Back in October 2017, I started writing one short story a week, 1000 words a week, and posting them in 200-word segments a day. I’ve been pretty bad about crossposting them from my tumblr, which is where they will continue to be posted daily, but I am resolved in 2018 and onward to be better about crossposting the whole things once a month. If you enjoyed any of these, please feel free to leave a comment! If you’d like to support me (for which I would be incredibly grateful), I have a Ko-Fi account.
But either way, I hope you enjoy!
Sometimes, ambition comes from spite.
The work in the dream factory was slow and steady. Tessa sat with her head bowed and her shoulders hunched, listening to the voices of the women around her. She did not contribute anything of her own: it soothed her just to hear the snippets of their gossip and other observations. From the corner of one eye, she could watch how her benchmates worked, how their clever worn fingers twisting together the fine soft strands of colored essences into shimmering thread. Most of these women were twice her age, if not thrice; the motions came to them with instinctual ease.
By comparison, Tessa’s work suffered. Her threads did not have the same prismatic radiance and dragged roughly on the skin. More than once Tessa ended her shift with bleeding fingers and frustrated tears prickling in her eyes.
More than once, she’d considered throwing her skein down and leaving, to let the cold gray void outside swallow her. None of her benchmates spoke to her about her frustrations, but sometimes Tessa felt their eyes on her. Their judgment weighed her stooped shoulders further and pulled her heart harder.
Someday, surely, she’d make a dream thread to put them all to shame.
“You need to be more gentle.”
At first, Tessa ignored the comment; it took a few seconds before she realized it had been directed at her. Her head snapped up, and she found her left neighbor (a stoop shouldered woman with blunt fingers so thickly callused they looked white against her dark skin) looking at her. It was the first time any of her benchmates had spoken to her. The others around them continued their work, murmuring quietly to one another as they did.
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“You’re pulling too roughly,” her neighbor said. She reached over and curled her hands around Tessa’s, curling them. Despite the knotted roughness of her fingertips, her palms felt incredibly soft. “If you are gentle, the thread will also be gentle.”
Tessa stared at the disparate essence strands curled around her fingers. She bit the inside of her cheek until it ached.
“I’m doing my best,” she said. She did not look at her neighbor. “Sorry it’s not good enough.”
“It’s good,” her neighbor said.
“I’m trying, okay, I never– what?”
“It’s good,” her neighbor said again. “You’re young. You’re learning. It will get better. But even now, it’s good. Just remember that.”
After that first day, Tessa’s neighbor never spoke to her again.
In all honesty she felt relieved. Once upon a time, surely, she’d been more willing and able to talk to others. If she thought long and hard, she could remember such a time. In the life she’d had before coming to the factory, things had been very different. Sometimes she missed it; other times, she could only be glad.
She took the advice her neighbor gave her and tried to gentle her touch on the essence strands that she drew up from the pool. And she failed just enough times to grow irritated, but just as she thought of simply grabbing a whole fist and squeezing the disparate threads together, the understanding clicked. The lines twirled together with a graceful ease, and the thread that pulled between Tessa’s fingers shimmered with a radiance she’d never before managed. As she stared, tears stung at her eyes.
This had to be a sign, right?
The next one struggled, and the next, but the third worked more smoothly, and Tessa thought: surely I can do this. It’s not so hard. I can do better.
Not just good, she told herself, but great.
Over time, the dreams that Tessa made… changed.
The transformation happened gradually, so much so that she did not notice it until some time later, and not of her own accord.
Her realization came one late evening, as she twisted the strands together between her fingers. Looking at her work filled her with a new pride. The threads felt so soft! And warm! they were flexible and strong, but no matter how hard she pulled, they did not cut into her fingers.
As she worked, though, she heard her neighbor (on the right this time, a woman who looked to be about Tessa’s age or even younger, though she’d been in the factory for longer than Tessa herself) scoff: a brief, rough cough of sound. It sounded offended. Tessa’s head snapped up to look, but her neighbor did not meet her eyes. Her lip curled, though, and she did occasionally glance sidelong at Tessa’s thread, her expression heavy with distaste.
She nearly said something. The desire burned on her tongue and stuck in her throat, sharp and hard to swallow. But she looked at her thread first, and froze.
Rather than rainbow, her thread glowed a single shade of gold.
At first she wanted to scream.
The impulse to fling her thread away and storm off into the swallowing void rose up, stronger than it had been in so long. Tessa stared at the thread in her fingers, and then at the pile accumulated in her finished pile.
All of it glimmered gold.
Her right neighbor snorted again. It had to be deliberate unkindness, but Tessa hardly cared. Dreams couldn’t be single note; they had to hold the potential for everything in the whole world to occur within them.
But as she stared, a new thought occurred to her. It started as a tangled bud of possibility, but as she lingered, it began to unfurl and grow.
Tessa wrapped her most recently completed work around the fingers one one hand, and grabbed another skein with the other. Rather than work on a new thread, she fixed her attention on what lay at hand, her clever fingers flying until she had braided herself a sturdy rope from her work.
She rose, drawing the attention of all her benchmates, and threw the rope up. It snagged on something unseen high above.
Without looking back, Tessa climbed up, out, and onto something else.
It’s nothing more than a seasonal thing, right?
The symptoms start small, just like most things do.
A flash of weakness in the fingers; a jolt of pain along the bottom curve of the ribcage; a tightness in the throat that comes without any pain. For some, mottling comes into the eyes early, before anything else manifests; for others, it doesn’t appear until the end. In all cases, the patient does not know they are suffering until, abruptly, they do.
Redness of the joints, including the knuckles; a sudden onset of confusion in everyday familiar tasks; a tendency to simply begin to walk, as if with purpose, though unsure of where one means to go.
Do not worry, the health officials soothe. Take the proper precautions as one would against the flu or cold or any other thousands of little bugs in a winter season, and things will be fine. Some more sensationalist headlines roar urgently about new findings, strange outbreaks, and contradicting information, but for the most part, everything is fine. It’s just another seasonal bug.
It will get better.
Or so it’s hoped, because the end result for the patients is not death, or disability. They do not suffer for their long illness.
They simply… vanish.
Carina’s brother Sergio was one of the first victims of the Vanishing, back when they were considered patients and not victims. The mottling in his eyes had been so bad that the day it first appeared, their mother took one look at him and screamed before fainting. When she’d recovered, they’d rushed him to the doctor as she wept hysterically and both Carina and Sergio spent more time trying to calm their mother than being able to speak to the doctor.
Ultimately the doctor concluded that it was perhaps just a burst vein, and so while quite dramatic in appearance, harmless to Sergio’s health. Their mother continued to weep and plead, and she shoved Sergio’s arms away when he tried to lead her, so in the end Carina had to guide her to the car.
And in the few seconds before Sergio caught up with them, their mother caught Carina’s arm and said, “The Devil, he has found your brother. We must be careful, or he will be swept away.”
“He will not, Mama,” Carina said, and then Sergio arrived. Carina drove them home, and a part of her felt she should tell her brother those words.
She did not.
When Sergio vanished the household fell into chaos.
Carina woke to her mother screaming as if the world had crumbled to dust around her. Perhaps in a way, it had. She had always carried a particular love for Sergio, deeper and closer than what she had with Carina.
As a child Carina had resented; as an adult, she accepted, though with some annoyed resignation. She too loved her brother; she could not blame her mother for preferring him. Sergio was handsome and bright, with an easy smile and easier laugh; he could make friends effortlessly anywhere he went.
His illness had weighed heavily upon their household. In the final days, he’d withered to a silent, nervous husk of a man, always staring longingly out the window at something he refused to explain. One night, he came downstairs to find Carina still awake, watching TV, and he’d clutched her hands and wept.
“You must let me go,” he said. “You must. I know Mama will be upset, but please. Please understand.”
She sent him back upstairs with some warm milk. He wept as he went, but did not protest her dismissal.
Now it was a week later, and Sergio was gone.
Others also began to vanish in time.
Their names appeared and disappeared from the newspaper headlines in irregular beats. At first each one generated a lot of anxious talk and speculation, but as time progressed, people simply accepted the news of a new disappearance with aplomb. Wherever these people had gone, whatever they might be doing now, they did not send any word back to their families. The possibility of kidnapping came now and then, but those were all quickly dismissed. Nothing except the symptoms tied these people together, and in the end it could only link them very loosely.
Carina’s mother died with Sergio’s name on her lips, pale and shaking in her hospital bed. She clutched Carina’s hand and wailed for the son that would not come, would never come, and even as the heart monitor flattened to its long shrill hum, Carina held on until the nurses shooed her away.
Left in the wide white hallways of the hospital, Carina tipped her head back and closed her eyes. Soon a doctor would approach her; soon she would need to call her mother’s lawyer.
There was so much she had to do, and she was so very tired.
As suddenly as the illnesses began, they stopped.
The last victim reported was a girl named Amber. Her photograph in the newspaper showed a pretty child with pigtails, round cheeks and a gap in her smile. She was a bright girl, the article said, a friendly girl, and one who left a whole community mourning her in her absence.
Carina clipped that article gently from the newspaper, as she had every disappearance after Sergio’s. She wrote the date in her neat thin handwriting, and she pinned it up.
It was Sergio’s birthday, the day Amber was reported missing. He would have been fifty.
As was Carina’s tradition, she baked the macaroni that he loved and she ate it for both lunch and dinner, listening to the gentle creaking of the house around her.
In her mind, she let herself imagine if she had let Sergio go that day. What if she’d stepped aside, but then she’d followed him? Where would his feet have led them? Would he still have gone somewhere beyond her reach, too distant for her to follow?
Or would she be with him even now, happy by his side?
She rose and gathered her dishes to wash.
There’s something wrong about this place.
“We’ll either get out or go down together.”
Thomas whispered the oath in ragged tones, in between gasps for breath. His body ached with an intensity that sank all the way down to his bones.
Or perhaps even deeper than that: maybe it ran straight down to his soul, with delicately hooked claws to hold fast. He could not precisely tell. After a certain point, many things blended together.
Miranda did not immediately answer. In the dim gray light filtering through the slats she looked like a stone statue, sleek smooth lines and a complete, confounding stillness. She kept her head turned away for long seconds, and when she turned back to him, her eyes looked dull and dark.
But she still stretched an arm out, slowly, to find his hand with hers. The cool touch of her fingers soothed him like water in the desert. When they touched, he swore he could feel the actual pain of his gut recede, as if sealed by some gentle balm. He tried to convey this in his smile. If possible, he wanted her to know, even if the words never quite fit in his mouth.
“We’ll die here,” Miranda said in a whisper.
The whole thing had been a mistake from the beginning. Thomas had not liked the look of the man who hired them, with his stooped shoulders and his wide eyes, his pale skin and his soft round fingers. He’d had a habit of not looking either of them in the eye when he spoke. He sweat profusely even in the cold.
But he was rich, and while he’d never made eye contact, he also never looked at the plunging neckline of Miranda’s dress, or the strip of thigh and hip exposed by the slit in her skirt. So in spite of their shared misgivings, Thomas and Miranda took his request.
There is a small town at the end of a particular road. Once a year, the native dead return to wander the streets, no matter where in the world they were buried. My business partner was such a man, but he died holding secrets. I’d like very much to know where his will is kept. His widow and daughter, as well. They have asked me for assistance, and now I’ve come to you. Please, before it’s too late.
But it had been too late a long, long time ago.
All the days in the small town blended together. The sun never rose nor set: it simply appeared and disappeared, turning the sky from dark gray to pale, and then back again. By the time they thought to try keeping track, they could not be certain how many days it had been. Thomas’s rosary had blackened and cracked on the third repetition; Miranda’s cycle had not started by the fifth. All the citizens and buildings of the town looked washed out and pale. Even the emerald green of Miranda’s skirt, the brightest splash of color, began to fade before long.
“The whole town is dead,” Miranda said, on one unnumbered day. “It just never realized. So it keeps trying to continue as normal.”
Thomas, who had not yet been injured by this point, turned to look at her. The light curved on her cheeks. It looked like tears.
“Most likely, yes,” he said. “But I have no idea what could have caused it. Or what’s keeping us here. We’re not dead.”
Thinking back on that now, Thomas wondered if that had been the first turning point, or if Miranda had made up her mind before then.
“No, we’re not. Yet.”
“What do you think he wanted?” Thomas whispered. His voice wheezed in his lungs. His lips cracked with the movement. Even though he’d slept for hours, exhaustion still dragged at him. “That man, the one who asked us to come here.”
“Who knows?” Miranda said. “Maybe he was a curiosity seeker. Maybe he had a bet. Maybe one of our enemies hired him.”
Thomas closed his eyes. Dim, strange shapes moved on his lids. “That’s an awful lot of trouble to go through. Who hates us that much?”
Miranda’s hand touched his forehead, cool and soft, again sweeping away the cobwebs of his pain. He peered through his lashes at her. She did not smile, but her expression had a softness to it that he hadn’t seen in quite some time. It gave him a brief flare of hope. That, too, brought some lightness to his suffering.
“I don’t know,” she murmured. Her hand moved, stroking the hair from his eyes. “Perhaps we were just the wrong people at the wrong time.”
He caught her wrist and pulled it down so he could kiss her fingers. His gut ached with the effort.
“Then, I’m glad to be wrong with you.”
Later, when asked, Thomas only said: We made it out all right.
He never gave more details than that. He could never find the right words, and unlike his feelings for Miranda, he did not regret that.
What he remembered went like this:
Some time after the knife wound that should have killed him, Thomas dreamed of darkness. In the distance he could hear wailing, screams that rose up higher and louder and more terrible than anything else, but he could not see anything, until he found Miranda.
She stood in a circle of light, in her bright green skirt, cutting into her chest. Thomas cried out, but she either didn’t hear him or didn’t care, and even as he ran forward she cut a hole into her chest, so that all the darkness came rushing into her.
Surely it should have made her burst, but somehow her body contained it all. And as the darkness entered her, it drained from their surroundings, until all that was left around them was the skeleton of a town, dilapidated and falling apart. It stood empty and quiet.
Miranda turned to him and said, “Let’s go home together.”
Her eyes were solid black.
With some inspiration from “Sister’s Mercy,” the HitoYama Vocaloid song. Belief is a many-splendored thing.
“So long as you truly believe, your wishes will come true.”
That was what the lady said to the people who passed her by. She stood on a corner, holidng out flyers to anyone who passed. Even when ignored or brushed aside, her gentle smile never faltered. In her shining white dress, with her soft golden hair and her wide blue eyes, she looked like an angel to Jeff. No grime nor dirt seemed to touch her.
When he approached, hesitant and creeping, she turned to him and cocked her head. The birdlike gesture made his heart flutter. Her smile remained glorious as she held out a flyer to him.
“Are you a believer?” she asked.
Jeff didn’t even look at the flyer. His throat tightened like a vise even as his face burned. He nodded.
“Oh, wonderful!” Her eyes lit up, and if he’d thought her brilliant before, now she seemed to glow like a star. His eyes tracked to her shoulders, where he kept expecting to see wings unfurl… but his attention was yanked back to her face when she touched his hand.
“Then please, come to service tonight,” she said. “I promise, it will change your life.”
He almost said no.
The flyer given to him by the lady (Sister Anne, as she introduced herself) was more pictures than words, to his relief. On it, a woman stood before a building with her arms outstretched, and though the art was relatively crude, bordering on unremarkable, the smile on her face looked so much like the one on Sister Anne’s when she’d invited him to service. Jeff found he couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds at a time before his face grew warm and his chest tightened.
Still, service? A church? The idea seemed laughable.
But before he could actually say no, he’d looked up at Sister Anne’s face and the desire to resist melted away. She looked so happy! Her hand felt so soft! And when they stood this close, he could smell her perfume, faint and sweetly floral.
And then, “All right,” he said.
“Thank you!” Sister Anne said. She squeezed his hand and the last of Jeff’s misgivings faded away. What harm could attending a single night do? A single night didn’t mean commitment. And if it made her this happy…
“I’ll see you there,” she said. “Please don’t be late.”
When Jeff arrived at the building, he wondered if he’d come to the wrong address. While it looked similar to the drawing on the flyer, it also looked ramshackle, with the door sagging on its hinges and one window boarded up. He could see broken glass peeking over the edges of the wood. Weeds choked the strip of the front lawn, and the walkway was cracked and deeply pockmarked. He couldn’t imagine a woman like Sister Anne setting foot in a place like this, never mind working here.
As he hesitated, the front door swung open. When he looked up, Sister Anne stood in the doorway, haloed by a bright light behind her. Once again, he couldn’t look at her face for very long before he had to turn away, too dazzled to maintain eye contact.
“You came!” she cried. From the corner of his eye, he saw her clap her hands. The gesture should have been childish, but it only made his heart beat faster. The pleasure in her voice propelled him forward, one awkward step at a time.
The steps up to the door groaned under his weight, but Sister Anne grasped his hands and pulled him inside.
At first Jeff could only blink hard against the bright lights. He brought his free hand up to try and shield his vision, but Sister Anne caught his hand there too and pulled. Her delicate hands kept a strong grip on his wrists, and she pulled him without any apparent effort.
“Come on,” she said. “Everyone’s waiting. We’re so excited! It’s been so long since we’ve had someone new come to our services.”
He squinted at her, stumbling along in her wake.
“I’m only here for tonight,” he said. “I can’t do this every night. Or often. I’m not–”
“Shhh,” said Sister Anne. “Everything will be fine. Now that you’ve begun to open your heart, I know you’ll come to understand more and more of the wonderful world that is waiting for you. I’m so, so glad that you’ve seen the light.”
“I’m not going to come every night,” Jeff said again. He tried to be louder, but it came out as an embarrassed mumble instead. His defiance made him feel like a child in the face of her reasonable soft voice. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I never meant–”
“Shh,” said Sister Anne again. A door creaked. “You’re saved now.”
“So long as you truly believe, your wishes will come true.”
That was what the man said to the people who passed him by. He stood on a corner, holidng out flyers to anyone who passed. Even when ignored or brushed aside, his gentle smile never faltered.
“We live in a world that is unfortunately drowned in darkness,” he said. “The darkness of sin, the darkness of selfishness. It’s so easy to get caught up and swept away in the flood of those desires. And once you’ve drowned, there’s no pulling yourself out again. It’s a terrible fate.
“You don’t realize, you don’t know, how terrible it is to be drowned in the dark. It’s a terrible thing. It drags at our heels, it tempts us to unspeakable things, and though we know that we should resist, we cannot! We are weak and fragile.
“But fear not! There is a way out. All you need to do is grasp the hand of the light, and believe. So long as you believe. So long as your heart truly accepts, and you are willing to grasp that hand! You can be pulled from the mire!
“Believe, and your wishes will come true!”