I'm so in. Lemme at this Idol thing again.
I'm so in. Lemme at this Idol thing again.
I am a previous Idoler. I have dabbled in Idolatry. I tend to write a lot of monsters, but I've tried to break out of that mold in recent seasons.
My true name is Ian, but Fod is easier and more apropos most of the time. "Fodschwazzle" is the sound of a billy goat being pitched off a bridge by its back legs, but it's a bridge over a lake full of pudding, so it makes a last, plaintive bleat as it gets dragged down by the chocolate undercurrent. "Fodschwazzle" is the realistic sound of almost anything wet, squishy, and meaty (that's where the "awh" in "Fod" comes from) being stuffed into a paper lunch bag and accidentally (the "fff" is the sound of it slipping through your fingers) dropped onto the kitchen floor before being punted (the "duh" is for the plop of foot against bag) across the kitchen (the "schwazzle" is the sound of the paper part of the bag rustling against the air). The verb form, "Fodschwazzled," also features a collision sound, probably against the smidgen of space separating your refrigerator from your wall. "Fod" is the sound an umbrella makes whilst opening against a torrential downpour. "Ian" is the sound of an unidentifiable stabbing pain in your abdomen, probably gas.
I'm going to always attempt to write something different from what I've written before. I hope it works for you.
Fuzzy details, but I remember reading a book, barely noticing the sound of music from the upstairs apartment. I couldn’t tell you what the song was. I smelled smoke before I could make out the muffled pitches. Also, I was eight. I didn’t really know much about anything then.
The ceiling was turning black over the living room couch. The mark making the smell spread quickly, a single dot expanding into a large scorch. The bluest flame I have ever seen consumed the center of the scorch and flashed through the rest of the area as a crack of light opened, revealing the room above. Our upstairs neighbor was screaming, but I couldn’t see him burning.
Then, I was moving. My mother grabbed me under my arms and dragged me down four flights of stairs out to the street beyond our apartment. We stood there for a couple of hours while firefighters and police officers walked up and down the stairs, blocking off the area.
“Controlled burn,” I heard one firefighter say. “We don’t know what stopped the fire.”
“Spontaneous combustion?” a police officer asked as the medical examiner’s office took the body away. No one agreed and no one denied.
We had to live in another apartment for a few weeks while the owner made repairs. By the time we returned, my mother had figured out who the immolated neighbor was. He was in his eighties, a bitter man by all accounts. My mother hated running into him at the mailboxes, because his box was right above hers and he always took forever, fumbling into the dark for something that was never there. We heard screaming sounds in his apartment on many nights, and we guessed he was yelling at his upstairs neighbors, since my mother and I were always quiet.
Whatever those sounds were, it was never music.
“I think he was killed,” my mother told me over dinner once, years later, staring at the spot where the ceiling had been replaced. Her fingers were tapping on the edge of the table without any pattern.
“How?” I asked.
“Not sure, but someone played the music to cover for it.”
It didn’t explain the way the burn left a nicely spherical area of damage, or the fact that the man’s body burned first, or the locked door to his apartment that forced firefighters to go through our room just to get to the scene.
The mystery was delicious. We set off to the library immediately to look for other similar incidents.
In Baton Rouge, in 1983, an unidentified woman was found inside the house of another old man. She was covered in blood and had eaten most of his face and arms. When the police tried to detain her, she attacked them too. The first responders were insufficient and fell back for support, suffering minor injuries. When they finally entered the house, she was nowhere to be found. Response time was slow because loud music was coming from the house and experts suspected it shut out the screams of the victim.
In 1978, a penthouse in a high rise apartment started to leak oil. It dribbled down the elevator shaft and began pooling in the lobby. When crews went to residence to find out what had happened, they heard a disco song playing on a record player in the kitchen, of all places. Someone was stretched across the tiles of the kitchen, facedown in a tremendous lake of what seemed to be bacon grease. The record player was fully automatic, and the record was set to repeat. Beyond that, no mention of how the man had managed to drown himself, since no apparent source could be discerned and there were no tracks to or from the body. Before authorities could examine the record player, someone removed it from the scene.
In 1973, in Juneau, Alaska, authorities were perturbed when an entire townhome complex was discovered to be full of crocodiles. Few of the residents were injured, but one older gentleman was consumed entirely. Residents appeared to be unaffected by the loss of their neighbor, unanimously agreeing that he was not unlike a crocodile himself in temperament. The residents blamed their inability to hear the crocodiles being let into their apartment on the old man’s unusually loud music. None of the residents could discern what the song being played was well enough to name it, but someone suggested Elton John as the artist.
Other events continued to happen without any regular schedule. My mom eventually got tired of looking at grisly crime stories and the trips to the library for sleuthing came to a halt. Maybe she felt guilty about introducing her son to so much violence. The deaths were uninteresting to me. Every night in bed, however, I stared at the ceiling wondering what song was playing the night our ceiling caught fire.
I never grew bored of it. I decided that the common theme between all the incidents was not just music, but records themselves. In the nineties and on, the number of incidents came to a standstill. No incidents had ever been reported where music produced by a human voice, by a cassette tape, or by a CD.
I decided that my dream was to open a music store. Maybe, I thought, working with records could reveal what it was that was causing these deaths.
The man in the bed needs to hang on a little longer. I’m doing everything in my power to stall his demise, but things look grim. He forgot to wear a seatbelt and forgot to look at the road while driving down I-79. Smashed into a concrete barrier so hard that I’m sure he saw and recognized me while he swooped through his own windshield and over the turnpike. He luckily landed on the side of a dirt mound for a good roll. 3.2 for dismount, 9.3 for landing.
I can feel him now, hearing the sounds of the ER, feeling the pulse of his life. He’s conscious, but the game of his life is certainly in overtime. I get to hold the score sheet. I’m dismayed that he’s earning so few points right now, though.
At least I’m not one of those poor schmucks loitering around pediatric care. First, sitting around in that part of the hospital is always so disturbing--doctors take forever to attend to their patients and the walls are painted with a grotesque jungle scene with a blue sky behind it, smiling animals grinning through the slots in the canopy and under trees. I retch a little bit every time I walk through. Second, children are awful. They die and then they become a problem. What do you even do with an immaculate soul? The weigh-in at the gate comes back with a big 0, and those guys just have to let them through. No one keeps track.
Then, when one of us has to report the loss of a child on our event catalog, no one believes it because there’s no easy record of the child passing. Goddamn bureaucracy up there.
My man has a nicely ruffled soul, but he’s still in his 40s. His fear and inadequacy add up quite well. He has at least seven women he wishes he had dated. His favorite color is purple but he always says it is green because he doesn’t want anyone to accuse him of being gay. He won’t let his wife know that he doesn’t like her enchiladas because he wants to avoid a fracas, even though green chili ravages his stomach lining. It’s a heap of little things to which I would like to add “fear of death.” Possibly even “concerns about life insurance payouts.” A smidge of “leftovers didn’t get eaten and may poison a family member” would do nicely too.
He moans or makes a sound like moaning. Something isn’t quite right with his sound-maker. A doctor with a clipboard makes a sudden motion towards the bedside, and the blippy-blippy electronic thing next to the bed starts to draw straight lines.
“Shit!” I say. I’ve seen enough movies to know what the blippy-blippy thing is doing. He’s passing over, and I’m pretty sure he’s underweight and will have to go into therapy unless he can muster a few more moments. I put my ethereal hands around his and give him the most meaningless squeezes of life. Just then, his wife and daughter arrive.
“Hello! Welcome to a really sad moment!” I shout to them. The man already looks gone. His jaw is slack and his eyes are cold. Besides that, he’s not pretty to look at. I see the two clerks following behind, taking frantic notes. Their feet hover just over the floor, and their suits are on point. I’ve always thought we look cool when we move around in the material plane, but since mirrors don’t work for clerks, we have to help each other get dressed every day.
“Hey, Frank!” Tomas and Louie wave to me.
“Hey, good buddies. Looks like I’m going to be on to a new project soon,” I say.
“If he even weighs-in properly. What is the total burden right now?” Louis asks.
“About 14 thousand points. It’s hard to say how much this death will impact him, but now that you guys are here, I can start racking it up.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Louis replies, pointing over my shoulder at my client. He is convulsing and sputtering.
“Well, he heard his wife and daughter come in, at least. All that crying couldn’t hurt.”
“Good luck, Frank. Wherever you go next, I’m sure it’ll be easier than this gig. This guy was far too cozy.”
“Right?” I say, as my ethereal fingers find traction in a palm, which is connected to a spirit.
“WAAAH!” the ghost says as I drag him into Purgatory.
After I give him a cup of coffee, he starts to calm down. It’s really good coffee.
“So, I’m dead then?” he asks.
“Yessir. It’s my job to take you to the gates of Heaven and see if you pass muster.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you should have lived a more difficult life.”
“You settled with an easy profession. You fell in love easily. You even died rather gracefully, if messily. You were born lucky and scarcely ever pushed the parameter of that luck. You didn’t even outlive the majority of your immediate family.”
The ghost pauses between sips of coffee. “Are you saying that I should have suffered?”
“You carry few scars from your existence. How are we supposed to know if you’re a good person if you seldom ever met adversity?”
“Couldn’t I just tell you that I’m a good person?”
“Can you objectively prove that you wouldn’t have killed someone if they were the difference between you and your family eating another meal? Would you choose kindness if someone threatened your daughter at school, or would you hunt that person down and give them double what they promised? If that concrete barrier you rammed had been a pedestrian instead, would you have blamed them?”
The ghost looks mad. It’s hard to tell, because fresh spirits in Purgatory look almost identical to white pillowcases with scary smiles cut into them. It takes awhile to reclaim the human form.
“Look, sir. I’ve watched you for your whole life, documenting your actions and psychically prodding you to make meaningful missteps. Even so, you've never really done much. I’m not saying you’re a bad person, but maybe, if you have to go through spirit therapy, you’ll try and be a little bit decisive. Make choices that shake up your world and react to the consequences in ways that show your true spirit.”
Even in therapy, he will struggle to react. I know it will take him at least five years to go through therapy. By then, his wife could be in Heaven, and I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.
“Alright,” he sighs. “I’m ready.”
“Good. It doesn’t do to loiter at Heaven’s gate.”
When he drifts up to the door, the guard lifts him onto the gilded platform that weighs the scarification of the soul. He comes in at just over 15 thousand points. The big door clicks, rattles, and swings open to him. I love that sound.
It sounds like payday. It sounds like a year’s paid vacation to anywhere in Heaven I want to go. Even though I never made it in, and therapy only found me to be a little too detached to pass on properly, it’s nice that sometimes I get to look inside.
Oh, but that first Monday back is hell.
If a group of religiously devoted individuals chose to live on a planet where they literally couldn’t draw a full breath unless they were free of sin, a doctor was required to help as much as possible. A Frontier Doctor was a physician who was governmentally contracted to aid a group of people in establishing a foothold on a new world.Thomas Holland loved the idea of being a space-travelling doctor when it he saw it on paper; in reality, the faith of his patients made it difficult to perform his job.
Martha Hamilton and her daughter Emily sat on wooden chairs in Thomas’ office. The child wheezed into a handkerchief.
“How old is she?” Thomas asked, though he could have guessed within a month or two how old his patient was.
“She’s 10, and already it’s started,” her mother whispered. The little girl stared at the floor with wide eyes that bulged with every wheeze. Her mother held Emily’s shirt sleeve at the elbow and clenched it between fingertips with every wheeze from her daughter.
“When is your birthday, Emily?” Thomas asked.
“Two weeks ago, Dr. Holland.”
“How long have you had difficulty breathing?”
“About a month.”
“Can you be more specific?” Emily just shook her head.
Poor girl. Your parents waited that long to even admit that you were old enough for the air to affect you.
“Everyone eventually has trouble breathing, Emily,” Thomas replied. He wanted to add, it’s no problem, but his eyes locked momentarily with her mother. “I will give you your first respirator. Oxygen is not a rare thing, so use it whenever you need it, OK?”
Emily managed a smile, but her mother frowned until they closed the door to his office. Thomas stroked his bearded chin but started ripping out hairs one at a time. All children eventually became aware of the “sin” to which the Pilgrims attributed their breathing problems. Martha would never permit her daughter to use the apparatus. Being a Pilgrim meant begging for difficult living conditions, since struggle was equivalent to admittance to Heaven.
Still, Thomas stared at Emily’s records, knowing that one day, Martha’s young daughter would be plowing the field and would succumb to exhaustion, unable to breath and unable to ask for the respirator for fear of criticism. Worse, the doctor considered, eventually she will stop remembering what it’s like to breathe properly. Eventually, she’ll become just like her parents.
Doctor’s Note--Thriftday, Fifth of Spring
I lost a patient recently. As usual, I’m not allowed to ask why.
John Townsend was caught stealing three nights ago. His breathing was more than usually labored in the morning before the crime, implying some planning on his part. He stole sugar from the town supply cache--a rather serious offense since sugarcane is not permitted to be grown on this world yet.
John died during his sleep that night. Everyone here suffers from sleep apnea; John, however, stopped breathing entirely.
He stole sugar but couldn’t be bothered to cheat all the way and put on my sinful respirator. I wouldn’t be surprised if the community had a secret landfill somewhere for all the respirators I’ve distributed.
The last two days have been filled with compulsory church attendance. The attendees believe that because everyone carries sin, everyone has breathing issues--in my year serving here as doctor, I believe I’ve heard the breathing issues getting worse. Observing last night’s congregation was challenging; several people fainted at the height of the sermon, staggered by the emotional fervor and their own inadequate lungs. Pastor Morgan continued sermonizing.
Something we do interferes with our breathing, but alleviating it runs contrary to the religion here. I have no method to prove that the sinfulness of man is responsible for the breathing issues because no one will let me test them in the first place. Almost everything I’ve seen seems to validate the belief, and I don’t dare openly challenge it anymore.
After all, I need patients and suspicion of me has always been thick here. In my view, it’s more suspicious that anyone would move to a planet that they knew would give them health issues because it of those issues.
Still, I’m a scientist at heart, and attributing a physical problem to a god-given moral burden is dubious. What causes the reaction is beyond my reach with the tools I brought here.
Tomorrow, I am receiving a guest. It’s a gamble, but it might help me give proper aid to these people.
The dropship arrived at midday. The Pilgrims looked up from their tilling and planting as if they’d forgotten the very technology they had ridden to Terranis. The ship landed next to Thomas’ house and office, near the edge of the fields.
Raymond Moton was a head taller than the next tallest person in town and twice as large in mass. When he sauntered down the metallic ramp into the dropzone, his tattoo lined arms bulged from his muscle shirt. Adults dared not approach him, but little children were enthralled. They intuitively knew that Raymond was harmless. He was in his fifties and his eyes were too kind and he grinned too deeply.
Parents gradually turned to look at Thomas--everyone knew that the doctor was an outsider no matter how much he attended church. They already know I’m responsible for bringing him here even though I’ve told them nothing. Thomas shuffled a pile of dirt with his foot.
A sharp tug at Thomas’ right elbow brought him face to face with Pastor Morgan.
“What are you doing, Dr. Holland,” the Pastor rasped in his ear.
“This man has served most of his life on a Gaol planet. He showed exemplary behavior and was given the right to work out the remainder of his sentence in servitude. He chose this planet, with my recommendation, because it has a way of showing a person the error of their ways,” Thomas replied calmly, adding, “wouldn’t you agree, Pastor?”
The Pastor paused and glanced at the reformed criminal again. “I do agree, and we always want for work, but still...”
One of the children asked about the tick-mark tattoo on Raymond’s right arm, bearing twenty or more horizontal slashes from his wrist up to his elbow. Raymond, answering honestly what Thomas already knew, responded that each mark was a man he killed.
The Pastor’s mouth sagged open, and his slack lips flapped a prayer. “Why doesn’t he have any trouble breathing?”
While mortified parents gawked, Raymond walked up to them to shake their hands. He was having no trouble breathing whatsoever.
“I have no idea, Pastor,” replied the doctor. I do have a theory, however, Thomas thought, smiling a little.
Even if Raymond Moton was, in principle, everything that the colony strived to be, he felt more unwelcome every day.
“I guess I don’t fit in here,” Raymond muttered in his standard deep growl at dinner with Thomas one night after several months working alongside the Pilgrims.
“Well, you do look, to most of them, like a very dangerous person,” the doctor offered. Raymond was staying with him and had been an immaculate, kind guest. Raymond almost never complained, least of all about other people.
“They know I’m not, now.”
“You’re right. What do you think the problem is?” Thomas asked.
“Maybe I’m outworking them too much. Maybe I need to work less hard so that I fit in better.” Raymond, with his powerful body and lungs, built houses and threshed grain faster than three other men together could. Occasionally, some of the men working next to him would collapse trying to keep the pace.
“No, I don’t think so. You’ve seen their spirit now. If you work at less than optimal capacity, they’ll remember what your best looks like and hold you accountable for falling behind.”
“Then I’m stuck. Maybe I just need to be here longer to be a part of the community.”
“Have you ever noticed the breathing of the Pilgrims you work with most often?” the doctor asked.
“It’s getting worse,” the doctor added.
Raymond looked confused.
“Listen. Please don’t tell anyone I told you this,” Thomas whispered, “but I don’t think sin is responsible for our loss of breath on this planet.”
“Do you know why I picked you?”
“I’ve often wondered. Why?” Raymond asked.
“You remind me of me. You came here with good intentions. You work to the best of your ability. You have no expectations for divine glory beyond doing what your own spirit needs now. You’re often kind and generous. And, like me, you have no trouble breathing the air here.”
“Doctor, you wheeze almost constantly.”
“Have you ever heard me struggle with my breathing while I’m trying to sleep?” They shared a room, but noises echoed across it in the night.
“I learned early on that, if I wanted to have patients, I needed to share things with them. I went to all of their church services, I helped out in the field whenever my office was empty, as it often was in the beginning, and I forced myself to draw breath poorly. Harder to do than it sounds.”
“Doctor, that’s dishonest,” Raymond said, staring at his plate.
“And yet I can breathe just fine. Raymond, I’m not suggesting that you lie to these people to fit in. I’m suggesting that you aren’t without sin. You’re like everyone else here already. Something else is letting you breathe.”
Doctor’s Note--Chasteday, Fifteenth of Autumn
It was either my trusting him to keep a secret that would isolate me from the Pilgrims or the inevitable pursuit on his part for acceptance and community, but Raymond eventually lost some of his air.
I thought he was faking it at first, but, after one relentlessly hot day, he came to my house in tears, exhausted. I offered him the respirator, but he refused, saying that he had flaunted his strength over the other workers for too long and didn’t deserve it. He wanted so much to be like the Pilgrims.
Now he is. He watches other men now, most of all me, in an accusatory way. He’s kind and courteous as usual, but his eyes are different. Perhaps he has become jealous of my breathing. The Pastor gave a sermon last night about being honest with the community, and the congregation’s eyes were all focused on me.
I am not renewing my contract here. I’ve worn out my welcome, and my experiment has gotten old. I leave this winter, before the new year begins. Two years is enough.
I believe that the ability to breathe on this planet stems from one’s nobility, or more specifically, the nobility of a life goal. If the Pilgrims’ goals were clear and socially beneficial, I think any of these people could breathe just fine here. Unfortunately, they’re so tangled around checking their breathing for misdeeds that they only become literally sicker in self-loathing. How is that supposed to prove that they’re going to Heaven?
Children only have problems after they’re old enough to start swallowing the ideology and enforcing it on others. I’ve had enough of watching young boys and girls reach an age when ostracizing each other is not just condoned, but modeled. They’re all trying to breathe, which to them means to be perfect, and that’s impossible.
Even as I write this, I feel a flutter inside, the same that I’ve observed in these children. The moment I start thinking that I’ve been unfair to these people by holding myself up as a noble person is the moment that I start to feel my breath catch in my chest.
Farewell, Terranis. You took my breath away.
There is a boy in a blue baseball cap, and he’s standing on a grassy lawn holding a blue frisbee. He’s grinning and some of his teeth are missing--only the ones that can be missing to make him look adorable, though. One would wonder if he walked into the advertising studio to pose for this picture and the photographer made him open his mouth and show him which teeth were loose enough to go.
The product is on the discounted items rack at the grocery store next to a leaning tower of expired, dozen donut boxes and shoe polish. It’s a plastic sealed item with a paper insert depicting the boy. I’ve passed it twice while surveying the discount rack, and it remains a delicious mystery. I could pick it up and turn it over, shaking out all of its secrets, but it is worth more unexamined. The discounted label runs right over the title of the product.
“Child Perf-----n Kit,” it says.
Warnings on using the Child Perfection Kit
Always use a grounded outlet.
Never leave the air duct open as deflation may occur.
Do not attempt to use as a floatation device.
Cease use if feelings of nausea persist for longer than four hours.
Acts of god are not covered under Premium Warranty.
Let contents sit for over a minute once heated.
Fragile: Handle with care.
Contents under pressure.
If smoke or electrical discharge occur, discontinue use.
Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!
It was early when the idea was laid down, and I had little interest of talking around it. We would not be having children. To a degree, I just nodded my head every time you said something because I had already embedded in myself the idea that I couldn’t win an argument against you. “The key to a happy relationship is: the man is never right,” I had learned. Also, I was learning that being pro-choice as a man was remarkably easy--your body, your rules.
More importantly, it was your fervor when you examined your history and said some bullshit about the likelihood of you producing twins and having them both be stillbirths simply because of a genetic tendency. It could have happened, but it wasn’t really your justification. Later, we didn’t have the income to support a child, so we couldn’t have one--that made sense, but some adults add the stipulation that they might consider having a child when financial stability is achieved. Later still, it was simply because being “child-free” was an acceptable course of action and needed no further explanation, and this is still true.
We were sitting at a lunch table with four other teachers in Korea when another reality fell out years later. We were all fresh out of difficult classrooms that day, teaching genuinely likeable kids who were obstructed by language barriers, getting ready to jump back in after lunch. One of your students, a fifth grader with special needs, stood on top of a table and screamed “Angry Birds!”-- likely the only English words he knew. It was your first day of teaching--the last, first day of teaching you will likely ever have. You were emotionally done and ready to board a plane back to America.
You always disliked children. Liking them only when they behave doesn’t count.
I literally dreamed of having a daughter, and I denied her possibility because I could imagine the moments of stillness smeared across the walls of our one-day-financially-stable house if she so much as knocked one plate to the floor. I knew she and I would get along, and I knew I would teach her to lie so well that her mother wouldn’t be capable of being mad--that would be my method to avoid outright disagreement with you over what can and cannot be said to a child, the way that you, a student of sociology, started to disagree with your co-workers in Korea over what was wrong or right to say about a child or Koreans in general.
I could not have raised children to live with a mother who could not love or even communicate love for them.
I sublimated my urge to have children by teaching them. I’ve built bonds with students. A girl emailed me four days ago to ask for help managing a home crisis. Kids talk to me about things that are actually troubling them. It happens often because some of my students know that my love for them is unconditional.
We have separated and now I have choices. I don’t necessarily need to procreate, but I know who I would be now if I decided to. I would be a Child Perfection Kit on the discount rack at the grocery store, with a kid standing on a lawn on the cover, holding a frisbee, missing some of his teeth, grinning anyway.
Instructions for being the Child Perfection Kit
Failure is growth.
Bravery is beautiful.
Love is limitless.
It was 3:03 PM on a Tuesday in 1999 when Maggie Trall discovered magic for the first time.
A car passed her on her lonely walk home. It was nearly winter, and the top of the car glistened with frost when the window rolled down, and the car slowed down. She didn’t know them. She clenched her pink backpack straps as if she was squeezing the sun out of an orange.
Walking, focused on the ground, stepping over the cracks that break backs, Maggie’s steps and stoop made her bangs dangle in front of her eyes.
“Where are you going?”
The voice was at least a junior, maybe a senior. She wasn’t new, but she was a freshman, and she was warned, and she was remembering old kindergarten lessons.
“You should smile for me when I’m talking to you.”
The cracks were like a tattoo on cement sheet music, and if someone played them wrong by stepping on them, it made a terrible sound. The musician, the girl walking home alone from school, had to set a rhythmic pattern of two steps per cement square just to avoid taking one on the crack.
“Baby, I know you want it.”
She cracked. “I want to go home. Leave me alone.”
“Bitch, I was just being friendly.”
The bottoms of her shoes were smooth and tread-bare after making the walk for a few years. She could feel every grain of the concrete pressed against the pads of her feet. She could feel the worms deep within the concrete, cemented against their will when the sidewalk was made. The shovels and levels hollowed out the roots of their homes, leaving them to wonder why the sky was closer just in time to check and be crushed in a flood of grey, burning sludge.
“It’s alright. Everyone knows you’re a slut.” Laughing echoed inside the car. The rest of the words that followed were a blur, but the taunts continued around the corner and down the block, and when Maggie stepped into a cul-de-sac and walked up to a door, the car hovered and harassed. When it wasn’t her door, when she lived someplace else and had forgotten it because she was trying not to cry, she snapped again.
In her mind, when frustration turned into anger, she envisioned their immolation.
When she opened her eyes at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, she heard a yelp and turned to find the car enrobed in a sphere that matched the color of her backpack. The still world reverberated as if stricken with turbulence on a plane flight, and a dull howl was punctuated by the cracking and snapping of steel. The sphere shrank, taking the car and a chunk of asphalt with it. A single dot remained, falling into the crater left behind.
At home, it was a flight of fancy, and she thought nothing more of it. The next day, when multiple absences were reported, she couldn’t have known. The day after, when absences were reported again, after concerns were shared by family members, and after school started to buzz with the sound of a serious problem that no one could put their finger on, she couldn’t quite recall the event. When the news flashed their faces and showed a picture of the wrong cul-de-sac with a crater inside, a trivial little hole, she knew.
Maggie stared at her hands all night. In the darkness of her bedroom, she held her hands in front of her face so long that her muscles started to shake. She knew someone would come after her for this--the murder of her high school peers.
No one did. No one accused, and no one drew a connection. Her parents didn’t acknowledge the missing children anymore now that the news had gone back to reporting on celebrities. As far as Maggie could tell, there was nothing extraordinary about her parents beyond how much they loved her.
“Mom,” she asked a month later.
“What is it?”
“If someone was really bothering you and making terrible comments, what would you do?”
“I would very directly ask them to stop. People don’t tend to keep bothering you if you deal with it immediately and directly. It’s easier said than done.”
“What if you can’t stop them?”
“Ask for help,” her mother replied before adding, “Is something going on at school?”
Maggie’s mother didn’t know. As hard as she tried, Maggie couldn’t imagine someone as guileless and sensible as her mother being responsible for the destruction of another person, through wild magic or any other device.
Because her walk home made her become as tense as piano wire, Maggie vowed to never wish destruction upon someone again. Because driving when she finally got her permit reminded her of the crunching sound of metal, the terror of being trapped inside a vehicle getting smashed into a singularity, she also took a job in the city after high school to avoid driving. Because nightmares stole her sleep every night, Maggie didn’t sleep.
Maggie never stopped being unaware of the potential of her mind, but it was a red devil, lurking in the background, waiting to annihilate something she cared about as penance for her aggression.
A tired woman worked at a ticketing booth. It was her second job of the day. It was her favorite job. The glass case around her, backed by the wall of the subway station, droned out by the roar of the gears on the subway cars past the turnstiles, was a safe place. It didn’t pay much, but it asked for little personal investment from Maggie.
Maggie could die peacefully behind the counter, or so she thought. There were new machines in the lobby for printing up tickets automatically, and few people even used her services anymore.
Few except for Paul, anyway. Every day, Paul made a point of buying a ticket from a human. He could have bought the automatically renewing pass but opted instead to spend two minutes at the counter each day.
“How are you doing today, Maggie?” Paul would say, sliding cash or a card under the slot. It was courtesy by rote for him, but Maggie found it endearing. Day after day, her face started to warm more in seeing the same person. Paul wore a baggy suit coat and had old-fashioned thick framed glasses, and Maggie noted that he probably didn’t know how to dress himself to impress and didn’t care. It was refreshing. Everyone else was so immaculate in style that they all looked the same; black suits adorned with white faces were like balloons at a funeral.
She thought she was always lonely because she didn’t deserve and had not entertained the idea of having a friend for fifteen years, but this person started to matter. She started to dream about the possibility of another--the dreams were imperfect but glorious. Her pulse picked up in her neck when he started to talk to her.
“Paul, why do you always stop to buy tickets from a person when it’s cheaper and easier to use the machines?” she asked one morning.
“I like your face,” he said.
Inside the booth, under the desk, in a dark corner only faintly touched by a splash of phosphorescent light, a tiny sprig of grass grew between the tiles.
Four years later, she gave birth. Paul waited, tapping his foot against the floor so quickly it started to make Maggie nauseous. She clasped his fingers in her hand feebly and the motion of his leg slowed to a stop. His eyes, which were previously fixed on one nugget of corn tucked right behind the front-right leg of the hospital bed, drifted up to her eyes. He smiled, and his eyes shined like quartz crystals in an aquarium.
Paul radiated love. Maggie loved through her teeth; every soft word spoken was done with a deep understanding that it could cause its own demolition. She had never tested her power further and refused to try--she did not correlate the lack of dust in the house or the lack of mold on food or the freshness of wine’s flavor to what she considered her curse. She did not consider the ease with which her garden grew to be her doing. She often ignored the fact that people were happier and healthier when she was near, even though she now had friends that knew it.
Then the nurse brought out the baby.
On the fifth floor of the hospital, two levels beneath her, a woman who was dying of kidney failure suddenly found strength to stand and breathe and laugh. In the parking lot, a man who had pulled out too far and too fast found that the damage was non-existent, and the person he hit, who was sitting in her car, just smiled and waved him on. In the healing garden for cancer patients, plants and flowers danced into growth, leaping from their pots as roots spread across the promenade.
The earth reverberated with the laughter that comes from deep within a chest. On a street near Maggie’s high school, a speck expanded, creating a mound of asphalt where an old pothole had once been, plopping a blue, 1999, Pontiac Grand Am filled with screaming teenagers on top of the mound. The teenagers would not understand how they wound up travelling nineteen years into the future to be younger than some of their parents’ grandchildren, but they would realize their cruelty and know that Maggie’s presence was a second chance.
The trees were gone; in their place, shade remained. From a distance, the hill that the forest once occupied bore a dark birthmark with no beard of green to cover it. Up close, all of the stones and squirrels stood isolated, bewildered by the slats of twilight suspended in the morning sun.
As the car cut tightly around corners and curves that held no apparent value now, Susan Sturm examined the transcript of the call that took her from the newsroom to the scene. Even reading the astonished dialogue and the fantastic breakdown of the caller’s inability to convey the scene to the responder (several pauses were noted for deep breathing on the caller’s end) held nothing against the weirdness of really seeing it. To drive through it, it looked as though someone had thrown a tinged glass over the entire forest and poked holes in it.
“Can you believe this?” Susan said to no one.
Unfortunately for her scoop, she was hardly the first person there. Firemen, police, and several other news agencies stood inside the dark, gawking at the sky. Parking alongside the huddle of their vehicles, checking the ground around the feet of the crowd, opening her car door to step out, Susan could see why they were looking up. Unless a person was standing inside a shaft of light, a person could not see the sun.
“What’s happening here?” she asked a fireman who was stepping in and out of the perimeter while observing the effect.
“I’m getting a headache, and the sun is taking a vacation,” he replied. Then he added, “What makes you think that any of us know any more than you’re seeing right now?”
“I don’t know. You’re a first responder. I’d figure you’d have responded to something by now.”
The fireman stopped playing peekaboo with the sun and turned to her to scowl and shrug his shoulders. He then joined the rest of his crew on the site. If the crew had been looking at the ground rather than at the sky, they would have seen the rocks and squirrels starting to vanish from the area as well, one at a time. Susan did not notice--she was busy eyeing the fireman, not because she actually found him attractive but because she felt obligated to ogle just a little.
Another person stepped next to Susan. It was a park ranger in a green button-up shirt with brown khakis and the familiar, broad, brown hat. She briefly glanced at the man and was shocked at his resemblance to Brian. A narrow face punctuated by protruding cheek bones, a slight stubble on the lower jaw, and eyes that looked green but only held that color until the man pulled off his hat; however, he was nearly bald. Brian always kept his hair a somewhat untidy brown shuffle. Susan wondered if the man noticed her jumpiness. Susan bit her tongue thinking about her fight with Brian that morning and how their years together would likely be over by the time work ended.
“What the hell happened here?” the baffled ranger sputtered.
“You know what we see, so you know what we know,” Susan answered.
“I’ve never seen so many trees just disappear like this before. We spent years adding to this forest just to keep the park a park, but now…”
“What’s your name?”
“Roger Haris,” the ranger replied.
“Mind if I ask you some questions about this forest?”
“Are you a reporter?”
“Yes. I’d like to get some comments from you about this place. Is that alright?”
“Well, I’m new to this area, but yes, I can help.”
Susan smiled. Her column would look better with a bit more information about what had once been a forest. She went to her car and pulled her pen from the cup holder without stopping to try to remember whether her car had a cup holder when she stepped out of it that morning. She pulled her notebook from her bag, and without realizing that her notebook was a small portable computer rather than the legal pad style papers she’d taken notes on for years, she stood up to begin interviewing the park ranger, who was now standing naked.
“Gah!” she shrieked.
He did not react. He did not move at all. His skin changed color slightly, losing tan lines and years of sun-inflicted wrinkles. Susan blinked her eyes and found, where the man had been standing, a suddenly completely different person. Still naked, a shorter woman stood before her.
“What the hell,” Susan gasped.
A skirt and a blouse appeared. Tall black heels appeared. Life started to shine in the woman’s eyes and she breathed, reaching out to shake Susan’s hand. Susan did not accept it.
“Hello! Are you looking to move in sometime soon?” the woman asked. Susan shook her wide-eyed head.
“No? Well, we’re not built yet, but Corvalis Communities welcomes you. Here, take a card.”
Susan let herself take one of the only sick days she had ever taken after Nancy Brown’s card was in her hand. She climbed into her car and drove home, no longer even considering her argument with Brian, no longer paying attention as the shadows left by the trees vanished, leaving the hill bare except for grass. She definitely didn't see the first responders vanish when the hill was flattened by an invisible force. If she had seen all of this, perhaps it wouldn’t have surprised her to see the once-forested area was completely covered in suburban-style houses with wild walkways and huge front yards moments before she walked through the own door of her city apartment.
At home, Brian was still angry. Susan’s look shut him down, however. He never was one to draw out a battle when she looked bothered, and she had a thousand-yard stare to her eyes.
Brian made her sit on the living room couch, kick off her flats, and lay back. She looked stricken. He tried to get her to talk about what had happened, but nothing seemed to move her to speak.
Brian poured her a glass of water and added a few ice cubes before walking back out to her. Halfway there, the glass disappeared, water and all.
“Huh? Did I have a glass in my hand?”
He was so bothered by the fact that he forgot to bring water when that was the only thing he had walked into the kitchen to get that he failed to notice the new hairstyle that Susan had decided to get or the new wardrobe.
Filling a new glass, which Brian couldn’t remember having purchased so Susan must have, he walked back out to the living room and made it as far as the couch before the water became a cola.
“No, that’s not right,” he muttered. He returned to the kitchen to try again, but when he stepped from the threshold of the living room into the tiled floor of the kitchen, he stepped while the tile floor was busy being changed from a slate look to a glossy marble. His foot fell through the floor and into a space with no friction. By the time Susan heard him scream, his mouth was nearly on the other side. He had completely lost cohesion with the environment and was falling through.
By the time Susan climbed up from the couch and rushed over, the last of his fingertips seamlessly disappeared into the marble. Susan would have screamed, but she could no longer remember what name to scream.
The following day, Carol Rolph was appointed to be mayor of her town. She was unsure of her credentials, but she managed to convince herself that the several months of work she had spent on the campaign trail were more than sufficient evidence of her worthiness.
The boy laid in a white room, a white bed, and white clothes while Robert Molner looked on, taking initial notes.
Mother was reluctant to leave, but subject submitted to clothes change and recumbent position without proclivity to violence--restraints and support unnecessary.
The mother had been adamant that she remain in the room; after all, she said, her son avoided all other children on the playground at recess and had scratched and bit relentlessly when a teacher tried to bring him to play with the others. She thought she could calm him down but clearly knew otherwise since she decided to bring the boy to Robert in the end.
The boy’s name was Thom. He was a small boy with pale skin and a dusty blond mop of hair on his head. He didn’t look ferocious as much as sick. Deeply purple blots puffed out beneath his eyelids--that much would have been enough to solicit Robert’s assistance for most people--and a fainter bluish ring surrounded his mouth.
As relaxed as Thom looked, his pulse was beating quickly and his breath faltered when drawn even if it was consistent in rhythm.
Subject is visibly afraid. Administered first probe when subject settled in...
Robert liked to note a probe before it happened because dealing with reality after delving through a dream could be challenging. Having a notepad to remind him what to do when he returned to his own body was essential for an oneirotrist.
“Do you know what I do, Thom?” Robert asked the boy.
“You’ll look at my dreams.”
“More than look. I’ll join them with you, inside your head. I’ll put my fingers here,” Robert said while placing his fingers near Thom’s temples, “and walk with you when you experience whatever you are experiencing.”
“Why?” Thom asked.
“To help you through it. Nobody would pay me if I couldn’t help. And if nobody paid me, I would be hungry. Being hungry makes me cranky,” Robert said, tightening his jaw and dropping it into a deep, pitiable grimace.
Thom didn’t find it funny. Robert was terrible at working with children, but he held the face a little longer anyway.
“Won’t you help me eat? Let me in?”
“OK, I’m ready,” Thom replied. The boy looked up at the ceiling with determination clenched between his gritted teeth. Oh, child, you’re not ready for this at all, Robert thought.
“Close your eyes.”
In time, the sedatives they had given to him took effect. Without rolling over or fidgeting, Thom closed his eyes. Robert moved in with a morpholyzer, a device that looked and worked like jumper cables attached to three car batteries, two of which happened to be, in this case, human heads and the brains within. The third was a small relay box designed to facilitate the jump. Robert always lied when people asked him how a dream connection would work--no one was very amused when he pulled out the little box and several feet of cables and told them he would shove the devices deep inside one ear (that was the permitter) and the other one deep into the nose (that was the receptor). Worrying about being eaten by technology was a recurring theme in dreams after Robert mentioned the box, so he eventually decided to omit it.
As Robert pulled up another bed alongside Thom, and as he shoved the receptor deep inside his nose, lodging it where it was most ticklish, he wondered if he was in the right profession.
There is a one-story house, but the lines are not straight. The yard’s grass bends uniformly at a 45 degree angle to the left, changing relative to the viewer. The picket fence surrounding the house doesn’t seal off the backyard, and there are contorted faces in the wood instead of knots.
The door is open and leads into a tremendous, abandoned warehouse with steel fans spinning and punctuating the dim sunlight leaking in--this is the starter room. Instead of going inside, there is laughter in the backyard. Each note of childish giggling lasts about one second longer than is normal, even for children. It sounds like someone being mocked.
In the backyard, a man with a whorlface is drinking a beer named… a man with a beer is sitting in a lawnchair. The man has a beard but then he does not. The man has sunglasses but then he does not. He is smiling, and he is frowning. He laughs a deep bellow that cuts short, ending in spittle.
Thom is in the grass, chasing a cat. It’s a black and white tomcat, very large. Another boy is sitting next to the man in the lawnchair. The cat seems bigger again. It runs behind a tool shed and the fence bends when cat and fixture collide. When Thom circles behind the shed, the cat moves to the center of the lawn, waiting. Thom easily catches it and tries to lift it, but the cat’s paws and torso spill out of Tom’s grasp like sand.
Thom pulls the tail. There is a grip now, and Thom tugs upward. The cat doesn’t move. Clouds move in and the rain falls, making the man and the other boy disappear while the cat remains completely still except for two eyes that are dilated with fear before the eyes narrow to the point that they resemble razors. The wind reverberates and the rain falls unevenly and the cat’s form becomes unstable, flickering with the rain.
Something large falls on Thom, flattening him into the grass and dragging him across the yard until he collides with the fence.
When Robert had his first lucid dream, his first indication that oneirology was the profession for him, he watched an ocean from the bobbing of a buoy. He realized that he felt trapped in a position, unable to see the depth of the sea no matter what force was exerted on him. Always floating, Robert would take anything anyone gave him, never truly making goals.
He would attribute his own will to this later, but an object fell from heaven then, splashing as it made contact with the sea, sinking out of sight. Robert mourned the loss of it, but whatever it was, it drained the ocean completely. Nothing would remain sightless after that. Robert was a prodigy at dream manipulation and it started with himself.
Robert awoke to find himself in a white room again, wearing his standard all black slacks and shirts. The contrast between Robert and the rest of the room helped the subject begin inputting him into the dreams. It hadn’t happened yet, Robert realized.
It also occurred to Robert that his patient apparently died in the last dream. His own dream took over when Thom’s failed; few people could dream their own deaths, but it seemed like this happened to Thom on a regular basis.
Robert examined his subject.
Subject’s heart rate has increased. Eye movement indicates continued REM-cycle patterns even if dream sensations are non-present. Administering second probe. Intensity of first probe merits increased caution.
The morpholyzer’s effects could be wearisome if Thom needed to be probed too many times before resolution--the central conflict of a dream being fixed or removed by the dreamer somehow--could be achieved.
For Robert’s part, the fewer times he had to watch Thom get trounced by something unseen and the fewer times he had to shove a morpholyzer node deep inside his nose, the better.
Calm wind on open water.
Thom sits in a shallow, wooden boat. The waves move like waves but are mostly still. No land visible anywhere. Thom is wearing an anachronistic sailor hat like the boy character on a box full of frozen fried fish.
Thom has a fishing pole. The line is long, but flimsy. The line is cast. The reel has a digital display because it is from an electronic fishing game. The clouds in the sky look like dolphins, sharks, and whales, repeating in that order. The air smells like a bubble bath.
Something dark moves beneath the boat.
Robert starts to scream, but he is a buoy in the distance again.
The line hooks on something, and Thom is snatched from the boat and hauled underwater. The splash of his body going in is interrupted by another body coming out--a tower of mist sprays the empty wooden boat as it ascends towards the sky with a boy dangling from its mouth. It blots out the sun and the clouds turn purple and rain acid on distant seas. The stars become visible, and each one is on fire while the body continues to ascend.
Robert becomes aware that there is no ocean at all except the movement of scales beneath him.
Robert wipes the sweat from his brow before he wakes up completely. What is this? I’ve never been so scared before, he wonders.
Thom’s body looks different than before. Paler and tense. Robert wonders if it’s time to stop the treatment and turn the boy over to a general practitioner at a hospital. Something seems quite wrong.
Thom’s head tilts to the side in a jerk, and Thom pleads.
“Save me. It comes.”
Robert glances at his notebook--the words are scrambled completely, and he realizes.
The walls to the clinic crumble while the world serpent crosses the other side of the room before coiling back on itself. With its tail firmly wrapped around the whole earth, it rears into a poison sky and whispers with a sound that could shatter bone.
I’m going to eat you. I’m going to eat you.
Robert reaches into his nose and rips out the node.
When the boy’s mother returned to the room after, she couldn’t help but notice that her son still looked pale and sickly.
“Did you help him?”
“Does anyone you know own a large snake?”