Morning Maintenance

A silhouette of a tank with a man standing on it. It is in front of a sunrise.

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image CreditSgt. Emmanuel Ramos

“What’s that?”

The old man looked down at the young girl, perhaps six, maybe seven, with dark curly hair haphazardly tied back with a blue ribbon that was coming loose. Her bike was pink, and dirty, and a pink balloon was tied to the handle. The man blinked, and she was still there.

“What’s that thing?”

The old man turned away from her and sighed. The most sophisticated technology in the entire world and they couldn’t keep a little girl out of the line. He stood tall on the massive machine, long brush in his hand, moving it up and down, toward himself, then toward the sky, as high as he could reach, as he wiped the glue paper down onto its panel, light pinks and oranges and yellows drifting across.

He didn’t answer her.

“Hey, mister!” she called, louder, as if she was sure he was just deaf and not ignoring her on purpose. That self centeredness of childhood, that assumption that children have that everything they do is always the thing everyone else will be interested in, is probably one of the main reasons humanity managed to propagate itself instead of eating their young. How do you kill something that self assured?

“What’s that?” she called again.

He sighed and finished the panel. Clouds drifted backward into the third dimension and merged with the other panels he’d already finished. He prepared the next sheet.

“What’s what?” he yelled down, not watching her.

“That thing you’re standing on.”

He touched a lever with his foot and the machine inched forward, then stopped. He applied the glue and began, again, for the millionth time, wiping the panel up, up, up, toward the sky, sticking it down.

“A tank,” he said, wishing she’d go away.

“What’s a tank?” she asked.

He could hear the wheels on her bike creaking forward, inch by inch. She wasn’t leaving. He glanced at his watch. He only had twenty minutes until sunrise, and still eight panels left to do.

“I’m busy,” he called.

“What’s a tank?” she asked, louder.

“It’s a big car they used to kill people,” he said. Maybe if he answered her questions, she’d go away.

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“Why’d they want to kill people?”

“Oh, who knows,” he said, cursing under his breath as a bit of glue squeezed out of a seam. He wrestled with the scraper and got it off before a cloud got stuck. “They wanted something, they were mad. People was always killin’ people.”

“Was?”

“Well, yes. Before the monsters came.”

She didn’t speak again for a minute, and the man was giddy with the thought that his story may have scared her off, but when he went to get another panel, and moved the tank forward another few inches, he saw her still standing there.

“What monsters?” she asked.

“Oh, you know the monsters, girl.” Now she was just being annoying, or stupid. Maybe she was stupid. You should never be mean to people who are stupid and can’t help it, he knew this at least. He sighed again, and resolved to explain.

“The monsters, child. The monsters that came and ate the sky.”

“What monsters?” she said again.

Yes. She was definitely stupid.

“A long, long time ago,” he said, grunting with every strained syllable as he pushed the broom higher and higher, made the panel stick as far up as he could reach, “before I was born, and before my father was born, and before his father was born, monsters came. They came and they were hungry and they ate the whole sky. Lots of people died, and that’s why I have to come, every morning, and put the sky back on. Because they ate it.”

“What do they look like?” she asked, pushing her bike closer to the massive machine. “Were they very big?”

“Oh, no, girl, no, not at all. They were very small. So small that you would never see them coming.”

“Did they have big teeth?”

“No, not particularly.”

“Were their teeth sharp?”

“I don’t believe they even had teeth at all.”

“Well…what did they look like?”

He stopped brushing for a moment, and cocked his head as if trying to remember. One stops paying attention to stories such as these when one is old. One forgets the details.

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “But I don’t think they were particularly scary. Just small, and very hungry. They ate the whole sky, and then they all left, and lots of people died.”

“But it’s better now,” the girl said.

“Oh, yes.” He finished the panel, and scooted forward, and grabbed the next one, and began to roll it out. He looked at his watch. Only eight minutes left, but only two panels. Plenty of time. “Much better now. Now we glue the morning sky on every morning, and the night sky on every night, and it’s better.”

“And they are all gone?”

“Yes.”

“If you don’t know what they look like, how do you know they are all gone?”

He glanced down at her. She was just below him now, almost too close to the tank. He didn’t like her questions. He didn’t care if she was stupid, he wanted her to go away. He finished his panel, and scooted forward, and began the next one.

“Because we just know,” he said. She didn’t say much for a minute, and he finished gluing the last strip onto his section of the sky. He stepped back and admired his work. The sunrise was beautiful, and clouds floated listlessly in and out of the treeline. He put his hands on his hips and smiled. He would get down from the tank and have a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise, then begin to prepare for the night maintenance, and the strips of sky that were deep and dark and sprinkled with the little white dots of burning gas far, far away.

“It’s beautiful,” the girl said, and he looked down, and she was smiling a little smile.

He smiled back.

“Thank you, dear,” he said.

“No,” she said, and opened her mouth wide, and wider, and wider, and he saw that she had no teeth. “Thank you.”

And she took one delicious bite, and ate his sky.


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The Lightning War

lightningstorm

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image CreditReddit User Muziklover

“Storm’s comin,” I say.

“Yep,” says Oak.

We are cold, but we won’t build a fire. We are hungry, but we won’t hunt.

“How long?” I say.

“No tellin’,” says Oak.

He sits on a wet log in the middle of a field, as far from trees and what used to be utility poles as he can get. I sit next to him. He’s older than me, and more experienced, and higher ranking, but at this point, it doesn’t fucking matter.

He has taken his rifle apart six times.

He’s nervous. I don’t like it when he’s nervous. I’m supposed to be nervous. I’m supposed to be green and pissing in my boots and getting advice. He’s supposed to be salty and seasoned and spitting tobacco in the face of danger.

He doesn’t.

He cleans nonexistent dirt out of his rifle, scrubbing the inside until I’m afraid he might affect the integrity of the barrel.

As if it could possibly make any difference.

I watch him, cleaning endlessly, just needing something to do, and wonder how long it will take for us to die.

A year ago I didn’t wonder shit like this. I didn’t wonder how long it would take to die because I didn’t think I would. We had a squad then, and platoons and battalions and brigades and an army. We had weapons and uniforms and training centers and we were winning.

We were winning.

What the fuck happened.

He puts the rifle back together. Scopes it. Puts it down. Sighs. Picks it up. Begins to disassemble.

“What if they get here and your weapon’s in twenty pieces?”

He ignored me.

It’d be faster, is what he’s thinking.

I’ll never forget the first time the sky opened up. I was stationed with Charlie-Seven-Two-Delta down south of the fringe line. We were piloting drones built by engineers trained at RireTech and Yars. They had robots that looked like a seventh grader’s science project. They just knew they would win, like toddlers playing hide and seek with their parents, sure we would pretend not to see them until they could run out and touch base.

We were a defensive position, so we waited. That’s all we did. We weren’t scared or even a little nervous. We were highly trained and highly equipped and they wouldn’t attack us. It would have been suicide. We drank cold beer and ate warm meat and slept whenever we wanted.

The post cried out late one evening. We scrambled out of bed and went outside and he was on fire. He screamed as he burned and fled from the camp and fell down in a field and died.

It was raining, big, heavy, needle like drops that stung as they came down.  Lightning struck a mile away, then half a mile, then in our camp. It hit a soldier next to me who shook and smoldered and fell down and didn’t get back up.

We scattered.

Some ran into the fields and the lightning found them.

Some ran into the trees and the lightning found them.

I ran into a tunnel with half the squad and the captain. The lightning didn’t find us.

How they managed to make the storm, we never found out. Whether they made the lightning or simply controlled it, we never knew. All we knew was that it took them less than six months to completely obliterate our entire army, without losing a single drone, without us ever seeing a single soldier.

The burned our country to the ground.

All we wanted was to make people happy. We had medicines and literacy and progress. We had real food and technology. We weren’t trying to ruin their lives, we were trying to help them.

Fucking savages.

His gun is back together.

He sets it in his lap this time, arm resting on it gently, and looks up at the sky.

Drops of rain hit his face. Soft, warm drops, the kind that make you want to open your mouth and drink the pure heavens.

He closes his eyes and breathes deep and knows that it’s over, but he will try. He will fire his gun into the clouds as if he can stop the lightning.

We have come above ground to die.

Six months before the war a group of settlers died on Pantoa. They said we poisoned their food. We were trying to help them not poison them. Of course we’re going to test vaccines before we distribute them to the entire population.

Seven hundred and fifty-two children died.

Eleven million took up arms.

How could we lose? We were superior in every way.

All it took was one, I suppose. One to figure out how to control the sky. One to figure out how to defeat an empire.

There are two of us left, now. They are hunting us with a vengeance that goes far beyond the desire for freedom. They are already free. They need retribution. They probably have their children’s photographs taped next to the button that controls the lightning and the storm. We are payment for the debt.

The drops are falling harder now, growing colder, beginning to burn.

I stand and drop my rifle into the mud. I am tired of running. I am tired of being chased. I am tired of paying for something I didn’t do.

I walk out into the field as the rain burns into my skin and a bolt of lightning strikes ground a mile away. I stretch my arms to the side, close my eyes, and raise my face to the heavens.

They have won their freedom.

I can hear it charging. I can feel the heat.

The fire is coming.


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Koshka

A cat

Fromr/promptoftheday

Image Credit: lpupppy288

I received the cat from my mother.

She received the cat from her mother.

She received the cat from a street merchant who used to sit by the stone steps around the well in the middle of the town square and sell hand-carved trinkets, and toys that danced when you pulled little levers, and painted brooches, and tiny glass animals. He was old and dirty and the cat would sit in his lap and keep him warm in the winter, and hunt mice for supper in the summer, but this was northern Russia where “summer” just meant “it mostly snows a little bit less.” He smelled like sour cream and cows, my grandmother said, but she would make him laugh when she came into town with her mother to buy gristle and beets and wool and one day he told her to take the cat home with her. On her next trip to town, he was gone, and no one had known where he went, or, at least, they wouldn’t tell her.

The old street merchant said he won the cat from a friend in a game of poker.

The friend said he found the cat in an alley behind a church. There were piles of clothes and oil cloth sacks filled with bits of food and wooden cups and he thought the children of gypsies may have lived there, or orphans, perhaps, and that this was their cat, but he took it from the alley anyway.

The alley never said where it got the cat from.

My grandmother named the cat Koshka, which was not highly original, as it was the Russian word for “cat,” but she was young and her mother told her the cat would probably die soon.

She did not die.

When my grandmother was eight, Koshka, she said, already looked old. Her ugly hair was matted and torn and bare in many places. She was covered in cuts and sores and her skin was patchy yellow and grey. She would leave at night and come back looking even more ragged and sickly and sit by the fire and eat scraps of potato skins and small dollops of sour cream and remnant leftovers of fish-eye soup (which was not, as one might suspect, a clever name for something more appetizing, but was, in fact, soup made out of actual fish eyes). She would bandage the cat and her mother would sometimes scold (“Why must you bring that filthy thing in the house?”) and sometimes dote (“You may be a nurse some day with caring like that, tiny one”) and sometimes worry (“You know, Lenichka, cats cannot live forever”).

One day my grandmother was walking to the stream with a basket of laundry to wash in the cold, flowing water. Koshka was following her at a brisk pace for such an old cat, stalking mice, batting at falling leaves, but never killing or eating anything, for she was full, as she always was, for she was an excellent hunter. But my grandmother, as she approached the stream, tripped and hit her head on one of the rocks and remembers coldness and water and then nothing but black. When she woke up she had been pulled from the rushing stream by something, a small cut on her head, Koshka standing next to her, watching quietly.

She said the cat had saved her.

Her mother said she must be remembering wrong. Koshka was old, and small, and sickly. Surely she would die soon.

But she didn’t die.

Then, when my grandmother was twelve, she was sent into town by her mother. The trail was a couple of miles long and it was cold and snowy, but it was her first trip into town alone and she felt important and adult. She sang a song as she walked to remember her mother’s grocery list: Two needles, three yards of white fabric, two pounds of beets, and a licorice drop for a treat if there’s anything left over.

Koshka trotted along beside her as she always did, batting at leaves and startling scampering creatures. They moved to the side of the road when they heard behind them the tramping of a single horse. The creature and its rider soon overtook them.

“Hello, little girl,” the man said to my grandmother, and she looked up. He wore a fur hat and thick coat and his face was hidden and pale.

“Hello,” she said, and kept walking.

The man on the horse didn’t speed up.

“What are you doing out here on this cold path?” he asked.

“Walking into town,” she responded. She knew she didn’t know this man, and she was wary of him, but she didn’t see that any harm could come from this information as the only place where this road led was into town.

“It’s so cold, little dear. Would you like me to give you a ride?”

“No, thank you,” she said, and smiled politely.

“Come on, little one,” he said, and the diminutive, familiar terms began to irritate my grandmother, who had only known her mother to ever use them with her. “It’s so cold. My horse is warm. Would you like to pet him?”

“No, thank you,” she said again, and began to walk faster.

The horse kept pace.

“Get on up here, little girl,” the man said. His tone was losing its sweetness. My grandmother says she began to be scared, then. She did not like this man. “Get up on my horse. I’m an adult! You are a child! You must do what I say!”

My grandmother didn’t answer, but began sprinting, and wanted to scream but was scared and out of breath and there was no one who could have heard her anyway.

The horse ran faster.

“Come here, little girl!” the man yelled, and my grandmother saw a flash out of the corner of her eye, and Koshka jumped onto the horse’s face and spooked it, and jumped off again, but the horse rose up and the man gripped tight and the horse fell sideways and the man’s head fell hard onto a rock and the horses whinnied and got up and ran away and there was blood on the rock and my grandmother watched the man breathe, and breathe, and breathe, and breathe, and then stop.

She ran straight back and didn’t notice that Koshka wasn’t with her, but was sitting on the chest of the man she’d left in the snow. She cried to her mother who used the last beets to make her borscht with extra sour cream which was a treat fit for kings. Koshka came back an hour later. My grandmother let her lick the bowl.

That night my grandmother followed Koshka out of the house. She blew her candle out, like she was supposed to, but stayed awake, and waited for the little unsightly thing to sneak out of her slightly open window, and she snuck out too, for she had kept a pair of boots on under her bedcovers, and wrapped herself in a jacket, and followed Koshka to the woods.

The moonlight lit the trail with a quiet blue glow and they wandered deeper and deeper into the forest, my grandmother wrapping her coat tighter and tighter around her shivering shoulders. When they had been walking for about an hour, my grandmother frozen, her feet numb and inadequately protected, her face covered in small cuts from the whipping branches of trees, Koshka stopped. She jumped up to the lowest branch of a tree, and climbed three more, and touched a branch. It bent, and a haze appeared in the earth, as if part of it were being slowly erased, as if the ground itself were made of charcoal and it was just beginning to rain. Koshka jumped onto the spot, and disappeared. Before she could stop herself, my grandmother had followed her through.

She landed on her feet in a dark corner of a tavern. It was empty and warm and my grandmother loosened her jacket. The moon was up, and behind her the window was still hazy and quivering slightly. Koshka didn’t notice her, or, if she did, pretended not to, but only walked toward the bar. The front door was locked and boarded, the room neat and clean and weathered and covered in a thin layer of grease and dirt and beer. Koshka jumped onto the bar and sat, waiting, still, quiet, tail swishing slightly. She almost looked regal, there, my grandmother had said. Almost as if you could pretend she was young and beautiful. My grandmother remained hidden in the shadows, barely breathing.

After a few minutes a drunken hand began struggling with the front lock. It took some time but eventually the door opened and the man staggered into the room, collapsed onto a bar stool, pulled himself up, sat down, managed to open his eyes, swayed, slightly, leaned against the bar, stared at Koshka, and muttered, “You.”

“Me,” Koshka replied.

“Whatifn’ I don’ wanna?” the man slurred.

“You don’t have to. I am here at your request.”

“My rik-west?”

“Yes.”

“Blyad!” he shouted, and Koshka did not respond to the curse.

“Immonna do it.”

Koshka nodded. The man pulled out a gun, spun the cylinder, and held it to his head.

“Anythink waiting?” he asked the cat.

The cat did not respond.

My grandmother shut her eyes.

The man pulled the trigger.

When she opened her eyes again, Koshka was sitting on the man’s chest as he lay on the floor, the blood pouring out like it had poured out of the rider onto the snow. She was purring, and a white film was coming out of the man, and Koshka purred as the film rose into the air and dissolved like gas, like smoke from a cigarette, and went everywhere, and my grandmother become suddenly afraid that she was breathing in the dead man, and she held her breath for as long as she could, which was not very long.

When the white stuff from the dead man had gone, Koshka left and came back toward the corner of the room. My grandmother became suddenly afraid of what would happen if Koshka saw her and realized that she knew the cat could speak and that she knew what the cat was. Koshka did see her, and hopped up onto a pub table near her, and watched her face, and looked her in the eyes.

“Are you Death?” my grandmother asked.

“Yes,” Death replied.

“Should I call you Death?”

“I prefer Koshka.”

“I came to see why you sometimes get hurt. Because when you leave at night. Sometimes you get hurt.”

“Sometimes they don’t want to come. Sometimes they fight.”

“But they have to come?”

“Sometimes.”

“But he did not have to?”

“No.”

“Then why did he?”

“Because he wanted to.”

“He went into the air. Something white came out and it went into the air. Where did he go?”

“Everywhere.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s where he came from.”

She nodded, for she understood, in only the way a child can understand. Without another word, Koshka jumped into the hazy window and my grandmother followed him and they were back in the woods and my grandmother was suddenly cold. She wrapped the coat around herself tighter. Koshka hopped onto her shoulder and sat to keep her warm while my grandmother walked back through the woods.

“Death is lonely, you know,” Koshka said as they neared the edge where the field would begin, and my grandmother stopped, for somehow she knew the cat wouldn’t speak once the trees ended. “Death is lonely and therefore I am lonely and I rather like having a family. As long as you take care of me, I will not come for you.”

Koshka hopped off her shoulder and together they walked back. When they got through her window the cat curled at the foot of her bed and my grandmother pulled off her heavy coat and frozen boots and cuddled with Death under the thick, wool blanket.

When my grandmother married, she continued to care for Koshka, and bandaged her when she returned in the mornings, and feed her borscht and fish-eye soup.

When she had a daughter, she continued to care for Koshka, and taught my mother to feed the cat her extra gristle, and to be careful and never pull her hair.

When my mother was thirteen, my grandmother gave Koshka to her, and Koshka protected her, too. My grandmother grew old and died, but was never too sick, and died peacefully in her sleep, with Koshka on her chest, purring into the night.

When I turned thirteen, my mother gave Koshka to me, and I have cared for the cat as if it were my child, and fed it beef and fish and let it lick the pan after I’ve cooked bacon, and it hunts for rats on our farm and has grown a little fatter but has not grown lazy.

Today, my son turns thirteen.

I hear a tiny knock on the bedroom door and I tell him he can come in. I pat the space next to me on the bed and he jumps up and sits and leans against my arm.

“You needed me?”

“Get comfortable, little son,” I say, as Koshka jumps into my lap, as I pat her mangy head and scratch behind her half-chewed ear.

“I am going to tell you a story.”


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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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