Kierk

                It was well after first moonset when Kierk hauled himself onto the craggy plateau and looked down at the sleeping city. Borysi III was small. The smallest place in the multiverse, Kierk thought, and the more he’d grown, the smaller it had gotten. Now, from above, it looked like a metal pock on the face of the landscape.

                A few hours earlier, he had woken in a cold sweat after dreaming that the constricting walls had closed in and sealed him up like a can of Garvian Mash. Most nights he would’ve sighed mournfully into the dark, rolled over, and gone back to sleep. But not tonight.

                Kierk got up and snuck out, past the mineral grinders and prism bays, to the base of the Borysinnian walls. He shuffled his heels back against the cold metal, looked down at his feet, took a step, and started counting. Other Borysinnians were milling around. The night shift. Kierk ignored them. He had as much distaste for the people as the place. Every year their brains seemed to shrink until he wasn’t sure anything filled their curly-horned heads.

                Borysi III was known for its prism shaping. Each of the bays Kierk passed, counting softly as he went, were mounted with several carefully sculpted prisms, mined from beneath the city. When powered by lunar light, they sent whatever was inside the bay hurtling through the cosmos to the destination indicated by their alignment.

                (This might sound like magic. It’s not. It’s highly scientific and explained in great detail in Regival’s Prismatic Potency in Relation to Cosmic Disruption and Traversion. Magic is just science that isn’t understood yet, and any Borysinnian who heard mention of the arcane would think the speaker had been snorting too much prism dust.)

                Cans of mash and metal crates packed with raw crystals were stacked up and dropped through the infinity of space to the strange locales across the multiverse that needed such things. Borysi III was a hub of comings and goings. But they hadn’t yet solved the problem of space being very cold. Whatever was sent arrived frozen solid, and if handled improperly, crumbled into dust.

                If Kierk’s dream did come true, at least he would be zapped off to an unknown destination, pried open there, and have one last, grand adventure sliding down some foreign gullet. But it was just a dream. Flesh and fluids couldn’t travel the way of the Garvian Mash.

                When Kierk reached the opposite wall, he sighed and sagged. Every planetary cycle he paced the diameter of the city to measure it, and as he suspected, every year it had shrunk.

                If his brain was as remarkable as he fancied, he would’ve realized this was because every year his legs and feet had grown. However, it could be argued that the place did get relatively smaller since he took up more of it. Either way, the number he had totaled left him discontent.

                An idea was forming in his pubescent brain, and on that night, under the light of the first moon, he found the angst to execute it.

                He left Borysi III with a filtration mask anchored to his horns and climbed the surrounding rugged cliffs. When he reached the top, the second moon had risen and the third glowed on the horizon. The prisms in the pack on his back clanked as he adjusted the straps. He intended to open a portal to the Forbidden Zone, and then… well, he hadn’t thought that far ahead. But forbidden with a capital F was a tempting thing indeed.

                Kierk crossed the plateau and crept into a small, dark cave. He drew a circle in the dust on the stone floor and set prisms at each focal point. Without the stability of a prism bay, he could only hope for a shaky and temporary portal, but it would be enough to peek through.

                The light of the third moon crept across the floor, licking at the edges of the farthest prism. Kierk rearranged, realigned, reconfigured until a web of light stretched between the prisms and they shook and danced in their places around the circle.

                The lunar light glowed, refracted a thousand times onto and into and through itself. Then it flashed and disappeared.

                Kierk peered into the circle. It was dark. The third moon had moved on, and only by squinting could he see that the circle was slightly darker than the darkness around it.

                In actuality, it couldn’t be dark because it was nothing. Not the nothingness people refer to when they mean the absence of something, but true nothingness. The absence of everything.

                The night was still and silent, and so was the puddle of nothing. Then a shift and a slight change in color. The nothingness had become something. Something big trying to crawl through. A mammoth foot appeared first, anchoring claws in the rock. Then the tips of two tufted ears. When the head squeezed through, Kierk thought there was no way the rest of it could follow, but it kept wriggling and writhing and twisting until another foot and a long furry body and two more feet and finally a long tail slid through.

                The prisms scattered, and the portal snapped shut.

                The creature that had crawled out of nothingness shook itself, raining Kierk with ice crystals. It stretched its back and yawned, razor claws arching out of its paws. Then it sat up and curled its tail around its feet. But the cave was shorter than it was, so it had to hunch under the stone ceiling and its head slid down between its massive shoulders.

                Unblinking yellow eyes stared at Kierk, who was standing welded to the floor.

                The creature’s appearance had startled him. Until that moment, a living thing passing through a prism portal had seemed an impossibility. He probably should’ve run away screaming. He didn’t. Anything might happen when dabbling with the Forbidden, and the cocktail of hormones in his brain granted him a certain crazed immunity to common sense.

                “Salutations,” he said nervously, quieter than he intended.

                The creature stared, one ear twitching as it brushed the rock ceiling. Its pupils dilated until the yellow eyes turned jet black.

                “What are you, if you don’t mind?” Kierk asked, unsure the thing could talk and wondering if he was making a fool of himself.

                “I am existence,” the creature said promptly. “The universe. The cosmos. The whole of life embodied, contained, turned in upon itself. Where it is made whole and nothing. Complete and separate. Possible and impossible. Yes and no.”

                “Oh,” Kierk said.

                “I suppose I’m here now,” the creature said. “So, if there’s something you want, hurry up and say it. Infinity passes one moment at a time.”

                “I’d like to leave this place,” Kierk said cheerfully. “I’d like to go somewhere else.”

                “Where?”

                “Somewhere… else.” Kierk faltered.

                “I suggest specificity,” the creature said. “I believe you organic organisms require certain conditions to survive.”

                Kierk considered this. His knowledge of other places was limited. They were there, somewhere, and he wasn’t. “Well, where did you come from?”

                “The void,” the creature said, casually flexing a paw.

                “Oh. Is it nice there?”

                The yellow eyes pinned him. “It’s a void. It’s nothing.”

                “Oh.”

                The creature sighed. Apparently, existence was impatient. “What if I showed you the universe and you selected a place? Can you do that?” It looked as if it wasn’t sure he could, but Kierk nodded eagerly.

                The creature lay so that Kierk stood between its massive front paws and opened its mouth. There were no teeth or tongues or throat, just a warm breeze from a dark, empty cave. Something flickered deep within. A light. A flare. The expansion of nothingness into everything. Nova imploding and exploding. Stars flaming and dying. The crash of cosmic waves against strange, ethereal shores. Planets of every shape and size wheeling through the endless dance. Some clamoring with life; others wastelands of dust and raging storms. Life surging to its peak and falling into decay.

                A tear ran down Kierk’s cheek. His eyes stung, but he couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away from the horror and beauty. The creature’s mouth stretched into a cavernous yawn, then shut.

                “See anything you like?”

                But Kierk was already scribbling scrambling down the rocky mountainside. He only stopped when he’d pounded back inside the metal walls and leaned his hands on his knees to catch his breath.

                He had seen only glimpses of other worlds through the holes the prisms made. In his mind, the whole of the multiverse couldn’t be that much bigger than Borysi III. Maybe a little, but not by much. He bent over and panted and thought about throwing up. It was a rude shock to go from being a relatively large person in a relatively small space to a tiny, insignificant speck.

                He straightened up and patted the stiff metal wall next to him. At third moonrise, Kierk would’ve said those unforgiving boundaries kept him in. As the third moon set and he crawled back into bed, he knew they were keeping the rest of the world out.

                Borysi III eventually solved the cold problem. But when given the chance to leave his metal cocoon, Kierk stubbornly shook his head and said he was fine where he was. The bigger his world became, the smaller it made him. So, he kept his world small. He never saw the magenta shores of Rysian IV shining with the spume of green waves or the endless torfa fields of Yyrian II. He never knew the thrill and terror of stepping from one world to another and glimpsing infinity in between. He lived hemmed in by walls, walls he wouldn’t look past for fear of seeing two black eyes of nothingness staring back at him.

                He did become the finest prism shaper in Borysi III, so that’s something… I guess.

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.”

Purpose

                The meaning of life woke one day and remembered her name.

                She stretched and yawned and realized they had probably been looking for her. Like a heralding angel, she prepared to announce her name.

                She began in the hub of civilization: a place called Value-Mart with red sale tags and whole roast chickens and broccoli for 79 cents. The world congregated here, filtering in and out of the glass doors.

                An elderly woman was examining the shelves, a basket at her side. The meaning of life approached her and extended a hand. “Greetings. My name is—”

                “Do you have this in a smaller size?” the elderly woman asked, poking a 25 lb. bag of rolled oats.

                “I…” The meaning of life looked between her and the oats. “I couldn’t say. That is not my purpose.”

                “Oh, I’m sorry,” the elderly woman said, finally looking at her. “I thought you worked here.”

                “I don’t, but I would like to help you.”

                “That’s alright, dear. Thanks all the same.” She picked up her basket. “I’m not in a hurry.”

                No one else showed any more interest than the old woman had. They hurried by, laughing, arguing, pushing carts, quieting babies, in a hurry, taking their time, moving from an unknown origin to an unknown destination.

                She fled the whirling chaos of the Value-Mart to the world outside.

                Two teenagers were walking down the sidewalk, laughing and bumping shoulders. She planted herself in their path. “You must learn my name if you wish to find satisfaction.” 

                They stopped to stare at her, eyes wide but mouths shut.

                “Do you not crave a purpose?” she asked, throwing her hands up.

                They exchanged an uneasy glance before one nudged the other, and they cut across the grass to the parking lot of the Value-Mart.

                She found shelter on a bench by the street. The world grew dark and rainy. Streetlights and headlights glimmered around her. A bus lumbered to the curb and stopped with a grumble and a hiss. The door rattled open.

                They had forgotten her; they had forgotten to search for her. When they looked in her face, they saw a stranger.

                “Do you need help?”

                A man stood framed against the yellow light of the bus’s interior.

                “I should be helping you,” she said.

                He looked up the street, then down. It was empty. “Come on,” he said, moving aside to make room on the stairs. “Get out of the rain.”

                She sat in the row of seats behind the driver, watching the world flicker by through the rain-streaked window. “Do you feel fulfilled?” she asked.

                He laughed in response. The bus squealed and complained as it slowed for a red light.

                “I no longer have a purpose, it seems,” she said.

                “Do you need one?”

                She considered this. Without a purpose, she was useless, or perhaps things were only useless if they had a purpose they weren’t fulfilling. But she couldn’t be useless if she didn’t have a purpose to not fulfill, could she? Her head was starting to hurt.

                “I paint on the weekends,” the driver said. “Nothing great, but I enjoy it. Maybe you need something like that.” He glanced up into the large mirror mounted on the ceiling. “What’s your name?”

                She was silent for a moment. “What do you think it is?”

                He peered at her reflection. “Well, you look like a Sarah to me.”

                Sarah. She smiled to herself. That was close enough.

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.

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