#24 – Horror Vacui

“How much longer now?”

“You asked me that an hour ago.”

“Well, I’m bored.”

“Go be bored somewhere else. There’s a whole ship to explore.”

Lex rolled her eyes. Sal hated being spoken to while he was flying, even if the ship was functionally on autopilot. Anytime he was in that seat, which was little more than battered metal and a thin, deflated cushion, he developed a God complex. She didn’t really get it, but then again, she was an engineer. It didn’t matter what she thought, so long as the ship kept working. 

“I notice you’re still here,” said Sal, turning in the pilot’s chair. A short beard, gristle really, had begun to grow around his significant jowls. Razor-burn spotted his neck, and his eyes were sullen and low, as if he’d just come off a bender. 

“Just hangin’ with my pal, Sal.”

Sal snorted. “You really want to look out at all that?” One hand waved across the view-screen. The fathomless black firmament, barely speckled with a few points of light, was all there was to see. It unnerved Lex. She’d been flying with the Gunnison for a little more than eight months and had spent a lot of time looking out of windows. Short-haul ships weren’t equipped with cryopods. Something about frequent cry-cycles damaged the cells, so they were stuck at sub-FTL speeds, bouncing between the supra-light buoys marking the trade-lanes. 

“No,” answered Lex, “not really. It’s kinda fuckin’ boring. Why’s it so empty, anyway? Don’t we usually see more stars?”

Sal shrugged. “Charting new trade routes takes you to some weird places. Maybe a black hole? We’re pretty far out. Lots could be here we don’t know about. Ask Polina. She’s the physicist. She might be able to tell you what’s what.”

“But she wouldn’t do it with the same gusto as you, Sal.”

“Fuck off.”

“Love you, too.”

“Get goin’, now. Go play cards with Briggs or Moray or somebody. Leave me alone.”

“Just so long as you promise not to tell me why you’re so keen on being alone.”

“Remember when I told you to fuck off?”

Lex laughed, waved once, then left the bridge. The doors slid shut behind her. Sal was finally alone. He looked once over his shoulder, then checked the comm-link. “You still there?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “Do you think she knew I was listening?” A faint accent indicated the speaker had grown up someplace metropolitan. Maybe Prosperity, or one of the stations around it. Sal made a mental note to ask Polina about it sometime.

“No,” he said. “She didn’t have a clue. Just coincidence she noticed the same thing about the missing stars.”

“Do you think the others will notice?” asked Polina.

“Not likely. They spend more time drinking and playing games than they do looking out the viewports. She’s the only one with half a brain.”

“Well, let’s hope she uses the correct half and keeps this to herself. I don’t want the crew to panic.”

“Well, I gotta tell Sharp. But after him, that’s it.”

“It better be.”

“Hey Polina?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think we need to panic?”

There was silence for a long moment. Too long. Then the reply: “Not yet.”

“Roger,” said Sal, closing the link.


The noise of the mess pressed itself upon Lex as soon as she entered; over half the crew was here now, and those three other people made it feel like three times that. The mess was the biggest room on the ship, but that didn’t mean much aboard the Gunnison. It also happened to be the ugliest. The walls were steel-grey and looked like little more than sheet metal hung vertically, covered only by strips of seldom-used netting moored to the wall at the top and bottom like the masts of an ancient ship. Lex liked how they looked, even if they were kind of pointless; though the ship was hardly modern, it had been retrofitted with an artificial-gravity unit that kept the floors where they belonged.

Across the mess, Moray was stirring something in a pan. It made a sizzling sound that promised a better meal than Lex knew Moray to be capable of delivering. The big man waved at her as she entered and gestured to whatever was in the pan. Lex shook her head, then turned to the table where Sharp, the captain, and Briggs, the other engineer, sat. They had scattered cards across the table and were looking at one another intently. Lex grabbed a seat at the end of the table and watched them for a long moment where neither moved.

After about a minute, she interrupted: “Are you guys actually playing this game, or is it just a staring contest? What kind of money do you have on the line?” 

If Sharp heard her, he showed no sign of having done so. Lex turned to Briggs, who shrugged. “Don’t worry about him, Lex. Staring at the cards isn’t gonna make ‘em any better. He knows he’s cooked.”

“Does he? He seems pretty convinced he has a shot, here.”
“That’s the overconfidence of command. Once you put a guy in charge, he thinks he’s hot shit, needs to be humbled. This is me doing him a favour, really.”

“Shut up, Briggs, it’s been like four months,” said Sharp. His eyes never moved from the cards. “Fuck. Okay. Call.”

“Show ‘em.”

Sharp laid the cards across the corrugated metal table. There was no confidence in his face. He didn’t even bother taunting his opponent. A single vein bulged in his forehead. “Just show ‘em, man. Don’t mess around. Marlene’s gonna be pissed enough at me for gambling when I get home.”

Lex watched Briggs. The younger man was looking at Sharp, mouth agape. “I’m honestly shocked. Really, I am.” He held his cards in his fist, not even looking at them.

“Can you get this over with? Sal called me to the bridge like five minutes ago. Says it’s important.”

“And this isn’t? I was just going to say that I’m shocked you were bold enough to make the call. I honestly thought you’d fold.”

“Briggs. Stop being a dick. Just show me your cards.” Lex could hear the edge in Sharp’s tone. She’d worked with Briggs a lot longer than she’d worked with Sharp, who’d recently been re-assigned by the Company. Everything she’d heard about the man suggested that he was a perfectly affable – if somewhat bookish – captain. She’d also heard a series of stories about the lagoon-side casinos on Jollity that suggested he wasn’t as clean-cut as he seemed. She made a mental note to tell Briggs – remind him, really, considering he was the one who’d found that information on the captain – to maybe find a different opponent.

Briggs sighed and laid the cards across the table. Lex snorted. Briggs had nothing.

YES!” cried Sharp, leaping to his feet. A barely-restrained smile crossed his face. “I didn’t think I had a chance, and I swore I wouldn’t be cocky if I won, but godDAMN does it feel good!”

“Good game, cap’n,” said Briggs, extending a fist. Sharp bumped it. “You got one more in you? Or do you gotta go?”

Sharp considered. “I should probably head. Maybe later.” He grinned. “I know your tell now, man. You’re gonna be in for it when I get back.”

Briggs opened his arms wide in a kind of who-me stance. “See you then, boss.”

Lex leaned toward him. “So why’d you let him win?”

Briggs shrugged. “Guy looked stressed about something. His comm kept going off.” He grinned. “I also got to see what he looks like when he’s got a shit hand. Not sure I needed the preview to figure it out.”

“Truly, you are a noble so–”

Without warning, the Gunnison began to slow. Then it stopped. Everything after was a blur. Lex later recalled it only in snapshots, seconds of memory preserved only for the horrors they held.

One. The ship stops. Plates, bowls, cutlery, glasses, liquids, food, the hot oil in the pan, the cards on the table, the loose metal nut that Briggs had dropped behind the bulkhead two months prior – it all flies into the opposite wall with a horrific metal crunching sound that makes Lex think she’s died.

Two. She watches Moray die. Unmoored to anything, he collides with the wall faster than her eye can follow. His body floats away in a crumpled heap, globules of blood already beginning to gather in the air, the gravity unit clearly damaged by the calamity. She and Briggs luck out – their heavy workpants and the short distance between thigh and metal save them from the same fate. Mostly. Lex hears a sound she can never unhear, then looks down at Briggs’s lap to see a white shock of bone extruding from his thigh. He’s screaming. She’s only just realized that.

Three. A klaxon is sounding through the Gunnison. The lights in the mess have vanished, replaced by dull yellow running lights like submerged fireflies. A tinny voice is speaking over the comms. Sharp’s. It takes a few seconds for the words to coalesce into anything that carry meaning. Siren so loud. They need to go to the bridge. Now. 

Four. Lex pushes herself out of the seat. She’s floating but a few inches over the table. Her legs scream at her. They might not be broken, but they’re certainly bruised. She helps Briggs out of his seat, trying not to jostle his leg, trying not to even look at it. She wraps his arm over her shoulder, then uses the lip of the table to launch herself toward the exit.


Lex didn’t realize how bad it was until they arrived on the bridge. 

The soft whirr of the automatic door announced their arrival. Somebody must have hit a switch, because the alarm stopped as soon as she entered. She heard a short gasp, presumably at the sight of Briggs. Polina. The astrophysicist was strapped into the co-pilot’s chair, next to the ashen-faced Sal, whose hands were dancing anxiously on the console. Floating nearby was Sharp. Small bubbles of red rose from his head, but he seemed alert and gave the crew a sad wave as they entered. He was about to push off the wall and toward the arriving party when Sal unstrapped himself instead. The big man lifted the semi-conscious Briggs from Lex’s shoulders and set him into the pilot’s chair. Polina quickly rushed forward, filling the open wound with a medi-foam. Enough to keep him steady. At least for now.

“Moray?” asked Sharp, breaking the silence.

Lex shook her head. “Was standing when it happened.”

“Jesus.”

“What the hell happened? An asteroid?”

“No,” said Sal, shaking his head. “An asteroid would’ve come up on the sensors, even out here where there’s no light to bounce off of it. Also, we’d still be moving. But we’re not.” His eyes danced over to Polina’s, and he raised his eyebrows. Questioning.

Polina nodded, and Sal continued.

“Pol and I have been monitoring some unusual activity in this sector.”

“What kind of activity?” asked Sharp irritably.

“I was just getting to th–”

Polina spoke up. “–Don’t worry, Sal. I can take it from here.” She looked first to Sharp, then around the cramped room. “We detected an unusual phenomenon as we passed out of the last cluster. We’re still a few dozen parsecs from the nearest trade route, with no known objects in-between.”

“What was the phenomenon?” asked Sharp.

“We noticed that the stars were going out.” Polina’s voice was cold as she replied. It took a moment for Lex to realize it wasn’t the steely nerves of the scientist. Polina was afraid.  

Sharp pushed himself into an upright position, or at least as close as he could get in zero-g. “What do you mean, going out?” Anger had begun to creep into his voice.

“As in, we couldn’t see them anymore,” said Sal.
“Right,” replied Sharp, “but did they actually ‘go out’ as in ‘go nova,’ or is it something else?”

“Something else,” answered Polina hurriedly, “but we’re not totally sure what just yet. We have some theories.”

“Like?”

“We think they’re being blocked. Obscured, that is.”

“By what? A rogue planet?”

“No,” said Polina sadly. “That would definitely have shown up on our sensors. Planets are composed of elements we know and can identify, even in the dark. This was all dark.”

“What the fuck?”

“It gets worse, too,” continued Polina. “As far as we can tell – and this is limited, based on scans that we can run – it’s not anything we’ve ever seen. It’s like there’s some strand of something, and we’re caught in it.”

“Well, let’s get out. Sal, throw the ship in reverse.”
“Can’t do it, boss. Front thrusters are buried in whatever this shit is. No way to pull ourselves out. I tried. We’re trapped.”

Nobody said anything then. The only sound was the low and rhythmic breathing of Briggs in his chair. Then their world came apart. A great shudder ran through the Gunnison like a death rattle, then the jarring, violent shriek of tearing metal. The sirens began to go off again, shining yellow across the bridge, and the bridge door’s locked shut. The whole ship shook, throwing everybody save the seatbelted Briggs into the nearest wall, though fortunately not as quickly as before. A hiss of air could be heard, indicating that the vacuum seals elsewhere on the ship had been breached. Then there was silence, and everything went still.

“What. The fuck. Was that?” asked Sharp.

Lex floated to the console, her hair cloudy around her head. She typed something quickly.. Next to her, Briggs had drifted again into unconsciousness. A tremor rolled through the ship as she worked, and the rest of the crew shifted nervously. 

“Fast as you can, please,” said Sharp.

 Lex wanted to call him out for being a dick, but decided that wouldn’t help anything. At least not yet. She swore under her breath. “That can’t be,” she muttered.

“What can’t be?” asked Sharp.

“This – all of this.” She turned to him. “I don’t really know how to say this. There’s no good way.”

“Just spit it out. We can worry about gilding it in our reports.”

“Something’s attacking us.”

Another long silence. Then Polina spoke, too scared to moderate her tone. “What, like an alien?”

“Not exactly. And I don’t want to leap to too many conclusions. The Confederacy hasn’t found any complex life in known space, but we know it’s out there. It makes sense that we’d run into it eventually. But this – whatever it is – is peeling apart the hull. The mess is totally exposed to the vacuum right now. I think it detected something there. Food, maybe. Warmth.”

“Why hasn’t it attacked us yet, then?” asked Sal.

Lex hesitated. “Because there’s more blood at the end of the ship.”

Sal let out a long whistle. “Shit.”

“This is fascinating,” said Polina. “A life-form totally undetectable by any of our instruments–”

“Definitely,” said Sharp, in a tone that suggested he didn’t care in the slightest. “But it’s not my concern right now. My concern is getting what remains of my crew back into home space.”

“I told you,” began Sal “I don’t have a way to–”

“I think I do.” Lex. She finished a few last seconds of furious typing, then stepped back from the console. “It’s risky, it’s stupid, but I think it’s all we got.”

“Well?” asked Sharp. “What is it?”

“We blow the Gunnison’s reactor.”

“Wha–”

“Just a small detonation. Controlled. One cell per second. Enough so that they propel one another instead of combining. If we trigger the ejection command on the bridge at the exact right time, the module will detach from the ship. Propel us away, back towards the Cygnus route. Or at least I hope. The inertia might not be enough, and we’ll have to survive on emergency rations. But it’s the difference between dying later or dying now, when whatever the hell’s out there decides to come back.” Lex’s voice was shaking as she finished. She wasn’t the talker, at least not to big groups. She had no idea where this had come from. 

“It’s a stupid plan,” said Sal slowly, “but it’s also the only one we’ve got.”

Polina laughed. It sounded false in that small space. It might’ve been. “Agreed.”

“Cap, I’m gonna need the override codes to blow the reactor,” said Sal.

Sharp’s face had gone white, either from loss of blood or the fear of what came next. But he floated over to Sal and began to punch something in.

“Wait!” cried Lex. 

“What?” asked Sharp.

“I forgot – I can’t believe I forgot. But we can’t do it on the console. It has to be manual.”

There was a long silence as the import of this fell on the crew. Then Sal said what everybody was thinking. “Lex, that’s through the mess. It’s all vacuum.”

“I’ll do an EVA. There’s suits in the bulkhead.”

Sharp shook his head. “If you’re setting the sequence manually, it’s still a one way trip. There’s gotta be another way.”

“There is no other way.” Everybody turned to the sound of the voice. It was weak, and strained, but it was Briggs. His face was practically grey, but his eyes blazed as he spoke. “I’m going with you, Lex. You need another engineer. We don’t know what’s happening out there. We need to stack the deck as much as we can.”

Lex’s eyes met her friend’s and thought of a million reasons to say no. Her lips parted in a grim smile. “Guess we’d better suit up.”


Inside her EVA suit, Lex took a deep breath and tried not to think of how little material separated her from endless nothingness. It was not easy to dismiss this thought from her mind, especially when the only distraction was the sound of her own breath echoing inside her helmet. Sharp had asked her to update them on their progress over the comms as they went, but Polina had piped up to suggest that, in the absence of any knowledge about whatever had attacked the Gunnison, perhaps all radio communication should be kept to a minimum. Their suits’ running lights had also had tape hastily applied over them, just in case the visible spectrum made them just as vulnerable.

These considerations did not provide any additional comfort.

Lex and Briggs floated inside the hallway just outside of the ravaged mess. The ship’s airlock seals had been activated automatically as the mess had been attacked. Sal had sealed the opposite end of the hall. When they gave the signal – just a quick on/off of the radio – he would open the mess door, and they’d float through in the dark, across to the opposite end, where a floor panel would provide an access ladder, allowing them to reach the reactor.

Lex counted about six hundred ways she could die in the next five minutes. She pushed them from her mind and looked over at Briggs. His face had a sickly, jaundiced look. Lex didn’t know how much of that was the poor light thrown by the runners or the wound. Another thing not to think about. She took a deep breath, then flicked the radio.

The door opened, soundless in the vacuum. Lex gestured to Briggs, and they floated through.

It took a moment for Lex to orient herself as she floated into the mess. While the fundamental structure of the room was still there, the entire roof and part of one wall were missing. Only a few lights were left on the wall to her left, scattering faint light in a thin halo like the last embers of a doomed campfire. A few stars could be spotted, speckled across the cosmos above her, but they disappeared abruptly when she looked too far to the right.

After that, there was nothing. She couldn’t call it an abyss, because that suggested some measure of depth of volume that indicated that there was structure or space to it. This was nothingness, pure and simple. As if a child had peeled back the wallpaper of the universe to reveal the howling black emptiness beyond. 

It terrified her, but she tried not to show it as she took Briggs’s hand and used the frame of the door to launch herself across the room, careful not to apply enough inertia that her landing might hurt. 

Or worse, that it might be noticed.

For a few brief, paralyzing seconds that felt like years, she passed in front of the expanse, trying not to look, not being able to do anything but look. She closed her hand tighter around Briggs’s and felt him squeeze back. Then they hit the far wall, more heavily than she hoped but not as hard as she’d feared. She found the console that opened the maintenance corridor, then pressed the entry code. It slid open soundlessly.

She gestured for Briggs to enter, then followed him. The door closed behind her.


“Well, that was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen,” said Lex. She’d taken her helmet off and tucked it behind the netting on the wall in the reactor’s room. Briggs had taken his helmet off. His breath was coming in short gasps, but his eyes were alert. They looked as scared as Lex felt.

“That wasn’t right,” he said. “Felt like we weren’t meant to see it or something. It was like my brain didn’t even know what to do, you know? I’m trying to talk about it now and I can’t. Like all my words’ve been stolen.”

“I hear you, partner. Let’s just get this shit over with.”

Together they rigged up the detonation sequence. It was relatively simple from an engineering perspective. The Confederation had mandated self-destruct sequences on all vessels – commercial, military, or personal – since the Internecine Conflicts seventy years prior. All captains were obliged to scuttle a ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands, lest reverse-engineering allow a lower-caste world to elevate itself. 

The primary failsafe against misuse was that it required a specific set of codes, as well as manual detonation. Lex and Briggs each knew this, and once the sequence was timed, there was nothing else left to say.

“I need to do this,” said Briggs.

“Don’t be stupid. It was my idea.”

Briggs laughed. “What does that matter? I’m not doing so good, in case you hadn’t noticed. Don’t waste your life.”

“I wasn’t asking.” Lex floated close to him. “I think I could win a fight against the guy with the busted leg.”

“Now who’s being stupid?” Briggs laughed, a cold sound without mirth. Then, without warning, his hand shot out and grabbed a loose wrench. In the next second, he slammed it into the front of his helmet. A spiderweb of cracks spread across it. He held the wrench in front of its face. “I don’t want you to get hurt, and this shit will fly everywhere if I break it. Which I will if you don’t go. And your helmet won’t fit my suit, so don’t even think of trying to be a hero.”

“Fuck you,” said Lex. “Don’t put this on my conscience.”

“You heard Pol say how far out we are. Go. Get out of here. Tell the Confederation what happened so they can stay the fuck away from here.”

Lex looked at Briggs for a long moment. Each considered the other. Calculating. Then Lex relaxed her shoulders and nodded. She floated over to her helmet and put it on. She turned to Briggs and tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed quite right. So she simply raised a hand, then left that place, never to return.


Lex was barely settled back on the bridge when the detonation began. Sal sat at the controls, watching the readings with an uncharacteristic fierceness. Everyone else was silent. Thinking. Praying. Whatever people did when they retreated inside themselves.

It began as a series of tremors. Then there was a violent shaking sensation, and a sense of lightness as the bridge module separated from the rest of the Gunnison. A flare bloomed in the night, growing hotter and redder, propelling the survivors away from the site of the wreck.

The light from the dying ship had already begun to fade when Sal finally exhaled and opened the viewscreen for all to see. The fading glow lit up the emptiness, revealing the wall of black that extended beyond the top of their view. No stars could be seen past this structure, which was unmoved and seemingly undamaged by the violence at its feet. 

Then something moved, a thin tendril of black against the dying ship. This glimpse at the indescribable sent a thrill of terror and sublime awe through Lex. For a moment again, she was a primitive on a long-dead world, looking at an unchanging and unknowable sky. 

Then she was back, and they were hurtling through the dark.

Hurtling towards home.

#23 – Peephole

To anyone reading this, I have one last warning. Just in case my plan doesn’t work.

Don’t use the peephole in your apartment door. Just don’t do it.

I learned this the hard way.

My place was small, but well-situated. It was a building built into the side of a hill overlooking a park by the river. The forest had been cut down and replaced with new trees planted in more convenient spots. They had been surrounded by a concrete parking lot, isolating them to little islands of green amidst the black-and-yellow. I parked my car every day next to a young ash tree, then walked inside through a lobby lined with seldom-used plush couches and walls of glass. Coffee-table books about such esoteric subjects as the depiction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in modern art or drawings of the human hand were scattered across the table, dusty and unused, present only to give the appearance of life but somehow responsible for undoing that same illusion.

I rode the elevator to the tenth floor and turned right. My door was at the end of the hall, situated perpendicular to the others. It wasn’t the penthouse, but it was an end suite, with balconies on all sides. My oasis. I opened the door and locked it behind me. I threw my bag onto the kitchen island, situated to my left. Beyond it was an open-concept dining-and-living area. The river sparkled in the distance. Red stripes, kayaks, cut across it. I watched the boats for a moment. I felt a strange and furtive feeling in this act of benign voyeurism. It made me wonder how often people watched me without my knowledge.

This apartment had been designed for childless young professionals or golden-yeared retirees who still walked without assistance. I was a childless young professional, but only one. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I preferred my solitude. It gave me more time to think, more time to pursue the dreams I wanted to pursue, without anyone saying anything to the contrary. Besides, I worked long, irregular hours, and it wouldn’t be very fair to anybody to expect them to put up with it. The black bags under my eyes might not suit the condo’s marketing material, but I paid my bills and lived a quiet life. I loved my home.

Well, until the pandemic hit. We shifted to a work-from-home model and suddenly everything changed. I was in my apartment all the time. I explored online grocery shopping as a means of limiting contacts with others, which was even easier than I expected. I found myself in a position where I almost never left my home — even once restrictions had relaxed. My company, unlike many, realized that the lack of overhead required to maintain an office would only be a boon towards year-end valuations. They shifted all employees to a permanent work-from-home model.

Great, right? Who wouldn’t want to do all work from home, especially one as nice as mine?

Normally, I’d agree. But my isolation wasn’t worth it.

It began late at night. When my commute was a total of sixteen steps, I wasn’t worried about sleeping in. I’d been deep in a YouTube rabbit-hole, learning about the alignment of the Pyramids of Giza with Orion’s belt, when I heard a knock on my door.

I didn’t even recognize it for what it was, at first. I thought somebody on the floor below me had maybe bumped a wall or something. Saying it now, that seems ludicrous, but it was two in the morning and I was more tired than I realized.

Then a second knock came, and all my fatigue fled, replaced instead by a cold adrenaline. My apartment was dark, lit only by computer-light. A faint yellow glow came from the streetlights beyond the windows and far below. The sky was dull and black. Inside, a single pinprick of light shone through from the small peephole inset at eye-level in the door. Something wavered on the other side, momentarily blocking it out. Then it was back. Then gone again.

I crept to the door, carefully raising and lowering my feet, almost cartoonish in my approach, so as to avoid the knocker hearing my approach.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

The three hard knocks almost pulled a cry from my throat, dying in my mouth as I leapt to stop it.

When I managed to regain control, I leaned forward to the door, pressing my face against the peephole. Behind me, the video on my computer continued to play, flashing a panoply of colours across the room.

I could see the length of the hall through the peephole. There was an apartment on the other end, as well as two others opposite the stairwells at the west and east ends of the building. The elevator bank claimed the rest of the space. As far as I knew, those other apartments were empty. My trips from my condo door to the garbage chute hadn’t ever been interrupted by a neighbour, and I couldn’t recall seeing anyone before that.

It didn’t matter. The hall was empty. Whoever it was had done some kind of knock-and-dash game, perhaps jealous of those with a higher station in life. I checked the lock and then turned off the computer. The fear had left my body totally empty, and I fell into bed without even brushing my teeth.

The light on my phone blinked 2:16 in cold digital numbers.

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

My eyes shot open, feeling as if they’d only just closed. I checked my phone and the numbers now showed me 2:58. Fear was swallowed by anger. I laid there in bed, bracing myself for another round of knocks. I considered calling the police, but figured they wouldn’t come or the asshole knocking on my door would be gone by the time they arrived.

Quiet returned. My breathing began to steady again. How long had it been since the last set of knocks? Even checking my phone seemed somehow a provocation. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep again.

It was then that I heard the rattling. Somebody was trying to get in. Heart racing, I jumped out of bed, pulling on a faded pair of sweats. I stepped out of my bedroom. The knob shook violently and something was slamming against the door, doing everything it could to break in. I threw caution to the wind, rushing to the door.

The noise suddenly stopped. I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled.

I pressed my ear to the door. All I heard was a vague bruit, a collection of noises too indistinct to parse apart. Time seemed to slow. I reminded myself of where I was and what I was doing. Front hall in the early morning, curled in the corner to make sure the door held. A shining porthole of light above my head.

I knew I had to look. Wouldn’t you look?

I stood up, using the wall to help me stand. Slowly and carefully, I pulled myself over to the peephole. It struck me then that there was a strange vulnerability to this act. All of human instinct screams at us not to isolate our eyes. A gory scene from a horror movie, maybe one of the Saw movies, flashed across my brain.

The hallway beyond was empty.

I think this was the moment when the first frayed thread of sanity finally snapped. The second came immediately afterward, when a face rose into the frame from below. An involuntary gasp stole its way from my throat. The face on the other side of the door couldn’t even truly be called a face. Instead, eyes dotted the skin’s canvas, erupting out of any spare section that could be found. They blinked and stared independently of one another. Brown and blue and green and everything in-between. Some were bright and clear, while others were wrinkled and clouded. Long eyelashes, epicanthic folds, freckles; any features an eye might carry were represented on this thing’s face. The only part of its face unmarked by an eye was distinguished by a strange and fleshy proboscis which floated half-limp like a deflated balloon caught in the wind.

Then the eyes all snapped to the peephole.

They saw me. They SAW me. The proboscis leapt out, quicker than the eye could follow, glomming onto the peephole’s other end. I braced my arms against the door as if doing a push-up, but found I couldn’t move. I heard the sharp tinkling sound of glass breaking. The peephole’s light was blotted out. I pushed even harder against the door, shaking, my shoulders screaming for relief, but wasn’t able to move. Another crack of glass, then a shock of pain that made my legs water as the shards were pushed into me.

Then I felt something else probe against my eye, and all went black.


Now here I am. I don’t know if the sheets I’ve tied together will be long enough to reach the ground.
They might not even be long enough to reach the treetops. It’s hard for me to tell. My depth-perception isn’t what it used to be. Not since I woke up, slumped against the back of the door. The screaming gulf in my face, incessant, unending. I don’t know how bad it is. I haven’t looked in a mirror yet. I can do that after I get out.

I think the sheets will be long enough. Hopefully at least enough for me to jump the rest of the way.
The risk is worth it. Anything is better than looking through that peephole. Because if I did, I might see my own eye looking back.

#21 – The Stairs

This is Part Five of a longer narrative. To read the previous entry, click here. To start from the beginning, click here.

1

In the end, it always came down to a house.

The woman stood alone on the street. The streetlights spun golden halos behind her, but nothing could push back the dark emanating from the house. A low rumble in the distance. The highway? Thunder? Something else entirely? No way to tell. A caul of clouds had crept across the sky, muffling the stars. The black around her thick and cold, even the air itself heavy and damp. Expectant. The woman who stood alone on the street took one last look around her, then began the walk up to the house.

Stephanie had already broken one of her rules for this by coming at night. Every amateur ghost-hunter with a night-vision setting on their camera was proud to break into old hospitals or apartment blocs then act as if they’d accomplished something miraculous by catching an artifact of light on the recording. As if ghosts cared about what time of day it was. As if they cared about anything at all. But the academy didn’t understand that, nor did the public. If she wanted to ever tell this story, she needed to do so professionally, not by falling into the traps so carefully laid-out for her by the charlatans. The nighttime visit had had been necessary; this was the closest she’d come in years, and she wouldn’t waste that chance. She couldn’t risk the cops getting called on her for poking around an old house. She promised herself that she’d do the rest the right way. Her way.

What might happen if she were caught? A part of her had almost considered it, just to see how the situation would proceed. She’d tried to research the address, but couldn’t find any record of its construction in city records. Moreover, there was no sign the people in the neighbourhood had ever considered the house. True, the house itself was not particularly remarkable; as an off-white two-storey home turned faintly yellow with time, constructed in a style some thirty years out of date, it failed to stand out among the busier homes on the street for anything more than having an overgrown, weedy lawn. Suburban development had passed through this section of Kingston years prior, and now the residents were focused on renovations and property revaluations. Stephanie wondered if the comparative lack of development was due to a heritage designation — maybe, she considered, the owner simply wished to sit on a museum piece — but could find no evidence that this had ever existed. In fact, she could find no zoning information for the house at all. From all appearances, it was a forgotten artifact of a different city.

When Stephanie reached the front porch, she stopped. A couple of cracked concrete steps sat half-sunk and led up to a squat plateau. A wilted plant crept out from the crevices. Nothing stood on the porch to distract from the flat, unmarked door. A single thumb-sized hook poked out from the wooden awning over the short patio and wept rusty water in the damp night. Stephanie regarded this for a moment, somehow discomfited by this, the first sign of habitation she’d seen in this place. She looked over her shoulder, back at the night. The short distance from the porch to the street seemed somehow lengthened, as if the walkway had unrolled itself, a chameleonic asphalt tongue. Anticipation and fear swelled inside her. This part never made the stories, she reflected. She promised herself that the only lie she’d ever tell was that she wasn’t afraid.

She watched as her hand floated up to the knob. Couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t try to stop it. The brass was dull with time and weather, but unmarred by actual use. Her hand gripped it. Turned. It was locked. Of course it was locked. She hadn’t actually expected it to be open, had she? She stepped back and down from the porch. She took quick glances up and down the street to confirm it was still empty, then began to peer into the windows. They were slightly above eye-level and so she had to step on her tip-toes to see inside. The first was blocked by some thin curtain, preventing her from seeing anything more than faint shapes in the dark. The second, around the side of the house, proved more fruitful; part of the curtain here had been torn away, revealing the room beyond. It had evidently been some kind of sitting-room, judging from the furniture arrayed within. The shape of a sofa and armchair could be seen underneath great tarpaulin sheets like the kind movers used. There was a rug rolled up and leaning on the wall behind it. A single clock with a different songbird at each hour mark waited to be set.

Stephanie considered the next steps. She had all the proof she needed that the house wasn’t occupied, and yet the next part gave her pause. She knew it was her only way forward — the police certainly weren’t going to do anything, and she didn’t have any solid proof that the Bric-a-Brac Man had stayed here while stalking Jeffrey King. If she tried anything by the proper authorities, the best case scenario was that she lost her lead. The worst-case scenario involved an asylum.

She returned to the front lawn, eyes scanning the overgrown grass. Annoyingly, the lawn was remarkably free of detritus, despite the lack of maintenance, but she eventually found a rounded rock roughly the size of a tennis ball. A strange thrill grew inside of her, pushing out the fear. She realized it was more than just a window. The rock in her hand felt heavy with portent. Years of dogged pursuit had led to this. A heady rush filled her and she curled her fingers around the rock and wound back her arm.

It was then she realized that the front door had opened and now stood ajar. A vertical black line welcomed her.

The rock fell from Stephanie’s fingers. She walked up the stairs and pushed the door wide before being swallowed by the darkness beyond.

2

Motes of dust danced in thin beams of streetlight. The door shut behind Stephanie and a silence unlike anything she’d ever heard fell over the place. The foyer itself was cramped and cold, but as she stepped into the sitting-room adjacent, she noticed a strange humidity dappling on her skin that reminded her of a time she’d been sick while visiting relatives in Florida.

The feeling did not pass as she explored deeper into the house. She passed through the heavy shapes in the sitting-room and on to the kitchen, where the regular black-and-white of the linoleum told her more about the house than she’d ever gotten from walking around the perimeter. Drawers hung open half-tacked and emptied of anything worthwhile; a matchbook reading SAVE NOW BUY TODAY over a laminated graphic of an ancient Mazda shouted at her from its shadowed corner. Her hands found it and clutched it, figuring that any physical evidence from this place could be useful in some capacity.

She peered out the kitchen window to the spot in the backyard when picketed fence turned into gnarled and overgrown hedge. Beyond it was a trampoline. Old ivy rust-trails curled around the trampoline’s masts. Grass grew long up against its feet and watching it Stephanie found herself
falling

into a memory. She was back in a kitchen, not this grimy dark nightlit kitchen but rather one of gleaming browns, an earthy place with adobe walls and outside the sun was shining hot and bright in that extra energetic way that seems to slow down time itself. A girl sat across from her and she had an Eggo waffle in her right hand and blueberries lay on the plate underneath it, floes on a sea of syrup. She saw Stephanie and she smiled at her and Stephanie smiled back and then the world outside spun, day to night to day to night to day to night, two seasons long, until the world was dark and blue in that cold southern way. They sat around a Christmas tree and the night sat next to them patient, it was time and Stephanie didn’t know it, how could she know it? If she had known she could have said something maybe even done something and of course that wasn’t possible but it didn’t matter because no matter what she thought of

Katie was still dead. Stephanie was back in that quiet kitchen. She pulled herself from the window and walked round through the sitting room back to the foyer where the staircase climbed upstairs. Stephanie considered this option for a long moment before she realized something and returned around to the opposite side of this staircase, set between the kitchen and the dining room, to see another door. She pulled and opened it and another set of stairs fell away before her.

3

The staircase managed to combine all of the most frightening configurations of staircases together. First, it opened up with a steep and narrow view of the decline into the earth, a yawning black space that swallowed the light. The stairs were set not with wood, but rather had been carved into granite steps and inset to the earth such that they curved slightly and were angled irregularly as one descended. The ceiling was slightly too low, and the whole space rang with sounds of water dripping that echoed and bounced in that too-small space.

The staircase creaked under her weight as she took the first step. Only a faint filter of light from somewhere outside was able to creep through the hallway and down through this door to a thin line along the wall carved in blue-grey. Stephanie’s face passed through it but briefly as she descended and for a moment she looked to all the world like the girl who’d woken up Christmas morning excited to spend the day with her sister, the happiest she’d ever been and could ever hope to be. Then the light passed and the world swept back to the place where time had brought it, and she was a scared scholar, pressing her way downward into a stony dark. It took her too long to reach the bottom but at last her footsteps scratched against the stoop and she stepped forward to the next step and found that there wasn’t one — she’d arrived.

4

There was a hallway under the house. Stephanie thought about this for a moment and how many houses she’d been to that had hallways in their basement and she realized then that something about the thought of a hallway under a house was strangely discomfiting to her, and so standing there in a black so inviolately bleak and still she found herself struck then with the first true creeping sense of fear. The basement was warmer still than the main level of the house had been and Stephanie found her flashlight at last and an arc of light split out from it, not so much illuminating the dark as pushing it aside. Stephanie scanned the walls with the light as she advanced deeper into the basement where even the stone-and-earth walls began to degrade and turn more into packed hardsoil where the roof began to climb in and roots spun out varicose from the walls and at last she came to a door under the house where all the heat seemed to be held. She placed her hand on the door and felt a pallid warmth underneath her fingers. They crawled down to the latch and released the door.

It swung open and inwards into a space womblike and old, a place that stunk of a faint musk as if something dead had recently been removed. Fibrous streamers drew themselves half-taut across the ceiling of that place, gathering around a bulbous pink-and-ochre pod. The light fell across this too and Stephanie looked up to where the pod had burst open, ragged tissue hanging dead now above her, spatting some strange plasm across the ceiling. It had stained and flaked like old paint. Stephanie traced her light across all of this until it landed on a small shape, covered by linen. The cloth was stained dark brown and it grew in a whorl from the center of the shape, disappearing to feathering lines at the very edges. A horrible well opened up in the very bottom of her stomach. Stephanie knew what was under there, and she knew now the terrible truth:

The Bric-a-Brac Man was nothing supernatural. There had never been any ghosts haunting this house. It was creepy and old and dank and yet it was nothing more than a house, a staging ground for the creature’s hunt, or perhaps a place for it to rest while it digested. Stephanie pulled out her phone to dial for help, then realized how it all might look. An anonymous tip would be better. Something to point the police in the right direction. They would likely censor all mention of the organic debris stuck to the walls, but at least they would find the body. At least Jeffrey King’s family would have answers.

And Katie? asked a voice. What about her? You know what this means.

Stephanie pushed the voice away. There’d be time for it later. The walls around her felt as if they’d begun to close. The stone but inches away from her skin. She turned her body sideways and slid through the halls, holding her breath as if the air had turned miasmic. Earth turned to stone turned to wood as she wended her way along, until at last she was at the bottom of the stairs. The clouds must have cleared because moonlight shone cold white light through to the landing. She began her ascent, her mind filled with memories of childhood, of running up the stairs from the basement on her hands-and-feet with Katie so that they might go faster, might escape whatever it was that surely lurked below with silvered teeth and pointed claw.

This thought was torn away from her by a shadow filling the doorway. It was then that Stephanie received an answer to a question she’d yet to ask. The front door had not responded to her ministrations at the windows, nor had a ghost swung the way open for her.

It had opened because somebody was home.

Stephanie opened her mouth to scream. The basement door slammed shut.

#20 – Rhumen’s Rules For Scrying

Hello, young mage! If you are reading this, please accept my congratulations on the purchase of a new scrying-glass. The acquisition of a scrying-glass is always a momentous day in the training of any budding sorcerer, and while I am certain that your instructor or instructors have provided you with ample information about how to use said scrying-glass, it is incumbent upon me, Arch-Magus Rhumen, to dive deeper into the potential pits and follies of this device.

What are you waiting for? Have you never wished for sight to extend beyond what your own eyes can offer? Read on, intrepid explorer! Learn about the mysteries and marvels of your new instrument!

Rule #1 – Do not leave the scry-glass unattended!

As I write these rules, I do so with the assumption that your teacher has taught you the fundamentals of operating the scrying-glass. The mechanism, of course, is quite simple; you simply pour a phial of scry-water atop the surface of the bowl, then channel your magick into the contents until they reveal whatever it is you wish to see.

There is, however, one piece of education that is often forgotten, especially among amateur instructors; the scrying-glass is a powerful magical instrument and, as such, should not be left unattended. To scry is to see, yes, but one fundamental part of learning to scry is understanding that there is far more to seeing than sight. Best not learn this the wrong way.

Rule #2 – Clear your mind.

When one pours the scry-water into the bowl, they may find their minds occupied by any number of things. This is especially common for new students, who are seeking to learn a whole host of spells, hexes, and other incantations – not to mention any other trivialities of the human experience that may wander in. While the jumbled contents of the mind are certainly understandable under these circumstances, it is imperative that they do not override your own common sense; Remember, the contents of the scrying-glass are shaped by your mind. Should you fail to clear your mind before using the glass, the consequences may be dire. Do not forget: the glass is capable of falsehoods. It is on you, the mage, to harness it and bend it towards reality.

Rule #3 – Never use the glass with a partner.

This rule follows the principle laid out in the second rule; the scrying-glass is a device meant to be operated by one individual at one time. Should two mages attempt to channel magick into the glass simultaneously, the potential for distortions or other corruptions escalates significantly, as it is nigh impossible for two individuals to picture the same image at the same time.

An example: envision a single red flower. Perhaps it is in a meadow. I am picturing it, too. Write down a description of the flower, or draw it if you will. What are the shape of the petals? Does it have the appearance of a bulb, or are the petals flat and opened to the sun? What about the stem? How many leaves adorn it? Are there any thorns? If so, are they straight like a rose’s, or hooked like a hawk’s talon? What about the colour of the flower itself? When I ask you to picture a red flower, are you picturing a bloody crimson, or a vivacious scarlet? Or, perhaps, is it closer to what I might call orange? Please hurry. At some point, we should get on to describing the meadow in which this flower lies.

Do you now grasp my point? It would be fruitless for me to even attempt to describe my image of this flower, for there is virtually no possibility that our two minds are aligned. Indeed, even twins, so common among sorcerers, cannot use the glass together, for the scrying-glass is perception made manifest, and one’s perception is unique to them alone.

Rule #4 – Ensure the scrying-glass is supplied with a constant stream of mana.

While the experienced user of magical instruments may find the above rule to be almost comically straightforward, these devices are not as intuitive as one might think. Think of when one places a kettle by a fire or removes a garment from a dye-bath. The process followed therein ceases from the moment the article or instrument is removed from the reagent.

Such is not the case with a scrying-glass. With these devices, the stream of mana must be continuously channeled, even as one seeks to end their scry-session. To properly finish using the device, the sorcerer must slowly diminish the speed and volume of the mana they channel to the glass. Failing to do so greatly increases the risk of a catastrophe – one that may pose a threat to your life, your school, or even your world itself!

If it helps, please consider the following mnemonic: “Channel the same so there’s no-one to blame.”

Rule #5 – Never attempt to scry yourself.

We begin now to venture into the rules beyond basic maintenance and operation of the device. While some of the remaining rules may seem odd or outlandish, it is important that we remember that it is the nature of sorcerers and mages to push the boundaries of known experience. What might seem like the height of delusion for one wizard may be an untapped vein of knowledge for another!

Consider the looking-glass. Instead of scrying-water from a phial, it is constructed by artisans in dusty workshops, labouring to ensure the sheen is perfect. They are then carefully hung, or placed in wooden or metal frames, then passed on to their beholders. And yet, despite all of the care and labour that goes into their construction, they are the products of the physical world. When one glances in a mirror, they shall always see themselves looking back. Such is the case from the poorest serf gazing drunkenly into a dusty tavern-glass, to the highest lord, looking down their nose at the figure within the gilded frame. While the circumstances may change, the fundamental operation does not.

Such is not the case with the scrying-glass. As we have covered in previous entries, the success or failure of the glass’s operator depends wholly on the skill and care they take during use. It also depends, however, on one’s understanding of physical reality. Though much of this has likely been covered in your courses on the universe’s firmament and structure, I shall, at the risk of repetition, highlight a few common instances.

The first, of course, is never to scry yourself. Consider the following question: do you know what the back of your own head looks like? Likely not. To attempt to see it is to seek out a physical impossibility. To scry upon a foreign land or nearby market is merely to simulate human experience, albeit from afar; in theory, one could attend these places, feel the breeze upon their cheeks, or perhaps hear the bustle of the bazaar up-close. There is no such situation where one can do the same and look at the back of their own head. While attempts have been reported, they have been thankfully slim; students wishing to check the length of their beard or to pop an errant boil are encouraged to use true glass rather than a magical one. To attempt otherwise is to risk ego death or worse.

Consider: what would you do if your other self looked back?

Rule #6 – Never attempt to scry the unknown.

“But,” you ask, “Arch-Magus Rhumen, why can we not seek out the unknown? Is this not the purpose of the scrying-glass or, indeed, of all magicks?”

This question, while very astute, is also a common one. Please first consider that I have accounted for such things before elucidating these rules into a book. To wit: yes, the purpose of the scrying-glass is to seek out the distant and unknown. But there is, however, a difference between the unknown and the unknown. We know that the land of Traymorel exists beyond the sunrise because sailors and merchants have travelled across the bounds of the sea to discover it. They’ve told stories of savannahs covered with strange grasses taller than a man on horseback. They’ve passed on word of its people, with their odd customs and quick speech. They’ve brought back foreign and exotic fruits, meats, and wines. In short: everything about this land can be perceived, so long as the seeker has the will and drive to explore.

Such is not the case with the truly unknown. Have you ever considered what the inside of our sun might look like? What about the distant stars in the sky? Or, perhaps, more abstract – what if you tried to scry out a thought? There are some things beyond sight in this cosmos. To attempt to witness them is to seek out madness.

Rule #7 – Never attempt to scry the past.

The inverse of this, of course, is never to attempt to scry the future. But the vast majority of mages, even the unwashed novices, carry in them this grain of sense. Perceiving the future is impossible and invariably results in the glass revealing our innermost desires for the future; if we picture ourselves in a tower, attended upon by a coterie of maidens, it will reveal such to us. And why not? When the future is constantly in flux, it makes sense that the glass would turn us towards our desires. While this might be a frustrating limitation of the instrument, it is ultimately harmless.

Such is not the case for attempts to scry the past. The past exists only in memory. The mind does not perceive it the same way, for it knows that it once existed and now cannot again. In memory, the light might seem brighter, or a past lover free of imperfections. The mind allows you picture a world without the dull and omnipresent veneer of hunger, anxiety, or boredom. To perceive the future, no matter how ridiculous it might seem, is a fundamentally optimistic point of view. To scry the past is to risk becoming consumed by nostalgia; we know, at the fundamental cores of our being, that there is no returning to what has been lost.

The astute scholar may ask why, precisely, these two acts differ so greatly. To that I answer: at the heart of both visions is desire, but desire for a bygone past is far different than desire for a better future.

Rule #8 – Do not speak to the glass.

Do not even attempt it. 

Rule #9 – Do not attempt to touch the glass.

Another rule that sounds simpler in the confines of this manual than it is in practice. One common side-effect of scrying is an effect of mental transportation. When a sorcerer stands next to the scrying-glass, brow sweating with the effort of channeling, it is easy for them to become lost in a trance. I do not know a single sorcerer who can claim anything to the contrary; indeed, this is one of the joys of scrying. I’ve stood atop the peaks of Virak and gazed at the cerulean lagoons of Nisobee; with the scrying-glass, the boundless and unimpeachable beauty of our world is but moments away.

Despite this, the sorcerer must remain aware that it is but a glimpse, a porthole into another part of our world. Touching it, as some have attempted to do, risks transportation, among other things.

“Arch-Magus Rhumen,” you ask, voice wheedling in my ear. “Why is that so bad?” Let me begin by instructing you that you should not be attempting to pick apart these rules, no matter how illogical some might seem. Understand that there is always a reason for them.

To answer your question, there is no guarantee of success at transportation. The Translocation Guild have been studying these matters for generations; the Black Towers in the Uroa Mountains are but testaments to their arrogance. Attempting to transport oneself through a scrying-glass will, at best, result in the loss of a limb, severed as the mind’s connection to the glass splinters. At worst, it represents a much greater risk. If you still don’t believe me, look up the Tale of Joolim, who fell into his scrying-glass and scattered gore across a busy market. That should serve as an instructive lesson. Sometimes the most direct consequences are the most educational.

Rule #10 – Do not linger.

This is the final rule, and perhaps the most important. All of the previous rules, in some capacity, have concerned matters of operation, and understandably so; the power of the scrying-glass are immense, but so to are the possibilities for calamity.

I warn here thus of a different, and much more common, potential for failure. The power of the scrying-glass is addicting, and many more powerful than you have tried to resist it. You must be made of sterner stuff than them. While all of the preceding rules have the potential to end in death or madness, many shirk this final rule, for the consequences do not seem so dire.

Do not become lost. Do not stare away into the glass, seeking the distant or the impossible. There are spells to study, books to read, and a world beyond to explore. Too many wizards have been found emaciated or dead beside their scrying-glasses. Do not join them.

You have been given a powerful tool, young mage. If you follow the rules laid out here, I have the utmost confidence you will achieve marvelous things.

#19 – The Church by the Spaceport

1

The Collector checked the station clock, then leaned forward, glancing down the track. He knew that the hypertrain would arrive before he heard it, but humans had been waiting for trains for almost nine hundred years, so looking impatiently was practically engraved in his DNA. 

So too was the word he uttered upon seeing that the train was late.

A nearby Citizen heard him. “Can’t believe they go that quick and still can’t show up on time.”

The Collector said nothing in response, simply sneering at the other man until he relented, raising his hands apologetically. The Collector considered a Citation, but decided against it when the train whipped into the station. Lines of bored travellers began to filter out of the compartments, their steps buoying as they readjusted to gravity outside of the train’s insulated compartments. Ignoring them all, the Collector stepped aboard, finding his seat. Even with the extra Gs, sitting wasn’t necessary, but it gave him the chance to review his route for the day. He adjusted his mask, then turned to the papers.

He already knew the end of the route, of course. He knew all of it, inside and out. This was more ritual than necessity. Looking up, he snapped a quick salutation to the two Clerks strolling past. They nodded his way, and he forced a smile in return. He never had understood how pencil-pushers had fallen above him in the Hierarchy. He turned back to his papers.

“Hey. Taxboy. Got a minute? I’m trying to settle a bet.” The Collector looked up. One of the Clerks, a freckled and boy-faced man, was looking right at him. Talking, too. He knew perfectly well that the Collectors didn’t have a minute, but he didn’t seem to care, either.

“Sure,” said the Collector, doing his best to sound compliant. “What’s the bet?”

“Just a question me and my boy here are trying to answer about you guys.”

“Go for it.”

“Sorry?”

Hesitation. Quick enough to satisfy, too short to notice. “Sorry, sir.”

“That’s better. I just need to know – it’s about your mask.”

“What about it?” The Collector’s fingers found his beak, which stretched away from his face. The Confederacy had mandated it, and the reasons were twofold: the first was that forcing tax collectors to wear old plague-doctor masks seemed to symbolize a kind of aw-shucks-sorry-I-have-to-do-this ethos; the second was that they protected Collectors from retaliation in their personal lives.

“Do you guys have anything under there?” His grin widened. The next words came out in a rush; hasty and over-practiced. “Or is it just a giant pussy on your face?” Next to him, the other Clerk snorted.

“I–we–are just human beings. Just like you. The mask serves a few purposes, the first of wh–”

“–I don’t care about any of that.” The Clerk took a step forward. “I just want to see that pussy. Are you gonna show me that pussy, bitchboy?”

“I–”

“Take. Off. The. Mask.”

The Collector looked around him. Everyone else was looking at their datapads, pretending as if they couldn’t hear. Not likely. Half the people in this car probably had aural mods implanted. He looked back to the Clerk. Thought about asking if it was necessary, then decided against it. The only thing that wasn’t necessary was collecting a Citation over disobeying some power-tripping asshole in the Echelon above him. He gripped the bottom of the mask with his hands and pulled it over his head, revealing blond hair and a ragged goatee. His eyes looked out dully at the Clerks. 

“See,” said the loud one, calling to his friend. “Just like I said – they hide their pussies under those masks.” His friend laughed dutifully. “Alright, thanks for the anatomy lesson, taxboy, but we gotta get to the next car.” He clapped The Collector on the shoulder. “Have fun ruining a few Citizens’ days.”

Then he was gone, along with his friend. The Collector held his breath for five seconds to be sure of it, then turned his head. A few people swiftly looked away. Had they seen his face? Recorded it on their datapads? No way to know.

The Collector checked the clock again. They were now almost eight minutes behind, and he had work to do.

2

The priest watched the ships pass over the city through the stained glass on the west side of his church and wondered if any of them had prayed that morning.

It was a snide thought, one he hated himself for, but he felt it all the same. For him prayer was a ritual as effortless as breathing. He had never understood how the old scholars spoke of prayer as if it was an ordeal. How could it be painful to open yourself up to a source of peerless love? Intimidating, maybe, but painful? He could never imagine that. 

But there, perhaps, was the problem. The sound of his footsteps redounded across the church as he strode to the dais. The pews on either side were snowy with dust. In the racks on their backs, thin tablets pre-loaded with different editions of the Bible waited cold and black. 

Saturdays were the hardest. There was enough to do earlier in the week that he could keep himself busy. He might have allowed dust to gather, but there were other functions and other traditions that he made sure to follow, even if only for himself. In his old age, he had grown accustomed to going to bed late and rising early, knees shouting and aching; this schedule had been motivated in part by the installation of the adboard in the building opposite disrupting his sleep with its incessant flashing. Now, it had become habit, and the days grew shorter and passed more quickly. 

Until Saturday. Saturdays were when he was left alone with his thoughts. He should have been fine-tuning his sermon for the Sunday parishioners, but there was no need for that anymore. Memories of old attendees flickered through his mind, barely more than ideas. Names and faces floated about, but he didn’t know if they matched. Once, he had logged on to the ancient computer in the rectory. He had found photos of people whom he had totally forgotten, provoking a kind of twisting anguish inside his belly. How could he justify forgetting an entire person? He recognized the faces, but no names floated to his mind. They were simply gone.

After that, he hadn’t visited the computer any more.  It was a decision he never regretted. There was no space for technology in this place. The mere existence of the church was thanks to old laws which, even now, the Confederate Council on Religion was seeking to nullify. New religions had cropped up as humanity had spread to distant worlds. Others had simply faded away, adherents too uncertain of God’s place in the wider cosmos.

The priest’s fingers tented in the dust, feeling the cool stone beneath their tips. Sometimes he did this to remind him of this place, of its solidity. There was a permanence to something built of rock instead of steel. A slow vibration began to roll through it, shaking the dust slightly, breathing small clouds into the air. He looked through the windows and to the sky, where a rocket’s plume faded into the distance, generating a strange nausea within him. There seemed to be something spiteful about the spaceport’s placement next door, its existence somehow a symbol of defiance against the heavens. He watched until the billowing clouds dissipated, then his eyes fell again to the floor. 

“Why,” he whispered. “Why did you isolate me, even as you selected me for this mission?” He closed his eyes. He didn’t expect an answer. 

BANG! BANG!

Two booming knocks on the door rolled across the room.

3

The Collector pulled his hand back from the bronze knocker. He wiped it against his shirt, unsure of whether it might be a vector for some kind of virus. He made a mental note to run through a scanner later. 

He took a step back and looked at the building. It rose above him, a massive edifice of brick and stone topped with a pointed spire. An ancient cross symbol could barely be perceived atop it. He checked his logs, wondering if this was the right place or if some Accountant had thought it might be funny to send him to a derelict building slated for demolition. He began to review his datapad, searching frantically for proof, lest someone realize he’d taken the bait.

The name St. Simon’s floated before his eyes just as the door opened. A wizened man in a habit peered out at him. Threads of hair clung like feathers to the sides of his head, lending him the appearance of somebody lost. He squinted in the sun. Fright leaped across his face once his eyes had adjusted.

“Who are you? Why are you wearing that? What do you want?” he asked.  His voice conjured an image of reeds fighting against the wind.

“Depends,” replied the Collector, surprised he didn’t recognize the uniform. “Are you the man in charge here?”

The priest hesitated. “In a sense, I suppose.”

“Is it alright if I come in?”

“Anyone is welcome here,” replied the old man. He pushed the door back, groaning along with it. It was dark beyond the threshold, the kind of dark that seemed to suggest intent. The Collector stepped inside, and the old man closed the door behind him, sealing off the sounds of the world beyond.

“Now, my son. What can I do for you?”

“I’m not your son, old man. I’m a Collector for the Confederacy. You’re behind on your debts to your government.”

This statement was met with silence. Lights flickered above them in alcoves against the walls, simulations of candlelight. The priest looked at the Collector for a long moment, then gestured to a dust-covered pew. “Please, take a seat, my son.”

A frown grew on the Collector’s face, covered by the mask. “I don’t need to sit. I just need you to swipe the church’s chip against my datapad. Or your own, I don’t really care. There’s a fair balance owing. I don’t want to have to come back.”
This last part was true. The Collector hated coming back. The Confederacy always made sure they got their due, but they were patient. Steady acceleration was the best way to instill fear but prevent resistance. It made sense in practice, but in the short term it made for a series of annoying trips.

“You won’t need to come back,” replied the priest. “I don’t have the money, and I don’t have the means to get it.”

“What?”

“If I had the money, I would certainly pay it. But I don’t, so I can’t.”

“Find it. Get some of your congregation to tithe a little extra.”

At this, the old man’s face changed, but only for a moment. He regained his composure, then met the eyes of the mask. The Collector was impressed. People rarely looked directly at the mask. Something about it discomfited them. He supposed that was another benefit the Confederacy appreciated. “I’m sorry,” said the priest. “I don’t have any parishioners. I don’t expect I will again.”

“And why not?” asked the Collector, not really sure why he even was asking. 

“I’ll tell you,” answered the priest, “but only if you sit down.” He gestured to the pew beside him.

Silence fell between them. The Collector felt a low vibration in the floor and idly wondered what it was. The midday sun had crested over the church and the light through the stained glass was now faint, indirect. Shadows had grown long, clutching the pews from either end. The priest sat in one of the remaining zones of light. The Collector sat next to him, right where the dark started.

“Thank you,” said the priest. Now, let me ask you a question: “Do you believe in God?”

4

“What?” It was not a question the Collector had ever considered.

“Do you believe in God?” repeated the priest. “It’s a fairly simple question, at least in terms of the direct answer. Obviously the reasons for one’s conclusion might vary, of course.”

The Collector’s mask stared back at the priest with dull, black eyes. What expression might he be making behind them? The priest tried to picture what the Collector’s face might look like. The voice sounded young enough, but not too young. There was a weariness that only came with age. He wondered about the face. The face always told the truth. He opened his mouth to ask what the purpose of the mask was, but the Collector interrupted, clearing his throat: “I don’t see what this has to do with anything. I’m here for your taxes, not a sermon.”

The priest only smiled. “For believers, it has everything to do with everything. Yet for the irreligious, nothing is more ludicrous than what I do. I take it that is your answer?”

“What? No–”

“No?” repeated the priest, raising an eyebrow. “So do you feel differently about matters?”

A snort burst from behind the mask, the sound of a man who had regained his composure. “Stop with your games, old man. You can’t twist me into believing in your God.”

“I’m not asking you to believe,” said the priest. “I understand that those kind of decisions don’t just come to a single person telling you what to do. I was asking if you believed, which is a different thing entirely. Your answers have left the matter somewhat confused, I’ll admit, but I accept that this may not have been the kind of thing you’ve thought much about.”

“You don’t know me–”

“I don’t need to,” said the priest, shrugging away the comment. “People aren’t as different from one another as you think. Especially in this Confederacy, with its constant talk of progress and of escaping our tradit–”

“Careful, old man. I’ve been patient with you, but there’s no need to speak ill of the Confederacy. I can tell the next Echelon that you didn’t have the money for the taxes, and they will work on a new strategy, but I cannot tell them that I failed to issue a Citation for poisoned words.”

“Do it, then. One Citation makes no difference. If you give me more, then I will remember that my body is but a vessel, nothing more.” A faint turning of his lips, not quite a smile. “Water flows free when the jar breaks, after all.” 

Here fell a silence so quiet that it could be heard. The bird-mask tilted to the side for a moment, then back, eerily similar to the pantomimed self. The sun had begun to crest to the west, scattering light further across the pews. Motes of dust, disturbed by long-awaited visitors, floated in the kaleidoscopic light. No signs of falling. The distant sound of another rocket launch could be heard. It was just past one, which meant it was likely headed for Opportunity. With two extra hours in the day, the Martian commuters liked to start late.

The man in the mask finally spoke. “You are a strange old man.”

This actually generated a laugh from the priest. “Strange! Strange only means different, so I suppose that is true – but at least I am honest. You are the one in the costume. How can we reach a concordance if I don’t even know who I am speaking with?”

“Forget the costume. There’s no bargain to be struck here. Tell me the reason why you cannot pay, and I will do what I can to lessen the punishment.” 

“I’ve already told you,” replied the old man.

“You haven’t told me shit.”

“Please,” said the priest, raising his hand. “I understand you have a duty, and that you are frustrated, but there is no need for foul language. Please respect that, in a sense, this is my home.”

“You don’t get to call the shots here.”

“Who does? You? Surely you didn’t come here of your own volition? Is this what you saw yourself doing as a boy?” The priest’s arm flew up, pointing at the window. The pillar of smoke stretched across the sky, though the ship had already disappeared into the blue. “Was there nothing you wanted more?”

“You don’t get to tell me what I wanted, old man.”

“You’re right, I don’t. You tell me.”

Here the Collector’s patience ended. The mask snapped to the priest. “Don’t point at the sky and pretend you know me, old man. Don’t hide in your stone house and act as if the world hasn’t passed you and your God by. Don’t act as if adhering to old traditions and fables enlightens you. It doesn’t. You know what I think? I think you don’t have the money because you can’t find any fools stupid enough to pay your fucking tithes. You are the last in a long line of men who held that post, and you are facing something worse than death – irrelevancy.” The mask’s eyes began to fog up, growing cloudy from the inside with the exertion of anger. One gloved hand came up, ripping the mask off, revealing blond hair stringy with sweat and wild sunken eyes peering from beneath.

The priest’s eyes met those of the Collector, if only for a moment. Then they fell. His hand traced a line in the dust, a series of whorls of no determinate pattern. “You have the lay of it. People don’t attend anymore.” Red light from the stained glass was beginning to creep across his face, across his bald pate. He turned back to the Collector. “Why would they? What purpose does this place have in a world where you can prolong life? Where one can easily go to other worlds? How far can God truly see?”

“Why are you telling me this, old man?”

“You asked why I could not pay. This is why.”

The Collector watched the priest, looking for something he could not see. Then he picked up the mask, rising to his feet. “You accuse me of not having purpose. If what you’ve told me is true, how can you still have purpose?”

“It’s not the task, but the choice. The choice is what drives us.”

“That doesn’t make any sense! Your purpose, your life – it’s just as much a joke as mine.”

“Yes, but who made that choice? You, or somebody else?”

“Forget this.” The Collector stuffed the mask on to his face, twisting it back into place. “I’ll be back in a week. Make sure you have my money.”

The priest said nothing in response. The Collector waited a little longer, then dragged open the church door and rushed out into the sunlight.

5

Outside, the day had warmed significantly. The Collector began to sweat beneath his mask. Something about it taking it off highlighted how hot it had been. He began to walk back to the train station. Along the way, he passed by the spaceport. He stopped at the fence and watched as they pulled back the glossy red-and-silver boarding ramp. The nose of the rocket was pointed straight upwards. Faces of all different colours could be seen through the portholes. A countdown began. A light beneath the rocket ignited.

As he watched the rocket launch, the Collector’s thoughts turned back to the priest and his church. He realized he was excited to return. 

#18 – Mr. Onion

This all happened a very long time ago.

There was once a faraway land of verdant forests, rolling fields, and strong castles. It was ruled by a Duke, though both his name and the name of the land itself have been forgotten. Towers of concrete and glass are all that grow there now. 

But that is now, and this was then. Back then, there was a small farm on the borders of the duchy. A clear stream cut through the farm between the single straw-thatched home and the fields. There, a short wooden barn housed sheep, protecting them from the few wolves which lived in the forest. The stream itself went on to the woods, disappearing beneath the dark canopy. Midges hovered lazily over the surface of the water. It was late in the summer, and the fields were heavy with their crop. The harvest was soon, and though the Duke would have his share, he was not a cruel master. The farmers who lived in the straw-thatched house blessed him each morning for his kindness, praying for his health. The world was quiet and fair.

The heat had only just begun to rise when Gwendolyn rushed out the door. She had recently realized that, if she woke up earlier, she would have more time to play before her father and mother sent her to work the fields. Not for the first time, she wished that her parents had had a son. They had told her how they had prayed to God for a strong son who might help their farm grow, and instead He had sent a daughter. Gwendolyn had asked if they were upset with God, and both her father and mother had shaken their heads and said that they could never be upset that He had given her to them. 

Gwendolyn always had found this hard to believe. She stepped through the mud and clay on the side of the stream, feeling the squelching sound beneath her feet. She caught a glimpse of her face in the water, then turned away, ashamed by what she had seen. It wasn’t her fault that she’d caught a bout of the pox in her youth. Scars wreathed her face, and though her father and mother both assured her that she was beautiful, she knew they were lying. She wiped at her eyes, incensed by the injustice of it all. She was determined to help her family on the farm. The Lord had chosen to give them a daughter instead of sons, then stole away her beauty. What good was she now to her parents? She had spent many nights thinking about this. Her cot was quiet and filled with insects, just adjacent to the small farmhouse’s kitchen. She knew her parents were doing the best they could, and so in that implacable and itchy dark she pledged that, in the absence of a son, she would do the best she could.

This determination was what pushed her away from play and out into the fields on that summer morning. Gwendolyn picked her way through stalks of corn, looking for any diseased or infected ears. She uprooted a carrot to see if the crop might be ready, but saw it would need another week or two yet. Gnawing on the end of the undergrown root, she spied a gopher digging in the potato patch. Without taking her eyes off of the rodent, she picked up a stone. It was as large as the palm of her hand and smooth on all sides. The animal’s eyes tracked her, but its jaw kept working defiantly. Her arm snapped out, sending the stone careening into the gopher’s side. It scrambled away toward its burrow, squeaking all the while.

“That wasn’t very nice,” said a voice, gravelly and slick all at once.

It wasn’t a voice that Gwendolyn recognized. Frowning, she turned and looked for the speaker, but there was no one behind her.

“Down here, sweetheart.”

Gwendolyn looked down at her feet and saw before her a single red onion, a triumphant stalk crowning its head. A pair of wet eyes blinked up at her, and a wide mouth stretched across the bulb’s front.

Gwendolyn leaped backwards immediately, making the sign of the cross before her. “Demon!” She slipped in the mud and fell, too startled even to worry about her mother seeing the stains along the back of her dress.

Two thin curls peeled away from the onion’s side, lending to it the appearance of arms. They laid themselves flat, as if trying to reassure the frightened girl. “Now, now, girlie, I ain’t no demon. I’m Mr. Onion, and this is my patch!”

Gwendolyn said nothing, her eyes wide with terror.

“What? You ain’t never seen a talkin’ onion before?”

“Demon,” repeated Gwendolyn, though with less fire than before.

“Do you even know what a demon looks like, little girl? D’you think any self-respectin’ demon would be caught dead looking like this?” The arm-curls gestured along the face of the bulb. “I ain’t no demon, just an onion tryin’ to make a life for himself.”

“You’re not a demon?” asked Gwendolyn.

“That’s what I said.”

“Wh-why did you scare me then?”

“I was just tryin’ to get your attention. You were being a real douche to that gopher!”

“What’s a douche?” Gwendolyn had sat up now and was wiping the dirt off of her dress and elbows. Mr. Onion stood at her feet, but made no sign of coming closer.

“Ah, right. Forgot you don’t have those yet. That’s my bad. Whatever it was that brought me into this world gave me the gift of portent.” He said portent with an exaggerated o-sound, as if trying to add an air of mystery to the word.

“My father told me not to trust fortune-tellers and mystics,” said Gwendolyn. “He said that they were the servants of the devil.”

“I ain’t none of that! I just popped out of my little hole in the ground to give you a heads-up about a few small things. You can ask any question you like.”

Gwendolyn looked over the shoulder back to the farmhouse. The sun was still low in the sky, and no smoke floated yet from the chimney. The sounds of sheep stirring had begun to carry over the fields from their ramshackle barn, but they were intermittent and subdued. She looked back to Mr. Onion, who looked up at her with patient eyes. “Okay,” she said. “But quick now.”

“Great!” he said, and a smile broke across his face. “Where d’you wanna start?”

Gwendolyn considered for a moment, then asked: “My family is terribly poor, and my parents have prayed for a son for many years. Will he ever come?”

“Nah,” said Mr. Onion, “that oven is burnt out. You’re all they’re gonna get.”

The bluntness of this comment stung, but Gwendolyn did her best to shrug it off. If anything, the crassness of this small creature had convinced her that he was not a servant of the devil, whom she imagined would speak much more sweetly than this bitter thing. 

“Th-thank you,” she stammered. “I suppose that I could have guessed that.” She considered another question. “What about me?”

“What about you?”

“Will I marry? Will my husband bring security to my family’s home?”

“Girl, have you seen yourself? Yeesh! I wouldn’t count on it.”

Gwendolyn recoiled as if slapped. Why was this small creature being so cruel? And yet, though tears were beginning to form in her eyes, a certain curiosity lingered as well. Really, had she thought a pock-marked farm girl would ever find a husband? The little beast had done nothing but confirm what she already knew. “What about my farm? Will it be prosperous for years to come?”

Mr. Onion shrugged. “Who can say? There’s gonna be a lot of wars in this country in the next few decades, believe you me. Maybe you’ll escape, maybe you won’t. Maybe that Duke of yours will call up your daddy to fight and he’ll find himself with an arrow through his neck, far from here.” His smile broadened. “After that, well, I’d suppose it’d be just you and mom, right? Well, I’m sure that’ll be fine.” He waited for a brief moment. “Come on, ask me if it’ll be fine.”

“I shan’t. You are enjoying this.”

“I’m just sharing the knowledge, friend to friend. I’m sorry if you don’t like what you have to say.” 

“Perhaps I should be going. There’s a lot of work to be done, and mother and father will likely be awake soon.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” cried Mr. Onion, one arm-curl outstretched. His eyes looked up at her, damp and pleading. “I have so much more to say.”

Gwendolyn looked back. Uncertainty coloured her face. “Go on, then. Be quick about it.”

“Oh, where to start! Well, let’s see. In twenty years or so, the plague will return. Have you heard about that? Not sure what record-keeping is like these days. Don’t worry, you will. What else? Well, remember that war I mentioned? Your beloved Duke will lose, and his head will be tarred and mounted on a pike for all to see.” His voice began to increase in pace, and he began spouting items off rapid-fire. He spoke of plague and war and famine. He spoke of a world on fire. He spoke of lands beyond the sea where this continent’s disease and conflict would spread, and he did it all with a malignant kind of glee on his face. By the end of it, Gwendolyn was weeping softly, her body shaking.

“Why are you so cruel?” she asked. “Why do you take such pleasure in speaking such ills into being?”

Mr. Onion’s eyes widened. “What didja expect? I’m an onion–I’m gonna make you cry!” Then the grin returned, and he continued on, speaking of things that simply could not be:

“There will be a time when farms will shrink and disappear.”

“There will be a loss of faith in your beloved God.”

“There will be weapons that can destroy entire cities.”

“There will be wars that sweep the entire world.”

“There will be an era of prosperity, but with it will come the poisoning of the air and the water. Certain
animals will disappear, never to be seen again”

“There will be a time when families split apart, forgetting to love their fathers and mothers. They will only gather on Christmas, but only to give each other gifts, never to honour Christ himself.”

“There will never truly be an end to serfdom in the modern world; people will only be given the powerful illusion of freedom, but instead they will continue to be forced to work long and painful hours for people much richer than themselves, all to etch out a bleak and ragged existe—”

Gwendolyn’s foot came crashing down on Mr. Onion, caving in the top of the bulb. A spray of onion juice shot out across the loamy soil as the bulb sundered. There was a blessed quiet. She looked down, lifting her foot to see what was left. The innards of the onion had been forced through his mouth, effectively turning him inside-out. The stalk was flat, limp and dead. Gwendolyn sat down next to the corpse of Mr. Onion, prodding it with her toe. 

It did not move. She spat on the ruined onion. “Couldn’t predict that, now could you?” she asked. 

Gwendolyn picked herself up, brushing the dirt and mud from her dress. The sun was high in the sky now, a ball of fire in the clearest blue she’d ever known. The day was fixing to be hot, but the breeze was fresh and clean. 

Smiling, she raced off, ready to make the world her own.

#17 – These Haunted Streets

This is Part Four of a longer narrative. You can read Part One here, or the most recent entry here.

You can’t describe a city. It’s not like anything else. If I see a flower growing outside my window, I can tell you what it looks like; I would start by describing the colour and shape of its petals, whether it faces the sun or not. I might even guess whether it looks like an annual or perennial based on my limited understanding of such things. Maybe I’d venture to guess that it looks like the kind of flower you might give your partner or your mother or your grandmother, if you have such people in your life. Even that, however, ventures toward the abstract.

A city operates much the same way. I can tell you what the streets of Kingston look like; I can tell you how the city itself is shaped as if roads burst out from some concrete womb by the water, stretching north and west from their origin until they fall away at the city limits. I can say that, in many respects, it’s a town like any other town you might find in this part of Ontario. Over-priced matchbox houses are dotted in rows along gently curving pre-planned streets, owned by a population dedicated to twice-daily cross-town pilgrimages. 

But there’s another part to the city. Come with me to the east, past the ancient grey walls of the lakeside penitentiary. Watch as the roads grow tighter and less organized. Most of the old houses here belong to students, rented out by slumlords who care little for the history they own. You can see them lining the streets on the weekends, dull drunk eyes listlessly tracking you as you sail past, just as transient as they are. They disappear. Beyond them you see the core. Buildings of cold grey limestone begin to rise around you; the tallest only a few storeys, but striking enough still that you have a sense of what the city used to be. Closing your eyes allows you to see the streets as they were; streets of dirt churned up by cart-wheels and horseshoes, where people stumbled and spat as they watched you pass. You open your eyes. Windows above you are lined with ads for stretchy denim and strapless bras. You blink and the ads disappear, replaced instead with rows of faces behind the glass: people who lived lives, who loved, and who died in this place before anyone ever considered you.

Kingston is old. Kingston is old unlike almost any other place in the Americas. And though it is the opinion of my committee that ghosts–at least as we understand them–are creations of the mind, it is my conclusion that the sheer age of this city lends itself to a greater amount of hauntings per capita than almost anywhere else on this continent. 

When you trace Kingston’s history, the stories of hauntings begin almost simultaneously. French colonists, who called this place Cataraqui, write fitfully of les fantômes du forêt, though it cannot be said for certain whether these refer to neighbouring indigenous peoples or to something less physical. 

While records are spotty during the transition between French and British occupation, the construction of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835 led almost immediately to a spike in reports. The prison itself, now closed, is a monument to the worst of the North American penal system; its implacable grey walls are carved from the same limestone as much of the city and slope laconically down to the water. To be inside them is to be subjected to a kind of pervasive claustrophobia; a sense that one has been swallowed by some great stone beast. A cylindrical concourse thrusts out of the middle of the yard, its wings stretching out toward the exterior walls. Inside these wings are the cell-blocks, almost cartoonishly bleak; literal bars separated these men from the world beyond.

It’s quiet in the prison now. It was decommissioned in 2013 and the prisoners moved elsewhere. I’ve been there; the city runs tours every summer, charging for a glimpse inside the walls. Indeed, there is a vaguely voyeuristic quality to the experience; walking across those yards, it was hard not to imagine haggard and sallow men staring with dead eyes out of their cells, colourless light filtering in from windows too high to make a difference. Former prison guards spin stories of riots, of violence, and of death. Vague allusions are made to training opportunities the prisoners had, but the lasting feeling is one of unease. One begins to wonder what that place is like at night, once the last fox has skulked its way across the yard. What kind of sounds do empty and drafty prisons make? Are they as dark as we imagine? What about the shops, the yards, the solitary cells? Do they remember what the city’s forgotten?

If the stories are true, they do.

Kingston has many places like this; the prison is only the most obvious example. East of the river stands Fort Henry, where a British garrison was stationed for many years in the nineteenth century; some speak of old training drills still heard after dark. The city itself is dotted with graveyards, many of which have since been swallowed up by suburbia. Inns and pubs from bygone days line the streets and hold secrets of their own. Faint lights in distant windows and voices in empty rooms are commonplace in Kingston. It’s hard to filter the signal from the noise, of course; the stories vary wildly. While most Kingstonians have heard of the Streetlight Man; fewer still know about the ghostlights of Skeleton Park or have heard the whispers in the cemeteries.

The purpose of sharing the above stories is to lend credence to the possibility that a place like this has power. Though I have yet to be afforded the funding required to explore this theory, I believe in a theory of paranormal (or parapsychological, as the committee prefers) activity that suggests that majority of events concern hotspots, not dissimilar from how volcanic and tectonic activities primarily take place along fault lines. What draws these lines? As yet, I’m not certain. Certainly, as I’ve established above, the older a place is, the more likely it is to be haunted. I don’t yet know why, but what I can say is that I’m not finished. I’ve been pushing and prodding for the last two years. The disappearance of Jeff King was big news in town when it happened, but residents eventually rallied to quash the story once it hit the national news, fearing the damage it might cause to the city’s tourist industry. With no leads in the case and with his mother locked away in a mental institution, there was little for the media to grasp on to, so they got bored and drifted away.

To be clear, I publish the below out of a duty to my field. While I could have gone to the media and secured some level of fame and notoriety for my work, both a sense of journalistic integrity and moral authority required me to place it here, before my committee. I understand the committee is loath to accept the possibility of things beyond our ken; while I’m appreciative of that perspective, I am required to follow the truth – no matter how unbelievable it may seem.

Here follows an interview with Althea King, the last surviving sane member of the King family. She agreed to the interview on the condition that her words be represented fully as recorded. Any editing I’ve done is solely for clarification where the quality of the recording dips; note that the third party near the end is a direct transcription of events as they happened, and that I will be submitting the .mp3 files to corroborate this fact.

STEPHANIE NORWOOD: Mrs. King, I would like to let you know that I’ve begun recording our conversation. If you’d like me to stop at any point, please just ask.

ALTHEA KING: Of course, dear. Before we begin, would you like some tea?

SN: That would be lovely, thank you.

AK: What do you like? Earl Grey? English Breakfast? I think I might even have some Irish Breakfast kicking around. Alvin had a fondness for it, but it always tasted too, well, bready for me.

SN: I’d be happy to try the Irish Breakfast, if you think you can find it. Sometimes I just like something a little more hearty in the morning.

AK: I understand, I understand. [Here follow the sounds of Mrs. King busying herself in the kitchen.] Is your little cassette recorder powerful enough to pick up our conversation if I speak to you from the kitchen?

SN: It should be, yes. Please, go ahead. I have some questions I wanted to ask you, but it sounds like you’re eager to get started.

AK: Yes, I suppose you could call it that. [The chattering of teacups drowns out a few words] –pleased as punch that you reached out. I don’t know how Alvin feels about it, since he took great pains to remove us from that whole media circus when Jeffy disappeared, but I was always eager to speak. It seemed to me like volunteering information was the best thing we could do for Jeffy. [The quality of her voice improves as she returns to the living area and sits across from me on the couch] Here’s your tea, dear. 

SN: Thank you. Just a question – you said “I don’t know how Alvin feels about it” – didn’t Mr. King pass away in 2019?

AK: Of course. But I don’t believe the dead are ever truly gone. Do you?

SN: I’d like to think they aren’t. A big part of my work is trying to prove that.

AK: And that’s why you want to ask me about Jeffy.

SN: Yes and no. I want to ask you about your grandson’s disappearance because I’m trying to find the person who did it.

AK: Do you know about the photo?

SN: Yes, I do. 

AK: Alvin was very close to her. When she went into that state of shock . . . I think it took a part of him away. He was never quite right after that. He visited her, you know.

SN: He did? I didn’t even know she was allowed visitors. [Note: I looked into this, and it appears that Leanne King experienced brief periods of lucidity in 2018. While her medical records are sealed, it seems strange to me that she would seemingly improve before declining to the state she’s in now. I wonder if this is coincidence, or if there’s something more to it.] 

AK: Not any more. But he used to go up every Sunday. He would wheel her out to the little courtyard they have at the hospital. There’s a pond there, and sometimes ducks would fly down and bob on the surface of the water. Alvin would sneak in bread in his pocket and throw it to the ducks to try to get a reaction out of her as they fought over it. Or he would read to her. She never said a word, but sometimes her eyes followed him. I think he lived for those moments, and once she declined, so did he.

SN: Have you spoken to her since his passing? Forgive me if that’s an inappropriate question.

AK: Not at all. I understand the desire to ask. No, I haven’t been up there. She was Alvin’s daughter from his first marriage, and I didn’t meet her until after she’d moved out and had Jeffy. I always liked her, but I can’t truly say it was a mother-daughter relationship. Does that make me sound like an awful person? Please don’t think I haven’t thought of it. Sometimes I just think I’d do more harm than good, and that me going would remind her of that awful Christmas.

SN: I think it makes you sound like a human being, and that you shouldn’t fault yourself for trying to do what you think is right.

AK: That’s very sweet of you to say. 

SN: You mentioned that day. Are you able to tell me anything else?

AK: I don’t think I have anything to share that wasn’t already in the papers. 

SN: Maybe just try running me through the day as you remember it. Sometimes that helps me when I’m trying to remember something.

AK: Alright. Hm. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of this. I suppose I’d start by saying that I remember arriving there a little bit later in the day, because Leanne had wanted her and Jeffy to be able to open his presents by himself. Chris [Note: Leanne’s late husband]  had passed in the summer, so it was the first Christmas without him. I think she thought having me and Alvin there would make that more obvious. I don’t know if I entirely agreed with that line of thought, but it was her decision to make and so Alvin and I abided by it. 

SN: What time would you say you arrived?

AK: Oh, maybe about four or so. It’s so hard to remember. I know we were there before dinner. As soon as we got in the door, Jeffy was waving this old-fashioned Polaroid camera in our faces. I didn’t even know they still made those, I was so surprised. I would have thought for certain that, with all of the newfangled technology these days, they wouldn’t still be making cameras with film.

SN: It’s hard to beat the classics. 

AK: That it is. So anyway, we came in and visited for a short while. Jeffy was taking pictures and they were making little whrrr sounds as they printed, floating out and onto the carpet. I think it was starting to annoy his mother, so she suggested that he go and take some pictures around the house while she prepared dinner. He ran off to do just that, and that was the last time I saw him. 

SN: I’m sorry.

AK: Thank you. In a way, I’m somewhat relieved. I never saw the photo that Leanne found. My last memory of my grandson is of him running off, happy to be alive. There’s worse final memories to have of somebody than that.

SN: I agree. Are you able to tell me what happened next?

AK: There’s not much left to tell. I offered to help Leanne with the meal, but she kind of brushed me off. I think it was another situation where she wanted to be in charge. I think she saw this whole Christmas as a chance for her to prove herself. I didn’t take offense, either. I wanted her to do what she needed to do.

SN: So what did you do instead?

AK: Alvin and I just watched a movie. I don’t even remember which one – maybe because we both fell asleep on the couch. A privilege of being old, I guess; nobody expects anything else. But I don’t remember anything more after that, until we heard Leanne scream that awful scream. Alvin leaped up and ran upstairs. I’d never seen him move so fast in all my life. I had this terrible feeling in my chest and some part of me knew something was wrong. I went to the phone and called 9-1-1 and told them to send whoever they could, because something horrible had happened. Then I went to wait outside for the authorities to arrive.

SN: Did they take long to get there?

AK: No, not long at all. But it felt long. It was just me out there, standing in the rain. Isn’t rain on Christmas awful? But I couldn’t go back inside.

SN: Why did it feel so long? Just because of the adrenaline?

AK: Possibly, but also because of the house.

SN: Leanne’s house? I don’t remember reading anything about it in the reports.

AK: Not hers. The one up the street. 

SN: With all due respect, wasn’t this at a house in a suburban neighbourhood? What made this other house notable?

AK: I’d never seen it before. 

SN: What do you mean? How often did you visit?

AK: Often enough, but you’re missing what I’m saying. This was the kind of house that you’d notice. It doesn’t look like the others. Do you know all of those old-fashioned buildings downtown? The ones made out of limestone. This was like that, except it was in one of the brand-new neighbourhoods where Leanne and Jeffy lived. It was two storeys tall, so it wasn’t exactly out of the way. I just remember looking up and down the street for the policemen or firemen or whoever they were sending, and then I saw the house and immediately felt terrible.

SN: In what way?

AK: In every way. I got chills all over my body, and there was a rush of nausea unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to faint. 

SN: All that just from looking?

AK: I know it sounds unbelievable, and I wish I had an answer that made more sense. All I know is that on the day Jeffy disappeared, I saw a house that I’d never seen before and it made me feel deeply unwell. 

SN: Do you know if it’s still there? Did you ever tell anyone about the house?

AK: I told Alvin. He was a kind man, but something in him changed when Jeffy disappeared and Leanne fell ill. He became incensed when I told him that I thought the house had something to do with it. I still remember – he was sitting right where you are now. He stood up without saying a word and walked to the closet. He put on this old beige jacket that he always wore. I heard a jangling sound as he checked to see if his keys were in his pocket. He took one last look at me, and then he was gone.

SN: Where did he go?

AK: To the house, of course. It was getting on to dark then, and I saw the flash of the headlights as he spun out of the driveway. He didn’t come back until almost midnight.

SN: But this house – it would only be what, ten minutes from here?

AK: I know. It didn’t make sense to me either. I thought about calling the police, but I’ve heard they make you wait twenty-four hours to report a missing person, so I didn’t. When he came back, his hair was matted to his forehead and he was cold with old sweat. 

SN: What time of year was this?

AK: March, just a few months after the disappearance. It was cold out.

SN: Did he ever tell you what happened?

AK: Eventually. He didn’t want to tell me after dark. We went to bed that night, but he just stayed by the window and watched the street. It was strange. It made me feel scared and safe all at once.

SN: What did he say in the morning?

AK: Well, first he confirmed what I already knew – that he had gone to the house. He said that he went and that by the time he got there it was dark. He told me that the streetlights were on, except in front of the house. They didn’t even have streetlights there, so the entire yard was black. No lights were on in the windows either. He said he watched it for a long while, not sure what to do, but he had the same feeling about it that I did – an utter certainty that it was somehow involved in Jeffy’s disappearance. He said he thought about calling me – we both got cellphones around that time, it was a very big event for us – but that he didn’t want to risk me trying to stop him. So he got out of the car and went to the trunk. He kept a tire iron there for emergencies. He grabbed it and walked up the stone path to the door. He said the yard was overgrown and filled with strange ornaments: old bird baths, garden gnomes, and other things. He got to the front porch and then looked around. He said that he’d never felt quiet that thick in all his life. 

SN: What did he do after that?

AK: He knocked on the door. He did it three times, using the tire iron as a knocker. Apparently it was so loud each rap on the door made him blink. But after that, nothing.

SN: Nothing?

AK: He told me he tried the door, but that it was locked. So he came home.

SN: That doesn’t sound like it took that long. Why did he take so long to come back?

AK: [Note: Mrs. King maintained a stable composure throughout the duration of our conversation. It was only upon me asking this question that she became visibly upset] I don’t know. He told me that he drove around to clear his head, but I took the car to the store the next day and there wasn’t much of a difference in the fuel. I thought about asking him, but I never worked up the courage to do so. Almost fifty years of marriage, and he never kept anything from me except that. I decided that maybe he would be allowed that secret, because I knew he wouldn’t keep it from me unless he had a good reason.

[Suddenly, and without warning, a china teacup falls out of the curio cabinet behind Mrs. King. It shatters upon impact.]

AK: Oh, dear! I’m so sorry, please excuse me while I tidy it up.

SN: There’s no need! I can take care of that for you. Where do you keep your broom?

AK: Just inside the pantry door. Thank you, dear.

[The sound of my footsteps fade as I move to the kitchen. I left the recorder on the table, unaware of what happened next. Sections rendered as inaudible reflect a severe degradation in the quality of the recording, either by feedback or static.]

AK: You didn’t have to do that. You probably scared the [inaudible] off the poor girl.

[inaudible]

AK: No, no. She won’t do that. I don’t wa–[inaudible] trouble

[inaudible]

AK: There’s no need to take that tone [inaudible]. Okay, I’ll tell her. But you stay out of it!

[The sound of my footsteps returning. There is a silence, punctuated only by the sweeping of the broom. The recording is clear again. I take my seat.]

SN: I can just take that to the trash on my way out.

AK: Oh, there’s no need, dear. You’ve done enough.

SN: You’re welcome, Mrs. King. To be honest, I don’t have any further questions for you. I know these memories are painful, and so I really appreciate your time and honesty.

AK: I’m glad I could help. I actually do have something to ask you, though. Will you make me a promise?

SN: Anything I can.

AK: If you find who did this. . . if you find who took Jeffy. . . kill the bastard. Don’t let him get away with this. Will you do that for us–for me?

SN: I–

[The recording ends here.]

I apologize for the abrupt ending, but the remainder of the conversation was no longer relevant to the academic discussion here. I want to assure the academy that despite the words of a grieving grandmother, I myself have no intent of committing any type of violence. My work here is purely in the pursuit of a greater understanding of our world. In light of this, I will be pursuing the lead Mrs. King provided.

I’m going to go check out this house myself.

End of Part Four

#16 – The Passage

I’ve never told this story before and I sure ain’t gonna tell it again, so listen up.

Your dad always used to ask me what happened to his Uncle Abraham, my brother. I can remember the first time so clearly. We were surrounded by family at one of our reunions out at the old red farmhouse where I grew up. My other brother, your great-uncle Tanner, had bought the place from my pa some fifteen years or so before. My pa was dead by this point and Tanner was working the farm across the road and the sound of the cows lowing from the barn during these reunions always told me that he’d done a pretty damn good job.

Me, I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted to live a life, find a wife, and be comfortable. Pain always comes from people wanting more than what they need. Maybe that’s the moral of this story, if there is one. Not every story needs a moral, I suppose.

I remember when your pa first found out about Abe. We were out on the back lawn which stretched from the house to the cornrows a hundred yards beyond. Tanner was frying up some burgs on the barbecue and the corn was high and thick in the August heat and your pa came sprinting out of the house, holding something in his hand. I remember I frowned when I saw it. Your grandmother, rest her soul, was next to me when this happened. I realized then what your pa had in his hands and I told her to go and see if she could help Tanner with the meat. I feel like I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t need her help, but that wasn’t true, I just didn’t want her to ask about Abe neither.

You might have figured this out already, but your pa had an old family photo in his hands. Might have been taken in the early fifties. I knew it couldn’t have been right after the war because your great-aunt Betty was in the photo and she’d been born around fifty-one or fifty-two, I forget. He held it out to me when he got close,his face all excited, and I remember kneeling down so I was at eye level with him, ‘cause he was just a boy then, and I told him in no uncertain terms not to poke around where he didn’t belong. 

I still remember the way his face fell. I felt like a right bastard for saying it the way I did but in truth I was just scared. If he asked about Abe I’d feel obliged to answer, because I knew nobody else would. Get Betty and Tanner to talk about something like that? They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. They weren’t there and I was and despite knowing this to be true I still couldn’t accept that it was my burden to bear. 

Your father didn’t take this for much of an answer, and I think he resented me after that. Most people think it takes a lot to turn a boy against his father, but I don’t think that’s true. I think all it takes is one really clear memory, and your father had his. Sure, he mighta nodded and run off to play with one of Betty’s girls, but that don’t mean that he didn’t remember. I think he did. Even up until his last days, I always had the feeling like he wanted to ask me something. Talking to him was like talking to a person who’d just entered the room and couldn’t remember what they were looking for.

I was still a coward in the end, I guess. I was working up to tell him and then I ran out of time. Getting old ain’t fair. Getting old without your kids ever getting the chance is worse. Now I got nobody left to tell except you.

So please, listen up. 

Back in the day, those Scout programs used to be a lot more adventurous. There weren’t so many lawsuits back then and kids could be trusted with all sorts of things, from matches to knives to rifles. Yup, even those. We didn’t have rifles on this trip but we did lots of shooting back home. Now don’t mistake me; I’m not saying this was a good thing. Maybe things woulda been different had they treated us like kids instead of short and stupid adults. 

The trip was up on the shores of Lake Superior. Now I don’t know if your pa or somebody else ever got the chance to take you, but Lake Superior is different than all the other Great Lakes. It don’t even feel like it’s in the same country. You don’t get the cottages the rich folks build along the shore like private dollhouses nor do you get the sandy beaches where you can dip your toes and old ladies can sit and sun in. Lake Superior is all rock, cold and deep and dark and when you slip into it the sound is like nothing because you’re nothing against all that cold deep dark water. 

Our trip had taken us a few days west of Thunder Bay, far enough away from civilization that the sky at night seemed solid, as if there was a woolen blanket held up to the brightest light you’d ever known and the stars were the holes in the fibers where the light peeked through. We were truly roughing it. Our Scout Leader had a tent big enough for eight that he carried with us in case of an emergency but the point of the trip is that we’d have to rough it, either making shelter from a few pine boughs or sleeping out on the cold rocks by the lakeside. 

One night we were camped out on the shoreline, down where the water was high and the reeds were thick. We had spotted a heron earlier in the day, this massive thing with wings like kites. It had flown off somewhere to the south, and we wondered if we could find its nest.

Let me be clear: I know this was stupid. Herons are big birds, but they’re light. I don’t think they really pose that much of a threat to humans, but the danger wasn’t really from the bird anyway. Three kids, ‘cause our friend Arthur was coming along, wandering off into the dark in the middle of nowhere. Of course we didn’t think of it that way, but I also don’t think anybody on this green Earth remembers a childhood free from stupidity. 

We waited until everyone had gone to bed. We had stayed up late, roasting marshmallows and eating some of the rehydrated food. I remember it tasted like piss with all of the flavour sucked out. Arthur had loudly proclaimed that he was going off to bed early and it was me and Abe and the Scout leader, whose name I forget. He was working something in his hands with a knife by the fire, which was growing cold and quiet. 

“Whatcha doing?” I asked.

“Whittling,” he replied, not much for words.

“What are you whittling?” asked Abe.

“Whistle,” he said, holding it up. I saw that he had carved a little hole into a tube of wood. It had been narrowed towards the end so that it would be easier to blow on.

“Neat!” said Abe. He loved things like that; little crafts that make the world feel a little more solid.

“Keep it,” said the Scout Leader, tossing it toward him. It bounced off Abe’s palm, but I caught it with my left hand before it hit the dirt. The fire murmured red and I struggled to make out his face. I passed it to Abe. I could still see well enough to see the smile. “I’m making one for everyone,” said our leader. “Between you kids and me, it’s a bit nuts that they only sent one guy on this trip. You’re good kids, but you don’t want to just be one guy if something goes wrong.”

I remember feeling awfully guilty about this, so I replied only that I thought we’d be okay. Until then, I didn’t know how wrong a person could be.

We had slipped off to bed shortly after that. We found a spot out on the smooth rock just above the water. Arthur had laid out his mat already there and could be seen in shadow on its blue face. The moon was low over the water, dyeing the lake white where the water reflected it. We saw the Scout leader rise and make his bed in the pines closer to the fire. The branches were low and the ground beneath was soft and loamy with the dead needles for a bed. Abe and I laid down our mats by Arthur and waited in total silence for the light from the fire to recede and for the Scout leader’s noises to stop. We watched one another, each laughing and gesturing for the other to be quiet. 

When at last we were sure it was time, we shuffled out of our sleeping bags and shook Arthur awake. He woke in the dark with bleary eyes and at first he didn’t want to go, but we told him he had agreed and had to now, so he pulled himself out of the sleeping bag and dressed there on the rock and by the time we were all three down by the lakeshore and the water, the moon was high and heavy.

We wandered off then south in the reeds. I had a flashlight in my pocket but didn’t want to use it unless we strayed from the lakeside. The sound of crickets following us to the left and the echoes of frogs to our right. Our eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark and I saw in that dim light a cord around Abe’s neck. I squinted and realized that he had tied the whistle on a piece of leather shoelace and hung it where it might be reached more easily. That stupid whistle filled me then with a wave of guilt so overwhelming I almost immediately called for us to return; the only thing which pressed me on then was the fact the other two were already awake and walking.

“Do you think heron eggs taste any good?” whispered Arthur. We were far from camp and there was no real point in whispering anymore, but something about hiking in the moonlight seemed to demand it.

“I mean, they’re big, right? We could probably find just a couple and bring it back to camp. Mike would probably be really razzed.”

Mike. Right, that was his name. Funny how the mind works to remember these things.

“‘Dunno,” I said. I hadn’t really considered what we’d do if we found the nest. Maybe I just assumed that we wouldn’t, or that we’d be stopped somehow. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea to bring proof back of the trip to Mike. He might be real ticked.”

“Agreed,” said Abe. I knew I could count on him. “This is a look and don’t touch kinda trip, right Arthur?”

“Sure thing,” said Arthur. “Whatever you guys say.”

We were quiet then for a while. The feeling which held on to us then was that strange feeling that happens when young boys fight; we were old enough to feel more than one emotion at a time, but not so old that we knew how to talk about it. If we were younger, we might have just had a fight. Instead, we sulked, climbing over rocks and under branches which sprang out just over the lake. The rocks began to part from the shoreline and rose in short cliffs to our left. We followed the cliffs along the pebbly shoreline, the lakewater sucking at our feet.

“Holy crap!” said Abe, breaking the silence. “Will ya look at that? There’s a cave!” He gestured for us to gather around his discovery. 

I had missed it when I walked by, but he was right; there was a cave, a cleft really, carved into the rock. The opening was narrow, a jagged vertical line torn out of the cliffside. I shone my flashlight into it and saw only dark. I heard a slow dripping sound.

“We should explore it,” said Abe.

“That’s a bad idea,” said Arthur. “We don’t know what’s in there.”

Sometimes I think about what I said next. Had I said something different, maybe things woulda been different. As time passes, you’ll forget your first kiss, your first car, your first job. You may even forget the face of your father. But the brain has a knack for holding on to the worst mistakes you ever make. 

“It’s just a cave, Arthur. You’ll find bat shit and maybe some weird mushrooms. There’s nothing to worry about in there.”

“Let’s just come back tomorrow with Mike and the group.”

“You think Mike’s gonna want to come this way? We walked for like an hour. He’s not going to want to take us off the planned trail. Plus how would we even tell him? ‘Oh hey, Mike, yeah, hope you aren’t grumpy but we want to explore this cave we found when we snuck away from camp last night.’” I shook my head. “We’d get in trouble and we wouldn’t get to see what’s in here.”

“Were there ever pirates on Lake Superior?” wondered Abe aloud. “I wonder if there’s treasure in here.”

“Let’s find out,” I said. I raised my eyebrows to Arthur, though I doubt he was able to see them in the dark. “Coming?”

“I’ll wait out here,” said Arthur. “It’s already dark enough. I’ll yell if a bear comes home or something.”

“You do that.”

So we left Arthur then at the mouth of the cave. I was bigger than Abe and so I pulled myself inside first. Though the opening was fairly wide, it narrowed as it went and I had to turn sideways to pull myself in. I felt stone on my chest and on my back, just tight enough to conjure an image of the wall pushing itself in, holding me fast. My left hand held the flashlight and it carved arcs of light as I shimmied inward, revealing trails of moss and stone along the floor. I felt a draft then against the back of my hand, so I knew that there was a chamber beyond. I passed the flashlight to my right hand, catching a glimpse of Abe’s face in the lightbeam. He was smiling. I’m glad for that memory. I used my now-free hand to grip the edge of the opening and pull myself through. My chest and back scraped against the stone before I finally popped free.

“All clear!” I shouted through the hole. I heard a scratching sound as Abe began to pull himself through. While I waited, I passed the flashlight around the chamber. Rocky icicles dangled heavy from the ceiling, revealing the source of the dripping sound I had heard. I saw a pool of water below where another was beginning to grow. I was gripped then with the sudden feeling that this was a place outside of time, where no person had ever been. It was still and quiet and dead and there was beauty and terror in this knowledge. 

“What do you see?” asked Abe from behind me.

“Rocks, mostly,” I replied.

“So no treasure, then.” I wasn’t sure why Abe had latched onto this idea of freshwater pirates so much, but then I was the boy who wanted to find a heron’s nest, so I can’t say that I was making much sense neither. 

“Not yet.”

“What about through there?” Abe’s finger entered the beam of the flashlight and pointed toward a darker part of the cave-floor. I frowned and stepped closer.

The light revealed another passage, but this one was different; where the opening to the cave had been a slash of stone carved out of the rock, this was a thin line, almost completely unbroken. It looked like a set of slightly-parted lips. I crouched down and shone the light into the hole. It showed me a smooth corridor, narrower even than the entrance to the cave. A strange heat emanated from that place, vaguely warm and wet. As I kneeled there with the flashlight pointed down the hole, I became suddenly aware of the darkness around us, scratching on the back of my neck and inside my skull. The silence was almost unbearable, though it was soon broken by Abe kicking a stone down the hole. I heard a few ricocheting bounces before a final plunk! that suggested water beyond.

“I bet that’s where they hid the treasure,” said Abe.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “There’s no treasure. They wouldn’t even be able to fit down there.”

“Maybe they didn’t have to. Maybe the lake used to be lower and there was another opening and they just sailed their boats in.”

“Or maybe there’s nothing down there at all.”

“Feel that heat?” he asked. “There’s gotta be something. That place is special, I can tell.”

“Well, I can’t fit down there.”

“Who said you had to?”

“No.” I shook my head. It wasn’t happening. He couldn’t go down there. Not without me. We fought like any two brothers did, but I felt a fierce protectiveness toward him and could not imagine him going down into the dark alone.

“Wasn’t asking,” said Abe. “Just hang on to my belt and let me take a look with the light.” 

“Alright. But just don’t drop it.”

Abe got down to his hands and knees and crawled forward toward the tear in the floor. He used his hands to pull himself to its lip. I shifted over and sat with my legs braced across the hol, my hand gripping his belt firmly.

“Ready?” asked Abe. The flashlight in his hand pierced the dark below us. 

I grunted out a ‘yes’, and he slipped over and into the passage. The only light now was whatever escaped past Abe. The black had gathered around me, blinding me more than any night I’d ever known. Below me in the pit, Abe scrambled forward. I heard his clothes scratching on the rocks as he pushed deeper. 

“How’s it going?” I called. 

“What?” 

“How’s it going?” I repeated, a little louder this time. I hadn’t considered that he might have a hard time hearing me with the cave walls around him to absorbt the noise. 

“It’s getting pretty tight,” he said, his voicing rebounding on the way up, becoming muddled. “But I think it widens up ahead. I’m going to push on.”

“Don’t be stupid,” I warned. “Don’t try something that won’t work.”

“You guys alright in there?” Arthur’s voice, from outside the cave. I turned back and yelled that we were. My voice drowned out Arthur’s echoing in that tiny chamber.  

“What was that?” called Abe from below.

“Not talking to you! Talking to Arthur!”

“What?”

And then it happened. Abe must’ve tried to turn or something to hear me better, because I heard a sharp crack as the rock gave way, and the sound of him slipping deeper. A brief twisting turn of the light told me about the loss of the flashlight. I peered into the passage and saw nothing; not even a silhouette of my brother.

“Abe! Abe! Are you there?”

The longest moment of my life stretched out ahead of me. Then there was a groan of pain, and an answer: “I’m here. I think I’m stuck.”

“What?”

“I can’t move. The rock’s pressing really tight against my legs and chest and I can’t turn around to climb out.”

“Can you see the light?”

A pause. “I see where it fell, but I can’t reach it. The tunnel kind of curves, I don’t know if you can see it.”

“I’m gonna come down to get you.”

“No! You’ll just get stuck, too.”

I felt my heart beginning to race. Had the cave always been this hot, or were we simply running out of air? I knew that was impossible, that there was an entrance, but none of this seemed real. I had the sense that this was all happening to someone else, and I was far away, home in my bed. “I’m gonna get Arthur,” I finally said. “I’ll send him back to camp, he can get help.” I pushed away the part of my brain that told me we were still days out from any equipment that could help my brother. I had to believe there was a chance. “I’ll be right back,” I cried, running into the black, toward the entrance of the cave; it was the only place where there was any speck of light, even if it was the blue of the late night. I crawled back through the entrance far enough to poke my head out. The night air was impossibly fresh after the stillness of the cave, but it only reminded me that Abe was still inside. 

I spotted Arthur sitting against the rock, biting his nails. “Arthur!” I cried, startling him. He clambered to his feet.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Abe’s stuck. You gotta go get help!”

“We’re gonna get in trouble,” he whined.

“It don’t matter now. We have to help my brother. Please, go as quickly as you can!”

To his credit, Arthur didn’t argue any further. He raced off into the night, heading northwards along the lakeshore. I took one last breath of the fresh air, then disappeared back into the cave. It was blacker now, my eyes having re-adjusted to the moonlit night. I felt along the cave floor with my hands and crawled to the edge of the pit.

“Abe?” I cried. “Abe? You there?”

His voice came up to me in a whisper. “You have to be quiet,” he said, voice trembling.

“What? Why?”

“Because there’s someone else down here.”

It took me a moment for the words to settle in. My mind wrapped itself around them, trying to figure out some possibility where that combination of ideas made sense. “That’s impossible,” I said.

“I saw his face,” whispered Abe. “I saw his face and I think he saw me too.”

“You’re just scared,” I said. “Imagining things.” I wasn’t sure whether I was telling him or telling myself. 

“I hear him, even now. Footsteps. You gotta help me get out of here. See if you can fit in or grab my belt again or something.”

“I’ll see what I can–” I began, but then I heard it. The soft sound of feet slapping against stone, coming from below. Something inside of me grew very cold. 

“It’s getting hot down here,” Abe whispered. “Hotter and hotter and my head is getting heavy. Please, you have to hurry. Please, help me!” His voice was above a whisper now. The footsteps stopped. Then they picked up again, quicker, slapping against the stone. Abe was now fully shouting. “I see him! He’s coming back! Oh god where are his EYES–”

I didn’t hear the rest. I tore out of there, pulling myself through the exit and out into the night air. The sky was beginning to lighten past the trees to the east. I raced away from the cave entrance, running several hundred metres north. I finally stopped by a crop of reeds, my chest rising and falling as I laid back against the rock. Some kind of fir tree soared over my head. In its highest branches, I saw a nest.

There’s nothing else left to tell after that. Arthur returned a couple of hours later with Mike and the rest of the group. Mike went into the cave, and soon returned, saying that Abe wasn’t talking, but that he had blown his whistle, so he must be okay. Clearly relieved, Mike said he was going to call for help and so he climbed a tree, braver than I had ever been.  He was able to get a signal and local authorities promised to come to us as quickly as they could. Mike went back in the cave after that, but never heard anything else.

They came a day-and-a-half later on horseback, with water, food, and ropes. It didn’t matter. With no answer from Abe, it was clear he was gone. A heart attack from the inverted position was mostly likely, they said. The body ain’t meant to be upside-down for that long. Later, a crew took explosives to the cave and sealed the entire entrance.

In a twisted way, I hope they’re right about what happened to Abe. See, I was an even bigger coward than I let on; I never even told them about the face that Abe said he saw. I wanted them to close it off. I wanted them to make sure that whoever was down there with him never got out. I tell myself it’s what Abe would have wanted, but I don’t think it is. He would have wanted to be alive, to live a life full of adventure and happiness.

But then again, this story was never about him getting what he wanted. 

#15 – What Dreams May Come

November 19th, 2021

I don’t really know what to write here, if I’m being honest. This was the therapist’s idea, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. The problem isn’t that I can’t remember the dreams; it’s that I remember them too clearly.

Don’t get me wrong – I get the basic concept. If I write down my dreams and when they happen, maybe I can find out what causes them and then change that behaviour. But does that mean I should treat this like a food diary? Should I write cream cheese and a bagel? Do I have to specify that it was herb and garlic cream cheese, or is the general category of food broad enough? What if I started to eat Flintstones chewables? Does that count as food? What about how many glasses of water? This is supposed to be a dream diary, not an acid reflux journal, and here I am agonizing over whether my decision to veer from God’s chosen Philadelphia flavour is the source of my misery.

As you can see, I’m very tired. So tired that I’m writing as if anyone other than me is going to read this. But just making this diary purely narration makes me feel like I’m jerking off on the page, so I’m going to pretend like I’m writing to somebody standing next to me. But let me stress – if you’re a super hot girl and you’re reading this, this is all fiction. In fact, maybe don’t read this at all. Pretend everything below is just a gym diary.

Bench Press – 8 x 175
Squats – 8 x 250 
Deadlift – 8 x 300 

Okay, now that the hotties are pacified, let’s break down what’s happening: I’ve had bad dreams lately. Really bad dreams. The kind that make you wake gasping like it’s a cartoon except instead of Bart Simpson screaming about Sideshow Bob it’s you, and it’s dark, and there’s no joke at all, it’s just you and the cold chill of sweat on your skin and if you’re lucky there’s moonlight filtering through the window cutting cold white lines into the wall, but if you’re unlucky you wake into the dead black and you wonder for a moment whether this is what hell looks like. 

You ever had dreams like this? If you have, give me a shout. Doctors are mystified. The sleep therapists at first thought it was sleep paralysis, a condition where people wake earlier than the body does. The dreaming mind begins to affect the waking self. Sufferers are immobilised, and they often report seeing or hearing strange–sometimes described as demonic–sounds, the rushing of wind or water, or a great weight on their chest. But they didn’t find any evidence of that. In fact, when I went into the therapist’s office, I slept the best I had in months. The bed was cold and lumpy and the sheets were thin and rough and woolen, but it didn’t matter because for the first time in forever, my mind was at peace. The doctors seized on this and suggested it was a problem with my bed, so one week and $1300 later, I had a new bed, pillows, and sheets.

It didn’t help. Within a week, the mattress was dyed a cigarette-smoke yellow from the amount of sweat pouring into it. I went back to the therapist, but this was all they had for me. A dream diary. I’m pissed about it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get it – they didn’t find anything on the MRIs or any kind of unusual activity when they monitored me in their office. But I still can’t help feeling like they’ve given up.

I’m writing this before bed. I have a small desk in the corner of my room. The ceiling of my room slants down, the roof just outside, and I have a window inset opposite the bed, facing east. The sun shines through wonderfully in the morning but it means that I need to turn the lights on pretty early in the evening. I don’t like that. Dark means I have to sleep, and I can’t think of anything I want to do less.

November 20th, 2021

Last night was no different. 

It’s just past eight in the morning. I laid in bed once the sun had come up to see if maybe I’d fall back asleep, but any time I try to sleep in the daytime, my mind begins to race. I’ve tried tea, weed, melatonin, pills – none of it works. It’s not like it really matters. Work makes that unsustainable anyway. I have to be awake in the daytime.

I suppose I should actually talk about the dream. Maybe the therapist can glean something from my recollection.

It might sound pretty innocuous at first blush. I remember being in bed, lying on my stomach. My left leg was hitched up to my chest as if I was running, while my right leg was straight out. I remember my hair sticking up all brown and spiky in the moonlight. My perspective was next to the bed. I was looking down at myself. I watched myself turn and shift. I saw and heard everything; the nothing mumbles of sleep; the drool; the shifting of positions. I watched it all.

You know how when you’re asleep, you don’t have a proper perception of time? In your half-waking state, you might have some vague sense of whether it’s morning or night thanks to your circadian rhythm, but when you’re truly asleep, you might as well be dead. In a dream, you can cross the world in seconds. You can teleport from room to room. Time is optional in the dreamscape. Or at least, so I thought. I felt as though I watched myself for seven and a half hours, give or take a few minutes. I could see the display on my phone shining dully in the dark. I saw the minutes pass. The hours. When the display flipped over to 07:00, the alarm went off and I woke up, feeling exhausted. I realized after that the damndest thing about it all is that the light never changed in the dream. It’s late in the fall and it’s dark early in the morning, but that doesn’t matter. The sky still turns from black to blue in the end.

In the dream, it was only black. 

November 25th, 2021

Therapist didn’t like that I stopped writing after the entry a few days ago. He was fascinated by everything I wrote above, especially my sense of chronology, but it wasn’t enough.  He said that if I wanted to fix this problem, I should start taking it seriously – as if the guy getting paid $150/hour is motivated to help me fix this problem. Fucker.

 So here I am, writing again. Not for him, though. This is for wholly selfish reasons. I was out with Sid and Hodor last night. No, his name’s not really Hodor. But he’s a big bastard who looks like the guy from Game of Thrones, so what else are we gonna call him – Mitchell? Picture the guy on the show and tell me if he’s a Mitchell.

Exactly.

The bar was some dive in the part of town that people never go to on purpose. You know the ones. The kind of places where windows are either boarded up or broken in; the places where graffiti is the only paint job ever seen. The bar itself had some nondescript name like Jake’s where the rest of the name had worn off the sign and the owners were either too cheap or too lazy to get it redone. It was the type of dive where the walls are papered with coasters and Coors Light logos and where the tables are etched with knife-marks and wobble ferociously.

We shotgunned a couple of beers in the parking lot using the Swiss Army knife that Sid’s grandpa had brought back from Korea, so we were already pretty loaded when we went inside. We walked in and the music hit us in a wave of Gen X angst, the air cloudy with smoke even though smoking indoors has been outlawed in the province for a decade and a half. The rest of it is kind of a blur of noise and light and beer. I’m sure my lack of sleep didn’t help. But before I knew it, I had this girl in my lap and her hands were around me and I honestly couldn’t even tell you what she looked like, except that she was blond and had tattoos all over her chest and down to her tits, and that she said her name was Chantal, and, even then, drunk and stupid and tired beyond all belief despite the bump of coke she’d given me off her nail, I knew that was a lie. 

She whispered something in my ear about taking her home. I almost did it, too. But then a vision came to me of freaking out in the middle of the night and scaring the shit out of this poor girl, or worse yet looking like a total schizo, so I shook my head and said that I actually had a shift starting in an hour, which was a pretty crappy lie and I think she knew it, because she stumbled off pretty much right after that.

Sid and Hodor gave me shit on the way home but they still split the Uber with me and I waved good night, the music still pounding in my ears, already dreading the utter silence waiting for me in my bedroom.

In the end, I was glad I didn’t take her home. Last night was maybe the worst dream yet. I don’t know whether it was the beer or the coke, but all I remember is fear and waking in a pool of my own shit. 

I need help, man. This isn’t fair.

November 26th, 2021

I called in sick to work yesterday. There’s something about soiling yourself as an adult for non-medical reasons that really humbles you. I’m gonna lay off the booze and drugs for a while. I already texted Sid and Hodor to tell them I felt pretty fucked up yesterday, and they were totally fine with it. They’re good guys. 

The rest of the day has basically left my memory. I’m not sure if it was ever there. Is it possible for events to just pass over us without ever sticking in our minds? Is it fatigue doing this to me, or something else? All I know is that I tried to sleep and I couldn’t. I watched bad movies and ate bad food and thought about going for a walk but the day was grey and rainy in that oppressive way November can be and so the thought of wandering around in the dark was too much for me. I turned on every light in the apartment and found some records my dad gave me before he died. Their sleeves were only plastic and the labels had worn off but I played them just so it wasn’t so damn quiet.

I think I’ve begun to be afraid of night. Not of the dark, because I’ve always just seen dark as the absence of light, but of night itself. Months of associating nighttime with terror can do that to you.

In case you’re wondering, I have tried to stay awake through the night so that fatigue takes me during the day. It’s not really practical; like I said, I have to work. Even when I don’t, it doesn’t help. I’m thirty-three. I can’t stay up all night like I used to. Something in me just clicks, and I fall asleep in the bed or the chair or on the couch, and the dreams come all the same. Last night was no different.

This time I was in bed. The room was black and the moon was starting to wane and so it wasn’t as bright as it was even a week ago. It was still bright enough to see, though; gathered around my bed were humanoid figures of differing heights. Some were no taller than a twelve-year-old, while others were taller than me. The light hid their features and so they just stood there for hours, shadows given weight.

I remember wanting to cry and scream and ask them what they wanted, but I couldn’t. My mouth wouldn’t work. Only my eyes. 

November 28th, 2021. 

You’re not going to believe this, but I actually slept through the night. And it wasn’t just a sleep, but a good sleep. Like a full eight, almost nine hours. I couldn’t believe it. I actually teared up when I woke up. I don’t think people realize what true fatigue is; I know people working morning shifts after a bender or students staying up late to study might think they know, but they don’t. Theirs is a temporary pain, one that’s swiftly resolved after the shift or the exam is finished. True fatigue is painful. The body acquires a heaviness to it and everything feels ten times as difficult. Beyond that, the mind unravels; on my worst days, I was convinced I saw flitting shadows in the corner of my eye, as if something was always trying to escape my view. 

Of course it’s not enough. You can’t catch up on months of sleep in a single night. But to be even temporarily freed is a relief beyond description. 

Doc’s gonna be pissed I didn’t write an entry for yesterday, considering this success, but I really didn’t get up to much. I just kind of bummed around the apartment. Ordered a pizza. Watched an overlong Netflix show. I can’t think of anything I did that was different, but whatever it is, I’m glad I did it.

November 29th, 2021

Forget everything I said above. Had one of the worst nights of my life last night. Tossed and turned and sweated and tried not to look at the walls. It’s even darker now at night. Winter’s coming and the clouds gather round heavy with snow but it’s not falling. Why isn’t it falling? If it fell, at least the light from the street would reflect and fill the room with a cool white glow like Christmas Eve. Everyone feels safe in their bed on Christmas Eve. 

I don’t even remember the dream. Did I even have one? All I know is that I woke with bile rising in my throat. I tried to throw the sheets back but my legs were tangled and I fell when getting out of the bed and so I had to pull the short plastic garbage can from next to my nightstand and I hurled in it. That’s right, I fucking had a nightmare so bad I puked, and my whole body seemed to shake with the effort, and just when it was almost done I felt something rising in my throat, something solid, not food, no no not food, something more, and there was a brief moment of terror when I worried it would get lodged in my throat on the way out but instead it nicked against my tooth as if I’d bitten down on a fork and then I heard a thud and I fumbled for the light and looking down into the pool of ochre waste I saw a small metal orb, ringed with a black band. 

I don’t even know what to say. What’s wrong with me? What do I do with this metal thing? Is it some kind of ballbearing that I swallowed in my sleep? What else could it be?

I’m crying. I haven’t cried in forever. I just feel so fucking hopeless right now.

December 2nd, 2021

Moon is almost gone now. Scared of what will happen when its gone but its good that its gone because then it will come back. chosen not to sleep. Sleep is death right now and i want to live

Therapist and Sid and Hodor have all tried calling. Dont need to talk to them. Dont want to sound crazy. Im sane just tired just sad just scared. Scared scared scared. That word doesnt really sum it up, does it? True fear grabs you by the throat and the heart and the balls and squeezes and doesnt let go. It goes inside you and makes you its bitch and your body almost wants to give in because at least then the fear would stop but i wont give in i wont i wont

Im working on a theory where my dreams of the visitors well i think those visitors might be real. I know it sounds crazy but i took the metal ball to the university to test, i bribed some student with a hundred bucks and they ran it through something called a spectrograph and the damned fucking thing couldnt tell what material the ball was made out of. That’s not possible right? Im not a scientist just a guy who wants to sleep but even still i know that the periodic table is supposed to be pretty much a done deal

So now im just waiting for the shadowpeople to come back. i asked sid if his grandpa had a pistol or anything from his collection that he left for sid but sid said no he didnt think that was a good idea so now im just sitting in my apartment with all the lights on mmm such a delicious yellow and ive got a kitchen knife in my hand like im michael myers no not austin powers michael myers the other one yeah baby yeah

im gonna kill these fuckers so i can finally sleep

december fourth twenty twenty one

no guests yet no surprises just me and the knife and the room and the walls waiting. i realized that maybe the problem is that the lights are all on maybe theyre afraid of the light like we are of the dark and tonight is a night with no moon in december and so it will be cold and dark and all of the people in all of the houses will be asleep except me ill be awake and it will be so dark they wont even be able to see my knife theyll only feel it sharp sharp

there was knocking on the door today and it lasted for a while but i didnt answer it they dont use the door and theres nobody else i need to see right now just my friends the shadowpeople why arent they coming why havent they come dont they want to see me. i know theyd come if i slept but im not gonna sleep i dont need to sleep nope not one wink

december?

now i lay me down to sleep i pray the LORD my soul to keep

???

i see them now i see them i see them 

December 17, 2021

I’ve been sleeping much better lately. I know it does not seem that way from the notes above, but those were the ramblings of a very tired, very sick man. Luckily, I was able to convince myself that there were no “shadow-people” in the dark. It is amazing what the mind can do to you when you are asleep.

The doctor has been very happy with my progress, too. He still would like me to continue on a course of medication for some time, but I suspect I will not need it much longer. I went out for drinks with Sidney and Mitchell the other night and both seemed very happy to see me out and about. Apparently they were quite worried, which I suppose is understandable.

Do not worry, guys. I’m all better now.

#13 – Tomorrow

This story was inspired by a project called Machine of Death, which I encourage you to read about here. The editors introduced a simple concept: a machine which, upon sampling your blood, can predict your exact cause of death. Sounds grim, but it need not be; if you know you’re going to die choking on a hot dog, there’s little reason to be afraid of bungee jumping. Unless you eat a hot dog before you jump. The openness of the concept led to two crowdsourced short story collections, each of which has a wide range of stories across a variety of genres. I recommend them both wholeheartedly; included in them are one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read and also one of the most touching. 

This is my attempt at one of these stories.

YESTERDAY

The sound of Sara’s foot tapping lit out across the food court, a place of a gleaming linoleum and empty tables. The sun was westering, a heavy yellow orb pendulous in the sky, threatening to bury itself. Sara watched it with bored eyes, the mall’s tinted windows and the late day protecting her from any lasting harm. She checked the watch her mother had gotten her as a going-away present. It had a pink leather strap and a gold-rimmed face and two hands which told her that Madison was about twenty minutes late. 

Not for the first time, Sara wondered why she was friends with Madison. The girl was chronically late. Sara had always put up with it through elementary and high school, but now that they were on the cusp of leaving for college, she had begun to realize that some people were just more grown-up than others. Maybe that’s why Madison was staying in town at Western while she was moving away to go to the University of Ottawa. 

Sara was considering finding a payphone to call Madison’s home when she finally saw her friend coming out of the corridor that connected the food court with the lane of stores outside Sears. Sara rushed toward Madison and was ready to ask her whether a doctor had diagnosed her with some type of degenerative clock-blindness when she spied the slip of paper in her friend’s hand. There was a bandage around the tip of Madison’s forefinger, and her eyes were red and bleary. 

“You didn’t,” said Sara.

“I’m sorry,” said Madison. “I-it was right there when I came into the mall. I didn’t even

know they were in Canada yet! I didn’t even think, I just did it.”

“We agreed we’d never do that. We said it was better not to know, that knowing would scare the shit out of us. What the hell, Madison!?” 

“I’m not scared, though. I’m relieved.” The blonde girl wiped her eyes, and a smile grew on her face. “Look, Sara. It’s not bad at all.” She held out the slip, and Sara took it. 

There were two words written on the slip in a simple serif typeface. They read OLD AGE.

Sara looked up at her friend, a strange mix of emotions curdling in her gut. “OLD AGE? What the fuck does that even mean? Old people die of cancer, pneumonia, heart attacks. This could just mean you get run down by some geezer in a Honda Civic.” 

“Maybe,” said Madison, “but maybe not. Lots of people get OLD AGE. I think they released some statistics a while back to prove the methodology or whatever.”

Sara nodded. She vaguely remembered seeing this on the news a few months back, when the Machine of Death had first been announced for wide public release. The most common results were virtually identical to the most common causes of death reported by the government. This correlation had been a part of the FDA approval for the Machine. Sure, there were instances where the Machine had seemed to have a sense of humour; one high-profile case had concerned a woman who was murdered by her spouse some time after she got a slip reading CANCER. The lawsuit had ultimately been dismissed when it was discovered the murderer’s birthday was July 3rd. Public faith in the Machine rose again after that.

“Well, congrats, I guess.” Sara was pissed. They had promised. Somehow it seemed even more unfair when Madison’s result was considered one of the best ones you could get. 

“Are you mad?”

“No,” lied Sara. “I guess I just feel like I’m in kind of a bind. We promised not to do it. Now you know and I don’t. That’s bullshit.”

“You could always take the test, too. It doesn’t hurt that much, and it’s totally safe. There’s a sterilizing agent to clean the needle. It’s right next to the Yogen Früz; we can get a smoothie while we wait.”

Sara checked her watch again. It was getting on towards seven, and college was still two weeks away. She sighed. It’s not like there was anything else to do.

There was a small kiosk for the Machine with a heavy pale blue curtain like one of the photo booths Sara and Madison had shared when they were younger. The girls approached it and Madison nodded at Sara, giving her a sad smile. Then she went across the hall to the neon sign advertising frozen yogurt. 

Sara was alone. A sick feeling rose in her stomach, close to her throat. She had never told anyone, not even Madison, but she was terrified of dying. How could you not be? Life was full of sensation, of joy and pain and pleasure and experience; everything that ever mattered to you happened when you were alive. When you were dead, none of that happened. It was a silence beyond vacuum, beyond description. And it was forever. 

Sara stepped into the booth. There was a pleasant chime when she sat on the small stool opposite the Machine. There was the outline of a handprint on the panel in front of her. She saw a dark hole, smaller than a dime, at the tip of the forefinger. She knew what waited there. 

A thought occurred to Sara – maybe she could fake this. She pulled back the curtain and peeked out. Madison was outside Yogen Früz, pointing at something on the menu. The teenager behind the counter looked like he’d gotten BORED TO DEATH from his slip.

Sara’s mind raced. Maybe she could tell Madison she got ANEURYSM or CAR CRASH or KICKED BY A HORSE, but that the surprise was too much for her and she had to get rid of it. Yes, that could work. Couldn’t it? Sara ran through the scenario in her mind, but found herself unable to imagine Madison allowing that to happen. The girl was always persistent, and she had shown Sara her card. She would want proof. 

With no other options available to her, Sara laid her hand on the console. Some sensor in the Machine activated in response to her touch. There was a brief flash of pain, then a chime. The machine whirred with the sound of a fan, then it spat out a single Band-Aid. Sara took it with an odd feeling of gratitude. The instructions on the console said that the Machine took a couple of minutes to produce the results. 

“How’d it go?” Madison poked her head through the curtain. Some kind of green drink was in her hand. She sucked on the straw noisily. 

“Jesus, Maddy, you scared the shit out of me!”

“Easy, Sara, I didn’t mean to. Here, I got you strawberry.” She held out the cup. Sara took it, nodding gratefully. 

“Sorry. It’s just – had to hype myself up a little.”

“It’s alright, I get it. I remember wondering what I’d do if I got like DROWNING or something. Would I keep going to synchro practice? Would I never swim again? But obviously I would, somehow, since I was supposed to drown. It messes with your head if you think about it too much.”

“Not helping.”

“Sorry.” 

Sara was about to say something else when the Machine stopped making sounds. Another slot opened. A single strip of paper slid out, face-down. Sara looked to Madison. Something must have shown on her face, because Madison just put a hand on her shoulder, then slipped out of the booth.

Sara took the strip of paper. It was no bigger than what you got in a fortune cookie. Only she knew this fortune would come true. She turned it, hands trembling. One word was written on it.

TOMORROW.

“Well, what the fuck does that mean?” cried Madison.

Ten minutes later. The girls were outside now, sitting on the edge of the stone garden. The sun had almost disappeared and was slinging out a few last desperate beams of light. A late August coolness was beginning to descend. A single bus drifted past them, only a few passengers aboard.

“I think it’s pretty fucking clear,” said Sara. “I’m gonna die tomorrow.”

“But how? The Machine doesn’t usually give a date.”

“I’m incredibly honoured to hear it made an exception for me.” She sighed. It wouldn’t help to

be sarcastic. Her mind was already filled with jumbled thoughts; a tapestry of events she’d never get to experience. School, a career, parties, weddings, children, adventures; even things like books and movies she wanted to read and watch were no longer a possibility, no longer options. She had twenty-nine hours, give or take. All of life’s experiences had to fit within that window. 

“I’m gonna get wasted,” said Sara. “My dad has a bottle of bourbon. He doesn’t lock it up because I’ve been such a good kid.” She laughed. “His words, not mine. He and mom are visiting my aunt in Toronto and won’t be home until Sunday.” She shrugged. “Wanna come with?”

Madison looked at her as if she wanted to say something.

“Please,” said Sara. “I need this.” A wave of guilt passed through her. Ninety minutes ago, she’d been wondering what mistakes she’d made to end up with a friend as ditzy as Madison. She’d been looking forward to separating. 

“Of course,” said Madison. She wiped her eyes. “Let’s do this!”

They left that place then. Sara felt herself filled with a muted sense of liminality, though she did not know the word. She felt as though that place, that mall, was now gone. It was impossible to imagine it existing when she would not. The feeling followed her home, where the neighbourhood seemed suffused with an ancient and quiet beauty. Crickets in the grass singing nightsongs. Golden lights projecting across neat lawns and families beyond, swimming in those lights, listening to music or watching television, completely unaware of the beauty of the moment in which they lived and would continue to live. 

The first thing Sara did when she got home was throw up. As she stood up, wiping her face, she found herself thinking about her parents. She was oddly relieved to not have to see them before she went. She didn’t think she could handle it. The memories were enough. She was grateful for all they had done, and she saw no reason to hurt them now with the knowledge of what they could not change. 

Madison was waiting in the kitchen for her when she came out of the bathroom. She had pulled two glasses out of the cabinet. A cube of ice waited in each. Sara raised an eyebrow when she saw this.

“Rob told me,” said Madison, and Sara understood. Rob was Madison’s ex, but they were still friends. His parents were big hippies, more interested in being friends with their son than they were in being parents. It was no surprise that they’d taught Rob how to drink. 

Sara picked up the glass, then plucked the ice out. She tossed it into the sink, where it clattered and then went still. She turned and pulled the bourbon from the cabinet. It seemed to shimmer with some hidden flame. She poured a couple of fingers for Madison, then a whole hand for herself. She caught Madison looking at her. She stared right back. “What?” she asked. “It’s my funeral.”

Sara tossed back the drink, letting her body be filled with fire. 

When Sara woke the next day, she was not dead. Her head pounded with a blinding fury. She scratched at the corner of her mouth and crusted drool like dandruff floated down to the bedsheet. Across the room, Madison slept on an air mattress. Sara let her sleep. She got up, wandering through the house. She took the stairs slowly. Each step sent a jolt of pain through her head, hammer against anvil.

“Ow,” she muttered to nobody.

In the kitchen, Sara made herself a cup of coffee, which she almost never drank but had seen hungover people drink in movies to feel better. It filled the air in the kitchen with a rich toffee scent. She pulled a mug from the cupboard in the grey morning light, the cups clinking painfully against one another. Sara had completely forgotten the why of why she was hungover. She didn’t remember until she turned around and saw the empty bourbon bottle. 

Then there was reality, naked and unbearable.

Emotion came crashing in. The thought that this was the day of her death repeated in Sara’s head, over and over, interrupted only by the panicked thought that she’d have to explain to her father why his straight-A daughter downed a bottle of Wild Turkey with her friend, but then that thought was interrupted with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be back until Sunday, and that by then she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all ever again. 

This was all too much. Sara rushed up the stairs, taking them two at a time, not caring if she woke Madison up or even if she saw what she was going to do next. She opened the door to her parents’ bedroom, shuffling aside the omnipresent museum quality that place seemed to hold in their absence, then dove into her mother’s closet where she kept the crumpled pack of Marlboros her mother pretended nobody knew about. She grabbed a couple and then stopped and grabbed the whole pack, taking it downstairs. She found a lighter in the kitchen and then opened the patio door out to the back stoop where the sun was now dawning on her last day and she lit a light, an orange-and-scarlet flame that wavered in the cool air. She brought the cigarette to it, watching the smoke rise from the tip, somehow both romantic and revolting. Then she smoked it. The smoke filled her mouth and tasted awful, but she didn’t feel anything. She looked at the cigarette and frowned and then realized she wasn’t inhaling, so she tried again and filled her lungs and they were shot through instantly with a cloudy kind of agony. An almost comically stereotypical hacking cough wracked her body, but she didn’t care, she knew this was supposed to be good, and so she dragged on the dart again and again until her throat and chest were sore, but the pain had been replaced with a kind of foggy ebullient pleasure in her head and besides it didn’t matter, nothing mattered anymore, so long as her head was clear and she felt good as she faced this, her last day.

She sat on the porch and smoked for a while. She didn’t even know if she liked it, but it was something to do other than just waiting. Eventually, Madison woke up and came out and though she seemed kind of freaked out by the cigarettes and the general attitude of her friend, she was willing to excuse it in light of the situation. Together they spoke for a time about many things, none of which were terribly important to anyone but them. 

The day dragged on. Sara and Madison went inside. They ordered Chinese food. While they waited, they spoke more about their dreams and their hopes but never too deeply, never too honestly. To acknowledge that truth would be to acknowledge a different truth; one they were working so hard to deny. So instead they ate and watched movies and each moment Sara wondered if it would be her last. 

Day turned to evening. It was simultaneously fast and impossibly slow. But the night came as it always did.

Sara woke the next morning, feeling a bit bloated. She swallowed. Her throat was dry and raw and the effort triggered a few wheezing coughs. She groaned and then laid back in bed. The windowblind was open and beyond in the blue dawn street a woman walked between pools of lamplight with her dog, some type of hound that loped along beside her. Sara watched her for a minute before she remembered.

The realization that she was alive triggered a wash of confusing emotions throughout her entire being. Relief and joy turned to confusion and then to panic when she remembered the bottle of bourbon and the pack of cigarettes. She looked over at the air mattress where Madison still slept. In that moment, her love for her friend pushed everything out. All was quiet, and it was thanks to this girl who had stayed with her through the entire ordeal.

Why had the Machine failed to predict correctly? Could somebody’s slip have been caught in the device? Some other fluke? Questions raced through Sara’s mind.

“Madison.” Sara prodded her friend’s shoulder. Her friend groaned and rolled over. Sara poked her again. “Madison, please wake up.”

Madison made a noise that sounded something like unghhh.

“I’m not dead, Maddy.”

There was a pause, then a mumbling voice. “Then why are you talking instead of sleeping?”

“Because I need to know why the Machine got it wrong.”

Madison rolled over to look at Sara. Her blonde hair fell across her face, her eyes barely parted. “We can take another test this morning if you want.”

“Do you think Rob would take one, too?”

“What? Maybe, but why?”

“I’ll take another one to be sure, but it’s like Mr. Cooper taught us in biology. We need a control. I don’t want to use you because we got ours done at the same time. Maybe that messed with the Machine somehow. I want somebody new.”

Madison sighed. “Yeah, okay. I’ll tell Rob to meet us at the mall.”

“Thank you.”

“You know,” said Madison. “You seem really unhappy for someone who just realized she’s not gonna die.”

“I just want to make sure,” said Sara.

Two hours later, they were all at the mall. The place was nearly deserted; the shopfronts closed with great metallic gates and the hallways filled only with the squeaking echoes of seniors’ shoes, morning mallwakers patrolling in packs. 

Rob was waiting for them when they arrived. He was the kind of tall that lends to gauntness. His hair cascaded, long and brown, to his shoulders. He sat on a bench just beyond the Machine. It was carved out of the frame for the mall’s centerpiece fountain, which encircled the escalators to create an artificial moat. Flowerbeds alongside it were filled with lost tropical plants. The fountain was shut off at this early hour and pennies gleamed under the still surface of the water.

“Thanks for doing this,” said Sara as they approached.

“No problem,” said Rob. “We doing this thing?”

“Sara seems really keen on it,” said Madison.

“I get it,” said Rob, smiling. “Once you explained the situation, anyway. I’d want to know, too.”

“Thanks,” smiled Sara. It felt good to know that she wasn’t being insane.

They walked over to the Machine, which stood sentinel against the wall. Sara knew it had only been two days since she’d last seen it, but as she approached it then she felt certain that the Machine had been there far longer, that it had stood there for eons as the world changed around it.

Rob pulled open the curtain and stepped inside. The girls watched as he laid his hand on the sensor. There was a sharp intake of breath, and then another Band-Aid. They waited for a long minute while the results were processed. At last the slip jutted out. Rob took it.

“I haven’t done this before,” said Rob. “My parents didn’t want me too. You know how they are. They keep telling me to ‘live in the moment.’” He made a fist around the paper. “It’s a lot harder than it sounds. I hope this helps me do it.”

He turned the paper over. He frowned, then he looked at it again. He handed it wordlessly to Madison and then walked away. 

“Rob!” cried Sara. “Rob!” She turned to Madison. “What the hell does it say? Why is he so upset?”

Madison didn’t say anything. Her eyes were red and shimmering. She just handed Sara the slip, then turned to follow Rob. Confused, Sara looked at the slip and finally understood.

SHARK ATTACK.

Sara truly believed that there was no good way to go, but she was positive that some were better than others. The thought of getting eaten by something, of your entire existence being boiled down to fuel for another animal–she understood why he felt the way he did. But a selfish part of her still insisted on answers. Rob’s slip proved the Machine was giving different answers. Now she needed to know if it would give her the same.

Sara slid inside. She sat on the stool and placed her left hand on the console this time, not wanting to reopen the shallow wound. She winced at the lance of pain again, then waited, ignoring the Band-Aid. 

The slip came out. She took it.

TOMORROW.

TODAY

The phone was ringing. The phone was ringing and nobody was answering it. Sara slowly opened her eyes. The sound reverberated through her skull. Something stank. She groaned and raised her head from the bed and looked around the apartment. Clothes sprawled across the floor. A clouded bong half-filled with scumwater stood tall on the shelf. The air was a mix of marijuana stink and old pizza, the box half-opened at the foot of the bed. Scrawled on the lid in a barely-legible script was SORRY I HAD TO GO THANKS. Sara snorted when she saw this and pushed the box off the bed with her foot.

The phone was still ringing. Sara wondered why it hadn’t gone to voicemail. She fumbled for the smartphone and picked it up and saw a name she hadn’t seen in years, as well as four voicemail notifications. Something inside her sank. She accepted the call. 

“Sara?” said Madison. 

“Yeah?” 

“You alright?” 

This was a question for which Sara had no answer, or at least none that would satisfy this forgotten friend. So she lied: “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Okay. Glad to hear it. Look, I’m sorry to call you up out of the blue like this, but I have to tell you – Rob’s dead.”

“What? How?”

The question was stupid, and Sara knew it. In the last fifteen years, the accuracy of the Machine had proved unimpeachable. Nobody escaped their fate. 

Nobody but her.

“Rob was always careful,” said Madison. “He never went to the beach. Even when he went to the lake, he would look up tributaries and sources so he could be sure there wasn’t anything connecting to the ocean. He wanted to live as long as he could.” There was a deep intake of breath on the other line. Sara thought that Madison might have been trying not to cry. “I-I guess he owed some people some money. They came after him and–”

“I get it,” said Sara. Loan sharks. The Machine always had a sense of humour.

“Will you come to the funeral? I know it’s not close, but I could really use you there.”

Sarah hesitated. Looking around the apartment, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find fifty bucks for the bus. She supposed she could always text her dealer; sometimes he spotted her an advance so long as she helped his customers when he was out of town. Maybe he’d be willing to do the same for some actual money instead of weed.

“Yeah,” said Sara. “I can make that work.”

“Great,” said Madison. “It’s at this Buddhist temple on Riverside at 10AM. Do you know the place?”

“Buddhist. Right, the hippie parents. I didn’t know if Rob believed in that shit himself.”

“I don’t think he did.”

“Then how–sorry, this is none of my business. It’s been forever. I shouldn’t be prying into your shit.”

“No, it’s fine. We should catch up after the service. It’d be good to hear about what happened to you after Ottawa. Are you on Facebook yet? I have this cousin, he’s fifteen, he says it’s really cool. I was thinking of checking it out.”

“Nah,” said Sara. “Not my thing. But we can definitely hang out.” What else could she say? People wanted to hear about how good you were doing when they caught up with you. They didn’t want to hear about shitty apartments and shitty jobs and part-time pot dealing. They didn’t want to hear about the string of exes or the cavities in your mouth or the debt you owed. They didn’t want to hear that your most recent vacation was to a dive bar with a bathroom door that locked. They didn’t want to hear anything that might suggest that you’re anything other than somebody whose life turned out exactly as predicted, because saying anything else might frighten them into believing their own predictions were just as fragile. 

Sara said none of this, of course. It was important to keep up appearances.

Sara would later admit to being a little disappointed when she walked into the temple. It wasn’t half of what she had expected; she had conjured an image of golden pillars and conical roofs and smiling monks. The building looked like an abandoned school, and the people filing in dressed like they did at any other funeral. Even the service itself only had minor elements that she took to be of the Buddhist tradition; incense was lit, and a few minutes of meditation were deserved. Some of the speeches, especially those by Rob’s parents, spoke of impermanence, but most told stories with the strange blend of wistfulness, joy, and sorrow reserved for such events.

Rob himself was at the front of the room, seven pounds of ash in a plain pine box.

After the service ended, Rob’s parents waited at the door, thanking each mourner in turn. They handed every guest some kind of pamphlet. Most took one look at it, then put it in their pocket. Sara looked for an exit and couldn’t find one. The line pressed her forward. She didn’t want to talk to these people; she had no place here. She had spent the service watching everything with detachment; a person catching a glimpse into a life she had thought lost. Speaking to Rob’s parents threatened to bring it all back – threatened to remind her of TOMORROW. But when she passed, there was no glimmer of recognition in their eyes. She shuffled by after muttering her sympathies, taking the pamphlet without even looking.

Across the parking lot and on to the bus stop. After that, finding a place to crash. She didn’t know if her parents would let her in. She couldn’t remember when they had last spoken. But there had to be a place, if only for a night. 

“Sara?”

Shit. “Madison! I didn’t see you at the service! I thought maybe it had been too much, maybe you didn’t decide to come.”

“You could have texted me.”

“I didn’t want to bug you on a day like today.” This was a lame excuse, one that sounded worse even as she said it. But Madison wasn’t paying attention. She was looking at Sara. It was a look Sara recognized. A look that proved that she hadn’t managed to hide what she’d become. 

“Look, I–”

“-Come with me for coffee, okay? If you want to go after that, then go. I won’t stop you. But don’t push me away forever just to save forty-five minutes.”

With few other options, Sara acquiesced. 

“So what are you up to?” asked Madison, lifting the cup to her mouth. A cloud of steam curled up and under her nose. 

Sara had braced herself for this question, yet still found herself without an answer. “I guess you could say I’m between jobs.”

“Was school good? How did Ottawa work out?”

“It–uh–it didn’t.” 

“Oh.”

Silence stretched between them. It had started off fine. The coffeeshop was cozy and quiet and they sat on plush cushions coloured like stained orange peels. They had spoken of Madison and her fiancé and the work they each did and the vacation to Greece they were planning in the new year. The conversation was easy and pleasant. It was only once they had turned to her that that changed.

“Look,” said Madison. “You can be honest with me. I’ve spoken to your mom and dad. They haven’t heard from you in forever. You don’t have to tell me what it is exactly–please know I’d never judge–but I don’t want you to just disappear. We were important to each other, once.”

“I’ve been busy, I guess.”
“Is this about the Machine?”

The question was so bold that it took Sara a second to parse it. That second was enough.

“I think it fucked up Rob, too. We spoke about it sometimes. You know we tried to work things out? It was the winter after you moved away. It didn’t work. Some people are just better as friends, I think. Less pressure to be anyone but yourself, you know?”

Sara didn’t know if she was supposed to respond to this question, but Madison pressed on before she could decide: “You asked me about whether Rob believed in Buddhism. We talked about it a little over the years. He told me he never really believed in the spiritual side, like in the concept of the Dharma or anything, but that the mental stuff, the guidance on how to live–it really helped him.”

“How?”

Madison shrugged. “I don’t really know. I was never as into it, but he said that it allowed him to ‘live in the moment,’ rather than always thinking about how a guy who never went in the water would be killed by a shark.”

“But he still never went back in the water.”
“No, he didn’t. But I think it gave him more peace on land.”

Sara thought about this for a second, but then the thought drifted away. Their conversation turned to other things, but nothing important. They agreed that they needed to see one another again and that they should stay in touch, even though neither of them really believed it would happen. 

Then Madison left, and Sara was alone. She shifted in her seat and tried to pull the last embers of warmth from her tea. The sound of paper crinkling. She leaned to the side so she could pull it from her back pocket.

The image of a lotus was printed across the front. She opened it and inside were a few steps on how to breathe, something Sara was fairly confident she already knew how to do. As she read on, she learned that breathing was necessary to allow oneself to achieve mindfulness, which in turn would allow one to appreciate the present moment without fear of the future and the suffering it might bring.

“You’ve already tried everything else,” whispered Sara to nobody. 

She started by breathing in.

TOMORROW

Tomorrow came. It always does. But it didn’t come as soon as she expected.