Foreign Correspondence

Her oxfords had been laced, her lips rouged, and after a final peep in the mirror, she flung open the door.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said the man in the hallway, hand poised to knock and a bewildered look on his face.

“For what?”

“I…” He smoothed his hair and tugged his tie straight. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but it seems our mail was misdelivered. Poor record keeping. I’ve yet to stay at a hotel without appalling records.”

There was a pause, each watching the other expectantly, until the man in the hallway cleared his throat and continued.

“I was awaiting some letters, but I received this instead.” He tugged a rumpled envelope from his suit pocket. “Is it yours?”

She looked down at the address written in a thin, angular hand. “No, that’s not me.”

“Oh. Well, it was worth a try.” He fidgeted with the letter, glancing down the hall. “I suppose I should… check the next room then.”

“You’re not a Mr. Sinclair, by chance, are you?” she asked.

“I am! How did you know?”

“These were delivered earlier.” She turned back into the room and retrieved a bundle of letters from beside a vase of blushing roses. “It’s quite a stack,” she said, handing them to him.

He shrugged bashfully.

“Adam,” she said.

“What?”

“Or Archibald.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I thought Alfred at first, but now I’ve met you, that’s not right either.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”

She pointed to the letters, each neatly addressed to ‘Mr. A. Sinclair.’ “Albert?”

“Arthur.”

A smile bloomed on her lips. “Of course! Arthur Sinclair.”

“Like the president,” he laughed, but her forehead crinkled in puzzlement.

“Continental Congress…?” he added miserably.

“I never was very good at history,” she said. “Well, that’s one mystery solved, and it isn’t even noon.”

But Mr. Arthur Sinclair did not move from the doorway.

“There is still this one,” he said, and he looked down at the lone envelope then up at her, a glimmer in his eye of a half-fledged idea struggling to take flight. “Perhaps… we could try to find its owner. It has to belong to someone.”

“I’m sure the front desk can take care of it,” she said, stepping into the hall and pulling the door shut behind her. “I’m off to the museum. And your letters must be important if you came looking for them.”

“What, these?” He crammed the unfortunate stack into his pocket. “Business, notes from acquaintances, that sort of thing. They’ll keep. Besides, we might find a letter for you.”

“Oh, I doubt it,” she said with a little laugh, but her gaze flickered back to the envelope in his hand. “Still, I guess it doesn’t hurt to check. The museum can wait.” She put a small bronze key into the lock on the door. “And everything will be slightly older when I get there.”

The lock clicked. She put the key into her bag and took the letter from Arthur, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Mrs. R. S. Lafayette. She sounds important. Do you think she’s French?”

“It’s possible.”

“I’ve never been to France,” she said wistfully then looked up and down the hall. “Where should we begin?”

“Farther down?” Arthur suggested, and she started forward, her small heels silent on the thick, floral carpet.

“Should I know that name? Lafayette?”

“He was a general,” Arthur said, hurrying after her. “In the Revolutionary War.”

“Then perhaps they’re related. That must be very interesting, being related to someone famous.”

Arthur was walking beside her now. “And what name will we be inquiring after?” he asked, intently studying the wallpaper. “Mrs…?”

“It’s Miss.” She was fumbling with a button on her lace glove. “Miss. H. Langstrom, and the H is for Helen.”

“Like Helen of Troy,” Arthur said blissfully.

“I hope not.” And Helen knocked on the door of 208.

It was answered by an immense figure framed by bright sunlight and the tinny scratch of a string quartet on the Victrola. “Yes?” she bellowed.

“Mrs. Lafayette?” Arthur asked.

“Yes!”

“I received some mail of yours by accident, and I— I mean, we, this young lady and I, were hoping to return it to you.”

“Isn’t that sweet of you?” the woman said loudly and took the letter from Helen, disregarding the spectacles on the silver chain around her neck and holding it arm’s length to squint at it. “Why, yes, this is mine! How did you find me? Some mix-up at the front desk, no doubt. These things happen, and I almost didn’t answer the door what with my sister on long-distance. She’s in California, if you can believe it.”

She stopped for a breath, and Arthur cut in. “Did you receive any letters? Addressed to someone else perhaps?”

“Well, I did now you mention it,” she said in her tone of eternal surprise. “Thought it odd. Meant to ask the bellhop when he came up with lunch, but I was on the phone with my Charles, and when I turned around, the boy had vanished. Left without his tip. Now… where did I put it?”

She disappeared into the room, talking all the while. Arthur smiled wanly at Helen.

“Here!” came a piercing cry, and Mrs. Lafayette returned waving a thin envelope. “This was kind of you. Such a sweet, young pair. I must tell my sister about you.” The phone trilled behind her. “That’ll be her now, wondering where I’ve gone to. I better answer before she thinks I was murdered or some such nonsense. You’ve never met such a frightful gossip. That woman could talk the ears off a potato.”

The envelope was thrust into Helen’s hands, and the door shut.

“It’s for a Mr. Green,” Helen said, brushing at a jam smudge on the corner. “And she wasn’t even French.”

“201.” Arthur grimaced. “I believe I met him already.”

Helen sniffed the envelope. “Perfume. And an entirely impractical handwriting. I can only assume this Mr. Green is in the middle of a torrid affair.”

“If he’s who I think he is, I doubt that,” Arthur said, moving closer to Helen to let a bellhop carrying a silver domed tray on his shoulder pass. “The perfume must be Mrs. Lafayette’s.”

“But it isn’t her handwriting,” Helen said and looked up at him with a glint in her eye. “There’s only one way to find out.”

201 was occupied by a squat, balding man who glowered at them from a cloud of cigar smoke. “No, thank you,” he grumbled.

“I beg your pardon?” Arthur said.

“Shoes, encyclopedias, whatever it is you’re hawking, I don’t want it.”

“Oh, we’re not—”

“They’ve got women now too,” Mr. Green said, scowling at Helen.

The door was swinging shut.

“Now, hold on!” Arthur protested. “We have a letter for you.”

“I don’t want it.”

“It’s from a woman,” Helen yelled through the closing door, and it paused a crack from the jamb.

Mr. Green’s pruny face glared out before he snatched the letter and peered at the handwriting. “You stealing my mail?”

“No!” Arthur said. “We—”

“Bad enough they let you go door-to-door in here,” Mr. Green grumbled. “Find someone else to pester.”

“But—”

The door slammed, and Arthur stared at it. “He didn’t even remember me.”

“But it was his letter,” Helen said with a little sigh. “I suppose that’s it then.”

Arthur looked down at her, pulled himself to his full height, and pounded a fist on the door.

“See here,” he said when it opened. “We did not steal your letter. And we are not salesmen. This incredibly charming young lady is Miss. Helen Langstrom. She’s staying two doors down from you. We’re looking for a letter that was sent to your room by accident, and—”

The door shut again, right in Arthur’s face.

“It was sweet of you to try,” Helen said gently.

An envelope popped out under the door.

“It’s been opened,” Helen said, gingerly picking up the tattered envelope. “And it’s addressed to a Miss. Penelope Barker.”

“A young lady is staying in the room next to mine,” Arthur said. “She wasn’t in earlier, but she might be now. We could try there.”

Helen hesitated. “Being a postman isn’t as exciting as I expected. Delivering the mail isn’t as interesting as receiving it.”

“You have to walk that way to the lobby anyway,” Arthur said.

After a moment, she agreed.

“Which room is yours?” Helen inquired as they walked down the hall, then, not waiting for an answer: “It must be nice traveling with acquaintances. Your wife.”

“I’m not married.”

“Oh.” She stopped and looked up at him. “Well, I’m sure you’re very busy with your studies. I imagine a historian doesn’t have time for things like silly day trips. Or maybe a teacher.”

“Nothing as important as that,” Arthur said, the tips of his ears turning pink. “I read a lot of books. Too many books.” He glanced darkly toward 201. “Books are easier than people. It’s that one,” he said, pointing down the hall.

A slender, bright woman in a vibrant satin robe opened the door. “Well, hello!” she said, smiling a glossy smile and looking mostly at Arthur. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a letter that belongs to you, Miss. Barker,” Helen said, holding it out to her.

The woman, who didn’t deny being Miss. Barker, took it and fingered the torn edge. “Did you read it?”

“Of course not,” Arthur said indignantly.

“Pity,” she said, flashing white teeth at him and cocking a shoulder. “You might have enjoyed it.”

Arthur cleared his throat. “Did you receive any mail that wasn’t addressed to you?”

“’fraid not.”

“Thank you for your time then,” Helen said and turned back to the hall.

“Feel free to come back and check another time,” the woman called after them before she laughed and shut the door.

Helen was picking at a leaf in a flower arrangement sitting on a nearby pedestal.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. “I thought we’d find something.”

“I didn’t expect we would,” Helen said quietly. “I don’t get many letters.”

“Surely the people you’re traveling to see would write you, or… your family at home.”

She turned and looked up at him. “People always think that. That I’m going to see someone or waiting for someone or… Well, maybe I am. But if I am, I don’t know it.”

“You’re traveling alone too,” Arthur said.

“Yes.”

“Do you often travel alone?”

She sighed. “It’s that or stay home alone. And there are so many more interesting places to be alone. They all have someone, don’t they?” she said, looking down the hall. “Even if it’s only some writing on a piece of paper.”

“Miss. Barker is also a young lady traveling alone,” Arthur said valiantly. “It’s very modern of you.”

“I highly doubt she spends much time alone,” Helen muttered. She looked toward the broad marble staircase leading to a lobby teeming with travelers and tall plants in massive pots. “You seem to know a lot about history. I suppose you’d find a museum a bore.”

“I bet I wouldn’t!” Arthur said.

“But what about your letters?”

Arthur was gazing down at her upturned face with a dreamy expression. “What letters?”

Helen smiled. “I should warn you, I spend more time watching the people than the exhibits.”

Before they left, Arthur stopped at the front desk and pressed a folded bill into the manager’s hand. “Please give my compliments to whoever delivered the mail.”

Gille, The Bard of Falutia

Between the treacherous forest where only foul spirits dared to tread and the wide waters of the Alamanthanine Sea, there stood the small kingdom of Falutia. And in Falutia, there lived a bard of such renown that his name was spoken in hushed whispers from the sandy shores to the peaks of the snowy mountains. The mere mention of his arts upon the lute strings sent a shiver through even the most brutal mercenary, for he was, without a doubt, the worst singer ever heard in those fair lands.

                His name was Gille.

                His singing brought to mind the scratch of dead branches against gravestones, and his lute playing stirred even the most war-hardened soldier to tears of despair. Wherever he went, always in cheerful song, the road cleared before him. Thief, trader, brave wanderer, or stalwart servant of the king, it made no difference. All fled at the first echo of his strains through the trees, and the birds migrated south no matter the season.

                In the spring of that year, the king’s daughter and only child was to have her twenty-third birthday, and as tradition dictated, it would be the year she chose a suitor to take up residence with her in the stately castle of Falutia. Lords, ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and squires, minstrels and dancers, and most importantly, eligible princes came from all reaches of the land. Tents and pavilions sprang up. Sweet strains of music and the mouth-watering scent of delicious treats filled the air. Jesters jested, knights jousted, and wild celebration ensued, all to culminate in the day when the princess would choose her prince.

                Gille had been staying in a small fishing village, gracing them with his song, but the place seemed to be getting smaller and quieter each day. Men who spent their days on ships came to the inn at night and told stories of the exciting travelers and exotic wonders gathered at the palace. That was the place for a bard to be, Gille decided and left the next day. The villagers gathered to see him off with grateful and teary cheers.

                When he arrived at the palace and saw the wonderful scene before him, swirling dancers, leaping acrobats, nobles in elegant dress, and troupes of singers and players, Gille was awed and filled with inspiration. Upon seeing the beauty of the princess, he leapt onto a nearby crate and broke out in jubilant song.

                The palace fell silent. Every eye turned to stare at the singing bard. One of the knight’s horses, a noble and war-hardened steed, spooked and trampled a squire in a wild dash to get away from Gille’s voice. The princess clamped her hands over her ears and begged him to stop.

                “Enough!” cried the king, and Gille fell silent. “What is that ungodly caterwauling?!”

                “I only wish to take part in this wonderful occasion,” Gille said.

                “Then do it far away and where none of us can hear you!”            

                Gille stared at the angry and horrified faces around him. “Do you truly all wish me to leave?”

                A cry of assent rose around him, and one ill-mannered jester threw an apple at him. Gille slid off the crate and left, dragging his lute behind him. As he walked, turning his feet toward the north and the towering mountains, he strummed half-heartedly on the strings. “Maybe I was not meant to be a bard,” he said sadly. “But I love it! And this heartbreak only makes me want to sing more.”

                He lifted his voice and did just that. As he walked through the forest at the base of the mountains, the woodland creatures, stag and hare, lifted their heads, swiveled their velvet ears, turned, and darted away with flicks of their snowy tails. For weeks after he had passed, the hunters returned to their homes empty-handed, and their children went to bed with rumbling stomachs.

                But Gille passed on into the mountains, his voice growing louder and more triumphant with every step. As he sang, the stone walls caught his song and threw it back and forth until it had magnified a hundred times a hundred.

                “This is a place I can be!” he said happily. “The world sings along with me.”

Deep in the heart of the mountains, there lay a beast, a wyrm of fyre that had slumbered there long ere the cornerstone of the palace of Falutia had been laid. When Gille’s strained strains shuddered through the mountains, a golden eye opened. Lifting its great and terrible head, and opening its terrible mouth, the wyrm spoke:

                Ňŧůšţэ пфзж гбЮ Ẅǽ ƒƒƒƒƒƒ ŧŹłώ

                (As everyone knows, dragons only speak dragon-speak, which is too old and terrible for mortal ears to understand – or perhaps dragons don’t have the patience to translate – but roughly translated what the wyrm said was this: “GREAT DRAGON LORDS OF VARKNETH, WHAT IS THAT AWFUL *%#^ING NOISE?”)

                With a shriek of rage, the dragon rose from the mountains and plummeted like a red arrow toward the celebrating kingdom of Falutia. The cries of revelry turned to screams of horror, and the tents blazed with the wyrm’s fire. The nobles fled into the palace, locking themselves away, while the citizens of Falutia scattered in every direction.

                A few of them ran into the safety of the mountains, and there they found Gille (who was oblivious to the terror he’d unleashed). When he learned that the kingdom was under attack, he was dismayed. Picking up his lute, he resolved to return, hoping that he could offer some small help.

He found the charred remains of the beautiful tents and saw that the palace had become an island in a sea of fire. The wyrm was tearing at the walls, scratching at the stones with razor claws and scorching them with plumes of fire. A few survivors, who had been unable to flee, huddled in the ashy remains of what had once been a great and beautiful city.

                Gille, horrified by what he saw, could only do what he always did. He picked up his lute and began to sing, a heartbroken and mournful song. The dragon, who had been trying to extract a particularly plump soldier from a tower, turned its terrible head toward him.

                БЎ ωϊψбёљ Ъσςξ λκκ θЖ, it roared.

                (Which translates to: “UGH! NOT THIS GUY AGAIN.”)

                With a furious screech that shook the mountains, the dragon rose into the sky and fled across the seas.

                When the king emerged from the palace and saw that Gille stood untouched amid the destruction and heard the tale of how his voice had chased away the vile wyrm, he immediately went to his daughter, the princess, and begged her to marry him. “Who else but this humble bard could have ended the threat of the wyrm? His action deserves some reward, and what else is left?”

                The princess considered this in silence before she spoke. “Fine. But only if he puts that damn lute away. And we tell him that kings aren’t allowed to sing.”

The king eagerly agreed, and Gille was bathed in the warmest waters and dressed in the finest silks before he was brought before them in what remained of what had once been the great hall. When he learned of the princess’s offer and what all it entailed, he knelt and took her hand.

                “Good lady. Fine lady. Lady of unmatched beauty. It’s a very fine offer, but are you sure about the singing part?”

                “Very sure,” she said, extracting her hand from his.

                Gille considered before he rose. “Then I must decline. For the music of my heart will not, cannot be silenced. I pray you find it in your gracious heart to forgive me and that I have not caused you too much pain. I would never forgive myself if a single tear fell from your beautiful eye. Just the thought makes me want to sin—”

                “Whatever. It’s fine,” the princess said. “None of this was my idea anyway.”

                In gratitude for what he had done, the princess gifted Gille a lute of ebony and ivory and a ship manned with the most hard-of-hearing sailors she could find (after all, she wasn’t cruel). And Gille left Falutia behind for the open seas, singing the songs of his heart to the waves. Legend says he sails still and that even the sirens flee when they see his ship on the horizon.

Grufta

Sunlight filtered through the dusty display window, glinting off seamless polished metal. A silver oblong nestled in sun-faded velvet. The brilliance of the original crimson could still be seen on the back of the curtains framing the glass and in the grooves of the wrinkled fabric. There were indents where other shapes had sat, but all that remained was the elongated metal egg.

                “What is it?” A young face was pressed against the glass, fog gathering around her partially open mouth.

                There was no one to answer. She stood in a dingy street surrounded by faded, peeling paint and warped wood. Her clothing was just as shabby: patched knits with gaping holes clumsily knotted shut and boots too big for her feet. A few figures passed by, but none spared her a glance.

                She left the glass and pulled open the shop door. A bell above her gave a half-hearted jingle. Inside, the shelves were bare and dusty. The place seemed empty, and after a glance around, she moved to the window. She had to stand on tiptoe to see into the slanted, velvet-lined case. An inquisitive hand strayed over the edge, fingers straining toward the silver.

                “Don’t touch the merchandise.”

                She yanked her hand back and whirled. An elderly man wearing a stained leather apron stood in the shadow of the nearest row of shelves.

                “What is it?” she asked, tucking her curious hands behind her back.

                “Grufta.”

                “What?”

                “It’s a grufta,” he said, nodding toward the window.

                “Oh.” She rocked in her worn boots. A voice rang out in the street outside, then faded. “What’s a grufta?”

                The man rubbed his chin with a grimy hand. “Never heard of a grufta?”

                She shook her head. He looked her over with an appraising eye before he bent down to her level, knees creaking, dirty hands planted on his thighs. “There used to be powers in this world, or so they say. Powers that could kill a man—ten men—in an instant, or flatten a city, or carry you through the sky like a bird, or tell your future. Powers you could hold in the palm of your hand.”

                Her mouth hung open as she listened, one finger lifting to scratch her nose.

                The man in the apron straightened up. “That’s what a grufta is. A bit of that power left over.”

                She turned and lifted up on tiptoe, levering herself with her arms to peer over the edge at it. The silver on its bed of velvet glowed slightly golden in the light of the setting sun.

                “How’s it work?” she asked.

                “It doesn’t. It just sits there.”

                Her fingers twitched, reaching for it again.

                “No money, no grufta,” he growled behind her.

                She shrank against the display case, nudging the floor with the toe of her boot. The man in the apron watched her trudge toward the door before he turned and disappeared into the murk of the shop.

                She pulled the door open. The bell jingled above her then the door begrudgingly closed again, but she hadn’t moved. Instead, she crept behind the dusty velvet curtains, biting her lip and wrinkling her nose to hold back a sneeze.

                She peeped out from behind the red drapes. The shop was empty. The silver grufta lay just within her reach. A single, dirty finger reached out, brushing against the seamless metal.

                A brilliant light flashed, faded, and erupted again. Searing white rays flooded the shop. The man in the apron stumbled out of the back, hands raised to shield his eyes. A figure hovered a moment in the window, white and flickering against the brightness. The door flew open; the light flashed outside, darted down the street and disappeared in a rainbow streak behind a dilapidated building.

                The door drifted shut with a soft jingle.

                In its bed of velvet, a dark crack had opened in the seamless metal side.  

The Mirrors of Kathos

The mirrors of Kathos do not show us as we are. They may show who we were or who we will be, glimpses of the future or visions of the past, or maybe nothing at all. Today I was a young boy, peering curiously through the glass. I had come hoping to see into my future, to say what lay beyond the immutable veil of time, but the tall mirror, stretching from the bare stone floor up to the vaulted ceiling, showed only what I had been years ago.

                The noise of the bustling streets, crowded and vibrant, hot under the glaring sun, was muffled by the many steps and heavy wooden doors that led into the Hall of Mirrors. It was cool within. An occasional shout from a street vendor floated through, rendered soft and wordless by the placid stone.

                “Do you remember what you saw?” a voice asked, and I turned to see Aybar, keeper of the mirrors, watching me.

                “I don’t know what you mean.”

                “On that day, when you came to look,” he said.

                I turned back to the mirror and now saw that Aybar stood in the room behind the young boy. A lean figure in dark robes, only his pointed chin and thin-lipped mouth showed beneath his hood. Gaunt hands emerged white from the black folds, clasped in front of him.

                “Is this a specific day?” I asked, watching myself with renewed fascination. “I have no memory of it. What did I see?”

                Aybar sighed. “You were such a lonely child, Kalem. Always looking, always yearning.”

               He took a gauzy white cloth from his robes and knelt by the mirror. When I stepped aside, the young boy vanished. There was only Aybar, and in the mirror, he also knelt. Two dark figures, palms moving in perfect unison across the glass with the cloth between.

                “Look,” I said in wonder. “It shows you as you are.”

                Aybar’s hand paused, and his reflection’s did the same. “Does it? I’ve never looked into the mirror.”

                “Never?” I was astounded. This hall was as good as his home; he was here each day tending to the mirrors. His presence filled every memory I had of the place, since I first came here as a child, running up the steps to stare with awe at the mysteries contained within. “Why have you never looked?”

                He straightened up and moved to the next mirror in the row lining the hall. When he began his washing again, his reflection followed. “Make the choice because you see it in the mirror or make the choice and it will appear. It makes no difference. I’ve never looked, so there is nothing to see.”

                As if in reflex, he reached up and tugged the dark hood further over his eyes. He may have meant to dissuade me, but he had told me the secret of the Hall. I wasn’t just seeing visions of my future but my own face looking back at me. If I came here, as I knew I would, in ten, twenty, fifty years, then I could find myself and see what lay before me. There were more mirrors beyond this hall, twisting hallways and echoing chambers.

                “Maybe another,” I said, turning away.

                Aybar’s hand reached out to grab me, tendons straining against his papery skin. “Leave it, Kalem. You will only leave more of yourself behind.”

                I shrugged him off and crossed the hall to where it narrowed to a thin hallway. Aybar was watching me, for once the dark hood lifted, and his eyes, still in shadow, were sorrowful. Other halls branched out, stairs climbing up or spiraling down, doorways opening into great rooms, every surface lined with mirrors. Some had sharp, naked edges; others were fitted in elaborate gilt or wooden frames. I went to the heart of the place, further than I had ever gone before, straight onward until I came to a heavy wooden door. It creaked open to reveal a dingier chamber. Dust slithered across the floor, disturbed by my entry; the light was thin and still. I slid inside.

                Mirrors crowded the walls and crept onto the ceiling. I walked through a crystal. The edges of the world distorted, repeated, stretched and diminished, disorienting in its constant repetitions. The motes in the air stirred by my feet were multiplied infinitely, like dull stars. My steps echoed against the glass. I was there in each mirror that I looked to. Endless variations of myself flitted before my eyes, but none showed what I searched for.

                Something flickered at the edge of my sight. When I turned, it vanished. When I began to walk, it was there again. A shimmer in my peripheries, darting away and dancing between the mirrors as I tried to catch a glimpse of it.

                “Aybar?” My voice shuddered through the chamber.

                There was no answer. I walked on, thinking myself disoriented. What light there was danced and leapt wildly, and I ignored the sensation of something there, behind me, shifting from mirror to mirror. I walked, and it walked with me.

                At the far end of the chamber, there was a wall of mirror; the end of the place. A single mirror stood in a solid frame, not mounted on the wall but sitting in a stand, infinite wooden legs spreading out from where it touched the mirrored floor.

                I turned to look back at the hall, vast in its endless reflections. Infinite, yet empty. Full of only itself, reflection upon reflection of nothingness. But when I turned back, the mirror in front of me on its stand was not empty. It had shattered, black veins running away from a pitted wound. It was bleeding drops of scarlet. A dark figure was crumpled on the floor, motionless.

                I reached a hand to touch the shards. They were warm, and though I hadn’t been cut, I drew my fingertips away bloody. Through the broken glass, I saw now that my own face stared up at me from within, pale and lifeless, eyes wide. The figure twitched, a violent spasm, and gathered itself. A hand, fingertips bloodied, surged through the mirror.

                My hand.

Haunted

Like the ancient curses of the pharaohs, the multitude of explanations for the hysteria and hallucinations of those who have spent extended time in old houses far outweighs the possibility of the paranormal. Drafts and cold spots from wind finding its way through rotting walls, illness caused by mold or gases caught in rusty pipes, strange noises triggered by the introduction of a foreign body into a delicately balanced ecosystem, or simply the habitation of a stray cat or nesting pigeon: I had yet to find a symptom without a cause. Still, each new investigation began with the hope that this time I would find the exception to the rule. As I gazed up at the house, perched on its tree-covered hill like a vulture eyeing its prey, the familiar tingle of possibility crept up my spine.

A century of abandonment had clawed the flesh from it until only bare bones remained, bleached and crumbling, listing to one side. To the untrained eye, it would seem only a sad monument to an era long since passed, but I noticed with some fascination the unbroken windows and the strange chill in its shadow. I attributed that to the changing seasons, but the windows… Perhaps things back then truly were built to last, or perhaps its reputation was sinister enough to still the hand of even the most destructive youth.

A metal fence topped with sharp spikes circled the grounds, rigid against the grasping hands of the vines seething up it. The gate swung open with a raucous squeak, and I waded into a tangled garden. Brittle and browning stacks lay in heaps, weeds smothering all other plant life. The lone survivors, patches of small purple flowers, huddled in their shadow. Vines swarmed over the path, clutching at my ankles as I fought my way to the door. Not a bird, not an insect stirred. Even the leaves seemed frozen, afraid to move, and every step, every rustle of undergrowth beneath my feet felt sacrilegious, like the garden itself winced at the noise.

Crumbling stone steps led to a dilapidated porch and a heavy door with an ornate handle and doorknocker clamped in the fang-filled jaws of a fiendish face. A melodramatic touch but the modern screws holding it to the decaying wood set my skepticism firmly back in place. The door creaked open at my touch to reveal a dusty hallway and a staircase leading up to a small landing. Motes danced in the sunlight filtering down through cracks in the roof, and the stench of mold and stale water filled my nose until I could taste it. I hung my pack over the leaning banister to retrieve a flashlight and mask. While any so-called spirits who had taken up residence here might not be killers, asbestos was.

As I slid on the mask, a breeze rushed down the hall, hurling the door shut. The house shook with the impact, the walls shaking themselves free of dust and cobwebs. I jumped at the deafening noise, but I had spent enough time in drafty houses to know the ominous welcome was little more than the work of an open door or window at the back of the house. Waving the hovering dust away, I began my explorations, the floors moaning in protest under my feet.

It would have been a charming house, but now it had fallen into decay, each room standing silent, holding its breath, until my creaking footsteps passed on. Lace curtains hung limp from brass fittings. Tarnished wood and moldering florals sat primly under its veil of dust. Time and moisture had shredded the contents of the gilt frame over the hearth like the work of angry fingers. Chairs stood casually pushed from tables as if their occupants had merely stepped away.

A study, a parlor, and a kitchen and dining room connected by a low door lay on the ground floor. A heavy door was built into the wall beneath the stairway, but it hadn’t opened when I had tugged on the handle and I assumed it to be locked. Up the creaking stairs were three bedrooms, the beds within covered with sewn quilts starched with dust, and a sitting room lined with windows overlooking the garden. I sat in a rocking chair, gazing out at the small town in the distance, citizens weaving through its streets like toiling ants. Night was falling, and soon my work could begin. But for now, I waited. The wood creaked nervously under my weight, but all around me, the house stood silent.

I started awake in a darkened room. I thought I had heard a door slam, but everything was silent now. The town had faded to a soft glow. I shivered at the cold of nightfall and reached for the pack I had left by my feet, but my flashlight illuminated only dusty floorboards.

“Damn.”

I winced as my voice echoed in the blackness, offensive in the silence. I swept my light across the room, hoping my pack had slid away on the uneven floors, but my search yielded nothing. Out of the corner of my eye, a patch of gray flickered in the blackness of the open door, and I whirled to face it. But my flashlight revealed only an empty doorway.

“It’s your imagination,” I whispered, trying to ignore the prickling nerves itching up the back of my neck.

My pack had vanished, so I felt my way down the stairs to the door, picking around rotten floorboards as I went. I tugged the handle, but it wouldn’t budge, the frigid cold wedging it shut. I braced a leg on the door frame and heaved, praying for the screech of wood as it released, but it wouldn’t move.

“Damn!” I defied the silence again, kicking the door angrily.

Hoping to find the backdoor more accessible, I stumbled down the hall to the kitchen. Cupboards and tall cabinets full of dusty dishes lined the walls, but no backdoor revealed itself. I stumbled through the rooms, searching more and more frantically as I found only peeling wallpaper or shelves of rotten books. I paced the perimeter of the kitchen, my ragged breathing deafening, the house shrinking around me. My flashlight beam hovered over the heavy door beneath the staircase. Presumably, it led to the cellar. The thought of descending into a darker, danker pit turned my stomach. But the need to get out twisted inside me, and I forced my feet forward.

As my fingers brushed the rusty handle, something shifted beneath my feet. From the bowels of the house, a low thud echoed through the floorboards, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck.

I strained to hear in the utter silence that followed, my heart pounding in my ears. With a thunderous crash, an unknown force slammed into the door, and I reeled back, my flashlight clattering to the floor. The door shuddered on its hinges under the violent beating, and an unearthly wailing floated through the decaying wood. I sprinted down the hall toward the front door. A shadow shifted at the foot of the stairs, and I slammed into it, tumbling into a heap.

Scrambling back, I stared at the tangle of limbs sticking out from under a pale summer dress. A mass of black hair, barely visible in the darkness, spread out on the floor, and a terrified young face set with wide eyes stared back at me. With a sob, she threw herself against me, clinging to my clothing.

“How long have you been here?” I asked, instinctively moving to comfort her.

Our collision had shaken me out of my panic, and the silence that had fallen since I crashed to the floor made me wonder if I had imagined the whole thing.

“I don’t…” Her sentence disintegrated into a teary mumble, and she buried her face in trembling hands.

I shrugged off my jacket and wrapped it around her shivering form, rubbing her arms to warm her.

“What’s your name?” I asked, more gently this time, seeing that she was in shock.

“Violet,” she murmured, her frigid hands clutched to her chest.

“Why are you here?”

“He locked me in the basement!” she sobbed. “I tried! I beat on the door, but he wouldn’t let me out. He came down to—” Tears overwhelmed her again. “I ran up the stairs and locked him in, but he’s going to get out!”

“Who?”

She violently shook her head, as if the fear of acknowledging her attacker was worse than the deed itself. The beam of my flashlight was splashing against the far wall of the kitchen. I pulled us both up, taking her clammy hand in mine.

“I’m going to get us out of here. Is there another door?”

I started toward the kitchen, but she yanked me back.

“No! He’ll find you!”

Her voice reverberated down the hallway, and something again slammed into the door, shaking the walls with renewed force. Flashlight abandoned, I tugged frantically at the front door. Splintering wood cracked behind us, and I grabbed Violet’s hand, dragging her up the stairs into the parlor where I had so foolishly fallen asleep only hours before. Heavy footsteps and a wordless garble echoed up the stairs behind us. I wedged the door shut with a chair, and our attacker slammed into it, shaking dust from the rafters.

“Get behind me,” I told Violet, herding her into the far corner.

The risen moon filled the room with a faint white light, and I snatched an antique poker from the hearth, gripping it in shaking hands. Each impact against the door sent adrenaline coursing through me, my heartbeat pounding in my mouth. A low sob floated through the door, swelling to an incomprehensible shrieking as the door shuddered on its hinges until the rotted wood gave way.

A hunched creature lurched inside, tripping over the broken chair and crashing to the floor. A hand, fingertips bloodied and dripping, reached for me, and crazed eyes peered out from under matted hair. It was inhuman. Monstrous. Animal. Violet whimpered behind me, and the creature’s gaze snapped to her. With a muted shriek, it hurled itself at me. I clenched my eyes and swung.

Impact shuddered up my arms. When I looked again, the creature had crumpled to the floor, and I beat at it wildly until the bloody fingers twitched and lay still.

The poker clattered to the floor as silence again fell over the house. I stumbled back, sagging against the wall and sliding to a seat. Tears of relief and fear blinded me as I gasped uselessly. As my panic gradually subsided, my awareness returning to me again, a soft singing filled the room. I wiped the haze from my eyes to see the girl kneeling over the body, swaying with the strange melody.

“Mur-der-er… Mur-der-er…” the raspy sing-song continued.

 “Violet?”

Her head swiveled toward me. Moonlight illuminated sunken eyes, black veins snaking across her skin. She grinned wolfishly, a pale tongue pinched between her teeth. Her hand dragged through the growing pool of blood as she crawled toward me on spider legs.

“Drip, drip, drip. Through the floors, through the boards. Down, down, down to the dark.”

I shrunk back against the wall, the breath frozen in my throat, a hot tear running down my cheek.

“Stop crying,” she hissed, her cold breath in my face stinking of death. “Fell and hit her head. Stupid girl. Always was a stupid girl, just like you.”

“Stop it!” I reached for her to shake her, to force this hallucination out and her humanity back in, but an iron grip, impossibly strong and cold as ice, closed around my wrist. White teeth bared against pale gums as she sneered at me.

“Dirty shoes. Slamming doors. Toys on the floor. Watch your mouth. Back to the darkness. Back to the darkness!”

The sing-song resumed, swelling to a shriek.

“Shut up!” she screamed, and her head jerked violently to the side.

She collapsed to the floor with a whimper. Behind her, pale moonlight washed over not a monster but a human face, bloodied and beaten almost beyond recognition. The nails of the bloodied hands had been torn away, torn from clawing at the wood of their dark prison. Terror took control, and I barreled past her, slipping in the blood and tumbling down the stairs as I ran. I yanked wildly at the door, but it stood silent and impassive against my pleading. When I turned, she was standing behind me, her dark hair hanging over her face, the bloody poker clenched in her fist.

“Please…” I whispered. “Please, don’t kill me.”

“Don’t make me,” she snarled. “Don’t make me hurt you! Don’t make me—” her body tremored violently, and the poker clattered to the floor. Her eyes lifted to me suddenly, wide and full of terror. “No more! I’ll be good, I promise! Please! Don’t make me—”

With a shriek, she ran down the hallway leaving bloody footprints in her wake and the basement door slammed. I pounded uselessly at the sealed door, screaming, my voice lost in the silence of the house.

June 23rd, 2006

The following was transcribed from an audio file discovered by the Tucumcari Highway Patrol on June 23rd, 2006.

Unknown Speaker, female (US):

It’s a long drive back, so I thought I’d get this down while it’s still fresh in my mind. Honestly, it was a huge waste of time. What is it with whackos and trailer parks?

[sighs]

Alright, I’ll try to keep this official for the archives. The date is, uh, June 16th, 2003. We received a call three days ago on the hotline about some unusual activity in New Mexico. The caller wouldn’t go into specifics, one of those “won’t talk on the phone, you never know who might be listening” types. So, I drove down from Chicago.

Turns out the town was a dustbowl: trailer park, convenience store with a fifty-year-old gas pump, and one stop sign which was apparently optional.

I met the caller at the address they left with the hotline… umm…

Papers rustle in the background

US:

It’s in my files somewhere. The caller was male, 5’6” maybe, about… Oh, I’m not good at descriptions. He was old and bald and completely out of his gourd. I mean, I’ve heard some crazy theories, everything from little green men to government conspiracies, but this was a new one even for me. I drove 1,200 miles to be told that Earth is being invaded by, wait for it, space wizards. That’s right, folks. You heard it here first. Wizards from space come down to recharge their cosmic mana.

[laughing]

I don’t know who this guy thought I was. He kept rattling off acronyms, some I’ve never even heard of: CIA, NSA, FBI, PTA, WTF. I tried to explain an organization funded by UFO fanatics and museums didn’t have that kind of pull, but he kept saying we had to alert NASA. He had this whole theory worked out that they’re here to siphon energy from our nuclear power. Blah, blah, blah, something about temporal inconsistencies, time jumps, metaphysical phenomena, blah, blah, blah.

[sighs]

There’s not enough tinfoil in the world. The data he pulled looked real though, so that’s worth checking out. Anomalies over Japan, Russia, and the lower United States. Don’t ask me where he got that information. Seriously… don’t ask me. Anyway, that’s worth looking into. Probably nothing more than…

The ambient sound of the vehicle softens, suggesting it slowed.

US:

Uh… I seem to have driven into the middle of some kind of historical re-enactment.

Cattle mooing can be faintly heard in the background.

US:

Wow. These people are really committed. That’s a lot of cows. They even have—

There’s a dull thud.

US:

Hey! What the hell?!

A window rolls down.

US:

You! Yeah, you! On the horse! I saw you throw that! You’re going to pay to get that dent fixed! Oh, what’re you going to do? That gun’s like two hundred years old.

Yelling can be heard faintly. There’s a loud bang that seems to be a gunshot.

US:

He shot at me! Oh my god, these people are insane! They’ve all got guns. They’re… I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Just get these cows out of my way! I’ll just go if you—

There’s more gunfire, the sound of a vehicle revving, and angry voices. It eventually fades into the background.

US:

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! [omitted expletives]. I’m reporting these people to the police.

He could’ve killed me! Stupid cowboys! There has to be a town nearby. I’m going to… [static] …when I… [static] …to…. [static] ….wait…. [static]

Is this thi— working? [static]

…what… [static] … can’t be… [static]

…help!… [static] …no!

The audio goes dead for several minutes.

US:

I, um… managed to get this working again. My car’s dead and I… I have no phone signal. I can’t…

[crying]

I think we’re under attack. There was a huge cloud to the… I think it was the west. Everything went dead. I couldn’t get the radio to work and… I tried to call the police. Anybody. But there’s no signal. The cloud was so huge… It…

[crying]

I’ve been walking. There’s nothing out here, and it’s dark now. There’s no way it’s nighttime, but I can’t see the sun. It’s just… it’s just dark. I don’t know what to do, and…

A low whining becomes audible and gradually grows louder.

US:

[whispering] There’s lights in the sky. Everywhere. Oh my god… They must be bringing more bombs. Who is doing this? I have to try to tell someone, but my signal is gone. I—

[static]

Those… those aren’t planes. It’s just light. So bright. It’s… I can’t see anything. Wait, something’s moving. I can’t quite…

A low voice speaks, gibberish.

US:

Is someone there?!

Gibberish. There seem to be multiple voices speaking.

US:

Who’s there?! I can see you moving!

Running footsteps and heavy breathing. The low voices grow louder, overlapping.

US:

[yelling] What are you?! What are you doing?! No, I—

A loud rumbling grows until the audio cuts out. Several hours of blank audio follow.

Neither the speaker or her car have been recovered. No missing person has been reported in Chicago or the surrounding area. No UFO investigatory organizations are missing personnel.

The phone was at 25% battery when it was discovered. It was connected to an unlisted number, and no record of purchase exists.

No record of historical re-enactments taking place within the area have been found, and no nuclear activity has been reported. There was a single report of lights in the sky observed by a Tucumcari mailman on November 13th, 2004.

An investigation is ongoing.

Hunger

A vast feast lay upon the table. Baskets and fine pottery laden with tender cuts of meat, succulent fruits, and rich pastries, all untouched, all long since cold. Around the table, a stone hall, pillars cold and bare reaching to a distant arched ceiling. A room as cold as the feast.

           From a distant door, a figure entered, bare feet silent under long robes. She set a pitcher of wine on the table and stood a moment, listening. The clamor of the city had faded behind her as she climbed the hill to the temple. The wind slid against the stone walls.

           “Hunger.”

           The word she spoke died in the silence.

           “We call you, Hunger.” She stretched out her hands to the table. “We summon you that you may be appeased.” Her arms lifted to the ceiling, beseeching the stone. “Come and be satisfied.”

           She bent her head and prayed, certain that what she called would never come.

           The evening bells chimed in the distant city. Her arms fell to her sides. The table sat unchanged, the rich food tempting her empty stomach. In the morning, it would be tossed away and the feast re-laid.

           She turned back to the distant door, padding across the cold floor, but a faint whisper stopped her. A figure sat in shadow at the far corner of the table, a bent torso hunched between long, bony knees.

           “You cannot be here,” she said, stepping forward. “Leave. Now.”

           The hanging head turned. A yellow eye stared up at her. “Did you not call me?” a thin voice rasped.

           With quick steps, she returned to the table. “Only those of the temple may enter. Leave.”

           The figure rose, bent and twisted, impossibly tall, impossibly thin. It flexed gaunt hands, watching them curiously. “Why have you called me here?”

           “I… I did not call you,” she whispered.

           The yellow eyes turned back to her. “You spoke my name, and I answered,” it said with pointed teeth.

           Hunger stood before her, immense and wasted. In fear, she sank to her knees. “Eat,” she said timidly, extending her hands to the table. “This is what we have set for you.”

           A skeletal hand touched one of the bowls. Meat fell like dust from the bone. The apples shriveled to their cores. Hunger plucked one up before tossing it disdainfully away. The bony head lifted, listening. “I hear the cries of my followers in the streets, in the forgotten houses.”

           “But you cannot!” she cried. “We gave from our tables to appease you.”

           It stared at her with sunken eyes, and her stomach twisted, empty. Bones rattled against the stone floor as it walked past her. The shadow it cast was immense, blotting out the table.

           Like a wraith, the figure passed from the temple and down the hill to the quiet city. In the silent temple, the food had rotted, and the smell of vinegar wafted from the pitchers of wine.

Sparks

                Two fish swimming circles, an endless dance around the tank. One red, one yellow, darting sparks in a watery sky. A single plastic stalk waved lazily. Bubbles shuddered to the surface, breaking with a soft gasp, and the infinite spiral continued.

                Put a finger to the glass, and they swam faster. Never touching the walls that contained them, always surrendering to its shape. If placed in the openness of the sea, would they know? Or would they only swim and swim, unseeing, looking for invisible borders?

                A delicate layer between them and the vacuum, destruction. Inside, a haven, but so fragile. And they swam as if it were their only purpose. Swam with nowhere to go. Swam to swim, leaving no ripples behind.

                Until they stopped. Until they turned inward, vanished. Became nothing.

                The plastic plant waved alone. Bubbles trembled through empty water. Green fuzz dimmed the glass. In the blackness of night, a pair of stars, red and yellow, streaked across the sky.


Photo Credit: Image by 성혁 이 from Pixabay 

Unintended Consequences

                I took my morning coffee to the balcony and looked out over the swaying trees as I sat and sipped. Living in the forest was as pleasant as I had always thought it would be. Peaceful. Calming. Once you got past the fact that just last week my apartment had been in the center of an urban tangle of cement and metal.

                A shiver ran through the red leaves. It wasn’t autumn. They were just angry. A lamppost on the street corner sparked and collapsed with a creak of rending metal.

                The best and the brightest had put their heads together, deciding that what we needed in the age of deforestation and ozone-shrinkage was the fastest-growing, strongest, tallest, most oxygen-rich tree ever, and they were going to make it. They’d succeeded.

               Sentience had been an unintended side effect.

                It had been on the news as the greatest discovery of our generation. And then there hadn’t been any news.

               The rain forests were gone. Only bare dirt and a few fallen branches and confused jaguars remained. It wasn’t our doing this time. They’d come north to return the favor.

               I’m sure it was horrifying to wake in a world ruled by fleshy predators who stacked up the skeletal remains of your kin to live and park their fume-spitting metal carriages inside, carrying bits of your skin around inside their pockets and bags and burning your remains for fun on a cool summer evening.

                The ground was a writhing mass of shattered concrete, dark earth, and twitching roots. If you were fool enough to go outside, and there wasn’t much inside left to speak of, it wasn’t long before the ground swallowed you up and the new, hungry trees turned you into a human juice box.

                Still, of all the ways to go, in the peace and quiet of nature, enveloped into the welcoming, dark softness of the earth, wasn’t the worst. The roar of the city had stilled. Birds flitted in the leaves, bursting out in laughing flocks as the trees irritably shook their heads. A soft breeze floated by carrying the scent of fresh blossoms.

                The foundation of my building creaked. A long crack lanced up the wall next to me. I took another sip of my coffee. It wouldn’t be long now.

PUBLISHED: Toward Light

My short story “Toward Light” was recently published in the inaugural issue of DreamForge Anvil by DreamForge Magazine.

For something to thrive, something else must be consumed. Or is it possible to circumvent the cycle wherein the energy to sustain life is taken from a living thing? What would such a world be like?

~ DreamForge Anvil introduction to “Toward Light”

Read the story by clicking here.

Access the entire issue by clicking here. You’ll find some wonderful fiction stories and articles about writing and story craft.


Photo Credit: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay