#14 – Gwinpine Gnome

See them now. They come from near and far. Shuffling herds of people from villages across the land, pilgrims in ragged garments that cling limply to their bodies’ rugged topography. They do not look at one another as they travel. Their eyes are to the Hill.

Distant sounds of footfalls herald their coming. Through swamp and heath and mountain and meadow they come. Families of men and children and women with babes in arms. A low keening sound crawls from the throats of the men who paint themselves in His colours, in His name. Their eyes are to the Hill.

One person falls; a boy, no more than twelve. He is left behind. His own father steps across his back, pushing his son deeper into the mud. The journey is long. He demands His toll. Stories still linger of the Mother Who Looked Back. It is said that sight was stripped from her the moment she turned her head. Even blind, she finished her journey. Once she reached the Hill she fell and prostrated herself before Him and He blessed her with a swift end. Now none look back. Their eyes are to the Hill. 

The Hill begins to rise gradually, rugged and loamy. Many fall here to their hands and knees and crawl up the Hill, moving ever toward Him. They pull and tear at the earth to help them ascend, yanking out great clods of dirt, seeking any purchase that might help them get closer. The tallest men see it first. A sign of what awaits at the peak. Their eyes are to the Stump.

One group encounters a row of brambles. They do not veer from their path, for to turn is to lose faith in Him. They pass through the biting bush and their bodies weep crimson tears and yet none cry out in pain for He buoys them and shields them from their basest feelings. Their eyes are to the Stump.

A great ring closes around the Hill, growing ever-smaller. He waits at the top. The sun is low in the morning sky and the grass here is wet and a low mist hovers about and when the pilgrims pass through the mist they feel a chill in their bones and they begin to let out a great ululating cry, for His Kiss is cold and gentle. Together they have arrived. Their eyes are to the Stump. 

And Lo! Look at what waits there! The Gwinpine Gnome Himself stands erect on the Stump, His graven image etched in wood eons-old. He rests in a bed of moss, His head and body sized in equal measure, His cane close at hand. Time has silenced His voice. Time has stayed His legs. Time has stolen His sight. And yet still His gaze beseeches the travellers to halt! They fall to their knees, submitting themselves to Him. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

One of the Gnome-Mistresses begins to chant, an elegiac sound that soars with the wind, promising an end to the year, an end to the poor harvest, and an end to hunger, pain, and sorrow. Other Mistresses begin to chant with her, and a rising chorus signals then that the time for offerings has begun. All who are in attendance are now Gnome-Children, and each proceeds forth with their gift. Most common are boughs of holly, the Gnome’s favourite flower, but the Gnome’s favour and grace is plied also with food, trade goods, and idols honouring Him. Last to come forth is a woman. She is not a Gnome-Mistress, and yet in her arms is a babe. It squalls as it approaches the Stump but silences itself abruptly in His presence. The chanting suddenly ceases, and the pilgrims begin to look about. Nobody has offered the Gnome a child before. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

A voice cries out! It is not the mother, but another woman, one who breaks the ring of Gnome-Children and rushes towards the babe, crying of injustice, of cruelty. She reaches the Stump and places a hand on the Gnome. Terror lights her eyes. A stone strikes her in the temple and she collapses without a sound. No-one remembers seeing the stone’s thrower. Later, they will tell that it came from the sky. More stones follow then, this time from the Gnome-Children, burying the heap atop the hill; another offering to the Gnome. The ceremony resumes, and all who attend are filled with the certainty that the coming year will be bountiful and happy. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

Endless ages pass, and now this place is quiet. The mist still gathers on the Hill, but the Stump has been removed. A town has grown in its midst and sometimes when the snow falls children slide down the slope of the Hill, ignorant of where they tread. The Gnome Himself has vanished. His Gnarled Grace has left this world, but it need not be so forever.

My eyes are to the Gnome. Are yours?

#12 – Pieces

This story is Part Three of an ongoing narrative. Parts One and Two are available through the preceding links.

It’s taken me a long time, but the pieces are finally starting to come together.

When you look at the evidence, it makes sense why nobody’s been able to do it before. He strikes randomly, across the continent. The only real correlation seems to be in the victim profile; a child, somewhere between the ages of six and fourteen, disappears without a trace. They are often described as precocious. Perhaps this is a tool he uses to draw them in. If they aren’t afraid of strangers, maybe they would miss the danger until it was too late.

I’m going to be presenting this to my board soon. I need to finish the dissertation if I’m to defend. God knows I have an uphill battle already with this subject, so I really have to lay all the cards on the table.

Yes, even you. I’ll need to tell them about you, too. 

April 1933 – Detroit, MI

The precise date of this abduction is unknown, but it’s the earliest missing-child report that bears any resemblance to those concerning the so-called “Bric-a-Brac Man.” I include it here for the sake of being comprehensive; the story is slim and all witnesses are long-dead. I’ve tried reaching out to families, but with little luck. I’m not surprised. If the witnesses are like the others, they wouldn’t have wanted to tell. To tell is to remember, and most would rather forget.

The abducted, Arthur Wells, was a child labourer at an auto plant which abutted the Detroit River. He worked on the line and was largely responsible for the kind of work which benefited from his slim child’s fingers or his short stature. While little is known about Wells’s homelife, one can likely assume that he was as impoverished as any other child labourer in that era; families only sent their children to work if there were no alternatives. 

Reports from his colleagues gathered on the day of the disappearance suggest that Wells was a bright young boy who had become “one of the men,” as it were, frequently spending time with them chatting during their scant reprieves. Despite how deplorable the fact of his working might appear in hindsight, Wells himself allegedly enjoyed the work; He was often heard remarking that twenty cents an hour did far more good than a few words in Latin ever would. His work did not go unnoticed and management indicated that they had earmarked his name for supervisory work once he had matured further. 

While the fact a child labourer was considered for promotion is in itself notable, we should not forget that the employment of children was a brutal, ill-paying practice. As much as Wells allegedly professed his satisfaction with the work, it should not occlude the fact that he would regularly walk the length of the riverside path, looking for spare coins or begging for scraps of food from street-side vendors. 

According to one colleague, Reginald Mills, this was a typical part of the boy’s routine: “Yeah, we always saw him taking that way home. I think he lived somewhere south of the plant, so he’d wander all down the length of the river until the path ended, trying to get whatever he could. Even in the winter, he’d trudge through the snow, and the wind would come up wicked from the river, and yet still he’d walk home that way. I’m not really sure what it was about. Poor fellow. I wish we could say that we’d have been able to spare some change for the streetcar, but that’d be a lie. We needed it just as much as he did.”

It was during one of these walks that Arthur Wells disappeared. By all accounts, it was a sunny day in April, the kind of day where the world feels as though it’s begun to wake but has yet to fully wipe the sleep from its eyes. The precise day has been forgotten, and efforts to recover a report from the Detroit police have been stymied; most likely no report exists at all. Boys died all of the time at manufacturing plants. What more would they care if a boy died on his way home from one?

The last sighting of Arthur Wells was by one of his co-workers, Horace Thompson. Thompson described seeing Wells walking away from the plant with a tall man in a black bowler hat, with a black coat. Thompson, evidently an aspiring poet, described the man’s appearance as an “inkstain on a clean sheet of paper.” Thompson later expressed regret for not calling the police sooner, admitting that he had thought it odd that Wells was travelling north, rather than his usual southerly direction. 

The police were not called until the following morning, when Wells failed to clock in to his shift. The line supervisors, cognizant of Wells’s typical timeliness, afforded him an additional ten minutes’ grace. When Wells did not show, they paid no mind, striking him from the rolls and hiring one of the men who regularly gathered outside the plant’s doors. It was his colleagues who later called the police, pooling their money to do so after the day’s shift had ended. 

The police, of course, found nothing.

While the evidence for Wells’s abduction by the Bric-a-Brac Man is thin, it cannot be set aside. His story deserves to be told, and his memory deserves answers.

November 24, 1963 – Albany, NY

As I write these stories, the reader might be inclined to cast judgment on the parents of these children. While the impulse is perhaps understandable, it should not be indulged; the simple and tragic truth of parenthood is that it is impossible to always be watching your children. For most children, that simply results in a bruised elbow, a skinned knee, or perhaps a few stitches. 

But not always.

Few would blame Martha Brixley, mother of Joanna, for her attention to the television on November 24th, 1963. President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas two days prior, and the world was watching the birth of the modern infotainment cycle. 

It was the middle of the day, and Martha’s husband, Lyle, was at work. She had just prepared lunch for her and her daughter, and both had sat down with a glass of lemonade and their sandwiches to watch the transfer of President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from Dallas police headquarters. 

There was a knock on the door. Distracted by the television, Martha asked Joanna to answer the door. Joanna leaped up; the news wasn’t half as interesting to her as it was to her mother, and she’d been practicing speaking to strangers more. Mr. Hardy, the butcher, was particularly kind to her, offering her strips of jerky whenever she remembered to address him as “sir.”

The door opened and Martha craned her head, her eyes leaping back and forth from the hallway to the television. Oswald was being escorted from the police station, detectives on either side of him. Oswald was slight and short. It seemed impossible for him to have killed a man with Kennedy’s presence.
Martha could hear Joanna speaking to somebody. The other person had a high voice that seemed to wheeze on the vowels. She couldn’t make out much of the conversation, so she decided to get up and see who was at the door.

On the television, a man rushed from the crowd. A bang was heard. Pandemonium. Bodies rushing in, filling the space. A brief glimpse of Oswald’s boyish face contorted in agony. A voice repeating, “he’s been shot! Lee Oswald’s been shot!” and then Martha was in her chair again, her hands over her mouth. There was a low moaning sound. She realized after a moment that it was her.

Martha watched the coverage for another ten minutes before she realized that the door was still open. She called her daughter’s name, but there was no answer. The first needle of worry. She got to her feet and went to the door, which laid wide open. The street outside was sunny and stark and a car drove by, one of the new Plymouths that Lyle had always talked about getting. 

There was no sign of Joanna. According to Martha, the only sign of anybody ever having been there was a faint smell of chocolate and oranges.

In this story, it might be easy to blame Martha, to ask why she didn’t better watch over her daughter. I challenge those parents to ask themselves whether they’ve ever let their children do anything alone. If the answer is “yes,” then I ask that you send your blame elsewhere. The tragedy of Joanna Brixley is one of circumstance, of bad timing. Children will always be vulnerable, so long as the Bric-a-Brac Man is out there.

In closing, it’s worth noting that Martha Brixley is now eighty-nine, living in a nursing home in [redacted], NY. She is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and asks every day when her daughter is coming to visit.

August 12th, 1974 – Aspen, CO

What little information I have about this case is gathered from police reports, interviews, and eyewitness testimony. It was perhaps the most well-documented sighting of the Bric-a-Brac Man prior to the events of the December 2016 abduction.

Aspen, Colorado, is a resort town. While it has since diversified its activities to appeal to summer vacationers as well, business in 1974 was much more seasonal. Residents sought new opportunities to earn an income in the off-season. For Roy Anderson, hosting a birthday party for his son, Wesley, was a perfect opportunity to showcase his new business; he had recently made a sizeable investment in the then-new technology of inflatable bounce-houses (or bouncy castles, if you prefer), and his first piece of equipment was due to arrive three days before his son’s birthday. 

When Roy told Wesley the news, his son was overjoyed. Roy’s wife, Denise, was more skeptical of this new investment, but she knew the summers were hard for seasonal workers and was willing to take a risk in order to help Wesley go to college. Roy had purchased the equipment using his marine stipend from the war in Vietnam. Since he seldom talked about the war, Denise had decided that it was best to let him decide where the money should be allocated. 

In anticipation of the day, Denise and Wesley collaborated on fliers that would be distributed to his classmates. Roy passed them out downtown as well; he wanted as many people as possible to attend his son’s birthday. While this may sound careless to a modern reader, it is important to remember that, for the residents of a small-town in a quiet season, it seemed impossible that anything could go wrong.

The day approached. Wesley, a small but bright boy, began to have trouble sleeping. He would reliably knock on his parents’ door every night, asking to be let in. This was a habit he had enjoyed as a younger boy, but Roy and Denise had worked together to encourage independence in the last year. While they feared relenting might cause him to backslide, they were willing to accommodate it in the days leading up to his birthday, figuring that nerves were probably the reason anyway. 

When August 12th finally dawned, it finally became clear to Roy that he had managed, perhaps unintentionally, to organize a small fair. Three of his neighbours arrived that morning with their barbecues, ready to help him grill for the guests. Denise welcomed them with freshly-squeezed orange juice, while Wesley practically bounced with excitement and anticipation. Outside, the bounce-house laid flat like a flayed animal on the lawn. A corrugated tube curled away from it towards the pump. 

The guests were due to arrive at one. The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers was heavy in the air. Balloons and games were set up across the yard, framing the bounce-house in the centre. Some people showed up early, but the bulk of the guests, invited or not, began to arrive shortly after the event began.

Roy and Denise Anderson would later recount that everything was going quite well at the beginning of the afternoon. The children were remarkably well-behaved, and the adults were able to maintain a quiet simmering drunkenness; enough to enjoy themselves, but not so much that it would cause problems.

Still, the problems came.

The first inkling that something had gone wrong came later in the day, in the sleepier hours of the afternoon. In truth, Roy had expected that people would begin to file out at some point; children have relatively short attention spans, and feeding them hot dogs and hamburgers is a surefire way to hasten boredom. But there was no sign of this. People continued to file in, even as the day grew long and the sun began to sink towards the western ridge. 

No one has ever been able to pinpoint when it started, but everyone knew once it had begun.

Voices rose from the back lawn of the Anderson house. It was the kind of low angry din of a dissatisfied crowd, a simmering, palpable tension. Shouting began, and Roy described seeing the first child get pushed out of the line and onto the grass, smacking his head against the earth. 

“I was across the lawn before I knew it,” said Roy. “I didn’t think, I didn’t stop, hell, I don’t even know if I really processed it, I was just out there.” In the recording, he wiped his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if I could have been faster. Or if I should have invited less people. I know I can’t change anything about what happened, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to.”

The children in the line continued to push. Roy caught some of what they were yelling; they were imploring “that guy in black” to get off the bounce-house, saying that he’d already had his turn. Roy described looking then toward the inflatable and catching a blurry smear of black leaping between the rainbow of clothing the children wore.

There was a sudden bang, loud enough to echo between the houses. Several of the men, Roy included, dropped to the ground, taken over by either instinct or trauma. The children screamed, but few of them actually fell to the ground too. Most even kept their places in line. The men slowly began to pick themselves up. Roy later said that he remembers little of what came next, only that he rose from the ground to the sounds of children complaining. He turned to look at the bounce-house and saw that it was slowly deflating. One piece connected to another. 

“I started shouting ‘get off the ride, get off the ride!” said Roy. “I don’t know if anyone could hear me. There were so many voices . . . everything was confused then.”

“I was watching from the kitchen window,” said Denise. “I figured that Roy had everything under control, but once I saw those castle walls start to fall in, I knew there would be a problem. I ran out into the yard to help.”

“By the time she got out, the castle was almost totally deflated. They later said that there was a significant rupture in the material of the structure. But the damndest thing about it was that it was in the middle of nowhere, materially speaking. It wasn’t on a seam or anything. It just burst.”

“Roy blames himself,” admitted Denise. “Everybody knows he shouldn’t, but he does. It was his investment, he says. His responsibility. How was he to know what would happen to those kids?”

The ultimate toll of that day was five deaths and three presumed deaths. Police have few answers. For the five confirmed deaths, the coroner was able to determine that the weight of the early bounce-house material smothered the riders as the structure collapsed. Firefighters were slow to the scene, as the adults first tried to rescue the children themselves before calling the authorities. 

Still unexplained are the three missing, including Wesley Anderson. No bodies were ever recovered from the structure. No sign of any of the children was ever found. The only clue is the report of the man in black, bouncing along with the rest of the children, but there was no sign of him, either.

The preceding interviews were conducted separately while a liability investigation was underway. Roy was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, choosing afterward to immediately launch litigation against the manufacturer of the bounce-house. While the suit was in progress, he and Denise gave one final interview on the subject.

“I can accept I’m going to hell,” said Roy, “Even if I didn’t make the damn castle, I brought all of those people together. Should I have supervised things better? Made sure rules were clear about what you could bring onto the ride? These thoughts run through my head endlessly, but none of them have any answers.”

“Who was the man?” asked Denise. “Lots of people describe a man in black on the ride, but nobody remembers seeing him off the ride. Certainly he doesn’t sound like anyone I knew, and there’s nobody in the pictures.”

“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” said Roy. “We all want to know what happened to the missing boys. Trying to conjure another missing person isn’t helping.”

Denise looked at her husband for a long moment. There is a palpable tension to this interview, even forty years later. 

“It might help find Wesley,” she said. “It might help find Wesley.”

December 25th, 1987 – Calgary, AB

I never wanted to tell this story. I wish it was somebody else’s story to tell. But how could I exclude it? It’s what started me on this path.

Read the story of a girl–my sister–who disappeared from her own bedroom on a wintry night, and you’ll see I never had a choice at all.


July 12-15th, 2003 – New Jersey Pine Barrens

In the southern part of the state of New Jersey, there is a huge expanse of land known as the Pine Barrens or the Pinelands. Most famous now perhaps for an episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, the terrain is rugged and tough, a gnarling landscape of coastal forest, sandy soil, and a bizarre ecology unlike that in the rest of the north-eastern United States.

In the summer of 2003, a boys’ leadership-training group went out on a multi-day camping trip to the Pine Barrens. Their guide, Peter Mellen, was an experienced outdoorsman who had completed expeditions of Kilimanjaro and Denali. At the time of his death, he was saving money for a trip to Everest. 

The boys themselves – Sawyer, William, and Thom – were all from underprivileged homes. This was their first time camping, and from all accounts, each was incredibly excited for the opportunity.

Their disappearance was first noted when Peter failed to drop the boys off at the agreed-upon time outside their school in Manahwakin, NJ. As this took place but a few years before cellphones became common-place, the families had little choice but to wait. Assuming that traffic was the cause, the families allowed another two hours. When nobody arrived, they called the police.

State troopers and forest rangers began an immediate canvassing of the Pine Barrens. Peter had provided a detailed map of where they planned on hiking, along with the points where he anticipated camping on each day. He had left this with program directors in case of an emergency.

Following the map found nothing. All of the spots marked on the maps showed no signs of having been used as a campsite in recent weeks. Bewildered, the troopers and rangers expanded elsewhere. Peter Mellen was listed as a prime suspect in the abduction of the three young boys, and a special episode of America’s Most Wanted was aired concerning the disappearance. Many calls and tips came, but no answers.

The search continued until October, when they found a man’s decomposing skeleton in a small cave, sheltered at the mouth of a ravine. Forensic work revealed two things: that the deceased was Peter Mellen, and that the cause of death had been a catastrophic inversion of the ribcage. 

In other words: somebody opened the ribcage.

The gruesome scene provided few answers to the authorities. There were signs of a camp and of the boys, but nothing that provided a trail. People began to speculate as to what might have happened. Hardliners against Peter Mellen argued that he had tried to abduct or otherwise harm the boys, and they had rebelled, killing their attacker. Once this was done, guilt or fear or panic drove them into the woods, where they may have fallen victim to one of the bogs scattered throughout the Barrens. Their bodies might never be recovered, they argued. 

Others, myself included, maintain Peter’s innocence. There is a great distance between murder in self-defense and the brutality of Peter’s death. Once one accepts that Peter was not killed by the boys, the questions change: Why were they so far from their planned path? What killed Peter Mellen? Were the three boys present at the time of his death, or did they flee beforehand?

Answers are unlikely to come. I was reluctant to even include this case – the modus operandi is so different from the known patterns of the Bric-a-Brac Man. The children were not alone, nor were they even isolated from the adult. The attack was in the middle-of-nowhere, not in an urban area. Somebody was physically harmed, but not abducted. Was it because he was an adult, or did he try to defend the boys?

Despite these discrepancies, I am certain that it was the Bric-a-Brac Man. I suggested it to the authorities, but they took me about as seriously as I fear my department will. But who else would have dressed up Peter Mellen that way? Who else would have placed a bowler hat on his head and hung a jangling silver bauble from each protruding rib? 

The answers might be few, but they are there. You just have to be willing to accept them.

December 25th, 2016 – Kingston, ON

This is probably the most famous disappearance, as well as the most recent, and so I will limit the amount of ink I spill on the subject. Readers wishing to learn more about this may read my write-up here

On Christmas Day 2016, a young boy named Jeff King was abducted from his bedroom by an unknown person. He had been playing with a Polaroid camera he’d been gifted earlier that same day. The only known people in the house at the time of the disappearance were his grandparents and his mother. His grandparents refuse to say anything further on the matter. His mother has been institutionalized.

I have been unable to find any of the grandparents’ comments on that day, other than the simple acknowledgement that they were asleep at the time of the disappearance. His mother has said nothing since that day other than “picture,” a likely reference to the Polaroid photo found on the floor of Jeff’s bedroom.

It shows a teary-eyed young boy forcing a grin. Next to him is a man with a patchwork face, eyes affixed to the boy.

Looking at this photo, I see the face I’ve hunted for so long. There’s no question in my mind. There never was, and yet I still feel relieved. I’m not crazy. I have to wonder, though; did he mean to leave the photo, or was this a mistake? Is he toying with the authorities, or is this and the murder of Peter Mellen proof that he’s making mistakes?

I have to keep hunting.

The Bric-a-Brac Man is out there. I am certain there are more yet more cases to be found, but I can determine no consistent pattern to the abductions. What I do know is that the time for research has passed. The Bric-a-Brac Man is growing bolder. He has resorted to violence and mockery in recent years. He considers himself untouchable, untraceable. 

My work will prove otherwise. I have come to Queens University in Kingston, ON – the site of the most recent abduction. I am pursuing a PhD in Parapsychology, a disrespected field that has made me the laughingstock of my department. I don’t care. My search for the Bric-a-Brac Man is the centerpiece of my work here. Nothing else matters, so long as I find him.

I’ve become convinced that the time has come to take action. I have a plan in place – it’s risky, but every day I wait is another day he could strike. I’m not willing to condemn any more families to the fate mine suffered.

We always tell children that monsters aren’t real. It’s my duty to make it so.

I owe Katie that much. 

Part Three of Twelve

#11 – Lighthouses

The story below was written and based on concepts provided by one of my best friends, Austin MacDonald.

The astronaut slept. When he slept, he dreamed. The dream never changed anymore. It began with him on a raft, or perhaps some kind of skiff, far out on the ocean. In the dream, he was a mariner, not an astronaut. It was night and the sky was black overhead and the sea below was the kind of fathomless dark that only exists when light has never visited at all. The sea roiled, and the ship rose and fell in the wake of each wave. The sky above was dotted with stars, tiny pinpricks of white in the inky firmament. The mariner adjusted the tiller, veering towards shore. He could not see it, but he knew it to be there. 

A beam of yellow shone out across the water. No sound of foghorn to accompany it, but it was a beacon all the same, a spear of sunlight in the night. Once more the mariner adjusted the tiller, turning his way towards home. Above him the stars glimmered, brilliant and immovable.

Then he woke up, and he was an astronaut again.

–––––

The astronaut unstrapped himself from the sleep module, using the grab bars to launch himself forward through the ship towards the ovoid command module at the end of the corridor. He drifted past empty cryopods and did not look at them. Viewports on either side of the ship revealed the stars, but he never looked at those, either. His only check-in on the way to running the maintenance cycles was on the crop of soybeans that grew then under white light like sterile hospital light. Dew clung to vibrant green leaves, the only true source of colour in that place. The astronaut was pleased to see them progressing, but the memory of the last crop lingered in his mind. This yield would be less than that. A knife of worry turned in the astronaut’s gut. This was the third crop in a row with diminishing returns. 

The astronaut left his plants and drifted through the ship, back towards the command module. The astronaut’s beard floated around his face. He had considered cutting it, but decided not to. Like everything about him, it only had so long. The beard would be a marker of time passed.

There was no door to the command module. They hadn’t thought they would need doors. The astronaut angled himself forward, using the wall’s inertia to push himself to the seat. He brought his knees to his chest, fetal-like, then drifted into place. A quick glance at the monitors showed that all readings were sound, just as they were every other day. Spontaneous mechanical problems didn’t exist in a vacuum the way they did on Earth. In space, everything was as it always was. 

The astronaut dimmed the lights. He wondered why he still checked. The readings said what they always said. 

All systems go. Cryopods offline.

Only one lifeform aboard.

–––––

The ship’s life had begun out of desperation. A cloudless night in late April on the bluffs outside Tel Aviv had been the place of revelation. An Israeli astronomer had spied a dark patch in the sky that occluded the nebula he was looking for. He tracked it over the course of a couple nights. It did not take him long to realize what it was, and he reported the discovery, excited, but otherwise nonplussed. The prospect of discovering an asteroid and getting to name it was an honour, but it wasn’t what he looked at the sky for. He wanted to see beauty, not darkness. He kept the discovery to himself, not wanting to tell others until it had been confirmed.

A few days later, he had been contacted by members of Mossad and the American F.B.I. They had brought him to a dark room in a dusty building on the edge of town. Sounds of traffic reverberated through the sheet metal walls, making the inside seem even more vacant. Fear had taken the amateur astronomer then, and he had prayed quietly for succour. Then the door opened, and two men sat down. They reminded him that he was not handcuffed, and they apologized for the dramatics of the situation.

They then very politely and carefully explained to him that the world was going to end. 

The astronomer paid little attention to what they said next. Only the basics were clear; top-level space agencies had done the projections for the asteroid’s course and calculated its size and mass. It was approximately one-and-a-half times as big as the Chicxulub impactor that had led to the death of the dinosaurs. Worse, it was due to impact the Earth in six months’ time. The estimated impact site was in the Alboran Sea, thirty kilometres south-south-east of Gibraltar. 

The agents then carefully asked the astronomer if he had told anyone else and he said no, he had wanted to wait. They asked him again and he said yes again. Then they asked him what he would name the asteroid. The astronomer thought for a minute and then said Abaddon, for surely they were looking at Hell itself. 

The agents nodded and said that this made sense. The American agent then withdrew a pistol and shot the astronomer in the head. They left that place and never came back.

The world could then be segmented into two different groups of people: those who knew and those who didn’t. Most of the world, billions and billions, continued on with their lives in complete ignorance of their coming annihilation. Only the most powerful – the very rich, politicians, certain super-celebrities – were told. Once they were told, they began to plan. 

There were two schools of thought on how to approach the crisis. Given that the most major impact event in human memory was the 2013 Chelyabinsk air burst, there was at first a significant misunderstanding to the severity of the coming event. It is difficult for the human mind to comprehend how an impact off the European and African coasts might trigger volcanic events in Indonesia. It cannot conceive of tsunamis taller than skyscrapers, nor can it understand the centuries of global cooling that would follow. It is not capable of working on such scales.

There were some who wanted to remain. They would build bunkers and live their whole lives underground if they had to, palaces of concrete beneath hundreds of feet of soil. Even the architects of these vaults were not sure whether the residents would survive, but some thought it a better hope than the alternative.

The alternative was the Terra.

The Terra had been named in memory of what it would lose and as a representation of what might be gained. The ship itself was little more than a tube with wings, an interstellar dragonfly; even the wings themselves – solar sails – had an iridescent sheen reminiscent of the insect. 

The two plans were put into motion. The rich descended into their bunkers, where the sheer amount of soil cut them off from communicating with one another. A generation would be born, live, and die underground. The remainder looked to the stars.

Proxima Centauri is the nearest star system to Earth at a mere thirty-eight trillion kilometres, a stone’s throw in cosmic terms. The solar sails of the Terra would gather the solar winds, allowing the Terra to approach a few percentage points of the speed of light. The journey would take approximately thirty years. There were a few complications, of course; the amount of provisions that could be stored was relatively small, given that the success of the solar sails depended on reducing mass as much as possible. This necessitated that the ship’s available weight be devoted primarily to cryogenic chambers where the passengers, pilgrims from a desolated world, might sleep until they reached their destination. Tickets cost tens of billions and were snapped up in an instant. The passengers were put to sleep, not to wake for thirty years. 

Only one person would wake during the long journey, to perform regular maintenance checks.  A single engineer. 

They left the Earth three days before impact. The engineer, who was now an astronaut, stayed awake long enough to watch. It was night when it happened. Fire consumed the land, and all of the glittering lights across the darkened globe disappeared.

–––––

The astronaut’s beard was longer now, and he had to pull himself through the ship carefully. Supplements had done little to ward off the bone decay that astronauts typically experienced during long voyages. He was sure that a doctor might have diagnosed him with osteo- something or other, but even an orthopaedic surgeon could not have afforded a spot aboard the Terra. 

He realized now, thinking back, how foolhardy the plan had been. What if there had been a system failure on his pod and he had drowned? What if he had developed some kind of cancer, or perhaps an embolism? One person to maintain humanity’s future was an almost psychotic level of idiocy. In a strange way, he was glad he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. 

The astronaut floated to the viewport with a palmful of soybeans in his hand. The colour was almost painfully brilliant in that stark space. He held it up to the viewport, wondering how something that green might be allowed to exist in all that dark. 

–––––

A memory of blood. Each pod opened carefully, thawed. A pool of blue water. The rich didn’t know that it was just colouring, something to make the whole process seem more advanced than it really was. Something to disguise the fact that they were just upjumped primates who had come too far from home.

One punch with the screwdriver to the throat. The holes were always perfectly round, not even ragged at the borders. Ruddy crimson bubbles would float and pop as the cryopod’s occupant aspirated. Death always followed, too many minutes later. The astronaut was sure that they never felt a thing, and he told himself as much.

He wondered if God could see this far, and if He understood that a man needed protein to survive.

–––––

Countless years passed, and the bodies began to disappear. When the astronaut was not eating or drinking or pissing or shitting, he hovered in a trance. His beard was white and now floated in a cloud of snow about his face. It was dirty and tangled and matted in places. He had tried talking to himself, but a hyper-awareness of the possibility of insanity had made him stop. There was nothing to do other than to look at unchanging maintenance readings or the void of space beyond the viewports.

The memory pushed itself up. He tried to push it back, but it was seared into him. How long ago had it been? How long since he had awoken for that first set of maintenance checks.?

He remembered. He remembered the last time he felt hope. The pod had opened, and he wasn’t dead. An indicator next to it told him that a year had passed. A year since the Earth had died. All he had to do now was do his checks, then he could sleep for another year. He practically raced through the ship, scratching at the scruff around his face. His limbs were sore and cramped but his heart was full. He would survive! There was a future. Faces of his comrades looked out from their cryopods with shuttered eyes. Behind them, the whirr of the hydroponic array churned on, generating bulbs that would then be frozen and planted on the new world waiting for them. 

All checks were green, of course. The astronaut, who used to be an engineer, was impressed. In his experience, the rich loved to cut corners to save as much as they could. The fact that the Terra operated so smoothly told him that exceptions had been made in this case. Reassured, the astronaut floated back to the aft end of the ship. 

It was then that he saw it. An abyssal feeling of emptiness tore itself open inside him. 

Outside the port viewport, the solar sail soared out of view, a paper-thin skyscraper that reflected the blizzard of light from inside the ship. 

On the starboard side, there was nothing. Nothing save for a gnarled mess of metal and plastic where the sail had been. 

The astronaut felt his brain flood with adrenaline. Time slowed. A thousand connections and implications began firing in his brain, the neurons driving as quickly as they could, calculating, hypothesizing, all coming to the inevitable conclusion that there had evidently been some sort of accident and that he was now lost somewhere in interstellar space between a dead world and his destination.
Outside of the viewport, the stars peered back without blinking.

–––––

He never dreamed of land anymore. Just the sea and the lighthouse. That’s all there was.

–––––

The astronaut had tried, of course, to calculate the distance. But there were too many variables, and he wasn’t a physicist. All of the physicists had been left behind on this project, outbid for their seats after being promised that their work would be their salvation. The cryopods on this ship only had room for the truly important. The astronaut himself had been spared by virtue of his necessity; they simply could not make the journey without an on-board engineer.

The stars didn’t even look the same so far from Earth. Constellations were largely similar, for in a cosmic sense, he had only crossed the street. But everything was slightly off, and it made his measurements difficult. Complicating it further was that he had no sense of how the destruction of the Terra’s starboard sail might have affected their course. It was possible that, even if he got in the cryotube now, the ship might never arrive at Proxima Centauri. It would instead miss entirely, travelling beyond into an inconceivable emptiness.

The astronaut did the best he could. He used the ship’s readings to determine that the loss of the sail had had a massive negative effect on the speed of the ship. He ran numbers again and again, desperate to change them. But they never changed. 

It would take the Terra approximately forty-nine thousand, six hundred and twenty years to reach Proxima Centauri – or at least where he hoped it would be.

The astronaut looked at these notes for a long time. Then he tore them up. Bits of paper like two-dimensional gnats floated about his head. It was against regulation to tear up paper. The pieces might find their way into something important.

The astronaut watched them float away, wishing he could too.

–––––

Bones decayed and splintered. The mind frayed. The astronaut lived on. It was his duty. Not for the passengers, but for everybody else who didn’t get a chance.

–––––

He drifted now over a bed of dying plants, a sea of  autumnal yellows and golds that never belonged in this place.

Was he wrong to have spared his own life? Hopelessness is one thing, but there’s a far cry between ending a life and ending a species. Could he bear that burden?

He wondered again how far God could see.

–––––

Decades passed. The astronaut was asleep when the lights went out and floated emaciated and frail in a white-and-grey cloud, swallowed by his own beard. The sudden change prompted him to wake. The ship’s power had finally failed. Not even the core of the ship, the centripetal wheel, remained powered. The astronaut probed his mind, trying to remember what he had forgotten. What did this mean for the recyclers? For his air, for his water? Panic threatened to rise in his chest but couldn’t muster the effort. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The Terra was black and dead. The only light now from the stars. The astronaut floated to the viewport, pulling himself in with gnarled arthritic hands. He stayed there and looked out with ancient red eyes. He watched the stars as long as he could. 

They looked so much like lighthouses. 

#10 – Road Rage

Don Jackson was having a real shitter of a day.

It had rudely begun when his alarm had failed to go off and he had woken up forty-five minutes late. In a rush, he had scrambled out of bed, grabbing whatever clothes he could find in the closet. Then he remembered that the reps from Stokely-Hart were coming to the office today, so he tore off the polo shirt and jeans he’d normally wear and ripped through the closet, looking for anything that was ironed and ready to go. He eventually found a suit jacket that fit him so long as he didn’t try to button it up. He proceeded to the bathroom to comb what little hair he had left. The faint grey wisps curled over his scalp like tumbleweeds. Then he spilled toothpaste down the front of his shirt and was forced to blot it with water, hoping that it dried before he got to the office.

When at last he was dressed and ready to go, he raced down the stairs and out the front door. Stepping out into the cold November morning, his feet slid out from under him, bringing him down hard on his ass. Don pulled himself to his feet slowly, thoughts of murder in his mind. He penguin-shuffled to the Escalade’s door, then got in. He wondered if it was too late to move to Florida. It had been Dayna’s idea to stay in Toronto, her hometown. Now her parents were six feet under and she had the kids thirteen out of fourteen days, so Don wasn’t exactly sure where he won out in the deal. God knows it wasn’t financially; between alimony and the cost of living in Toronto, he was more fucked than he’d ever been before. 

As he pulled out of the driveway and headed towards the highway, he spied the voicemail indicator on the console. He knew it couldn’t be good, but he pushed play anyway.

“Hey, Don,” began the message. It was Dayna. Don wondered if her voice had always sounded so harpyish, or if turning forty was the reason. “I was just wondering if you might be able to front me next month’s cheque? Shawn has a class trip to Ottawa that’s gotta be paid for by Friday, and we need to put a deposit down on Allison’s braces. I know it’s a pain in the ass, but I could really use your help he–”

“FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU!” screamed Don, slamming his fat finger to the END CALL button. He was now in the merge lane for the highway, the great belt of the 401 pulled tight around the city’s waist. He pushed the Escalade to one-hundred-and-forty, beyond what even the most aggressive drivers would try. Cops loved to earn their taxpayer-funded salaries by fucking over the common man, but Don was willing to risk it. He had places to be, and the debacle this morning had him way behind schedule. 

Ahead of him, a driver signalled to enter his lane. Don put the pedal to the floor. He wasn’t about to let a fucking Sentra into the lane ahead of him. Experience told him they never went more than one-ten, even on a sunny, clear day. He had caught up and was almost parallel with the Sentra when the driver switched lanes anyway, cutting him off, forcing him to slam on the brakes and the horn.

Rage bloomed biliously inside Don, and he raised his finger defiantly in the most universal human expression, pointing it directly at the car ahead of him.

Without warning, the Sentra exploded in a great fiery plume, launching the vehicle into the sky.

Yelling, Don swerved at the last second, feeling the force of the explosion through the window. The road itself vibrated underneath him. Another car struck him, spinning him into the median. He watched impotently as cars piled up behind the burning sedan, sending shards of metal and plastic across the width of the highway. Don rolled down the window and raised his arm to shield himself from the heat. The air was filled with the sound of klaxons and the slow licking snap of the flames. He could see powdered snow melting in rivulets which streamed away from the Sentra’s corpse. Leaning out the window, he saw that the damage to his own car was superficial; he’d only really been redirected, not totalled. He was just about to bulldoze his way through the wrecks and on to the office when he saw the blue-and-red and heard the sirens approaching. 

Don let out one final curse, then turned off the car and picked up his phone. 

*****

It was almost noon by the time Don pulled into the parking lot. He drove up and down the rows looking for a spot, but everything was full. When had they hired so many people? He missed the days when half the team had been working from home. He finally glimpsed a spot at the furthest reaches of the lot, hundreds of meters from the building. He parked the Escalade, then got out, shutting the door behind him, ready to move his two-hundred-and-fifty-pound-ass as quickly as he could. 

There was a tugging. Then a horrific tearing sound joined it, and was roughly pulled down onto said ass. He sat on the ground for a long moment. He already knew what happened. Of course his jacket had been caught in the door. Why wouldn’t it have been? Clearly God hated him. Clearly God couldn’t cut him one fucking break. He picked himself up, using the door’s handle as a brace. He half-expected it to snap-off, but American engineering proved its worth. He got to his feet and began to limp towards the building.

It had taken painfully long for the police and firefighters to clear the wreck. Ambulances had shown, too. Not that they could do anything; Don’s view hadn’t been totally clear from his position against the median, but he couldn’t see anything – not even a charred body – behind the wheel of the Sentra. But bureaucracy loved to fuck over the common man, and so he’d been forced to wait while they took their time. Making things worse, he hadn’t even been able to get through to Mr. Holland while he’d been waiting. Instead, he’d gotten the secretary; a Debra who had icily informed him that Mr. Holland was in the boardroom with the delegation from Stokely-Hart. Don had asked her to leave a message anyway, but he knew it wouldn’t matter. He’d turned off his phone and then tossed it into the back seat. He wasn’t sure if his indifference was shell-shock from the explosion or the simple absurdity of the day he’d experienced, but his vision had narrowed and he’d come to see the world through pinholes, as if he was observing an eclipse; to consider it too closely would be to go insane. He supposed this was some method of self-preservation.

The elevator ride up took far longer than he remembered. Unfortunately, it also had a mirror. Don caught a look of himself, a man with bags under his eyes and toothpaste on his shirt and mud-snow stains on his pants and a great tear in his jacket. Don wondered who that man was. There was a faint buzzing in his head, and he cracked a grin. At least he still had all of his teeth.

The door pinged open on the twenty-fourth floor. Behind him, he heard a gasp.

He turned and saw Mr. Holland standing with a number of strangers. It was not a mystery who they were.

“Don,” said Mr. Holland. “I’m glad you could make it in.”

Don’s eyes shifted from Mr. Holland to the strangers, then back again. “Did Debra get you my message?”

“No,” he replied. “I’ve been in meetings all morning with the team from Stokely-Hart.” He paused, then sighed. “Mr. Prufrock, this is Donald Jackson, the executive who’ll be working with you on your account.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” said Don, extending his hand.

Mr. Prufrock’s eyes widened, and he only nodded as they shook.

“Tell you what,” said Mr. Holland, “Why don’t you all get a few bottles of wine opened for us at the restaurant? Give them some time to breathe. Feel free to order whatever else you’d like, too. I just want to catch Don up on the morning’s discussion.” Without waiting for an answer, he ushered the group onto the elevator. “I’ll see you very shortly! Drive safe.” He watched the door until the second it shut, then wheeled to face Don. “My office. Now.”

Don followed him without a word. People stared at him as he passed through the office, and he responded by staring back until they looked away. When they reached the corner office, Mr. Holland ushered him in. He shut the door behind him. Clouds rolled through the cityscape beyond the window, perilously close. Don wished that he could jump into them and float away.

“You can stand, Jackson. I don’t want that shit on your ass on my upholstery.”

“Sir, I–”

“I don’t care what the fuck you have to say for yourself. I don’t care what the fuck you’ve been through. This is our most important account, and you’ve managed to royally cock it up. How the fuck are you supposed to work with these people now?”

“Sir, if you check the news, you’ll see there was an explosion on the highw–”

“Yes, I saw. It’s all over the news. But the funny thing is, they’re saying the accident happened at nine-thirty or so. You were supposed to be here at nine. Explain that to me.”

“My alarm. . .”

“Give me a fucking break, is this high school? No, you’re done. You’re fired. Clean your shit up from your desk, and I’ll clean up the rest of your shit. Get the fuck out of my office.”

“Sir, you can’t do this.”

“Excuse me? I can do whatever I want.”

“I have a family. . . bills to pay.”

“Don’t care. Should have thought of your family before you decided to fuck us over.”

“Mr. Holland, I’ve had a run of bad luck today. I can get things sorted out, I can run downtown and grab a new suit and meet you all at the restaurant as soon as possible. We can smooth things over.” Don hated how whiny and wheedling his voice sounded, but he didn’t care, so long as it worked – it had to work.

“Leave, Jackson. Before I call security.”

The pinholes had returned. Don saw himself there in the office. A bird flew outside, past the window. He had heard peregrine falcons sometimes roosted in the city. They liked to eat pigeons and other small birds. Skyscrapers kept them safe from humans, who almost never ventured to the roofs. Then he saw the office. The rich furniture, the television. The bottle of whiskey and the mahogany humidor inlaid with the company’s logo. He saw himself take a defiant step forward, and then his perspective changed. He was back in his head, looking out from inside at his middle finger. It pointed directly at Mr. Holland.

The effect was instantaneous. The man swelled inside his suit like the girl in that movie about the chocolate factory, but he kept swelling, turning red instead of blue, his face descending into his neck, his suit buttons popping and whizzing into different corners of the room. One of them pinged into the bottle of whiskey, shattering it. Amber poured to the floor. Don stepped back in horror. Mr. Holland’s eyes rolled wildly in his head, blue orbs in a sea of bubbling red. A low gurgle escaped his mouth.

Then he burst. A cascade of gore exploded like a bloody zit across the room, painting the walls with a sanguine palette, a chunky crimson that caused memories of feeding time at SeaWorld to swim to the forefront of Don’s mind.

Then it was quiet. The only sound was a slow dripping. Don wiped his face with the back of his shirt and it came away red. He tasted metal in his mouth. He turned his hand over, examining it. His mind had begun to form a connection, and a sick thrill rose inside him. He looked about the office and spotted a photo of Holland (no longer a Mr., no longer anything) and his wife. It was spattered with claret but otherwise unharmed. 

“Worth a shot,” muttered Don. He gave the finger to the squat picture frame and a spidery crack appeared across it. Suddenly, glass burst out, sending shrapnel across the room. Don felt something whiz by his cheek, then hot blood down his face. 

He didn’t care. A slow smile had begun to form. His mind began to wheel with possibilities. How did this power work? Was it only on what he could see, or was it on inanimate objects. Would it work on a person on television? What if it was a recording? Don stepped behind Holland’s desk to look for a notebook. He had to test this. He had just stepped aside in order to flip off the desk’s lock when his phone began to ring. Distracted, he picked it up and answered without looking.

“Don! Thank god! I’ve been trying to reach you for days. Haven’t you been getting my messages?”

Don cringed. Dayna’s voice was unmistakable. 

“Sorry, hun, I’ve been busy.”

“Don, don’t call me ‘hun’. We aren’t married anymore.”

“With the amount of money I’ve been giving you, you coulda fooled me.”

“Look, if you’re going to be difficult, forget it. I’ll go to my sister and you can explain to your daughter why she can’t get braces ‘til next month.”

A lightbulb went off in Don’s mind. He practically heard it happen. “Wait! Sorry for being a dick. Are you home now? I can come right over and drop the cheque off.”

“Really? That’s be great! Thank you for understanding, Don. I knew you had it in you. See you soon.”

“See you, hun.” 

Don ended the call and pocketed the phone. He caught a glimpse of himself in the inky reflection of Holland’s television. His smile was positively Chesherian.

 This day was turning out to be pretty good after all.

*****

Don drove the speed limit on the way to his wife’s house. He had taken off his jacket and used it to wipe his face down as best he could, but he was sure he hadn’t gotten it all. He considered leaving the jacket, then decided it was better if there was as little of him at the scene as possible. Besides, what could they get him for? He wasn’t aware of any murder weapons that could explode a man from the inside out. After that, he had walked through the office as swiftly as he could, ignoring the stares he felt boring into him. He reached the elevator and took it down and passed out through the lobby and across the parking lot, resisting the urge to run. Each moment bracing himself for the sound of sirens.

The drive to the house wasn’t long, but adrenaline and stress blended into a delirious cocktail, making every kilometer feel like eons. Don finally allowed himself to breathe once he pulled into the quiet suburb. Somehow it was impossible to envision cops finding him here. He drove through the rows of quiet houses, the pallid November sky hovering threateningly overhead.

He pulled into the driveway, then shut off the car. It had begun to rattle partway through, almost certainly a consequence of the morning’s accident. Insurance would cover that. If the cops didn’t find a way to blame him, his now-certain promotion would cover a lot more. The smile returned to his face. Just this last stop, and he’d be free. He checked his watch. It wasn’t even one-thirty. The kids would still be at school, and Dayna would be all alone. He wished he had something to say; some catchphrase, some pithy one-liner, but he had nothing. It didn’t matter. It’s not like she’d remember.

He walked up the stoop, noting the salt across it. He felt an odd kind of gratitude for Dayna’s foresight. He’d fallen on his ass enough times today. Still, it wouldn’t be enough to change things. He knocked on the door, then raised his hand, keeping his middle finger semi-curled, cocked and ready to go. He considered for a second, then raised his other hand, doing the same thing. His cheeks hurt from smiling.

There was the sound of footsteps on the other side, and the door swung open.

Several things happened very quickly. 

Don’s fingers shot up triumphantly, accompanied by a roaring “HERE YOU GO, BITCH!”

Don’s daughter, Emma, looked up at him from below, smiling in her pyjamas. She had a box of Kleenex in her hand and a stuffed tiger under her arm. Her nose was red and her eyes watery, but she smiled and cried “DADDEEE!” 

This was not a situation Don had considered.

The good news is that Emma was only five, and rather short for her age. Don’s fingers were pointed well over her head.

The bad news was that there was a mirror in the front hall directly opposite the door.

#9 – Zombie in the Woodshed

“Wanna go play?”

Cade stared across the table at his younger brother, who was just now finishing up breakfast. Alex stirred the last flecks of cereal around in his bowl. The milk was dyed a snotlike green but he didn’t seem to care. He was focused on fishing out the last few pieces.

“Alex?”

“Yeah?”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“I did. . . I was just thinking. Maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore.”

“Why not? It’s fun.”

“Fun doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Cade rolled his eyes. “It’s a game, Alex. It’s not like the Pope is planning on visiting.”

Alex sighed. It was fun. Sometimes, at least. “Fine,” he relented.

“Great!” smiled Cade. “Meet me out back when you’re done.”

“Sure thing,” said Alex. He watched his brother walk away. Cade stopped in front of the pantry for a second, then pulled out a case of soda. The cans rattled within. He hefted it up over his shoulder and then went out the back door. 

Alex watched the door for a moment longer, then turned back to his breakfast.

— 

Saturday morning dew clung to the grass and soaked through to Alex’s socks as he crossed the yard to the woodshed near the back fence. It sat in the shadow of a willow tree and though the rooftop shingles were curling up in places the building itself seemed otherwise in good condition. The door hung proper and straight and a heavy padlock curled around a clasp to seal it shut. Cade was leaning against the shed when Alex arrived, flinging the key about on a lanyard. It whizzed through the air and made beesounds.

“Finally,” said Cade. “Thought you’d gone to take a shit or something.”

“Frig off. I was just getting dressed.”

“Dressed to impress, right?” Then before Alex could respond and delay them any further, Cade turned and opened the lock. It fell to the grass. Then he pulled the door open and stepped inside. Alex followed him. 

The shed seemed to radiate an oppressive gloom, the daylight somehow harsh when contrasted with the dark. Cade reached up and pulled a cord and a sole yellow bulb coated in some unknowable film lit the place as best it could. A heavy green tarp the colour of garbage bags covered one corner of the room. There was a short pile of wood from last winter here, from when they weren’t sure how long the power would be out for. Against the other wall were a collection of tools: axes, sledges, and the like. Alex turned to look at his options while Cade pulled back the tarp.

It always took a moment for it to react when the tarp came back, which made a certain twisted sense; surely the neurons weren’t firing the same way anymore. Then a gurgling groan came from the corner. A single eye revealed itself slowly. It rolled about in its socket, leaping between the two boys. There was the clanging of chains and a low pulling sound of flesh against wood. The zombie crawled out of the shadows, its arms and legs chained behind it. It moved forward on its breast, leaving a thin trail of sloughed skin where it passed. It never stopped pulling. The eye never stopped moving. 

As it got closer, Alex was able to see the memories of their play. One eye hung loosely from its socket, dried and deflated. A shoot of bone erupted from its left shin. Ribs were visible underneath the loose tiedyed tank top the creature wore. They pointed out at strange, unsettling angles. Splintered teeth in the zombie’s mouth gave it a sharklike appearance. Cords in its neck strained to reach him. Against his best intentions, Alex recoiled.

Without warning, the sledge came down on the zombie’s back. There was a horrific sound of bones crunching like splintering drywall and a gout of blood erupted from inside the creature’s mouth, splashing out across the hardpacked soil floor. It began to soak into the earth. 

Cade hefted the sledge in his hand, smiling at Alex. “What are you waiting for? Have at it!”

Alex turned and selected a pair of garden shears from the tool wall. The light caught them and they glimmered with a hungry fire. Behind him, he heard the wet thud of the sledge hitting the zombie again. He opened the shears and turned to join in.

— 

It wasn’t something they had planned on doing, and neither of them knew fully what the consequences might be. Up until a month ago, zombies had only ever existed in movies. A minor outbreak of a mutated rabies virus from a military lab had changed that dynamic, but a swift response had limited the death toll to only a few dozen. The military sent out notices and set up hotlines so that the public could report any zombie sightings; under no circumstances were they to engage. Only if you were trapped, they emphasized, should you fight. Just like in the movies, the only way to kill one was by destroying the brain. It had been a PR disaster for the military, but the quick extermination of the zombies had settled the public’s nerves. 

Commentators later credited the plan’s success to people’s willingness to help. The public had had enough sense to stay indoors and to call the authorities when a zombie was sighted. 

The only exception to this had been Cade, who had awoken one day to the sound of somebody rummaging about in the woodshed. When he had gone out to investigate, he had found the zombie on its knees; perhaps looking for some animal that had run into the shed. Without stopping to think, Cade rushed into the shed, pulled a shovel from the wall, and hit the creature on the back of the head, poleaxing it. It slumped to the floor but was not dead. Cade considered killing it, but the high of the fight made his head swim. Another idea occurred to him. In a corner of the shed coated with dust he found the chains his dad used to secure the barbecue to the deck in the summer. He quickly wrapped them around the zombie’s limbs, then hammered them to the wall with large framing nails. Pleased with himself, he had rushed to find Alex. 

That was a week ago. They had been out to the shed every day since, taking turns with the zombie. Their only rule was that they couldn’t destroy the brain, or else the game would be over.

— 

They paused now for a quick break. They had opened two cans of soda and sipped at them greedily, the air in the shed hot and humid from their work. The metallic odour of blood bit their nostrils. Cade pulled another can out of the box and whipped it at the zombie. It bounced off the creature’s forehead, leaving a small dent, then rolled off into the woodpile.

Then the break was over. Whatever reluctance Alex might have felt that morning was gone now. His shears cut great sheaves of flesh from the zombie. Muscle barely clung to bone in places. Cade had switched to a cultivator, running it down the thing’s back like some hellish ploughman, carving deep red grooves into the monster. The zombie never stopped pulling at the chains. Never stopped reaching for its tormentors.

Eventually, they heard the sound of their mother calling them for lunch. Neither of their parents knew about the game, and neither son had any intent of telling. It was early in the spring and so it would be some time before either parent would need to go out to the shed. They still had time left to play.

“We should probably head in before she comes looking for us,” said Alex.

“Yeah,” said Cade. He placed the cultivator in a bucket of water that they used to soak the tools. His eyes now scanned the wall for something else he could use. “Cover for me for a few minutes, okay?”

“Sure thing,” said Alex. He went to leave, then stopped in the doorway. “Hey, Cade?”

“Yeah?” asked Cade. He paused, a short hatchet in his hand.

“This was fun,” smiled Alex. “Let’s do it again soon.”

“Same time tomorrow?”

“Deal.”

Satisfied, Alex smiled and closed the shed door behind him. He whistled as he crossed the yard, the faint sounds of violence following in his wake. 

#8 – Nightlight

This story is the second part of a longer tale. For the first part, click here.

You lie in your bed at the end of a busy Christmas day and think that this feeling must be one of the most sublime feelings a human can feel. You do not have the words to express this sentiment. The room is dark save for the light of the moon reflecting through slitted blinds from the painfully white snow which lies quiet and unbroken underneath the ash trees in the backyard. When Christmas was white, long ago. Downstairs are the murmuring sounds of holiday re-runs of Roseanne and Married… With Children playing loudly enough to be comforting but quiet enough to still allow sleep. Your parents in front of the television, happy with the joy they’ve brought you and the life you’ve built for you and your sister. You roll over. Maybe there is a new teddy bear next to you, or even just new pyjamas on your body. Something to remind you that though the world outside is busy and cold and unfeeling, tonight is still and warm and full of love.

Your parents have just tucked you into bed. They put the corners of the sheets down under the mattress in the way you like. You told your big sister, Stephanie, that this is simply to save you effort making it in the morning and to keep the cold out because sometimes the window gets drafty when the wind comes from the lee side of the house, but really it is because some childish part of your brain still runs free when the lights are off and the house is quiet save for the sounds of the television. The childbrain argues that monsters are real and since you’ve just seen the Oklahoma City Bomber on TV you know it’s true even if Timothy McVeigh can’t possibly be under your bed.

The room is quiet. You can still hear the noises from downstairs and see a faint yellow fan of light under the door from across the hall where your big sister talks on the see-thru phone she got special for Christmas, the one that’s on a separate line so mom and dad can’t listen in. This was very exciting for Stephanie but you can’t imagine why it would matter if mom and dad heard what you talk to your friends about. Her voice on the other side is comforting. The knowledge that somebody who cares about you is just on the other side of the door is a sacred thing, and you hold it close to your heart. It beats back the dark.

The only other light in the room is a small nightlight, just a pale blue orb behind a plastic butterfly. It’s plugged into the wall at the far side of the room by the closet. It doesn’t cast much light but it doesn’t need to. You’ve never liked the dark, not really. You used to sleep in the light but your mother and father sat you down and told you that you would need to grow out of this because the electricity had become more and more expensive in recent years. You were very upset about this but had been consoled by your parents agreeing to allow a low-wattage nightlight.

You watch it now through heavy eyes. The world just beginning to fade. Oblivion waiting. 

Then, without warning, the light rises. It lifts from its place behind the butterfly ornament that adorns the light and becomes marginally brighter. It’s still little more than a solitary Christmas bulb. It floats through the air slowly as if being guided by an unseen hand. You watch with a hesitant and uncomfortable mix of awe and fear as it halts just by the foot of your bed. You sit up. Childlike explanations without weight run through your head and fail to find purchase. 

The light shifts. There’s something behind it. Holding it. Fear unlike anything you’ve felt before tears through you. People always told you fear was cold but they were wrong, this is a blazing stripe of fire coursing through you, quickening your pulse and pulling at your heart. The light shifts as the bearer raises it past his face, and you see then that it is the face of a man except that it’s not; there are lines etched into it like kintsukuroi patterns except there’s no beauty here, just pallid skin and a mouth which seems to drift about the thing’s face like a toothy lilypad on the surface of a pond. You feel it steal your breath. Desperate for a solution, you reach out to your right and pull the light cord. The room fills with stale yellow light.

The man is gone. You look down to the right by the closet and see that the nightlight is still there, untouched. Your heartbeat begins to slow. The clammy feeling on your skin begins to recede. The fear doesn’t last as long as it would in an adult, whose mind would process its metaphysical implications. The child doesn’t care. She, who is you, just wants to sleep.

You read a book you had been given for Christmas for ten minutes and then the world begins to fade. Your body wants to sleep. You know you need to. With only the slightest hesitation, the light goes off again.

Click. 

The light floats there. The man’s face grinning behind. The smile has slid down now to where a mouth should be, and he watches you.

Click.

The light goes on. You hope mom and dad don’t notice. They wouldn’t like you playing with the light. You don’t think Stephanie would notice the flickering under the door anyway. She’s too busy on the phone. Besides, she wouldn’t tell. You and her share all kinds of secrets.

Click. 

The man is still there, the light still there. It has not moved. A wash of bravery overwhelms you and in the absence of other options you raise your voice to the shape in the dark.

“Hello?” you call.

“Hello,” he answers. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.” The voice reminds you of a wheezing cartoon elephant that you watch on Saturday mornings. High and breathy. 

“It’s okay,” you say, even if you’re still a little frightened. The apology has eased your feelings a little bit. “Why do you disappear when I turn out the light?”

The mouth drifts over to the man’s right cheek. It parts and his tongue lolls out. He points it cheekily and says “I don’t like the yellow light. It doesn’t feel good on my skin. That’s why I disappear when you turn the light on.”

“But why do you keep the nightlight with you, then?”

“Oh,” he says, and the mouth slides into a sideways frown. “That.” The light bobs up and down in the dark. “Well, it’s a little embarrassing.”

“You can tell me.”

“Really?”

“Promise.”

“Pinky promise?”

“Pinky promise.” You hold out your tiny pinky finger. It glows a fuzzy peach glow against the nightlight floating before you. A long finger, too long, curls itself around your pinky. It’s able to wrap itself around twice before stopping. It’s cold and dry and makes you want to pull back but something about the sanctity of the pinky promise keeps you from doing so. The thing behind the light smiles at you and then releases your finger. 

“Before I tell you what’s embarrassing, I’d like to know your name. I can’t keep a secret with anybody without knowing their name.”

This makes sense to you. You tell him your name and you feel a rush of excitement when the thing quivers with joy upon hearing it. 

“That’s a lovely name!” he cries. “What an absolutely beautiful name.” He then leans forward in a deep bow, bending at the waist until his head disappears beyond the foot of the bed. “I,” he exclaims dramatically, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” Then he pops back up, the smile replaced on his face. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too,” you tell him. You aren’t sure if you believe it, but your parents taught you it was the polite thing to say when somebody has introduced themself to you. You have more questions of course – why he’s called the Bric-a-Brac Man, for one – but now is not the right time. He has a secret that you’re dying to know.

“Tell me,” you insist. 

“Tell you what?” His voice is a pantomime. He’s speaking to you in the same way your father does when he pretends to be surprised by the simple card tricks you learned in the book Stephanie and you picked out at the library. 

“The secret!”

“I’m afraid I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

“You promised! You promised to tell me why you took the nightlight!”

The Bric-a-Brac Man holds the floating bulb up to his face as if he’s seeing it for the first time. “This?” he says. “Oh, this is just a silly thing. I just thought it was pretty. I assume that’s why you keep it on in your room at night.”

“Nuh-uh,” you say. “I keep it on in my room at night because–”

“–Because what?” 

You don’t answer right away. A realization has come to you, shuddering and powerful. You look at the Bric-a-Brac Man with the confident swagger you ascribe to the detectives you see on TV and whisper: “You’re afraid of the dark.”

A look crosses the Bric-a-Brac Man’s face. It’s just for a second, but you see it and you know that you’re right. You don’t laugh, though. It wouldn’t be right to laugh. “It’s okay,” you say. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“What?” asks the Bric-a-Brac Man. His face has disappeared behind the bulb again. The voice is sullen and heavy. 

“I’m afraid of the dark too.”

There is a long silence. Then, after a moment, you hear a sniffle. Empathy steals into you and you want to reach out, but you’re tucked into bed still. So you pull your feet out from under the covers and step out onto the floor. Your new pyjamas keep your legs warm. You hear the sound of Stephanie from the other side of the door but it doesn’t matter now because your new friend needs you. He’s right there, after all. For a moment, you consider calling out to see if mom can help because she makes everything and everyone feel better, but you decide not to. You’re a big kid now. You can handle things like this. You walk to the foot of the bed and put your hand on the Bric-a-Brac Man’s arm. It feels just as cold as his finger did, but that doesn’t matter. This is what friends are for.

“I’ve always been afraid,” says the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Ever since I was a kid.” He sniffs again. It’s the loudest thing in the room. You can see now that a pale knife of moonlight cuts across the pillow where you laid previously and you wonder for a moment what that must have looked like. The Bric-a-Brac Man continues. “I had a mean daddy that didn’t take care of me. He never bought me a nightlight and I just had to sleep in the dark. I was so scared all the time.”

You look up at him. He looks down at you, the blue light of the nightlight cold against his face. His smile rests higher than before, close to his nose. “It’s okay,” you say. “I’m afraid, too.”

“I just want to stop being afraid,” he says.

A thought comes to you. Something mom and dad always said. “My mom and dad told me that the best way to get used to the dark is to stop sleeping with the light on. That’s why they gave me the nightlight. So it would help me get used to just a little bit of dark first. And then one day we would get rid of that too.”

“I-I-I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

You squeeze his arm. “Me neither.” 

“Maybe we can do it together?” he suggests.

Fear trickles into your gut. It’s slow and cold and makes you aware of everything at once. The sounds of your family. The absolute stillness of the world outside the window. The snow which curls against the pane. The muted hum of the furnace from the register in the floor. And the Bric-a-Brac Man – your friend – standing beside you. 

“Okay,” you say. “Let’s turn out the light. Just for a minute. Just a little at first, okay?”

He nods, but says nothing. You can see the fright in his eyes. The mouth rests against his chin, downcast and worried. 

“We’ll count down together. From three.”

“Can we make it five?” 

You look at him. You’ve never seen anyone look so afraid. You nod your assent. “Let’s take turns counting. I’ll start.”

“Five. . .”

“Four . . .”

“Three . . .”

“Two . . .”

“One–”

Then, for the briefest second, you see something flash in his eyes. It doesn’t look like fear at all. It looks like hunger.

The light goes out.

It does not come back on.

Part Two of Twelve

#7 – The Faerie

Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a small townhouse on the edge of a village in Ontario that few people would be able to find on a map. He lived there with his mother and his dog but not with his father, who had left some time before. The house was as you might imagine; the strange blend of immaculate and messy that is the domain of the perpetually overworked. Kitchen counters and toilet bowls gleamed with an iridescent shine even as shoes were piled haphazardly in the darkest furthest corners of the closet. 

The boy was named Kieran, an unusual name in that part of the country, but not so unusual that it singled him out among his peers. As a result, he was not unhappy, but was generally considered a bit odd. Perhaps it was his oddness that led him to make the decisions he would come to make.

It began when their beloved spaniel mutt Nell got very sick very quickly. It pained Kieran to look at her. She was the kind of dog who wagged her tail at the slightest provocation; who smiled the same guileless dog’s grin that shines in peoples’ minds long after their friend is dead and buried and gone. She laid in the corner of their living room where it was dark and cool and her chest rose and fell like the bellows of a blasted forge. Seeing this, Kieran looked to his mother, who shook her head sadly for she had no answers.


“It’s a natural thing,” she explained. “Nell is old. This happens to animals. We have to love them as much as we can because their lives are far shorter than ours. We have to give them everything we can. It’s what they deserve.” Her voice was sad and restrained. The dog had been her own, once. Many years prior, when she had first moved to that small town that cannot be found on any map, she had selected the dog from the local animal shelter. That unnamed dog who would be named Nell had smiled incessantly at her from behind the gaol walls as the howls and barks and cries of other dogs hovered about her ears with the smell of the shit and piss and the dog had not seemed to care the slightest about any of that, not so long as she was looking in Ellie’s eyes. 

Ellie was Kieran’s mother, though he did not call her that.

Within twenty minutes, Ellie had completed the necessary paperwork. Fifty dollars and a lot of wheedling had convinced the employee at the animal shelter to let the poor dog go without reference calls. Ellie considered later that perhaps she should have been worried about getting a dog from a shelter who seemed so willing to shirk the rules, but she consoled herself with the knowledge that her haste had been driven largely by the abhorrent conditions and so anyone similarly looking to bypass the waiting period would likely have the same altruistic sensibilities in their heart.

Now her heart was seeking to betray her. She had filled it so full of love for this poor small beast that she now would be forced to watch as the dog whiled away its last hours in the corner of a living room that was furnished with old argyle-patterned couches that Ellie’s father – Kieran’s grandfather – had called chesterfields. Ellie and Kieran sat on a chesterfield and he cried into her breast, the act of which awoke some atavistic maternal fire inside her, and so she leapt to her feet and said taxes be damned bills be damned mortgage be damned we’re going to save this dog’s life. And so she scooped up the little dog in her arms. The poor thing whimpering a low whine like a tyre slowly deflating. They walked out to their sports utility vehicle, the one that got surprisingly good mileage even if it looked ugly as sin, and put the dog in the back with the seats folded down. Kieran laid out a small grey blanket with a flannel lining for her and Nell opened her bleary red-rimmed rheumy eyes and saw him and thanked him in that quiet way that dogs – especially sick dogs – do.

“Okay,” said Ellie. “I need to get to the vet quick. But you still have homework. There’s no sense in us both being gone and you not getting your homework done, so please stay and do some work. I promise it’ll be better than sitting around.” She reached into her wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and a ten-dollar bill, which together made thirty dollars. “Here’s some money for pizza. Order whatever you like. Don’t worry about saving me some.” She leaned forward and kissed Kieran on the top of the head. “Be good, and let me know if you need me. I’m going to get Nell saved.”

Kieran was a brave boy, and he certainly didn’t mind being home alone, but the thought of being apart from his beloved dog in what could be her final moments was almost too much to bear. Tears began to fill his eyes like milky ponds swelling with springtime thawwater and Ellie saw this and pulled him close before he could say anything more. “Hey,” she said. “None of that, now. I’m not going to let anything happen to Nell.” She put a finger under her son’s chin, tilting his head back until he looked back at her. His eyes were blue and bright, abyssal sapphires. Ellie sometimes wondered how she could have created something so beautiful. How could anyone? She turned her brown eyes to his blue and said “It’s going to be okay. But if nothing can truly be done, I promise I will let you know and that you can take a cab or an Uber and come to the clinic to say as many good-byes as you want.” Kieran nodded back and she was satisfied. She climbed behind the wheel of the sports utility vehicle and closed the door. The roar of the engine. She waved mutely from behind the windscreen and reversed out of the driveway and into the street which was shining hotly with the afternoon sun and then she drove down the street to where their road met another road and then she was gone. 

Kieran stood dully in the driveway, unsure of what to do next. He considered actually doing his homework for about half a second before he decided that that would be a very poor use of his time. He did fully intend on ordering the pizza but he wasn’t close to hungry yet, especially with the raw sewage of emotion roiling around inside his belly. He walked into the house in a daze. It seemed smaller when he entered, as if a giant had approached the house and placed a giant pinstriped plastic straw down the chimney and sucked up as much air as it could. Kieran thought then of the explorers who had found King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and what they must have felt when they travelled down the tunnel into a place not touched by man in thousands of years, not since the last robber had left and the blistering sand had smothered the dead. He looked at the dark corner where Nell had lain and the image of a golden funeral mask shaped and worked to match her pointed grey muzzle overwhelmed him, slapping him with a claustrophobia so intense that he rushed to the bathroom on the first floor, the one where his mother kept two sets of towels; the good kind that was for guests and lived under the sink as well as the bad kind which were raggedy and stained and were out all of the time when no guests were around, and he threw up, retching hideously until the white virginal porcelain was stained a technicoloured ochre. Then he got up, wiping his mouth with one of the bad towels. He knew then that he couldn’t stay in the house. Not while his mother was away and Nell was sick and they weren’t there. He returned to the kitchen where the keys his mother had had made for him at the hardware store hung from a hook on a Spider-Man lanyard. He grabbed them and pulled them over his head as if he had won a very boring medal and then he left through the back door of the townhouse, locking it behind him. 

Their townhouse, while not terribly big, was still considered nicer than most because it abutted a large and dense forest right on the edge of town. Kieran walked out to the backyard where the grass had grown long and ragged like lousy hair but it still glimmered with a kind of brilliance in the late day sun when the air hung heavy like a withheld breath and the mites and mosquitos and no-see-ems played as semi-sentient motes of dust. The forest beyond waiting in sullen silence. Kieran locked the door behind him and then slipped ghostlike into the trees. 

The paths beyond were seldom trod. There was a proper trail two kilometers to the west where the local conservation authority used trimmers and blowers and other tools to shout back the forest, paving the way so that people could walk without fear of poison ivy against their ankles or of the spiders’ webs stretched like gossamer clotheslines between trees. Kieran didn’t like walking those trails because walking was exactly what it was. He came to the forest to seek adventure, not to walk through a museum. He had done so since he and his mother had moved to this place shortly after the divorce. It had begun with brief sojourns in the early morning. He had always taken care to pack a water bottle and a walking stick, and he wore long pants and long socks to ensure his ankles were covered to protect him against some of the threats listed above. It was not long after that that he had read The Lord of the Rings and discovered the Rangers, the super-human breed of Men who walked through the wilds of Middle-Earth, blazing new trails and defending those they loved from harm. He had begun to range too. He developed a keen sense of direction which guided him deeper and deeper into the forest. Sometimes he took Nell, but not often, since she was old and would not be inclined to travel far. He made sure to do his rangings only when his mother was at work for she would certainly worry if he disappeared for hours while she was at home. Besides, she couldn’t understand. The woods had brought him more peace than he had thought the world capable of providing.

It was this desire for peace that drove him into the woods after his mother had left. He walked slowly, without any real destination in mind. He wove between trees that stood heavy and solemn with a fangornian presence, running his hands along the bark, feeling the grooves etched into each tree; the knots, the whorls. Touching them grounded him in their world and pulled him away from the one behind him, the one where all the sorrow and misery seemed to reside. The forest murmured with a threatening quiet. As if his footfalls were an obscenity. He travelled further, each step another chance to forget. His thoughts turned to Nell and then his mother and then back to the dog. He cared deeply about them in the way that children do, which is to say unconditionally and without any fear of a parting.

Kieran pushed the thoughts aside. He had spied a path that veered away into the brush. He frowned. He hadn’t walked that far yet. How could he have come across something he’d never seen? Bristled greenery covered the trail, all burrs and thorns, but he thought he saw the faints imprints of some animal. A deer, perhaps. Maybe a coyote had chased it this way. Could there be something beyond? He rounded a tree to the other side of the shrubbery then saw where the trail continued. It was an emaciated, pathetic thing, but it was there. He stopped and listened. The wind passing through the trees above sounded like waves. A memory rose in his mind of his mother and father and him at the beach along with Nell. She gambolled in the surf, leaping with all of the joy that youth could bring. Seagulls cried and wheeled overhead. The sand hot beneath his feet, in his toes, in his bathing suit. It didn’t matter. The day was perfect. It was also gone. Kieran shook his head, trying to rid himself of the thoughts which redounded against one another. With little else available to him, he followed the trail.

It flowed like a muddy trickle deeper into the woods to the places where the trees grew heavier still and hid their faces from the sun as if in mourning. No sound of insect or bird or rodent here either. Shale and limestone began to jut out of the earth. Kieran scrambled over them to follow the trail, which seemed now to be rushing away from him with a terrified urgency. He broke into a sprint. His shoes weren’t really made for running in the woods, and he was old enough and smart enough to know the risks of catching his foot on a root, but knowing this didn’t make it matter because nothing mattered more than finding the end of the trail. This is why Kieran was so surprised when it ended suddenly. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find; he was too old to believe in leprechauns with their pots of gold, and he knew nobody lived in these woods.

The fork in the tree at the trail’s ending was unlike any he had ever seen. It parted near the base, spreading wide in the middle before closing again at the top. After that, the tree grew as normal. A light shone through the hole. Kieran couldn’t see from where; the grove was cast in the same shadows as before. The sun would be westering soon anyway, and west was behind him, the way home. He bent down to look through the tree. He furrowed his brow, confused. Still on his hands and knees, he leaned around the forked tree until he could see beyond. Then he looked back. It was the same as it had been, but the view through the tree appeared clouded and cataracky. 

The golden light still shone through. 

With a trembling hand, Kieran reached into the tree, passing his fingers through the light. There was a uterine warmth on the other side. It seemed to draw him deeper. He climbed further into the tree, bringing his body beyond the light. He exited out the other side of the tree, then climbed to his feet, wiping dirt from his knees and elbows. He scanned the forest, trying to get his bearings. The forest had not changed, but was suffused with the same luminescence that he had seen through the tree. If there was a source to it, it could not be seen. It seemed to exist all around him. He stepped further into the forest, a strange mix of curiosity and apprehension driving him onward. He did not travel far before he found the stump.

It was a short, squat thing, totally desiccated and yet somehow flush with life; some kind of mossy grass grew across its scalp and short white flowers ringed with spearshaped petals poked up from their berths in that verdant lawn. Below this garden, in the face of the stump itself, were carved small doors alongside which tiny windows peered out. The designs on these doors were intricate and lined, perhaps to match the stump itself in some capacity. The windows were simple things, with frames that reminded Keiran vaguely of hermit crabs in their homes. A long root reached down into the earth with grasping fingers and on it was carved a path leading to one of the doors. Unsure of what to make of this discovery, Kieran did the only thing any polite person would consider: he knocked on the door. 

The door stood implacable for a long moment. Kieran watched it for so long that his eyes began to water. Then, just as the surreality of the situation began to impress itself upon him, the door flung open, and a grey-white light like the clouded moon flitted out hummingbirdlike from the chamber beyond, spinning and leaping in great arcs around the clearing until it at last came to rest in the air in front of Kieran’s face. His eyes quickly adjusted and fixed themselves upon the figure which floated before him. 

“Hello,” said Keiran.

“Hi,” said the creature, “I’m bztstz.” This was not her true name, of course; the fae language is impossible to render with any human alphabet. Hearing it, Kieran chose to nod along and avoid addressing her by name whenever possible.

“Um,” said Kieran, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve never seen anyone or anything quite like you. What are you?” He asked this question with the blunt naïvité that all children possess.

“I’m a faerie,” said the faerie, rising to Kieran’s face. “Ain’t you ever seen a faerie before?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well, take a good look, because you’re seeing one now!”

So Kieran did take a good look. It still wasn’t what he expected. When he thought of faeries, he thought of Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. This creature before him didn’t look anything like her. For one, her dress was vaguely orpheline, scratched and tattered and it looked like it had been made with leaves or a bit of burlap, maybe even a few loose twigs for a spine. Her hair was a tangled mousebrown mess which sprawled across her head, not the neat blonde bun that Tinkerbell wore. More than that, her whole aspect lacked the warmth that Tink projected and was instead replaced with an animalistic eagerness, ferretlike and nosy. Worst of all were the teeth: whenever the faerie spoke, her mouth revealed yellowed and holed shark’s teeth which encircled the whole of her maw, even the inside of her cheeks.

This was all a lot for Kieran to take in. So instead of reacting to anything concerning her appearance, he asked the most obvious question he could think of: “are you able to grant wishes?”

“Sure!” she said. She did a short circle in the air and was clearly excited to demonstrate. “But not for free! Oh no no no not for free!”

“Well, what would you like in return? I have thirty dollars.” Kieran proffered the money, splaying the two notes apart like he’d seen people do in movies. He was more than willing to pay thirty dollars, an astronomical sum to him, in order to make his wish.

“People money? Sfstszs!” she spat, a terrible curse in the faerie tongue. “No, I don’t need no people money. I just need food! Food food food. D’ya have any?”

“Not on me, no. I think I saw some mushrooms on my way in, but you probably know about those already. Oh, I know! I have some blackberries back home in the fridge. If you don’t mind, I can go back and get them.”

“Mushrooms? Berries? Not a chance! No, I need meat! Bloody and fresh! D’ya have any?”

“I mean, I was about to order a pizza with pepperoni on it–”

“Not pig not hog no no no I want something new! Something special!”

It was at this point that Kieran understood the way she was looking at him. She was hovering dangerously close to his face. Some drool had escaped her mouth and fallen down the front of her shift. Kieran made a fist without realizing it. He had never been in a fight in his life, but he was confident he could win a fistfight against a person no larger than a bird.

“No need for violence!” cried the faerie. “No need at all. I’m small, don’t need much to go on. Small amount of meat lasts long time!” She thought for a second. “Tell you what! Let’s trade! Tiny bit of meat, something you don’t need. Then I’ll do magick!”

Kieran considered this for a moment. There were surely parts of himself he would sacrifice to make a wish. Bits of flesh nobody really needed. His first thought was his appendix, but the access was an issue. Then he realized that there were so many superfluous parts to the human body. The tip of the nose, the earlobe, the male nipples . . . even some of the fingers were bordering on extravagance. Truthfully, when have he ever used his pinky fingers other than for making promises?

“Alright,” he finally said. “I’ll trade you for a wish.”

“Deal! Deal deal deal!” The faerie brimmed with excitement, crossing back and forth in the air in front of him. “What do you wish for? Gotta tell me if you want it! Can’t do no magick if you don’t tell!”

Kieran looked at her, thought about it for one second more, then nodded. “I want my dog to live forever.”

“And what do you give?” The faerie’s teeth seemed to gleam wickedly in the aura she emitted.

“My pinky finger. You can have it.”

“Good! Deal! Done! Dog will live forever.” The faerie swooped to his fingertips. “I’m ready, are you?”

Kieran didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “Go ahead.”

The faerie launched herself at his pinky finger, wrapping her mouth around it like a leech. Kieran closed his eyes. There was an intense flash of pain, then an icy numbing sensation. He looked down at his hand. Blood oozed from the stump of his finger just above the first knuckle. It looked to be clotting already. His eyes met the faerie’s. She was holding his finger, licking at the wound on the aft end. “No pain, right? Thought you’d like that. Means you might decide to help me again.”

Kieran nodded. He supposed that made sense. “I should go now,” he said. “I need to see my dog again.”

“Of course,” said the faerie. “Go back through the tree. Then on to home. Come back if you need anything else!”

So Kieran left that place, returning back through the hole in the tree. When he passed beyond it, the world seemed darker, sharper somehow. The sun had now drifted beyond the horizon. He walked toward its bed as the shadows climbed the trees around him. Nighthings began to stir in the canopy above him and the soil beneath his feet but he paid them no mind. He knew these paths.

The light on the back porch was on when he approached the townhouse. It glowed impudently and Kieran was glad to see it as he approached the door, pulling the key out of his pocket. The wound on his hand had fully dried and now ached faintly. He realized then that he would need to think of some explanation for his mother, who would certainly not be happy to see him missing a finger. He turned the key and opened the door. 

Any further thinking was then interrupted by a bounding sound of footsteps, two short joyful cries and a dog’s paws against his stomach. Nell had leapt up at him as soon as he opened the door and he laughed and scratched her muzzle and let himself be carried to the floor by her weight. She licked his face and his cheeks and whimpered with excitement to see him, wagging her tail ferociously. Kieran held her and told her that he loved her just as much as she loved him.

“Kieran? Is that you?”

Kieran looked up, stuffing his hand in his pocket. His mother stood in the hall. The dim light of the single table lamp lit her from below, making her look older than she was.

“I was worried sick. I come home and you’re not here . . . we’ll have to talk about that later, but I’m guessing you can see that now’s a time for celebrating.” She crouched down by him and Nell and the way the light played against her face changed, revealing her for who she was. “It was the most incredible thing. She was lying there, with the vet’s stethoscope against her chest. She was doing that horrible panting thing from earlier where it sounded like she was struggling to breathe, but then she just perked up as if it had never happened. She literally leapt off the table while the vet and I watched. The vet said she’d never seen anything like it. She still took some blood and ran some other tests, but she didn’t know what to say . . . by all signs, our sweet girl is totally healthy.” Ellie wiped her eyes. It hadn’t felt real until she had told Kieran. She bent to Nell’s head and kissed her.

“That’s incredible,” said Kieran. He looked at Nell. “I’m so glad you’re okay, girl.”

“Did you even get to ordering that pizza?” asked Ellie. “I’m starving.”

“I uh . . . I got distracted,” said Kieran. “Do you want to order now?”

“Sounds like a plan, sweetie.” Ellie stood up. She looked from Kieran to Nell and smiled. Everything was going to be okay.

Kieran watched her leave the room, then pulled his hand out of his pocket. Nell looked at it with dogeyed curiosity. She sniffed the open wound, but did not lick it. Instead, she laid down and placed her head on Kieran’s lap, sighing a slow canine sigh. Kieran stroked her head with his other hand, running his fingers through her coat. He traced the furrowed lines they drew and began to think of what else he might want to wish for.

#6 – The Girl in the Glass

I’ll never forget the night I met her.

It was the same kind of night as any other night; I finished up my work at 4:30, then switched to gaming right away. I browsed the Internet with my second monitor between matches. I read about the world, getting the latest news on politics and pop culture. I read about upcoming movie releases. I watched videos on YouTube of people I’ve never met doing more interesting things than I’d ever do. Sometimes those videos made me sad, so I’d switch to somebody ranting about the latest Star Wars movie or an old sitcom. It didn’t really matter. It wasn’t about entertainment so much as it was background noise. 

I first read the term hikikomori on an internet forum for people like me. The lonely ones. The word is Japanese and refers to a group of people, mostly adolescents and young men, who almost entirely remove themselves from society. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s like the Unabomber; this isn’t some naturalistic movement. Hikikomori live in a world of computers and television just like us. The last two years have shown that it’s not that hard for life to continue at home. Is it any surprise that people choose this? The world in which we live is already so alienating; we are increasingly defined not by our personalities or our deeds, but by the people we follow and the media we consume. Who wouldn’t want to step back?

Hikikomori is just a word, though. Every culture, Japanese or not, has words for outsiders. These terms allow us to be classified as deviants; as people who cannot exist alongside the rest and so choose not to. We go online instead, finding communities that accept us without question. For a lot of people, the road only gets worse from there. They find themselves radicalized, becoming Nazis or incels, so convinced are they that they have finally found a home. 

I’m not like that. I don’t hold that kind of hate. I don’t blame anyone for the way I am. I just am. 

It creeps up on you. I went to school in person and made friends there, graduating with honours. When school was over, I said goodbye to my friends and moved to a new city for work. That was February 2020. The world stopped a month later, but I was lucky and my job went online. Even with things basically open now, I still don’t go into work. My office doesn’t want me to; savings on overhead and increased productivity made it easy to decide that the work-from-home setup should be permanent. I remember a lot of people were pleased. I think I even was, too. It was so much easier to just slot a Hungry-Man into the microwave than it was to think about cooking. So much easier to entertain myself with a few episodes of TV than it was to go out and find something to do. So much easier to just carry on, letting habit be my guide.

I still go out a little, of course. But not much. I put in my grocery order, then I pick it up. That’s pretty much it. The rest of my life is conducted in a 1500 square foot apartment eight storeys above the ground. It’s boring, safe, and lonely. I know it’s not healthy, but I also don’t know what to do. 

Maybe that’s why I gave her a chance. 

This is the part of the story where I’ll sound insane. I can’t really blame you if you think I am, but I ask you to try and believe me. Don’t pity me. Don’t tell me I should call someone for help. Just read my words and hear me.

It was getting late. It had been raining hard outside and was just beginning to slacken off. Lights from the street below dyed the window a brilliant blue, flickering against the ceiling of my room. I never kept the lights on at night. The cool neon from the buildings below made me feel safe somehow, as if knowing people were outside was enough to prevent me from feeling totally alone. 

I first saw her when I stood up to get a refill. I had just turned around my chair when I saw her outlined on the glass. She stood there, umbrella in hand. She opened it above her head, slow and careful. I watched with awe as the water on the glass split down either side of the umbrella, spinning away to the street below. She looked as though she was carved into the glass, but there was no marking on the window. Like ice once it’s been cracked and then frozen over again. She moved about with balletic grace. I watched her for a long moment, mesmerized. I wasn’t afraid, despite how it may sound. My computer whispered softly. The sound of the rain outside was little more than a wave brushing up against some distant shore. She danced between the panes, her body sliding effortlessly from one frame to another. I didn’t want to look away. I was afraid to blink, lest closing my eyes reveal this for the dream I was sure it was.

I must have moved eventually, though, because she suddenly stopped, her head turning to face me. I held my breath. An eternity passed and more. Then she moved again, tilting back the brim of her umbrella to reveal her face. I caught the briefest glimpse of crystalline eyes peeking out from a cascade of hair so fine the glass itself looked frail. I drew closer, moving slowly. She watched me, but didn’t make to leave. Once I was close, I kneeled in front of the glass, then laid my palm against it. It was cool and thrummed gently with the rain. She hesitated for a long moment. My eyes met hers, and we saw one another. She placed her hand against mine. Only the glass separated us. Then I looked away. I hadn’t made eye contact with another soul in months. Can I really be blamed?

In truth, I was embarrassed. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to seem weird. Instead, I went and got my drink and then came back, all without turning on a single light. I peeked around the wall and into my room to see if she was still there, but she wasn’t. 

I noticed a thin filament of gold in the corner of my room. Dawn was coming. Had I been up so late? I checked my phone. I still had three hours until work began. Enough time to sleep a little. I crawled into bed and turned to face the window. I waited for her until sleep took me, but she never came.

I woke three hours later, tired and unconvinced that it hadn’t been a dream. I rolled over and stared at the window. Sun shone through brightly now, and there was no sign of the rain from the night before. I saw the thin outline of my handprint on the pane. I grabbed the bedsheet with my fist, clenching and unclenching it to be sure it was real. 

I got up and spent the day in a haze. I had to work, but did so laconically, without any sense of purpose. I browsed the Internet as I did and even went so far as to search every configuration of “people in glass,” “window people,” or even “ghosts in glass” that I could think of. That last one left me feeling especially foolish for some reason, as if the concept of a ghost was far harder to grasp than whatever I had seen the previous night. 

None of the results came back with anything useful. Most were stock photos, my language too imprecise. The inquiry about ghosts was marginally more useful, but all of the images were of orbs floating against window panes. Nothing was close to how real she had felt. I considered inquiring about it on a forum for the supernatural, but decided not to. There was something private about this. I didn’t want to share her. I just wanted her to see me.

I went out later that day. I took a bus to a hardware store and grabbed a microfiber cloth and window cleaner. I didn’t order online because I didn’t want to wait, didn’t want to risk it not being ready for tonight.

I hadn’t been on a bus in forever. I rode with headphones in and my hood up, watching people from a distance. 

When I got home, I immediately set to cleaning the windows. I did so with more care than I had applied to any task I could remember, taking special notice to avoid any streaking on the glass. The sun had already begun to set as I worked. My windows faced east and so I could only tell the day was fading via the wall of orange which sank along the building across the street. Once I finished, I sat on the bed and watched the light fade. 

This took longer than I expected, so I went to make dinner. I considered another Hungry-Man, but felt a strange embarrassment to be eating that way with her around. I searched about and found frozen green beans in the freezer along with some chicken. I mixed it up with rice and soy sauce and made a rudimentary stir fry. It felt strange to eat something I made myself, more filling somehow. I ate a second helping and then waited in my living room until it was full dark. Then I went back to my bedroom.

The room carried within it a kind of preternatural dark, as if the shadows weren’t quite yet sure what they wanted to reveal. I left the lights off as I always did, glancing only briefly at the window as I sat down at my desk. Nothing there but the world beyond. I sighed to myself. Sitting at my desk like I normally would didn’t seem as appealing as it once had, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I resigned myself to my usual plans. I didn’t turn around again until it was time to go to bed. 

I waited for a long moment once my monitor was off, as if the very act of anticipation might somehow inspire her return. I took a deep breath and spun in my chair, trying my very best to act as if it was the most casual action in the world. 

She wasn’t there. Phantasmagoric lights flooded the street outside, but there was no sign of her silhouette engraved in the glass. Had she ever been there, or had it simply been a delusion of a sleep-deprived mind whittled away by long hours in front of screens? I felt a faint ember in my chest sputter as it was snuffed out.

I got into bed. I made the decision to speak without even really thinking about it.

“I don’t know if you’re there,” I said, “or if you can hear me, but I just wanted to quickly say that I really hope that you’re there.” My voice sounded strange to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoken aloud. “I’m not great at meeting new people, but I’d really like to get to know you.” I cringed. It had felt silly in my head, even worse out loud. “Anyway, I’m not going anywhere. You probably know that I kind of do the same thing a lot of the time. So if you ever change your mind and decide you want to hang out, I’ll be here.” 

I wasn’t sure how to finish this insane, desperate rambling. I eventually muttered “good night,” then rolled over to face away from the window.

My actions that day turned into routine. I had no proof, but it didn’t change how I felt. I was sure she was there. I started to wash the windows every day, and I found myself staying up later than I normally would. In other aspects of my life, I felt a desire to improve: I cooked for myself more, and I began to read in bed instead of watching movies or playing games until I slept. I had seen myself through her eyes and had been ashamed. I wanted to be proud of myself when we next met.

As the days turned to weeks, I began to think of her as a roommate. She was always there, even if I couldn’t see her. I spoke to her and told her things that I had never told another person. Other conversations were more banal, short diatribes about a problem at work or some bad movie I had watched. It didn’t matter, really, so long as I thought she was listening. 

You might have guessed by now that she hasn’t come back. I’m not sure if she ever will. I’m sure that you think that she might never have been real, but I refuse to accept that. I’d rather her have left than for her to have only ever existed in my mind. I need her to be real. She needs to see who I’ve become.

I want to be clear: I did this for me. No person can force another person to change. Not directly, anyway. When someone lives life a certain way, people notice. They strive to be better because of that person. She showed me how to be better. She showed me I was capable of being better. 

And now, whenever I start to forget, I think of the girl in the glass and how she danced beneath the raindrops.

#5 – Hell Hospital

The elevator chimed softly when it reached the fourth floor. The man disembarked, taking a left at the junction. Sterile white walls framed the corridor. Low humming lights flickered above. People walked with brisk intent down the hall. The man walked between them, effortlessly altering his path as he went, briefcase in hand. The words PALLIATIVE CARE and an arrow pointing to the right were mounted on the wall at the next intersection. The man with the briefcase went right.

He found himself in another hallway, this one with a window at the end. A portal of light so as to make the hall look dark. The nurse’s station was on the left when he entered. It was quiet and dark and a half-drunk milky cup of tea was the only sign that anyone was still around. This was no surprise. Stryker preferred not to make weekend calls if he could avoid it, but sometimes there were no two ways about it. He glided past the nurse’s station without signing the visitor’s log. He walked to the end of the hall and into the room on the right.

The room was quiet and dim. An insistent, rhythmic beeping was the only sound. Stryker stepped up to the foot of the bed and tapped his pen on the tray-table that stood there. After a few moments, the resident of the bed woke up. For the deeply ill, wakefulness appears often as a simple fluttering of the eyes, perhaps a movement of the mouth. For Stryker, it was enough. He had a responsibility to his client to offer the best services possible, and that often meant adapting to their disabilities.

“Mr. Moorhouse,” Stryker began, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. I sincerely hope you’ve been doing well. I’ve heard the news that your illness is liable to move more quickly than anticipated. Please accept my deepest condolences; I was filled with a terrible sorrow at the news. As much as my work forces me to confront the reality of life and death, I still often find myself overwhelmed by the randomness and the injustice of it all.” His voice was quiet, practically a purr. It carried a beguilingly calm tenor, but was still loud enough to be heard by all who needed to hear it. “I have brought the final papers concerning the matters of the estate. Simply sign here, as best you can, and I will ensure that all parties are paid as we discussed.” He held out the forms, bracing them against a clipboard. With his other hand, he placed a pen in the dying man’s hand and brought it to the paper. He felt the barest twitch of the man’s wrist muscles against his fingertips as he traced out the man’s signature. 

“Thank you,” he whispered as he tucked away the documents. “Everything is in order, Mr. Moorhouse. Please allow me to thank you for your trust in me. I hope your remaining days are pleasant, pain-free, and that you are surrounded by the love of your family and friends.” He snapped the briefcase shut.

“Good-bye, Mr. Moorhouse.”

The hospital was still quiet as he left. The nurse’s station had an occupant now, but she was busy on the computer and took no notice of Stryker’s passing. The influx of people on the way in had been replaced by an eerie silence. He saw not another soul as he walked back to the elevator. His footsteps tapped an insistent patter against the cold walls. He once heard the distant sound of a custodian with a squeaking cart, but could not pinpoint its location. 

When he arrived at the elevator and pushed the button, Stryker found that he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, letting the air part his lips. Though he was a stoic fellow who did not shy away from the grimmer aspects of his work, he always found the hospital visits unusually unnerving. There was some quality about these places that he despised, as if the building itself was brushing up against the bounds of human existence, crossing over whenever another soul was claimed.

The elevator door shut. 

There was a groaning sound as the machine spun into motion. The car began to descend. Stryker stood by the console, briefcase in hand, waiting for the doors to open. He had only one more call to make, this one at the Cedar and Oak Retirement Community, then he would be finished his rounds for the weekend. He turned his mind to thoughts of home. 

The elevator door opened.

It took Stryker a moment to account for the difference, for the lack of light. He assumed at first that he had stopped on the wrong floor, but the dull digital light above the door read G, and pressing the button again made no difference. Confused, he stepped out of the elevator. He wondered perhaps if he had gotten turned around and stepped into the wrong elevator bank. 

He appeared to be in an unfinished wing of the hospital. Plywood walls were erected around all sides of the elevator landing. Plastic tarpaulin hung limply overhead and along one wall. The walls emblazoned with strange patterns in scarlet paint. Symbols indescribable. Stryker stepped out into the low gloom, wondering if he was underground. Grey light filtered in from somewhere, but he could see no source. 

“Hello?” called Stryker. 

The echoes of his voice sounded back, but nothing more. The only way forward was through a gap in the tarp. It was dusty and looked unused.

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Stryker. He turned to the elevator and pushed the button to summon it. It clicked under his thumb, but nothing happened. He pressed it again. Harder. 

Still nothing. Stryker kicked the door, but that only made his foot hurt. He placed his briefcase on the ground and then tried to fit his fingers into the seam of the doors where they met in the middle. He was able to grasp the lip of each door. He pulled with all of his might, straining against the door until he heard a stitch pop in his jacket. The door didn’t even budge.

“What the FUCK!?” cried Stryker. Blood pounded in his head. He wiped sweat from his brow. Angry and resigned, he picked up his briefcase. He was sure a quick stop with the hospital administration wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. He took a last parting look at the elevator before he left the room through the gap in the tarp.

The halls beyond were only dimly lit. Whatever light had filtered through in the vestibule by the elevator did not extend to here. Instead, only hazy yellow bulbs lit the way, perched atop blackened lamps. The light was sickly, unnerving. The sound of his footsteps seemed cacophonous when placed against the quiet. The walls down this corridor were silty and grey, the colour of waterborne sediment. Arrows had been hastily drawn on the walls long ago, judging by the layers of dust. Stryker wondered why the place was so quiet, considering the amount of construction underway. Surely they had some labourers to work weekends. He moved quickly through those halls, praying that his innate sense of direction would guide him to the nearest stairwell.

Stryker rounded the next corner, and was met with a room bathed in a deep red light. The room appeared to be a waiting room like any other in the hospital. Rows of chairs like pews set out under vacant TVs, gilded with racks of magazines from decades past. The hallway turned and disappeared around a bend, past the nurse’s station which stood derelict and empty and black. Little more could be seen in that angry light; the shadows were dark and leaping. Suddenly, the wash of fear that had threatened to overwhelm him was replaced by a well of relief; the light’s source was a neon EXIT sign which shone dumbly into the dark. It crowned a set of double-doors. On the doors was the universal sign of egress: a man climbing a set of stairs.

Stryker almost whimpered with relief, rushing for the door. As he moved, he shifted his briefcase to his left hand so that he could press against the door with his full weight. He slammed into it faster than he intended.

Unfortunately, the door did not open. Instead, Stryker’s shoulder gave way with a great shuddering pop. This was punctuated by his scream tearing apart the silence. He slid down against the door, whining softly. 

Stryker’s arm hung limp and dead at his side. Vague memories of a teammate popping in another player’s arm on the football field rose in his mind, dead since high school. His left hand rose without asking, reaching toward his right. Its fingers encircled his wrist, hovering seductively. Perhaps if he just–

“No!” said Stryker, pulling back his delinquent arm. Odds were only that he’d make it worse. He was in a hospital, for God’s sake. Surely somebody would be able to treat him. He reached up with his left arm and gripped the bar above him. It depressed but did not open the door. He pulled himself up with it, gritting his teeth as his dead arm swung flaccidly in place. Now on his feet, he turned and began to consider another exit.

It was then that the light flicked on in the nurse’s station.

The light was warm and golden and poured into every corner of the room. Startled but relieved, Stryker strained to make out the figure behind the frosted glass in the room beyond. He scanned the desk and saw a gleaming metal bell. He tapped it thrice with his good hand. The clarion sound rang out. The figure behind the glass stopped suddenly, then turned toward the door on the left side of the window. It swung open. The on-call nurse stepped out.

For a moment and despite the pain, Stryker was caught off guard by the woman before him. A slender, waifish figure, her eyes were pale lavender over her mask. As she approached him, they grew darker; violet almost. They were framed with black eyeliner and pierced him as he stepped to the desk. 

“I see you’ve suffered an accident,” she said. Her voice was soft, yet precise. It seemed to assure him that he was now safe. Stryker smiled to see her. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a terrible day so far. I was conducting some business with a client on the fourth floor, then took the wrong elevator and ended up in the construction area just over yonder. Then I found this door, and in my haste I’m afraid I’ve dislocated my shoulder. Is there a doctor available to help?”

The nurse nodded along as he spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “The fourth floor? You have a client there?”

“Yes,” said Stryker. “A Mr. Stephen Moorhouse. I’m afraid I can’t go into greater detail as to our arrangement, attorney-client privilege and–”

“I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this,” interrupted the nurse, “but Mr. Moorhouse passed away just moments ago. They’re bringing him to the morgue now.”

“Oh,” said Stryker, uncharacteristically caught off-guard. “I’m sorry to hear that. I imagine you’ll notify the family? I’ll make sure all of the paperwork is drawn–”

“No, no, I don’t mean to make you go to all of that trouble,” said the nurse, interrupting again. “I just thought you might want to know.” She gestured behind Stryker. He turned and saw a wheelchair. “Why don’t you have a seat?” she asked. “I can bring you through to a doctor as soon as one’s available.”

“Yes, uh, okay,” said Stryker. He was still trying to calculate the timing of Mr. Moorhouse’s death in his head. How long had it been since he’d left? He sat down in the wheelchair. It rolled backwards a few inches. He checked his watch and tried to calculate when he had arrived and when he had left. How long had he spent trying to get back into the elevator? How long had he spent wandering the halls? He sat back in the wheelchair, then sat up suddenly when he realized he had forgotten his briefcase. He tried to ease himself out of the chair, wincing at the lancing shots of pain that tore through his shoulder. His efforts were stopped by a hand on his chest.

“Allow me,” said the nurse. Her eyes smiled at him over the mask. She stepped over to the briefcase, picked it up, and then placed it on the desk. “It’s right here for when you get back, okay?”

“I–I need it,” said Stryker lamely. “I’ve got all kinds of confidential documents in there. I really can’t leave it unsupervised.”

“It’s not unsupervised, silly!” chirped the nurse. “I’ll be right here with it while you’re in with the doctor.” She patted the top of the briefcase, producing a dull thumping sound. Her eyes fell to her watch. “Speaking of which, it’s about that time now! Let’s get you all fixed up.”

Stryker raised his hand to protest further, but the nurse swept past him and grabbed the handles on the wheelchair. She pushed and the wheels squeaked into motion. They rolled down the hallway beyond the nurse’s station, towards a set of pale doors with portholes for windows.

“Careful,” she whispered to Stryker. “There’s a bit of a bump.”

Stryker didn’t realize what she meant at first – was there some kind of divot in the floor? – and then the feet of the wheelchair struck the doors, swinging them open as if some uncanny kitchen lay beyond. The jolt of the impact rippled through Stryker’s body, causing him to cry out with pain. Spots bloomed before his eyes. The world swam.

“Aw jeez, I’m sorry!” said the nurse. “I didn’t think it would hurt that bad, what with the injury being in your arm and all.”

Stryker turned in the chair as much as he could, blinking away the pain. This had been the final indignity. “Are you insane, woman? Let me tell you, this whole hospital is in for an absolutely apocalyptic lawsuit! First the elevator takes me to an entirely separate section of the hospital. Then I find that section is under construction, without any kind of warning sign or direction as to the way out – not even a fucking drywaller to point me in the right direction! Then, when I finally find the way out, you hide in your little fucking booth and allow me to dislocate my fucking shoulder on a door – one which, for some reason, doesn’t even work!” Spit flew from his mouth as he spoke, spattering the front of the nurse’s scrubs. He didn’t care. Stryker believed firmly that people deserved exactly as much as what they gave out. 

“Look, mister, I’m sorry. I know you’re in a lot of pain, and I think that’s made you pretty grumpy. I totally get that, and I won’t hold it against you. In fact, I think I have just the trick!” She reached into her pocket and shuffled around.

“I don’t need anything other than a doctor and my briefcase,” insisted Stryker.

“Well, the doctor’s on the other side of this door,” said the nurse. Only then did Stryker realize they had stopped. A sign on the wall read Office of Dr. _______. The name seemed to drift and fade whenever Stryker focused on it. He shook his head cartoonishly, perhaps in an attempt to clear his vision. It didn’t work.

“You’ll get the briefcase back after you’re all fixed up,” continued the nurse. “ I don’t know why you don’t believe me when I say that.” She considered for a moment. “I don’t want you behaving with the doctor the way that you’ve been with me. He really doesn’t have patience for that sort of thing.” 

Stryker turned to speak, incredulity roaring inside him again, but was interrupted by the nurse clasping a hand over his mouth. His eyes rolled with panic. He felt something on his tongue, then realized the woman had slipped him some pills. They rolled around in his mouth. When the nurse realized he had not swallowed, she pinched her thumb and forefinger around his nostrils. Alarm tore through Stryker. He fumbled with his good hand at her wrist, but it was his left hand and her grip was iron strong. At last he gave up, swallowing the pills.

“What the hell was that?!” he cried, gasping for air.

“Just a little something to help you feel better,” said the nurse. “Now it’s time to see the doctor!” She knocked sharply on the door, then leaned forward across Stryker’s body to open it.

The room beyond was dark. The nurse pushed him further out to sea. The light from the door behind them the only sign of shore. The wheelchair stopped moving. Stryker waited a moment for something to happen, then realized with a start that the nurse was no longer there. Then, with little notice, the door swung shut, leaving Stryker in the cavernous black.

How he screamed and howled! Fits of roiling fury rolled through the lawyer, coming in ebbs and flows and then great waves which threatened to bathe the entire room in a wash of red, so great was his anger. When at last he was exhausted, his throat was raw and his shoulder ached violently. Anger began to turn to fear. Man was not meant to enter places like this, Stryker thought. Man was meant for places where the sun shone freely and the darkest nights were still bathed in starlight even in the absence of the moon, perhaps with the sound of water lapping gently against some distant shore, and the cries of bullfrogs and the buzzing of the night insects like a distant orchestra thrumming with the sounds of the reeds in the woodwinds buzzing like the reeds in the water and then Stryker realized he was stuck in his chair and the panic set in anew though the pain had gone and he was then struck with the knowledge that he was incredibly, impossibly high, and he laughed and laughed in the inky pitch of that room thinking of how he would sue the nurse, then the doctors, then the whole fucking hospital before he was through.

Stryker’s giggles had just begun to subside when the lights came on, spinning like wheels on the ceiling, kaleidoscopic patterns striking out to the walls in an effervescent pilgrimage. They shone on the operating table which gleamed a wicked metallic colour and behind it stood a man in a white jacket whose lips were peeled back to his black eyes revealing great raw bloody gums and tombstone incisors. Stryker screamed with laughter, gasping and fumbling in the chair and even though the pain in his shoulder was white-hot he pushed himself free of the chair, falling to the floor. The doctor said something and the sound was a cannon’s boom in that quiet room and Stryker yelled BELAY THAT ORDER for he had seen enough movies to know when an order needed belaying, but nobody listened and two shadows materialized beside him and lifted him screaming on to the table. A flash of scissors and his shirt fell away, exposing his naked belly to the room entire. The doctor said something more and the sound this time was a low murmur which crept and skittered over Stryker’s skin. Restraints appeared and held Stryker to the table. Stryker screamed and shook at them to no avail.

The doctor bent over Stryker, the slavering mouth hovering but inches before him. When he spoke, the words sounded inside Stryker’s head.

“Well,” he said, “let’s take a look at you. Normally I would have had our nurse take you to radiology, but you were so terribly rude to her that I think it’s best if we find another solution.”

Stryker opened his mouth and the words flowed out onto his chest, all different letters jumbled up and lost.

“We’re going to have to quickly realign the arm. You’ve been moving it about so much that I worry for the tendons. I just need to finish with Mr. Moorhouse, then I’ll be right with you.”

The doctor then got up and walked over to another table. Cold filled Stryker’s chest. His client was sitting up on the table, totally naked. He waited patiently as the doctor listened to his chest and then looked inside his mouth and his ears. Eventually, the doctor clapped the dead man on the shoulder.

“Good to go,” he said.

Mr. Moorhouse leapt to his feet and stepped up to Stryker. The light shifted and Stryker saw that the old man’s eyes were scratched out. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Stryker,” said Mr. Moorhouse. The old man then turned and walked through the door. A brilliant light shone beyond and the man disappeared.

“Now,” whispered the doctor in his ear. “Back to you.”

Stryker felt great rough hands grasp his injured shoulder. He opened his mouth to beg but was silenced by a piercing shock of pain. He blacked out. He dreamt things that man is not meant to dream. Planes of being swam before him: entire worlds; all worlds. They spun away into an unfeeling darkness.

When Stryker woke, he was in a bed. Light shone in through a window. An IV was connected to his wrist. His head pounded. His shoulder was in a sling and ached dully. He saw his briefcase lying on the small visitor’s table. He looked around the room with awe, clenching and unclenching his fist against the thin polyester of the sheets. 

A knock on the door made him jump, but he relaxed when he saw a smiling nurse looking at him with kind eyes. He recognized her from the nurse’s station in the palliative ward.

“Where am I?” he asked. His voice was a gravelly croak. His throat felt dry and raw.

“Just a recovery room,” she said gently. “We’re not totally sure what caused it, but you had some kind of episode when you learned that your client, Mr. Moorhouse, had passed on. It caused you to fall and dislocate your shoulder. I guess you’re lucky it happened in a hospital, right? Not very far to go for treatment.”

“I-I had some terrible dreams.”

“Dreams can’t hurt us, Mr. Stryker. That shoulder sure can, though, so I’m going to run through a few exercises with you to make sure everything’s all set, then you should be good to be released today.”

“Right, okay,” said Stryker. He laid back in the bed and finally allowed relief to take him. 

Two months later, Stryker got the bill in the mail. He had actually almost thrown it out; he had been so occupied with finalising the late Mr. Moorhouse’s estate that anything else seemed secondary. Luckily, the logo of the hospital on the front of the envelope caught his eye. He tore the letter open and unfolded the bill. When he saw the last line item, he gasped and dropped the letter. Panic gripped his heart and he was forced to sit down. His shoulder had begun to throb.

Shoulder Setting – $880

Wheelchair Use – $300

Sling – $200

Plutonian Painkillers – $750

Consultation – Abbadon Ward – $666

Stryker looked at the letter for a long time. Perhaps some part of him hoped that doing so would change it. But it didn’t. 

With a sigh of dismay, Stryker picked up the phone and called his insurance company.

#4 – I Took A Picture

“I took a picture,” said Jeff to his mother, tugging on her pant-leg. “Look at it.” He held it upright, waving it at her. “I took a picture with my camera.”

Leanne smiled. Jeff’s camera was one of the small old-fashioned Polaroids you could get for a hundred bucks at the electronics store. Jeff had been interested in photography ever since he’d begun reading Spider-Man comics and decided that he wanted to be Peter Parker, so it had made for a perfect Christmas gift. But now it was dinner that same day, and there was no time to be looking at pictures.

“That’s very beautiful, sweetie,” said Leanne, barely glancing at it. She saw a dark blotch and little more. The light never seemed to work right for those cameras, but she didn’t have time to think about it; she was in the middle of figuring out the stuffing recipe Jaz at work had given her. She hadn’t made stuffing in years, and she hadn’t planned on it this year, but then her parents had told her they’d be in town after all and so she had felt obligated to do things perfectly. Looking down at Jeff, she was sure she was doing the right thing. That didn’t make it any less stressful. 

“You didn’t look, mom.” 

“I did! It was very pretty.”

“It’s not pretty, it’s art. It’s a portrait.”

“A portrait of who?” asked Leanne absentmindedly. 

“I don’t know who he is. I just saw him and took a picture and then ran away.”

When had Jeff gone outside? The weather had been awful this Christmas, raining insistently for the last three days. There wasn’t a speck of snow to be seen, either; Leanne was disappointed by this. She remembered white Christmases all through her youth, and hoped that Jeff might one day remember them, too. “Well,” she said, “it’s not polite to take pictures of strangers without their permission.”

“He asked me to,” came the answer from below.

Circumstance might have still allowed for things to be different at this point. If Leanne had not been so distracted, or her parents sleeping so quietly in the next room, then perhaps Jeff might not have taken another picture that day. 

“Well,” said Leanne, “that’s a little bit different. It’s okay in those circumstances. But please make sure to only take pictures of strangers when mommy is around, okay? I don’t want anybody taking it the wrong way.”

“Okay, mom.” 

Satisfied, Leanne bent down and kissed her son on the top of his head. Jeff endured this, then walked around the kitchen island and through to the adjoining living room. Grandma and Grandpa slept on the plush sofa, their heads each lying softly on the other’s shoulder. Some old black-and-white film played on the screen before them, the MUTE symbol flashing on the left. Jeff thought about waking his grandparents under the pretense of telling them they were missing their movie, but decided not to. He would show them the picture at dinner.

With little to do before then, Jeff decided to practice with his camera some more. He walked into the dining room. The table wasn’t as big as it had been during Christmases where dad was still around, but that was okay. It still looked beautiful. Once before, Jeff had suggested to his mother that they open up the leaves and make a setting for Dad, but then his mother’s eyes had welled with tears, and Jeff had immediately dropped the subject. He later had promised himself that he’d never suggest anything like that again. 

The place-settings were still beautiful, however, so up went the camera.

CLICK!

There was a soft whrrr as the camera printed the picture. Jeff took it out, then flapped it about in the air in front of him. He slipped it in his pocket to let it develop. Then he went on to the next room. 

He proceeded to take pictures all through the house. He had decided that they might need them if they ever had to sell the house. He hoped they never would, but his best friend Mark’s parents had gotten divorced, and then he had moved two months later. Jeff wasn’t sure if it was different when a parent died instead, but thought it would be polite to be prepared. He passed through the house like a phantom, going room-to-room. He finished upstairs in the bathroom, where the faint smell of vanilla hovered in the air.

“All done,” he said to himself.

But that wasn’t true, and he knew it. He still needed to photograph his bedroom. He turned and exited the bathroom, then took the few steps down the hall toward his door. The walls were a pale brown, and he imagined himself a gunslinger on some dusty mesa, preparing to face his foe.

Jeff opened his bedroom door and stepped inside. There was a soft whining sound as it swung shut behind him.

“Hello again, Jeffrey,” said a voice. It had a wheezing, foppish quality to it. “Have you come to take my picture again? That last one was really good, but I think we can get a better one with you and me in it.”

“No,” said Jeff, “I’m just taking a picture of my bedroom for something I’m working on. Then I’ll be done taking pictures for today.”

“That makes me quite sad,” replied the voice, heavy with sorrow. “I told all of my friends that I would bring back a picture of me and my new friend Jeffrey.”

“Mom says she doesn’t want me taking any more pictures of strangers without her around.”

“Strangers?!” cried the voice. “Well, I suppose I can see why you feel that way. After all, I know your name, but you don’t know mine. I’m happy to introduce myself if you’d like, but I need you to look at me. You don’t look at me when we talk, and that makes me very sad.”

Jeff whispered something.

“What’s that?” asked the voice. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I can’t hear you when you whisper. You’ll need to speak up.”

“You scare me, okay?” 

“Oh . . . I’m sorry. I know I’m not the most handsome guy around, but I was told a long time ago by my mother that it was what’s on the inside that counts. Didn’t your mother ever tell you the same thing?”

“Yes,” admitted Jeff.

“I would really appreciate it if you said sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jeff.

“Thank you,” said the voice. “I humbly accept your apology.” There was a sound then–an unfurling sound, as if of wings. “Now Jeffrey, why don’t you look at me? You’ve apologized, so I think the best thing you could do now is look at me so I can properly introduce myself. You weren’t even looking through the viewfinder when you took the last picture!”

Without warning, Jeff felt his legs begin to turn towards the sound. He did not know if his brain had betrayed him, or if the thing in the corner was exerting some kind of malevolent force against him. He considered trying to make a break for the door, crying for his mother, or even just hiding under the bed. In the end, he did none of these things because he was very scared. When one is frightened, they are liable to do things that seem illogical to any outsider. 

Jeff’s legs thus continued to turn, until at last he got a good look at who the voice belonged to.

It had the aspect of a man, but was far too tall, its back arced where it met the ceiling. It had a great black cloak which fell behind it, and wore a pitch-black bowler hat. Its face leered from under the hat, a china-white visage that seemed fractured and patchwork. Torn across its face was a great sideways smile, which floated about its brittle skin like scum on the surface of a pond. Inside the cloak were a number of knick-knacks and ornaments, the kinds of small collectible that could be found at any antique store or in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Some looked very old, while others shone brightly. It glittered and jangled as it moved.

“I,” said the voice proudly, its owner descending into a deep bow, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” It smiled, and the smile crawled up next to its eyebrows. “I would very much like to take a picture with you now, Jeffrey.”

And so Jeff’s legs began to pick themselves up, then place themselves down. Step by step, he drew closer to the nightmare in the corner. The Bric-a-Brac Man’s face loomed over him. Then he was there, and the creature bent down so that it was at the same height as him. One arm curled over his shoulder, drawing him closer. It felt stiff and cold. There was the faint smell of oranges and chocolate. 

“What do you think, Jeffrey?” asked the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Do you want to take a selfie?”

Jeff nodded, too scared to speak.

“I’ll take it!” cried the Bric-a-Brac Man. “I think I’ve got a longer reach.” He plucked the camera from Jeff’s trembling hands, then reached his arm out impossibly far, until it almost touched the ceiling. He faced the camera back towards them, one crooked white finger on the shutter.

“Now,” whined the Bric-a-Brac Man, “make sure you smile real good for me, okay? I want this to be a great picture! Say wheeeeeeee!” 

Wheeeee!” moaned Jeff.

Click!

The room was briefly illuminated by a flash, and then it was quiet. There was a soft thudding sound as the camera fell to the floor, then a papery whisper as the photo printed. It would not be discovered for another thirty-eight minutes, when Leanne would come to fetch Jeff for dinner. She would first linger in the doorway, calling out to see if he had decided to play hide-and-seek. Then she would turn on the light, for day had faded to dusk. She would check under the bed, and then in the closet. Only then would she find the camera where it had fallen. From there, she would find the picture. 

The picture, which would be her first step on the path to insanity, showed a man in a black hat with a harlequin face, a smile on his nose, and his eyes locked firmly on the boy in his arms. That boy was Jeff, who stared at the camera with a tetanus grin and tears filling his eyes.

Leanne screamed until her throat began to bleed.

Part One of Twelve