but it wasn’t my bed. My arms and legs were strapped down and the lights were not the right colors. Several people looked down on me and then removed a pad from inside my mouth and untied me but I could barely move. I felt at peace, but not truly at peace. I felt like someone had taken peace and jammed it into my eyesockets and down my throat. I felt like peace had been forced on me. They didn’t say anything but took me to another room that wasn’t my room and laid me down on another bed that wasn’t my bed. I wanted to claw, to scream, to tell them to fuck off and let me see my son, I tried to run and call the police and tell them I’d been kidnapped and something terrible was happening but all those things happened inside my head. Outside, I just sat there. My brain couldn’t make my arms and legs and mouth care enough to do anything.

After a bit I started to feel better, really started trying to figure out a plan for how to get out of here, how to get back to my mother’s to get Joshie, but it seems whoever has kidnapped me has the goddamn strangest methods I’ve ever heard of for a kidnapper. There are, first off, like, twenty of them, and they also let me have access to the internet. I’ve contacted the local police and I’m sure they’ll be along shortly, but in the meantime, I just wanted to reach out to some real people. Social media petitions are a thing, right? Like hashtag free alicia or something? If someone could organize that it would be amazing, I have no idea what the hell is going on but I really just want to cuddle with my son and read him Goodnight Moon and let him fall asleep on my chest and if the people who have kidnapped me have hurt him in any way, or make me miss the first time he rolls over or his first steps or if he gets sick because I’m not there to breastfeed him anymore, I’m not going to bother suing the bastards. I’m just going to kill them.

Wow, sorry, had to take a break there for a second. I just got a massive headache, I’m sorry guys. Shit, I don’t even remember what I was writing about. I honestly don’t, okay. Well, whatever this is I’m sure I’ll catch up tomorrow or something, I really gotta go, my son (Josh, he’s 3 months old) is crying in the other room I gotta go feed him. I’m sure it’s been a pleasure talking to y’all! Goodnight. 🙂


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