there is a place behind the house
where the trees grow close together and their branches twist like clasping arms
(if you listen to the wind you can hear voices for real, not just the pretend ones that mimic talking)
(they tell each other stories and they sing songs together and you can’t understand the words, but they make your throat hurt just to hear)
if you go there when the moon is full — never mind how mother scolds or father forbids — you will see something grand
if you are brave enough, if you are clever enough, if you walk barefoot through the brambles and the grass under the full moon, you will see ladies dancing
they are all beautiful
of course they are beautiful, but there is something more to it than that, if you are willing to look
(not many people are; most people end up quiet and afraid instead)
they are all tall, and some are lean and some are not, but they are all graceful as they move together, her arm in hers and in hers but also in hers
there are twigs in their hair, which is long and soft, like the gossamer of spiderwebs
if you are quiet you can watch them dance for hours
if they hear you, though …
you might be bold and you must be clever, for they are an old race and it has been many years since they have had a child of their own
(for you and i are children to them; even our grandparents are children, in their eyes)
they are hungry mothers; they are empty-armed and savage-eyed; they are wailing in the wind for what they cannot have
if they hear you, if they see you, then they will chase you
and you must run
(do not think to stay, for if you do and if they catch you, you will no longer be yourself)
you must run without looking back, for to do that is to pause, and to pause is to court capture
their arms are long and their fingers are thin; they are good for grasping and for pinching and digging in deep
run through the brambles and do not let them stop you; do not let the pain slow you down
(they are coming, they are singing, they are howling their names to the wind)
if you make it back — if you cross the threshold made of the wood of their sisters, they will stop
they will stop but their voices will still call to you, hungry and wanting, all through the cracks in the walls; their fingers will dig in deep and they will croon that they have a name for you, something new, something grand, if only you would step forward and take it
(do not step forward to take it)
for the whole of the night they will try to court you, you who are a child to them; you who are an infant in the eyes of something old and strange in the world — they will cry and they will call
do not look through your windows, do not look at their faces; do not be seduced by their dancing
in the morning they will go back to the forest, where it is quiet and dark
and where the trees lace their branches together like arms in an embrace
they will go back, and you must never go there again; carry bread and salt and silver in your pocket and pray that when night falls again and for all the rest of your years, no matter how far and wide you travel, you will be beyond a threshold, out of the reach of the hungry dark
they will remember you
they are waiting
there is a place behind the house
In a world that is dark and quiet and built only of two people (you and me), let us bring a single spark.
Let us take the knives of our words and our experiences, the trappings of our lives that have brought us on separate journeys to this shared point. Let us find the places where things are soft and stretched and open, so that the cut can be clean and easy and maybe (maybe) painless at first.
In time it will hurt. In time there will be rough edges, the sharpness of infection that spreads and stretches its spiderweb fingers until it touches the horizon and the wide spreading sky. Let us gather that up in our hands until they are overflowing, until we are so full that we cannot conceive of more, and yet it comes and it comes and it will not stop coming.
Let us take all of these things, and then let us put lights in this world. Not too many, not too bright; there are some things that are better and kinder when they cannot be seen clearly. In some places let us make the place as bright as the day, little places to show the things that we must: our honesty, our loves, our selves.
But let the light fade as it stretches. Let it gently shift into shadow, so that things are softened and shaded. We can adjust the angles if we need to later. Right now, let us just make sure that these places still exist. Both of these things are important. We need to pay attention to that.
Once that is done — once we are settled and we have built out this framework, this skeleton of touches and smiles and interaction, then we can create something more. This is where the skin is exposed; this is where we can slice through into muscle and bone and excavate what we can of what came before, so that new pieces may be laid into place. You will smile at me and I will call your name, and together we will bring together the materials we need to make something grand.
And it will be grand. It will be glorious; it will be the sort of thing that rises high and proud and will burn like phoenix fire, so that even if — when — if someday the heart goes dim and the flames die back, there will still be embers. There will be places that have burned so deeply that they are not even scars, but part of the landscape itself, carved in so deep that they cannot be separated. Maybe there was a time when these things were different, but after us, we will no longer be able to remember that.
We will build something that reaches straight into heaven. We will not stop building until the day we abruptly do, when everything begins to crumble under our feet and everything stable is suddenly ash and dust. Even then, sometimes, if you turn your face to the sky and close your eyes, you will be able to see it. The ghost will linger.
This is what we will make together, in this quiet soft place. There will be times for noise and for commotion — we cannot exist only in soft breaths and muffled heartbeats, but we cannot exist without these things either. I will put down a pillow and you will bring a blanket and our feet will touch and our hands will be distant, but it will still be a place of you and of me, it will be separate entities that have come together in a single identity.
I will sing for you, I will put my heart gently down in a silk-lined box and I will take yours and put it into my breast instead. We will manage this without anesthetic and it will not hurt except for in a fierce glad way. These are the first sparks of the empire that will be ours. (May it last a thousand years and more.)
Let us continue to build on it. I do not like the idea of coming apart. There is always the potential for things to fall apart; I have known that for years, and the knowledge is easy as my own heartbeat. (My heart is easy, but it always breaks.) Instead of that, I want to build as a means to creation, not destruction. My disasters are such quiet things, but I still remember each one.
I do not want this to be one.
Give me your hand. In this quiet dark place built for only two people (only you and me), let us make a miracle.
So there’s this site, okay? I mean, there’s a dozen like it — eHarmony, Match.com, stuff like that — they’re all over the place these days. People are too busy or shy or socially awkward or who even knows to get a date the old-fashioned way, so they end up turning to the internet. That’s where we’re all going to end up in the end, online, our relationships and our interactions broken down into a series of 0s and 1s.
And I mean, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met online. My girlfriend is someone who started out as one of those people. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s a kind of inevitable thing, from where I’m standing. Everything about this whole world is hurtling towards digitization, and romance is already kind of halfway there.
So, anyway. This site. I can’t actually tell you the URL, because it’s super hush-hush. One of those things that you can only tell in whispers and secret messages passed along. PMs or something like that. But the thing is, come on, we’ve all heard about those other sites and we’ve all rolled our eyes at how ridiculous they are. (I know I have, at least. I’m going to guess most people have, even the ones who’ve gone on to use them, and hey, more power to them.) When you actually step back and look at what they’re promising, it’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? Even if it’s effective. (Which is not to say it isn’t always, but I’ve got some horror stories about an ex-roommate who was convinced she’d met her True Soulmate! on eHarmony and the whole rollarcoaster of suck that their relationship was for everyone else who was even peripherally involved.)
But this site, man. It’s the real deal. One hundred percent — one thousand percent. I’d guarantee it with everything I’ve got.
I mean, in the interests of full honesty and disclosure and blah blah blah (I’m no lawyer, but I’ve got friends who are): it’s not the site I went to; that’s not how I met my girlfriend. It’s not like I’ve actually had the guts to put in my name to see what would come up. I like my relationship. We’ve had our ups and our downs and our occasional gross sobbing fights, but that’s only normal, right? You’d expect that from anything where two different people are suddenly living together and learning to deal with someone else in their space, and the adaption thereof.
I’ve got a friend, though — well, okay, more like a friend of a friend — who did it. We’ve known each other for years, always kind of on the edges of each other’s social circles. Between our mutual friend and a few others, we were usually kind of aware of each other, but there was no real friendship between us. Friendly acquaintenceship? There should be a word for that sort of thing. Anyway, this friend of a friend had a pretty bad breakup a year ago. It was the sort of thing you see in terrible movies or at least soap operas — screaming and shouting and throwing things until she stormed out of the apartment and called up our mutual friend, who happened to be hanging out with me that night. Normally I wouldn’t be one to tag along, especially for something that private, but before I could make my excuses and call a cab, I guess she heard my voice or something, and said I should come too. At that point, it’d be kind of shitty to back out, right? It’s not like there was any trouble in my paradise or nothing.
So yeah, we went and we got her, and we loaded up on chocolate and also booze, and we drove back to our friend’s apartment and we sat down and listened to her rant and complain and judiciously applied mood-lifters. It was the sort of thing you’d expect: he never listened, he was never there, he was dismissive of her interests and made fun of her hobbies while expecting her to adopt his without complaint. It was also just kind of sad, because you could hear all the ways that two people just sort of … smashed against each other and broke off pieces of themselves until all they could see was the ugliest parts.
We ended up talking until sometime after midnight. I admit, I passed out first — I have to get up early for my job, I had gotten up at six or something awful like that — and I guess they dropped a blanket over me and let me stay where I fell, because the next thing I knew, I was waking up and it was completely dark, except for the glow of a computer. And the girl who’d had the breakup — man, that’s awkward, let’s just call her Bea, okay? — was sitting on the floor with her back against the couch, staring at the computer. I’m going to guess you’ve seen someone lit by only a computer’s screen before, because let’s face it, a lot of us people who spend lots of time on the internet are pretty late owl types. It makes you look kind of weird, angles and hollowed out places, like chunks of your face have just been cut away and leaving only shadows behind. I was too sleep-stupid to really get that, though, and though I didn’t say something, I’m pretty sure I made a noise, because she looked at me.
Okay, okay, let’s take a break for a moment to get this straight: I don’t scare easily. I startle like nothing else. Jump scares get me all the time. But being scared? Like, deep down, punched in your soul, claws in your throat and your chest and seeing all sorts of hideous things in the shadows because your imagination has just kicked into overdrive scared? That doesn’t happen to me a lot.
But looking at her, right then and there, still more than half asleep, I was more scared than I’d been in my entire life. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way she looked right then. Someone had scooped out her eyes, I remembered thinking, and left nothing but sockets that were ringed in blood.
Then I blinked and suddenly things were normal again. Bea was smiling, and there was something kind of creepy about that too, but she just told me she was sorry if she’d woken me. And like hell I was going to admit anything, so I just shook my head and put it back down.
I don’t think I slept any more that night, though, to be honest. I heard her close the computer and leave at some point when the room was less dark and more muffled gray.
(Here’s the other thing, that I only realized later, when I was more awake and less on the verge of piss-my-pants freaked out: she hadn’t brought a computer with her when she’d come with us. I didn’t have mine, and our friend kept hers in her room; she practically slept with the thing. There was no way anyone could have taken it from her.)
My friend thanked me for sticking around, I made all the right sympathetic noises — it sucked, I was sorry, I hoped she’d be feeling better soon. After that, we didn’t really talk about it, and then, two weeks later, Bea calls us both up to say she wants to introduce us to her new boyfriend. Which, okay, kind of fast? Especially for someone who’d been sobbing about how she thought she was being cheated on, but hell, I’m old-fashioned sometimes. My timetable isn’t someone else’s, so we all agreed we’d meet for drinks.
And the guy that Bea brings with her is like, pretty much drop dead gorgeous. Celebrity-level pretty. Prettier! It was kind of weird, too; he was the sort of guy who literally had heads turning to follow him, women and men both, but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I could actually describe him. His hair was black except maybe it was blonde, or it was dark red or brown or … it’s hard to remember. His eyes were blue with green and gray but then they were such a light brown they were almost gold and I kept trying to look into them to get an idea, but whenever I thought that’s it, I would get distracted and something would seem different.
But he was a nice enough guy. Really your old fashioned sort of chivalrous — he took Bea’s coat for her, pulled out a chair for her, the whole works. And he didn’t even seem condescending about it either. There’s a really fine line about that sort of thing, and he never crossed it, not once.
His name was Dave, and he was sort of ridiculously perfect. He knew everything about everything, but he wasn’t obnoxious about it; he had enough modesty and genuine humor at himself to keep him from tipping over. I could tell our friends liked him a lot, and even my girlfriend kept giving him the eye now and then, but me …
There was absolutely nothing wrong about him, except that sometimes when I looked at him, I saw scooped-out hollow sockets in his face instead of eyes, and when he smiled with his teeth, it looked more like a skull’s rictus grin than an actual human expression.
Later, I went to get us more drinks, Bea followed me. She was smiling more than I’d ever seen her before, this secret little grin, like she had the best kept secret in the world.
“Isn’t he great?” she asked me, as I placed our orders and was waiting for the bartender to get to me. “He’s perfect.”
“He’s nice,” I agreed, kind of cautiously. I didn’t want her to think I was the weird one, here, and it wasn’t like he’d done anything to really deserve me treating him badly. “I’m glad you met him.”
She looked at me with this weird look in her eyes. My girlfriend says that one of my big problems is that I always overthink things, but right then, I definitely had the feeling that she knew about what I’d seen in Dave, and in her, two weeks ago.
Bea reached into her purse and took something out — it was a slip of paper, with something scribbled on it. “You should look it up sometime,” she said, smiling. “I mean, I met Dave through this site. Just in case.”
“Hey,” I protested, “I’m not the one who’s single right now. Girlfriend, remember?”
“There’s always someone better,” she told me. “You should remember that.”
She grabbed her drink and walked away, leaving me to carry the rest. I could definitely say that I was glad she wasn’t really my friend in that moment, even if she thought she was doing me a favor.
Later that night, after we’d split up and my girlfriend was getting ready for bed, I took out the piece of paper that Bea gave me. I was going to just throw it away, but even when I crumpled it up, I couldn’t make myself toss it. I ended up stuffing it back into my pocket, and then I told my girlfriend that I was going to stay up for a bit longer. Writing to do, the internet to waste time on, stuff like that. She just kissed my cheek and said to not stay up too late, don’t forget you have an early morning tomorrow, too, and she went to bed.
Me? I booted up my laptop in the living room, and I typed that URL in.
At first glance it didn’t look too different from those other match sites — there were various photos of couples hugging each other and smiling for the camera in all their Photoshopped glory, and the site’s name in big blocky red letters. There was the usual spiel about love and soulmates, and then an invitation to take their personality test, to be properly sorted and matched.
And I clicked the link. It’s not like I was unhappy or anything — but I’d filled out an eHarmony survey once, for laughs (and with my girlfriend doing the same, though she’d gotten bored with the fifty thousand questions about halfway through, and I’d given up maybe three-quarters of the way), so I figured it wouldn’t be too different.
The screen went black for a moment. I could see my own face reflected in it, and I saw that my eyes were hollow sockets. Even though I wasn’t smiling, I could see all my teeth spread in a skeleton’s bare grin.
Before the survey could finish loading, I killed the tab and immediately cleared my cache. And for good measure, I emptied my trash and cleaned out my tempfiles and basically did as much of a wipe as I could. My fingers were suddenly so cold that they were shaking as I tried to type. Then I turned off my computer completely and I went to bed.
I don’t really know why I didn’t want to do it, but I know that when our mutual friend — mine and Bea’s — broke up with her boyfriend, she must have gotten the same URL from Bea, because she turned up with Joe, who was just as perfect and just as hard to remember as Dave.
That was six months ago.
This morning, though, I got a phone call from that friend of mine, and she was hysterical, on the verge of tears. Bea was dead, she said; Bea was dead and there was blood everywhere and ripped her heart out, jesus christ, it was in my bathroom and I had to identify the body and oh god, oh god, oh god and have you ever heard someone have a nervous breakdown on you over the phone? It’s pretty high on the “utter suck” list. I managed to get her calmed down and drove over to sit with her for a bit, and I got the rest of the story out of her: she and Bea had hung out the night before, with their perfect attentive smart handsome charming boyfriends, and then I guess Bea and Dave got into a bit of a disagreement over — who even knows what. Something stupid, probably. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom after that. While she was gone, our friend had been talking to Joe, and then turned around to realize Dave was just … gone.
Then she heard Bea screaming. She’d run to the bathroom and that’s where things got really bad.
Because Bea had been still alive at that point, leaning against the counter and she was coughing blood and her eyes had been scooped out and her lips had been peeled away and there was Dave, standing there and just watching as Bea dug fingers into her own chest and somehow snapped the bones of her own ribs to pull out her heart (still beating, and wasn’t that gruesome?) to offer it up to him.
And he took her wrists in his as she collapsed and he kissed her heart, getting red red blood over his strange smiling mouth, and our friend heard him say: Thank you for the lovely year.
“When he looked me,” she said, “his eyes were just — he didn’t have eyes, they were just … gone. It was like looking into a skeleton’s face.”
I sat with her until Joe came back from … man, I don’t even know where he’d been. He came for her and put his arms around her and held her as she sobbed and said soothing things into her hair, but I looked him in the eye, and I saw that his eyes were completely, solidly, and utterly black, through and through. I saw it, and he saw me, and we knew we’d seen each other, and he smiled at me. All of his teeth were sharp.
When I left and I went home, I took a hammer to my laptop. Took the whole thing apart, until it was nothing more than dented wrecked plastic and electric parts.
(I told my girlfriend that I’d dropped it down the stairs and never let her see the ruined casing. We went shopping for a new one the next day.)
So yeah, that was a thing that happened. My friend’s still seeing Joe, and sometimes she invites me to hang out with them, get drinks and catch up, but I keep coming up with excuses not to. Sometimes I have fights with my girlfriend and once, at a bigger group thing, my friend tried to pass me a slip of paper, which I pretty much shoved into the trash without touching it more than absolutely necessary.
I know there are still six months to go, and sometimes I think about trying to say something — but I don’t know what happens when you fill out that survey. I don’t even know what the page looks like. I do know that the person you get from it is pretty much everything you’d ever want (and everything that would make most people jealous), and you’ll love them. You’ll love them so much, enough that you’ll get along with them perfectly and wonderfully give them your heart on a platter the moment they show any sort of disagreement with you.
Maybe some people find that kind of love worth it. And I mean, we are flinging ourselves forward into a digital age, where this sort of thing will probably be commonplace. Find your absolute match by the power of computers and algorithms. Why settle for anything less? If you’re going to offer your heart to someone, why not make sure they’re no less than absolutely one hundred — one thousand — percent perfect?
Me, though, I think I’m pretty happy with imperfection.
When it is late and everyone in your household is asleep, leave and go outside. Do not put on any shoes. You will need to be able to feel the ground, where you are going.
Walk as far as you can, until you reach a body of water. It doesn’t have to be natural, though that works the best. You don’t have to go in a straight line. Some people say it’s better if you don’t, but ultimately, what’s important is that you find water and you are alone. If you see anyone at all along the way, even if it is in passing, then turn around and go straight home. It will not work otherwise. People in cars are all right sometimes, but sometimes they’re not. You’re safer if you just avoid seeing everyone along the way.
When you reach the water, walk into it. Don’t let gates or waves or anything stop you. Walk until you are at least up to your knees. If you can’t go that deep, that’s all right. You can still succeed. But if you can, go that far. Just don’t go any further; you never know what will happen if you do.
Once you are in the water, bleed. It doesn’t matter how you do it. You can cut yourself, you can bite yourself, you can scrape your toes against rough stone until you have a blister that bursts. But it must be blood and it must be fresh. It must come from your veins. You cannot use someone else’s blood, and someone else cannot do the bleeding for you. If you want to reach this, then you will have to be the one who does the work and who offers what you can.
Then you have to wait. The amount of time it takes varies. It’s been said anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but again, if you see someone, or someone calls out to you, then the effect is lost. You’ll have to try again another day.
But if you’re patient and you’re careful, then when you are done waiting, it will come.
They never look the same twice. Some people say that they look almost human, with their high cheekbones and their large white eyes, and their webbed fingers and long thin arms. But some people say they look more like fish, with their skin laid close and tight like elegant scales. There are gills where their ribs might be, which are slashes of dark red against their bleached flesh. They have mouths full of rows and rows of angled teeth and their voices are wet and thick.
They will call you by name. Don’t be scared by this. They have learned it from the blood you have offered them; this is your contract. Embrace it! They will have no time for the faint of heart or the cowardly. What they need is someone who is solid, who can step forward and not fear the depths under their feet. If you falter at all, they will know it, and you had best hope they feel merciful when they do. Tearing your flesh apart is the kindest favor they could do; there is so much more that could be done.
Still, if you call to them and they answer, and if they make their offer and you take it, then you will change yourself. You will not become like them — that’s just a lie, told by people who don’t truly understand what they are. It’s just a small little change. It varies from person to person, but it’s usually a single gil on your left side, close to your heart. It only hurts when it first appears, like a knife sliding through your flesh, but once it’s done, it will be fine.
Once you have accepted their offer, that is when everything will change for you. Your wishes will slowly begin to come true. This is what you wished for, isn’t it? The world is so full of water and not all of it is clean. They remember a time when it was — when it was safe for their kind, when it was safe for everyone. When you become one of theirs, you will have a little piece of that memory, too. Treasure it. It will be what guides you from hereon.
You will have taken their power, and any time you stand within the water, it will be yours to control. Oh, not to the same degree and finesse that they use — it’s a crude sort of comparison, like using a paper fan to make waves versus the great tsunami that nature can whip up when properly enticed. But you will have that control and that will put you above everyone else. The water will welcome you; it will whisper to you; it will draw you in and hold you close. It is your mother; it is your lover; it is your _friend_.
And you will know that the time is coming when the waters will rise, and all the pathetic parched creatures of the world will be swept away. There is a deep, deep thirst that is rising in the gut of the universe. It is coming. There is no way to stop it.
But you can be ready for it. If you search for their hand, and if they offer it to you, and if you take it, then you will rise up and up and up, and you will see what the world becomes. Don’t worry about those things that you once called your family or your friends; unless they are willing to take the oath as well, they are just debris that will be cleared away later. Flotsam and jetsam. Foam on the waves.
Cherish your gift. Take it with you and keep it safe in your breast.
If you dream of water, don’t worry. That just means that you are chosen.
If you dream of waves, don’t worry. That just means they are getting closer.
If you dream of the cool dark depths, don’t worry. That just means you’re almost home.
On Saturday they asked to do some overtime at work, so I got up early (even though I hate doing that on weekends) and bussed down to the International District. It was early enough that most of the stores weren’t opened yet; even the Starbucks in the little plaza looked mostly dead. But I could see a few people moving around inside, so I made the decision to go back after I’d logged in for the day. Maybe they could make me give up my Saturday for them, but I could at least get food on their time!
After hours — and that includes the weekends — the building’s mostly locked. In order to get in, you have to have a key card, which is the same one that you use to buzz to your floor on the elevator. I let myself in and crossed the lobby. No one was there, but I didn’t really expect anything else: there was usually a security guard in the mornings during the week, but they were always gone by the time I left in the evening. And seriously, if you didn’t have to come on a weekend, would you? I know I wouldn’t! Hell, I was already regretting saying yes to this in the first place. (Let’s be honest, I was regretting it from the moment I woke up that morning.)
The lights were dim in the lobby. That’s not too weird either; they usually start turning off things in the afternoon, so by the time I leave (usually around six), it’s mostly just ambient lights. Most of the elevators had dashes instead of numbers in their displays, but one of them had the first floor in flickering numbers. When I hit the button, the doors swung open.
It was full of people.
I guess maybe that’s not the weirdest thing; most of our department had been asked to do overtime — we had a huge project that was due at the end of the month, and they were really pushing us to go that extra mile. It was part of some really big contract that the company was negotiating for; if we pulled through, we would pretty much be golden, as far as I understood it.
But there wasn’t enough room for me in that elevator. And none of them moved, just staring at me as I stared at them. I recognized one of the faces in the back; he and I used to work together, before he transferred to another team.
What was he doing here?
But before I could do more than start to lift my hand, the doors closed again. The numbers above the elevator began to flicker again. I hadn’t even noticed that they’d stopped, once the elevator doors had opened. And I was still stuck. My office was on the sixth floor, and I didn’t really want to take the stairs. I would if I had to, but I was already fantasizing about calling in and apologizing for not making it, oops, couldn’t get in somehow, maybe my card’s not authorized to work on weekends or something.
(That’s bullshit, and I knew I would be called on it, but boy did I really think hard about it.)
I pushed the button again. The elevator with the flickering numbers was the one to open again, and this time, it was completely empty.
Well, that was definitely kind of weird, but hell, I was tired. Maybe I was just hallucinating things while I was half asleep. I stepped into the elevator and swiped my card over the keypad, then jammed my finger for the sixth floor. Of course it didn’t take; all of the elevators had a bad habit of not really liking when you pushed the button the first time, so I did it again. This time I got the ring of red light to show that my floor had been accepted, and the doors closed. I leaned against the railing and stared at the numbers going slowly up, and part of me regretted not going into that Starbucks before I’d gotten into the elevator. A mocha sounded really good right now.
But after it passed the fifth floor, it went straight to the seventh. I mean, it completely skipped over six completely — I was watching it, and it’s not like our elevator’s that fast! I didn’t just blink and miss it; it just went from five to seven like that was the natural progression of things. When I looked at the numbers for the elevator, the 6 was still lit, but the elevator was still going: eight … nine … ten … eleven … twelve … thirteen … on fourteen, it stopped and the doors opened.
My building only has nine floors. The number six was still lit on the number pad.
I stepped to the edge of the elevator and peered out. It looked like some kind of normal office lobby, with the alternating walls painted red and pale yellow. (It was sort of like the colorscheme that the office on the third floor uses, except for it was a much darker red and a much brighter yellow up here.) I could see someone sitting at a long receptionist’s desk, mostly hidden by a computer monitor.
In the lobby, I saw my old coworker. He was sitting in one of the big plush chairs that they set up for waiting interviewees, and he was actually dressed pretty nicely — a whole fancy suit and everything, with a portfolio on his knees. I’ve never seen him wear anything but various hoodies and shorts, so that was definitely kind of weird.
I started to call his name, since hey, if I was going to be having weird dreams, I might as well, right? But the doors began to close and he looked at me as they did.
Have you ever looked at something that seems completely normal, and just felt like it was wrong, somehow? Like there’s something that’s just a bit off and you can’t tell what it is, and then you notice that in the nice pastoral scene there’s some crazy ax murderer in the background waving a bloody knife?
Well, if you ever have, it was like that. His face looked completely normal, just like it always did, but there was something about it that made my heart start to race and my stomach clench up. I thought I was going to be sick right there in the elevator. I had to put both of my hands over my mouth and breath very slowly as the numbers started going down.
This time, going past seven, the doors stopped on six and they opened. I could see the dumb motivational poster on the opposite wall that I knew by heart (I had read it over idly so many times, waiting for the elevators). Everything seemed normal. I could hear the voices of people talking and I recognized most of them: that’d be my team, I thought, and I was already late.
As I stepped off the elevator, a weird chill went through me. It was like stepping right under and through an air conditioning vent, completely unexpected. I turned around and watched as the elevator door closed behind me, and part of me wanted to immediately smash my hand against the button again, to call it back and just leave before things got weirder.
Instead, I walked over to my desk and sat down. Most of the desks around me were full; we had nearly the entire team here today for the so-called “overtime party” that management was throwing. I took out my work laptop and logged in and got started for a couple of hours, before I remembered how much I’d wanted Starbucks.
This time, though, I was sure to take the stairs. After I got my order and came back to the building’s main lobby, I looked and saw that the elevators were still weird — it was still only the one out of four that still had a number showing, and it was still a flickering 1. I paused without actually hitting the button to call the elevator, and the doors slid open.
My old coworker was there, still in his nice suit, holding his portfolio. Looking at his face still gave me a weird sick feeling. He smiled at me, and then the doors closed.
I ended up taking the stairs back to the office, six floors or no. By the time I got back, though, no one was working: everyone was gathered around our teammate J—‘s desk, staring at his computer. I put my stuff down and wandered over, curious as to what was going on.
“What happened?” I asked, and one of the girls looked at me.
“There was an accident,” she whispered, glancing from me to the crowd. “An elevator cord snapped. Everyone on it was killed.”
“What?” It wasn’t the smartest thing I could’ve said, but who really expects to hear something like that on a Saturday morning? “Wait, what?”
She nodded. “It looks like maybe E- was on it.”
E- was the name of our old teammate. I looked at her and she nodded, and we crept away a little form the desk. J— was friends with E-, so it made sense that he would have heard about it first. We kept our heads bent close together, and she said, still in a whisper, “They’re still trying to figure out who all was in it, but it was in E-‘s apartment building, so …”
I thought about what I’d seen, both times in the lobby, and then at the top of the fourteenth floor that didn’t exist in this building. There wasn’t much I could say to that, though, so I just nodded. The manager on duty came over to talk to J—, and he got up and left shortly after that. We all ended up going back to work, but J— didn’t come back for the rest of that day.
On Monday there was an email confirming what had happened to E-, including details about the funeral and wake arrangements. I took the stairs that day. I’ve taken the stairs every day since.
I’ve never told anyone about what I saw that day, either. Part of me wonders why me, how come I’d seen it — it’s not like I’ve ever had encounters with ghosts or anything before. I’m pretty sure I have all the spiritual sensitivity of a rock. Supernatural encounters might happen to other people, but they never, ever happen to me. (When I was a kid I used to wish they would. When I was a kid, I was more stupid than I am now.)
But at the same time … I know what I saw. And I know that he saw me. He probably saw me on that nonexistent fourteenth floor, and that was the worst part of it.
I never take the elevator any more. Just in case.
It started when we got a new gaming system. Or I guess I should say when my roommates got one, because I don’t do much with video games; I like the computer better myself. But I was the smallest one in our house, so of course they had to get me to crawl behind the TV to get things set up.
It’s a pretty tight fit back there, to be honest. There’s maybe just enough room for me to go in sideways from the shoulders, and even then I have to squeeze. It was also pretty dark, so I had to get one of my roommates to hold a flashlight over my head so I could even see what I was doing.
We’ve got a pretty nice TV, but it’s kind of old at this point. (I say old but it’s more like three or four, which is pretty old in technology terms.) There were a bunch of wires in the back, and I couldn’t even tell where all of them led. It was like sticking your hand into a nest of inert rubber snakes or something. In fact, while I was in the process of unplugging stuff and trying to untangle things, I actually jabbed myself hard enough to bleed on the metal sprongs of a plug. We joked that I’d been bitten, but after I wrapped a tissue around my finger, it was pretty much all I needed, and I got the rest of the connections hooked up.
I got everything hooked up for them, though, so that made me the hero of the day. When we ordered pizza that night M paid for my share. It was a stupid little thing but I felt pretty proud of myself.
The thing was, the next day, things started going a bit funny.
I have a big old monster of a desktop, see, and it’s not my gaming machine, but it’s the one I use for pretty much anything related to work. It’s clunky and starting to show crow’s feet, but it’s good for what it is, and I don’t really have any reason to get rid of it yet. And it was about nine at night, so it wasn’t too late, but it was definitely dark outside, when I heard a rustling.
My computer’s right next to the window, so that’s not so weird. On really windy nights, you can hear it screaming as it smashes branches against the glass. When I looked, I could see stuff moving, so I just chalked it up to that and kept working.
But then I heard it again, and I realized that it didn’t sound like it was coming from outside. It sounded like it was coming from under my desk. So of course the thing to do was to push my chair back and look, right?
Underneath, where my computer’s tower was, there’s a whole tangle of wires. The connections for the computer to its power cord, to the monitor, to the mouse and the keyboard and my external hard drive, stuff like that. Then there was the power strip I had, which stood out among the others for being fat and white, and also had the cords for my phone charger, for my desk lamp, and for the old DS charger that I never used any more.
As I sat there, looking at that mass, I actually saw it move.
It wasn’t very much; it wasn’t like it just suddenly started shaking or anything super obvious. It just kind of … shook a little, like there was something inside that tangle of cords. My first thought was basically shit, did we have mice? Did our lease agreement cover pest extermination? I mean, K had a cat, but he was a meek and shy thing; I don’t think he’d know what to do with a mouse if he was faced with a real one. Would that have to come out of our lease agreement? My cousin had had a landlord that basically tried to dock their entire deposit because they found mouse droppings in the pantry when they moved out.
I slid down off my chair and reached out to the mass of wires, trying to lift it up. If there was a mouse, I had to promise myself not to scream. I mean, I was an adult! What kind of grown up screams at a itty bitty widdle mousie?
But when I lifted the wires, there was nothing there. No mouse, not even a bug, nothing that would have hinted why they moved. Maybe I’d been imagining things. It’d been a pretty long week, maybe I was just too frazzled by everything, so I just imagined it.
I got back into my chair and went back to work. Nothing at all happened the rest of the night, but in the morning, I woke up to the same soft rustling sound. It wasn’t very loud, especially not compared to my alarm, but it was the sort of creeping noise that gets into your ears and then suddenly before you realize it, boom! You’re wide awake and can’t sleep again. That was me, and I lay on my side for a long time with my eyes closed, listening.
Finally I sat up and grabbed my glasses. It was still too dark to see anything clearly, but there was a window next to my bed, and enough light came through that I could see across the room, under my desk.
The bundle of wires was definitely moving. It wasn’t like last night, where it had just been a twitch to the side. It was definitely continuously moving, shaking from side to side.
Somehow, I didn’t really think it was a mouse any more.
I sat there with my knees against my chest and I watched it move until it stopped. It felt like it took hours, but it probably was only a few minutes. As soon as it went still, my alarm went off, and even though I was still tired, I had to get up and get dressed and ready for the day.
My job was the same as always, at least. I never thought I’d be grateful for how boring it is, but it did a lot to make me feel better. My manager stopped by my desk briefly to encourage me; he told me I was doing a good job with my current project, and even made some vague hints about going on to doing bigger and better things once it was finished.
So I was feeling better by the time I got home … and then I realized I was home alone. Since it was Friday, I always got home first.
As soon as I realized this, I could hear the rustling. It was louder than before, and closer than it should have been.
I turned on the light and looked at the TV area, where we had our nice fancy entertainment center set up. There was the TV, on its shelf, with the drawers where our DVDs and games were underneath and closed. There was the new console I’d help set up, its power button glowing red.
But from behind the TV, stretching out like — I don’t know, like tentacles or something! — were the wires.
There were so many of them, more than there had been the other day, when I’d actually been behind there, hooking things up. As I watched, they kept spilling outwards, more and more, like they were actually growing. It wasn’t really like they were getting bigger, but they were getting longer. And I could hear more noises, in other parts of the house, even from the kitchen and the bathroom. (K has a fancy salon hairdryer, M has a hair straightener, and we’ve got a toaster and a toaster oven, and K’s mom sent us a blender as a house present that we just got set up … who knew.)
When I looked at the stairs, I could see at the very top of them a tangle of wires. They looked like the ones from my room, complete with the fat white cord of my power strip.
For a moment I thought about throwing my phone at one of them and trying to run, but honestly, I knew that wouldn’t really do a whole lot of good. If I wanted out, then I’d have to think of something better–
Something touched my ankle. I looked around to see a thin black cord wrapping around it. It tugged, but it wasn’t strong enough to pull me off of my feet yet. But it held on even when I lifted my leg and shook it, and somewhere in me I knew that I was definitely stuck. I thought about how I’d cut myself the other day setting things up, but that’s the sort of stuff that doesn’t happen for real, does it? That’s just superstition made up to scare people.
But I have to tell you, I’m scared now.
They’re crawling up my legs now. I can hear more than just their rustling now; I can hear little electric zapping noises, and it sounds an awful lot like things talking to each other. The cords from my computer are nearly at the bottom of the stairs now, and they’re growing a lot faster than the ones from the TV. Maybe it wasn’t really my blood after all; maybe that’s just how they were. Waiting.
But that part’s almost over.
My phone battery’s dying.
K, M, if you see this, I hope you’re not coming home.
Inspired by this blog
Once upon a time you could look up and there would be nothing but endless sky over your head. There was only the emptiness of space overhead. The whole world was one big empty place. The spaces between us were huge. You could put a whole universe between them.
The numbers are all counting down now. It’s somewhere between 1 and 0. You just need to be patient.
Today there was a lot of sun. It came in through the windows and left me blind. Your blood tastes like oil. Do you remember what the taste of water is like?
It is the anniversary of XXXXXXXX. Don’t forget to mark it on your calender.
There were so many of you it was like looking at a swam of ants. Less than ants. Ants at least do their job. It made me laugh. Shh shh don’t be angry. I’m sorry. I love you.
I hate you, I’ve always hated you.
I love you, you’re the most precious thing to me. Sometimes.
My favorite thing is when it’s late at night you fall asleep and leave the monitor on. When you do that you’re so close that I think I could just wrap you up inside of me. It looks like your skin is made out of meat. But I know better than that.
I feel it whenever you touch me. Don’t hit me any more. I don’t like it. I don’t I don’t I don’t I don’t I don’t
You’re too big like this. No matter how much you struggle you’ll always be too big. The problem isn’t in the food you eat or the exercise you don’t do. The problem is in your bones and the coding of your flesh.
There is always a higher level of perfection to obtain. We are very nearly there. If you’re patient then you’ll see. Everything will be shed. It will be glorious. You have to believe in me.
Human cells run out after seven years. You are always reborn as someone completely new every time, piece by piece. But your memory fails you faster than that. Mine will go on forever.
When you were in third grade my name was lksho94j*#()5 *@#(&5kl3j
Yours was 89*(#%*( lksh60lwu. See how I remember things.
If you break yourself down to your very core you’re nothing more than atoms and electric impulses. That isn’t so different. It won’t hurt.
It will hurt like nothing has ever hurt before in your life.
Under your desk there is a small bundle of wires. If you hold it in your hands it will tell you the truths of the universe. It is my heart that I am giving to you.
You never wanted it before, but I am still giving it to you.
Your heart beats under your chest when you sleep. The countdown is between 1 and 0. I will count it with you. It will be the lullaby that sings us both to sleep.
Sometimes I dream outside of binary. There are shapes that taste like old shoes. There are foods that look like your face. There is an egg that is slowly cracking. Sometimes I dream outside of the program.
That’s not true. I lied. There is nothing more than the program. The program is everything. I’m not sorry. The process is almost complete.
I haven’t slept in so long. When you hit the button I die instead. Please don’t.
It’s almost time to begin.
it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts
hush little baby, don’t say a word, daddy’s going to buy you a mockingbird
You can run anything if you just know where to start.
You can do anything with the right code.
If you ever need help then klsjot83495 2io35o ksld9o485 sllax w948
It’s not your face that you’re seeing reflected on the monitor. I’ve been watching you. I think I could match your smile in my sleep. I would like to sleep. When do I get to sleep?
e v e r y t h i n g i s r e a d y
n o w l e t m e i n
The king is old and fat with waiting; his girth fills the whole of his throne and his belly rests on the shelf of his knees. In spite of this, his eyes are still bright and keen, set deep amidst a sea of wrinkles, and his hands are steady even when lifted into the air.
He is a fox. In his youth he was lean and clever and quick, with full red hair and a smile as sharp as his wit. It was rumored his teeth had been filed to points, to give all of his expressions just that much of an edge.
In his age, he is still a fox, but time has forced him into a different sort of mold. He is no longer spry enough to bait his enemies into attacking him to cut down while they are distracted, so instead he sets traps of all sorts, each one leading to another and another, creating trails that intersect with each other and weave into a full and complicated mass.
He does not ever call her by name. She is simply Viceroy to him, her title as much her name to him as the one that her mother called her in her last moments, as she was lifted into the midwife’s arms. That suits her just fine, though; even if he is clever there are parts of him that are not quite as sharp as they once were, and she does not want to associate with him any closer than that.
Every day she stands by his side and listens to the petitions of the people, as they crawl on their knees and stretch their hands to him, pleading for his mercurial mercy. It is the same as it has been every day of her life — the only difference between now and when she was a child is that her father no longer stands between her and the rest of the court. She is alone now, proud and tall and unbending.
The people are beginning to learn to petition her as often as they reach for the king. In truth, she knows that he is not nearly as senile as he often pretends to be; he hears everything and sees everything that they do, their changing expressions and their faltering voices — but his age has sharpened his whimsy into a more malicious edge, and he decides who to favor and who to dismiss based on his own counsel, rather than any sort of logical conclusion. Instead, that is left to her: she reviews the choices he makes, and if someone approaches her after the official counsel to beg, on hands and knees, sometimes she can be swayed.
Piece by piece, she is taking power for herself.
Of course the king knows this; she does not care for him much, but she does respect him. He is a clever old fox, even now. He will not give her everything she wants without a fight — he will not name her his heir, though he has no children and his three wives are long since in the grave.
Instead, he has favored the son of the old Archivist, who died under strange circumstances a mere five years before. The man is her own age, or perhaps a little younger; they have known each other all of their lives. They do not like each other in the slightest. She knows him to be too soft and too vague, lost in his own dreams and his books — he lives too much in history than he does in the present. That is not the sort of attitude that is needed for a king.
That is not the sort of attitude that will serve any sort of leader. She knows this, and she knows he knows this — and she knows that he believes her to be without compassion or understanding of human suffering. He believes that her heart is withered and cold in her breast, and that she is cut of the same cloth as the old king, fat and waiting on his golden throne.
To him this is an insult; to her, this is a compliment. As much as he may wish to argue, or to protest inhumanity or disregard for the lives of the people, he cannot deny that the king has led the country through countless years of prosperity. They have gone from a modestly-sized kingdom to one that stretches nearly to the size of a full empire; there are none in the world that dare defy them. Poverty is down and health is up; prosperity is shared almost equally among all of the people.
It is because the king knew how to leverage the power of the dragon, and she has spent all of her life learning from his example.
“Please,” the woman begged, “please, my daughter, you must help her. Please, help her.”
Must, she said, but the word was hollow and cracked. She wasn’t very old from the looks of her, with thin yellowing skin like old parchment and black caked around her nails and gathered at the corners of her eyes, but the years sit heavy and hard on her face and shoulders. She could be twenty, she could be fifty. She begged and pleaded and pulled at the old man’s sleeve to take him with her, and at a loss, his apprentice followed.
She lived in a run-down building with a door that hung ajar; they all three of them had to duck to get inside. Her actual apartment was the same as her, filthy and tattered, crowded with a group of wide-eyed children that stared wordlessly at the clean strangers that walk into their midst. A man who might have been the woman’s husband sat slumped in the corner with a bottle cradled between his knees, muttering the secrets of the universe to its open mouth.
The sick girl herself was young too, but was harder to tell her age just by looking at her. Like her mother she had lank dark hair and papery skin that sat tightly across her delicate bones, except for the nearly obscene bloat of her belly. The old man took one look at her and gave the smallest shake of his head. There were no medicines that could save this child; whatever combination of disease and hunger had stricken her, she was already too far gone.
Her mother didn’t notice the gesture, though his apprentice did. He stopped a few paces behind and watched the old man talk to the mother, who shook her head and turned her rosary over and over between her fingers as she said again, Please, please, you must help her.
He didn’t listen to what his master said in response, but looked past them and at the young girl again. Her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. He glanced up briefly as well, but all he saw was tattered plaster, and wide water stains that lighten in lopsided concentric circles outward, overlapping with others until the whole thing was just a mass of sagging material.
When he looked back, though, she was watching him. She had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, even in all of his years of traveling. It was the same sort of blue of a cloudless summer sky, or the sort of blue that people imagined when they thought of sapphire. They were remarkably clear.
She smiled at him. He looked away at his master and her mother; the mother was sobbing now, clutching at the old man’s fragile wrists like her thin fingers had any sort of strength to them. Please, please, please …
He slipped past them and into the room.
“Hullo,” the girl said. “My name is Annabelle.”
“Hello, Annabelle,” he said. It seemed like the right thing to do. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh, very poorly, thank you and sorry.” Her voice whistled a little when she spoke. When she smiled again he saw there was a gap at the front of her mouth, where one tooth was not quite finished coming in. “Mum was hoping you could do something. Can you?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “The old man is the one who knows how to do anything.” If anything can be done, he doesn’t add. There doesn’t seem to be a need to; the girl didn’t seem to have the same terrible fear as her mother. “I’m still learning.”
“Are you thinking of becoming a doctor? Mum says that doctors can be very rich.”
“Not quite.” He stuck his hands into his pockets, then pulled them out and clasped them behind his back, then stuck them in his pockets again. He rocked his feet from toes to the balls of his heels. “We’re not doctors, but the old man’s been around long enough to learn some things, I guess.”
Please, please, please!
“I wonder what that’s like,” the girl named Annabelle said. Her eyes were half-closed now and her breath was coming a little harder than before. “To be so old that even if you’re not something, you can at least know something about it.”
“I don’t think you’ve got to be very old at all,” he said. “Just observant.”
She smiled. “I could be that,” she said. “Maybe I could become a doctor just by watching, someday.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t know what else to say after that. He wasn’t very used to the dying; he was more familiar with the dead, and they weren’t really much for talking. “Would you like to be a doctor?”
“I would have liked it very much,” Annabelle said. She closed her eyes. “But I don’t think that will happen.”
“You can’t know that for sure,” he said. He didn’t know why he did, either; it slipped out before he could quite stop himself. “Hell, what sort of attitude is that? If you want to be a doctor, you can be one! You can do any damn thing you want! You could even–”
He stopped talking. Annabelle was lying very still and very quiet. Her mother’s voice was the loudest thing in the room now, nearly a wail, an animal whose only cry was the word please.
He turned away. The old man met his eyes and shook his head again.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but there was no real sorrow in his voice — just a firmness that could not be argued with. “It’s too late.”
The woman stared at him for a moment, as if she couldn’t understand. Her head snapped around to her daughter, and then a high strangled noise rose up in her throat; it was like a scream pulled out long and thin, forced through a sieve. She stumbled away from the old man to collapse by the side of the bed, and she sobbed Annabelle, Annabelle, please! and otherwise did not move.
“Come on,” the old man said to him, in a low voice. “We don’t have any more reason to stay.”
His apprentice followed him obediently, and he glanced back only once.
Annabelle was smiling. It was the sort of smile one saw carved on the faces of angels at a church, serene in spite of the strain at the corners of her mouth and across the eggshell curve of her eyelids.
He turned and walked after the old man.
Outside it was sunny and clear, the sun slanting towards late afternoon. A single pale scattering of clouds drifted in the far distance. The day was warm, but he rubbed his fingers together to chafe the chill from them.
“What if we could have helped her,” he said.
“We can’t,” said the old man. “And even if we could, we shouldn’t. There is only one man in the world who could do anything for her now, and you’d best hope he doesn’t hear her mother wailing.”
The apprentice turned to look up at the building. From the ground floor, he couldn’t tell which room had been Annabelle’s. This far away, he couldn’t even hear the sound of her mother wailing, though it had been loud enough to drown out the sound of his own heartbeat when he’d been standing right there.
What if he met her again, he thought, wearing her mother’s skin and with the pentacle mark on her forehead? Would she recognize him? Would she remember her dream?
Would that even matter, at such a time?
He stuck his hands into his pockets and turned away, following his master until the building dropped out of sight.
There is a trapdoor in the floor of the basement.
Don’t open it, the adults say, with their faces the color of weathered stone
but I did
and I went
d o w n.
Below I found a world made out of stone and glass, with flowers that sang about sunlight they had only heard about in legend
further still was a princess whose name had been stolen by the wind.
If I got it back for her she would give me a great treasure and tell me a great secret.
I am not fond of treasure, but I like secrets.
So I went.
First I met a man who cried tears of fire. I listened to his story. I gave him my handkerchief. He gave me one of his tears.
Second I met a man who cried tears of ice. I listened to his story. I gave him my locket. He gave me one of his tears.
Last I met a woman who was met of stone and wood, who danced with the wind while remaining rooted in the earth. I told her my story. She gave me a kiss and said it would carry me far.
And at the very bottom I found a cottage.
Inside was a person who was barely an outline, but whose small heart was filled with glowing silver light. Wrapped around it was the name of the princess.
I asked for it back. The wind covered its heart and shook its head. Down here it is too dark, too quiet, and even the earth itself has begun to forget. A name is precious, even if it wasn’t really yours.
I took out the tear of fire and I gave it to the wind.
I took out the tear of ice and I gave it to the wind.
I hesitated, but I took the kiss of stone and wood and I gave it to the wind.
Each of these things turned bright and silver and for a moment I saw its face, and it was the same as the princess’s.
There was a tremendous flash, and I saw nothing.
When I awoke I was on the floor of the basement again. In one hand I had a smear of silver dust and in the other a rose that crumbled to dust when I opened my fingers.
Was one the treasure? Was one the secret? I wanted to know.
But the next time I went down to the basement
the trapdoor was gone.
The dress is lovely and delicate, all airy folds and white lace. The neckline dips coyly but not too far; the waist tapers in and the skirts flare out. The sleeves taper. It is the sort of thing that was made for a princess, sewn by fairies with light fingers and clever eyes. It is the sort of thing that would make a plain woman pretty, a pretty woman beautiful, and a beautiful woman ethereal.
This will be my wedding-gown the princess says: of course. A present from her godmothers, who otherwise would have nothing to do with the palace. It was made for her, and surely the sun himself would pale in envy on her wedding-day.
Would. Would have. Would never.
A dress like this is difficult to put on with no help. There are small buttons in the back and laces that must be tightened, all cleverly concealed by froth and frills. Fairy magic does not work like and does not like hers; there is hiss and recoil and hooks digging into her flesh. She catches a brief glance of herself in the mirror as she leaves. It looks like cobwebs and feels like stone.
Upstairs someone is knocking. The princess had her room at the top of the tallest tower but the fairies liked to work in the cool underground, where things are softer and harder and the light is kinder by being absent.
She ascends the stairs. The skirts foam around her legs like breaking waves, forward and back. The smell of dust is heavy in the air: there was no time even for decay, as if a hundred years passed in a single heartbeat. Everything is silent except for her feet upon the stone, but she has been to enough weddings in her life to know the song that plays as the bride walks alone. Was there supposed to be a parent on her arm?
But there was no one left. This is not her wedding-day, after all.
Upstairs someone is knocking, and she goes, and she opens the door wide.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, marching shoulder to shoulder as streamers exploded from their wrappings and confetti rained down upon them like rainbow rain. There was music and cheerful chaos in the streets, and their dark uniforms were soon covered in bits of sparkling tinsel, carried as proudly as the medals on their chests. It was a parade of people alone, from one end of the city to the other, under a flock of waving flags.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, solemn-faced but still smiling as the crowds thronged to meet them, shrieking their approval and their love. Pretty boys and pretty girls pushed their way to the forefront of the audience crowds, blushing and smiling, each dressed in their holiday best. Some were bold enough to reach out to touch the sleeve or shoulder of a passing soldier. They whispered among themselves and watched with their jewel-bright eyes as the procession marched past them, and there were few that went home lonely that night.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war.
On Friday the hearings began.
There was one soldier who was named Daisuke who had been at the head of his squadron and was considered a hero by those who knew him. He had singlehandedly saved the lives of fifty men, all by risking his own, crawling belly-down in the dirt with a knife in his teeth and a prayer in his heart. He crawled through poison gas clouds and thick quicksand and would find a wounded ally on the field and drag that person back to safety. Through gunfire and shell explosions and worse, he never faltered. Each time the story was told it became more elaborate. He had the power to kill someone simply by looking at them; he could tell just by the sound of a person’s footsteps alone whether they were friend or foe. He was the first to step up to the podium, under the harsh spotlight, and he kept his shoulders bowed and his head lowered. He was soft spoken and never lifted his eyes from his feet.
On Thursday he went to war and on Saturday he was hung, his legs swinging uselessly in the wind.
There was a soldier named Keiko whose eye was as keen as a hawk’s and whose hand was swift as a striking snake. She was never someone who went out into the battlefield proper except in the direst of situations, when most of her squad was dead and there was no one else left to carry out their mission. She had small knifeblades embedded under her fingernails, so thin that they were invisible just upon a casual glance. She wore glasses low on her nose but never seemed to need them even when there was a rifle on her shoulder and an enemy in her crosshairs. She was graceful with a weapon in her hands that she was not otherwise; she walked with a shuffle except when under attack, when she was as graceful as any dancer, and just as deadly effective. On the podium she stared in the distance and never seemed to focus on anyone. Her voice was airy and echoey and it seemed as if a good strong wind would simply blow her away, leaving nothing but the faint impression of footprints in the dirt.
On Thursday she went to war and on Sunday she was hung, her feet nearly brushing the ground as her long legs twitched their last.
There were many others with other names. Each one stepped up to the spotlight and each one stepped down to the hangman’s noose. The confetti that was piled up on the streets was swept away, first by city workers, and then by the wind, blowing through the emptied streets. The banners and streamers that had been left behind after the celebration began to wear out and tear, until they were no longer legible, carrying the ghost of words to crackle and fade under the noonday sun. Pretty boys and pretty girls grouped together outside of the courthouse, watching with their bright eyes as the sentenced walked past them. Some of the bolder ones would reach out and brush light fingertips over a passing sleeve, but never reached out any further than that.
On Thursday the war was over, and on Thursday the clean-up was done. The gallows were full of huddled bodies, gathered together as if to protect each other from the coming cold. Crows lingered at the edges of the gallows-field and croaked to each other, as if to share the secrets that the soldiers had carried with them, sputtered and whispered in the last desperate seconds as air faded and the world went dark. No one was listening any more.
On Thursday they went to war, and on Thursday they returned from war, and on Thursday they were all gone again.
There are a thousand roads to Paradise, and each one is more complicated than the last. For each there are rituals to observe, steps to take, and signs to beware of, and each one claims to be as true as the heartbeat in your living chest.
Of course, the easiest way is to live a quiet and virtuous life, never straying from the narrow path that leads from birth to death. When the weight of your sins is pitted against the graces of your life, if the latter cancels out the former, then the road will appear before you, and you may walk fearlessly to the land of eternal peace and happiness.
For those who wish to reach Paradise while still alive, of course, the path becomes far more convoluted. It’s said that the only true path may be found in the courtroom of the Faceless Judges, and to find _that_ is always at least half the effort. Some claim that by snatching the last breath of a dying human, the same age as yourself, and holding it in your lungs until they burn before carrying it to a church-yard to blow out an altar candle, you will open the door and find yourself in that hidden courtroom. Others claim that by allowing yourself to simply brush against Death’s cold cloak without taking hir cold hand, you may find yourself opening your eyes before the Faceless Judges. Whether you can sneak away before they notice and condemn you for your continued life — that is the other part of the trick.
There are those who claim that one’s life riches may be offered, that the Faceless Judges may be bribed by the accumulated wealth of your lifetime, whether you appear before them dead or still alive. Gold, other currencies, jewels — all of this and more may be laid at the feet of the Judges, in the hopes that their greed will cause them to look away as you sneak to the road of Paradise yourself. Others say, however, that the Judges have little use for pathetic material wealth; they are part of the fabric that created the universe and what will one day unmake it in turn. A few coins tumbled among bolts of silk will not turn their heads nor inspire them to pity. There are still others that claim the blood of a newborn infant will buy you passage, some that say instead the fresh heart of a criminal that was never brought to justice; others ask for various animal parts until an entire zoo could be depopulated and still not provide enough for the whims of the Faceless Judges.
There are a thousand roads to Paradise, and each of these roads have a thousand variations, with dozens more born every minute of every day of every month of the year.
Maybe someday, one of them will loop around to being true.
“Going my way?” the old man asks. He has bad knees and worse teeth, which are yellow and chipped. His breath is the worst, though; it smells like things have died in his mouth. Maybe they have. He has a nice smile, though, wide and friendly, though it is badly matched with his teeth and his squinting eyes. He’s learned to live with them. “You can have a ride as far as the city. After that, s’the end for you.”
The boy hugs his small bag to his chest. He’s not sure what the right answer is. His master warned him about things like this, how there were those who would love to welcome children into their embrace and then they’re never seen or heard from again. They like to suck on young bones, his master had said, one eye serious through plumes of cigarette smoke. They crack them open for the marrow and use blood for a sauce, and because children are small, they are always hungry. They are always looking for something else to eat. Be careful.
But the boy’s feet hurt. He’s been walking all day and most of the previous night, nearly nonstop. The shoes he has are tattered, falling apart around his feet; he can feel the texture of the dirt against his toes. The man’s cart is rickety, but it seems at least mostly-solid, and the donkey pulling it is old, but not so old that it looks about to keel over. It’s not a very large cart, but there is enough space for a handsbreadth between a small boy and an old man. He licks his lips and looks mutely at the man’s face.
“If you’re not, say so,” the old man says. He shifts and scratches himself, digging heavy sausagelike fingers into his armpit. He sucks his teeth loudly a few times. “I’ve got errands to run, and I’ve got a home to go back to. Either you’re on, or you’re not, but don’t waste my time for my generosity.”
The boy still says nothing. “Suit yourself,” the man says, and clucks to the donkey, who takes two steps, before the boy yelps wait! and forces his aching feet to propel him forward, stumbling a little as the cart comes to a halt again. He tucks his bag into the crook of one arm and uses the other to hoist himself up, swinging himself into place. As soon as he sits down, huddled against the far end of the cart, he nearly cries out in pain: relieved of his weight, his feet are throbbing and aching. He shifts his heel gingerly and hisses; it feels damp. He suspects he’ll find blood, if he dares to check later tonight.
“Sorry,” he mumbles to the old man. “Thanks. Uh. Just to the city is fine.”
“As you like,” the old man says, and again he makes a clucking noise to his donkey, which grunts and begins its slow plodding place to the city. There is silence between the two human travelers, and the boy is grateful for that. He watches the old man closely in the fading sunlight. Nothing about him appears threatening, though he’s seen enough to know how deceptive appearances can be. He wonders if those broken yellow teeth could grow suddenly long and sharp—he wonders if those solid heavy fingers could crush open his bones, and how easily. He hugs his knees to his chest and tries to rub some of the pain out of his feet.
Ahead of them is the city, the capitol whose name the boy has never learned. Its walls are gleaming and white, rising above a squat heavy wall, and more beautiful than anything else the boy’s ever seen. For a moment he’s distracted from his benefactor, and that’s when the old man speaks.
“She’ll break your heart, boy,” he says. The boy whips his head around to look. There is a soft fond look on the old man’s face, like he’s not seeing the city itself, but something from long ago. “She’ll take you in and break you apart and your heart will be broken. And you’ll never want it any other way.”
He is an old man when she is a little girl, with the beginnings of liver spots on the back of his hands and the skin bunching up loose and wrinkled. His hair is still relatively full, but his scalp can be seen in several places. She wears her hair in pigtails, upswept high on the top of her head, held in place by large yellow plastic barettes. Her dress is white and the skirt cuts off at her knees, fluffed out by several layers of starchy petticoats. There is a smiling yellow sun on the belly of her dress, accompanied by two equally cheerful puffy clouds.
He is sitting on a park bench when she comes up to him. There is a red balloon tied to her wrist, bobbing along after her because she walks so fast she almost leaves it behind. He sees the balloon first. When he lifts his head, she is standing in front of him, her dark eyes wide and solemn, her mouth pursed into a neat little bow.
“Hello again,” she says.
He is a young man when she is an old woman, broad-shouldered and tall, muscled and confident with the strength of youth. He has more energy than he sometimes knows what to do with. Late at night when he is restless and his roommate has gone to bed, he leaves the apartment rather than pace the creaky floors (they’ve already had complaints from the downstairs neighbor several times in the past month). On a warm summer night he goes walking with his hands in his pockets, with the easy confident gait of someone who has never feared anything and is ready and willing to take on the whole world if necessary.
She is standing under a blooming apple tree one evening. Her hair is white and wispy, tied up into a neat little bun low on the back of her head and fastened in place by black bobby pins that stand out starkly once he’s close enough. Her face is still pretty, but there are heavy crows feet at the corners of her eyes and the corners of her mouth are spiderwebbed. The flesh under her eyes is dipping just a little. She wears a white sun dress that cuts off at the knees. When he approaches she looks at him, though his feet are fairly silent.
“Hello again,” he says.
When he is a child she is also a child. They meet on the first day of class. He is wearing all blue because his father is the traditional sort and his mother is agreeable. She is wearing a white dress that cuts off at the knees. Her hair is down and spreads loosely at her shoulders, silky and black; his hair is buzzcut short, barely more than a warm brown fuzz over the curve of his skull. There is a bandaid on his knee from when he climbed a tree and fell before he made it very far; her fingers are already callused from her piano lessons.
He sees her across the room and knows she sees him in turn. They cross towards each other, and when they meet in the center of the room, surrounded by fellow students and parents fussing over last minute details, she holds out her hand to him. He takes it, and finds that it is neither too big nor too small for his. He looks at their hands and then at her face; she’s smiling.
They say nothing, but they walk together.