The Whole Time

a Candle

7 and 3, Day 4

“Can we start?” Steve tried to keep the impatience out of his voice.

“Just a minute, Sillypants,” said Peri. “I’m checking to make sure you drew the circle right.”

Steve opened his eyes to look, and sure enough, there was Peri, crouched on the ground like a lizard, her eye an inch away from the chalk lines he drew on the cloor.

“I was super careful,” said Steve. “Plus, you already checked it twice.”

“Yeah, but it’s important that you don’t screw this up. You’re kind of a screwup.”

Steve sighed. He couldn’t deny it, but did she have to be so blunt.

“While we’re at it, I really need a better magical name,” he said. “Sillypants is just so…silly.”

Peri grinned her wicked grin up at him. “You’ll get a better name when you’ve progressed in your awakening, Sillypants. And when you get better pants.”

“What wrong with my…”

Peri held up her hand, and Steve fell silent. Something was about to happen.

She sniffed the air. She leaned up on her haunches, and her head darted around liked a meerkat. Excitement welled up from Steve’s root, and he took a deep breath to stop from shaking. He always wondered what she was sensing when she did those kinds of things. He would know soon. She had promised him that, and he believed.

Steve had been undergoing magical training under the tutelage of the strange girl for almost a year now, ever since they met at the anime convention. It had been…transformative.

He started out skeptical. Everyone did, he thought, whether they admitted it to themselves or not. Steve had always known that there was more to the world than what science textbooks presented, but society sent so many messages. There is no magic. There is no wonder. What you see is what you get. Never-mind quantum mechanics and tribal shamans and the little things that every single person in the world experiences that just don’t make sense.

His skepticism didn’t last. Under Peri, Steve had made a candle flame dance, changed the weather, and seen the future in his dreams. This was real. He knew it was real. He just knew it, inside of him. And it was amazing.

“The time is right,” said Peri. She turned to him, her eyes half closed. “Are you ready to meet your spirit guide?”

“Hell yes,” he said before he caught himself. “I mean, yes.”

She laughed. Then her expression turned serious, and she nodded. “Let’s begin.”

Steve flicked on his lighter and lit the charcoal block. He poured on the custom incense—jasmine and thyme and pine resin—and it’s aroma filled the air. He set each candle alight, one after the other. He closed his eyes again, and let the scent, the smoke, the red that filtered into his vision, carry his mind away.

“To they that listen,” he said, “here is one who calls.” From the first word his voice sounded strange in his ears. Distant, barely like his own. This was happening.

“I have begun, taken these first tentative steps, into the Veil that touches lightly upon the world of clay, and into the vastness beyond.” The syllables echoed. He did this in a tiny basement room. There shouldn’t be an echo. Were they somewhere else? He could almost believe it. He fought the temptation to open his eyes and look.

“I have felt your presence in the moment between waking and sleep. I have seen you dance in my dreams. You, who are of me, and above me. Who are a part of me, as I am a part of you. My impossible twin, from impossible places. I call you.” A sound, like a single footstep, resounded in Steve’s ears.

“I lay gifts at your feet,” he gestured to where he knew the silver tray of Madeline cookies lay. They were Peri’s favorite, and she told him the spirits loved them, too.

“I implore you to take what is offered, and, if the time be right, if my offering be worthy, reveal yourself to me.”

A giggle echoed from the distance. From a dozen different points all around him, but in a single voice.

“Reveal yourself to me.”

More footsteps. Another sound, faint, melodious. Flute music, scattered, as if carried by the wind.

“Reveal yourself to me.”

The air changed. It was a cold day outside, and the space heater in Steve’s basement did little to alleviate the chill. Now, there was no chill. The air felt warm, a spring breeze. Warm, and electric. It charged his ever nerve.

“Reveal yourself to me!”

A gust of apple-scented air.
“Reveal yourself to me!”

Another sound, like a giggle and like the note of a flute, all at once.

“Reveal yourself to me!”

“I’m here!”

Steve’s eyes burst open. For a stretched second, his mind reeled. It had worked! She had answered. He was about to meet an otherworldly being, a guardian and guide from an unimaginable and alien place, that would take him to realms undreamed. He held his breath, his vision focused, and he saw…

Peri.

“Hi Steve!”

She said it an inch from his face, and he leapt back. She fell over laughing, clutching her sides like a cartoon character.

“You should see yourself right now!” she cried between giggles.

“What?”

“Oh man, that is priceless.”

Steve’s stomach sank. “That was…that voice was…you?”

“Of course it was, Sillypants. Who else would it be?”

“So…” his jaw clenched. “So it was all bullshit?” Anger filled every blood vessel in his body. His fingernails dug into his palm. He wanted to punch something. “What the fuck, Peri? Have you just been messing with me this whole time?”

She stopped laughing, and looked him, wounded. “What? No, of course not.”

He furrowed his brow. “Then why the hell did you do that?”

“Because it was hilarious,” she said, shrugging.

“But what about the ritual? I mean, you stopped it. Why didn’t you let it work?”

Peri looked confused. “I didn’t stop anything. It did work.”

Steve scratched his head. He hadn’t realized people actually scratched their heads in confusion, but here he was.

“Don’t you get it?”

He said nothing. She stared at him as if he was missing something obvious. He didn’t know what to say.

“I’m your spirit guide,” she said at last.

“Huh.” He paused. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means exactly what I said. I’m your spirit guide.”

“But…you’re not a spirit.”

She laughed. “Of course I am.”

“I’ve been to your house. I’ve met your mom.”

Peri shrugged again. “I’m adopted.”

Steve shook his head again. “No, no, no. The ritual, the ritual was supposed to summon my spirit guide. How can it have summoned you if you’re already here?”

“I came a little early,” she admitted. “Come on, Sillypants. You think magic is bound by a dumb little think like time?”

“Huh.” He thought. She had sort of come into his life out of nowhere and started teaching him magic. And she never seemed quite…normal. But then neither had his babysitter when he was little, and she certainly wasn’t a spirit.

“You weren’t my baby sitter, were you?”

“Huh?”

“Nevermind. Listen, Peri, I’ve seen some amazing things with you, but I’m just…this is hard to swallow. You’re a spirit? You’re in my life to guide me to…whatever it is you’re going to guide me to?”

“That’s right.”

“So why do you work at Starbucks?”

“I like coffee,” she said. “And it’s run by a mermaid.”

He blinked.

“I just don’t…”

Peri sighed with her entire body, like a five year old. “Okay, fine. You need some proof?”

“Yes please,” he said, with his best sheepish grin.

“Fine.” She pranced forward and knocked the candle off the altar. It landed on the rug, which immediately burst into flame as if it had been soaked in accelerant.

“What the fuck!”

“Calm down,” said Peri. She stepped over to the flame, reached down, and picked up a large chunk of it in her hands. Then she stuffed it in her mouth.

Steve’s jaw dropped open.

Peri grabbed another handful, and downed that one, too. Within a minute she had eaten the whole thing, and the fire was gone.

“My rug!” Steve cried.

“Oh,” Peri put her hand over her mouth and giggled. “Yeah. I guess I’ll have to get you a new rug.”

“That was incredible!” Steve stared at her. “You’re…you’re a spirit!”

“Well duh. You really are silly, you know that?”

He nodded. “So…what now?”

She look his hand, smiled, and fixed him with a gaze that hid all of the mystery there had ever been in the world.

“Close your eyes, Sillypants. You’re about to find out.”

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Prologue Part 6

IMG_4315

Prologue: Why Gardening Doesn’t Scale

Part 6

“That makes sense,” said Decker, glancing around at the paraphernalia all over the room.

At the same moment, Axon spoke in my brain. It makes sense. The town is dreaming it’s a garden, and Sigmurethra is dreaming that it is eating the garden.

“And he’s going to eat Ducksburg’s dreams,” I said. “What will that do to the town?”

Nothing if you act, said Axon. You have fifteen seconds.

“Nothing,” said Decker. She poured out a handful of salt onto her hand and walked towards the snail, “because we’re going to salt the little bastard right now.”

A clear plastic dome covered the snail. Decker stuck her fingernails under the edge and tipped it over. It clattered to the floor.

Five seconds.

Five seconds, I thought. The exact amount of time it would take for Decker to pour on the salt, as far as I could estimate. It’s funny how these things worked out. The timing was perfect, just long enough to get here at the precise moment we needed to. Although if the package in my arms was a bomb, it was about to go off and kill us all. That probably should have worried me more.

The package. I had forgotten about the package.

“Wait!” I cried out.

Decker looked at me as if I was nuts, but she stilled her hand.

Thirty seconds, said Axon.

“The timer just went up,” I said. Decker’s expression softened. “We need to open the package. It can’t just be irrelevant.”

“Well hurry up,” said Decker. “I’m pretty sure if this thing eats my apartment I’ll never get my security deposit back.”

“You knocked out a wall,” I said to her as I tore off the outer paper. “I don’t think you’re going to get your security deposit back.”

Inside the paper was a blank box. I wondered why it was wrapped in paper. I unflapped the flaps on the flapped edge and slid a rectangle of plastic about the size of a tissue box. The bottom was lined with some kind of dirt, and there were a few leaves and twigs scattered about.

“It’s a terrarium,” I said.

“Okay, great,” said Decker. “We’ve now solved the enigma of the mysterious package. Can I salt this thing now before it eats Judy’s? I have a hair appointment on Thursday and if he doesn’t have her dreams she’s sure to fuck it up.”

“It wasn’t a solution,” I said.

“What?”

“The Client wasn’t giving us a solution. That’s not what this was about. This was never going to be difficult to handle if we actually got in. It’s a damn snail. We salt it. Or step on it.”

“Or eat it with butter,” said Decker.

“Right. So this isn’t a solution. It’s a choice. We don’t have to kill it.”

It’s dangerous, what you’re thinking, said Axon. We should kill it.

“We don’t have to,” said Decker. “But what the hell else are we supposed to do?”

“Listen,” I said. “This is the only dreaming snail in the history of snaildom. Doesn’t that make it worth saving?”

“Unless it isn’t,” said Decker. “There could be a million of these out there.”

“Okay, fine. This is the only dreaming snail that I’ve never heard of. Doesn’t that make it special? Plus it’s kind of, I mean, it’s kind of a person now, isn’t it?”

Not really, said Axon. It’s a mission. And the slug army is going to be here soon. Choice or solution, you don’t have much time.

“Keeping a dreaming snail is a serious responsibility,” said Decker. “Remember what happened to that rare Japanese koi you had?”

“You fed it to your cat because she made cute noises at you.”

“Exactly,” she said. “I still have that cat. She’s still cute.”

“Then you don’t get snail visitation rights,” I said.

“If you really want to do this, I’ll back your play,” said Decker. “Just don’t let the damn thing near my heirloom tomato plants.”

“Okay,” I said. “I won’t.” Decker didn’t have any tomato plants, but there was a very good chance she would get some now, just because of this.

This is a bad idea, said Axon.

Why would the Client give me this box, if it wasn’t a viable option?

She seemed to consider it. That was a good sign. Fine, but this is a temporary solution.

Howso?
You are eventually going to need a bigger terrarium.

I took that to mean I had won the argument. Or at least she wasn’t going to fill my vision with images of primate anatomy. I pried the top off of the terrarium and sidled up next to the snail.

“What do you think, Siggy?” I said. “Do you want to come live with me? I promise I’ll give you actual grass. You won’t have to eat my town or anything. I can’t promise I’ll be very good landlord, but I’ll do my best. It’s better than being salted, anyway.”

The snail looked over at me, for all the world like it understood what I was saying. I thought I saw a glint of tiny acquiescence in its tiny eye, but I probably made that up.

I would love to say that the snail-army was battering down the door as I picked up the little bug and dropped him into the terrarium with a plop. I would love to say that the instant I did so the walls started to shake, that Decker shouted “Run!” and that we went on a mad dash through the intestinal labyrinth before we dove through a window and landed on an enormous honeybee that ferried us down to the safety of the ground. All of that would be a lot more dramatic.

Instead, with no transition or sensation at all I found myself standing on the large lot of grass that previously didn’t really contain an office building, the terrarium still in my arms. Decker stood beside me, and slime very obligingly did not cover either one of us. A middle aged woman with a pomeranian stood about twenty feet away and stared at us. I knew what she had seen, because even now I could remember it. Decker and I had walked into the middle of the field, ran around for a few minutes with a moderate amount of arm flailing, picked up a snail, and dropped it into a terrarium. In a few minutes this memory would be stronger than my adventures inside Siggy.

“You know what we need?” said Decker.

“What?” I turned to her with what I’m sure was a dazed expression.

“Tacos. Many, many tacos.”

I stared at her for far too long. “You are the smartest person I’ve ever met. Have I ever told you that?”

“No, but I already knew that. Let’s go. I’m sure Unicos would let you can bring Siggy, if you want. Hell, they’ll probably cook him for you if you ask them to.”

“Please, not in front of the snail.”

“Does he understand our tongue? Ooh, do you think they have lengua today?”

“You’re disgusting.”

“You’d like it if you tried it. Assuming you like being hilarious.”

As we walked, I glanced back at where the office building and/or giant snail had been. Already I couldn’t remember exactly what the receptionist looked like, or what color the ceiling was. It was like I had heard the whole thing second hand. Somebody else telling me about their dream. Of course it was. None of that had actually happened. Things like that aren’t real.

I scanned the field one last time, but I knew it would be in vain. It always was. Another trip to Payless, I supposed. Because nowhere, anywhere in the grass, was there any sign of my missing shoe. The left shoe that currently adorned my left foot would go into the pile in front of my apartment door with all of the others, where they could discuss war stories and mourn the loss of their right-oriented brethren.

One more fallen soldier.

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Prologue Part 5

Shell Scripted in Sand : Dark Contrast

Prologue: Why Gardening Doesn’t Scale

Part 5

I heard a horrible screech from behind me that sounded like “Naked Lunch by Peter S. Burroughs!” but might not actually have been that. I spun around in time to see my friendly business man interrogator’s perfect hair begin to boil. Jets of slime erupted out of the follicular lava and hardened into two-foot long eyestalks. The expression on his face was still calm and congenial; his body language not so much. He sprang towards us.

Decker didn’t miss a beat. She whipped her backpack off and swung it into the things head. There was a loud thwack, and both of its man-eyes popped out as it flew to the side. On of the eyes collided with my forehead and shot vitreous humor, or maybe some kind of prop adhesive, all over my face. I fought the urge to brush it off. No time to worry about that now. I grabbed Decker by the hand.

“Let’s go!” I said. She grinned and sprang into motion.

“What the fuck do we do next?” I said between labored breaths as we ran in a random direction. “We’re all out of doors.”

“Have you found the target?” Decker asked. She didn’t sound winded. No matter how much fried corn she ate, she was always managed to be in perfect shape when things were trying to kill us. “Is Axon synced up yet?”

I’m synced up, said Axon in my head. The visible doors you opened are just the surface interface.

Okay, I said as if I knew what that meant. So where do we go?

Keep going. Make a 115 degree right turn precisely when I say.

As we ran several of the doors opened and things that were mostly people piled out. Their screeches of incomprehensible literary references echoed through the hallway.

Turn right now, Axon said.

I banked sharply right. A wall loomed three feet in front of me, threatening to body check me if I didn’t stop. I kept running. If you can’t trust the voices in your head, you shouldn’t be walking into a giant office-slug to begin with. A second later I smashed into something wet. It was an enormous membrane disguised as a wall, and Decker and I tore right through it and fell onto the floor. And by “floor,” I mean “organs.” We were back inside the giant slug’s guts.

I turned around to see a half dozen business-slugs trudging towards us. Bits of them have fallen off, and there was slug poking through various parts of their outfits. The torn edges of the membrane-wall swung closed like a cat flap and began to stitch themselves up.

I’m reinforcing the membrane, said Axon. It won’t hold them back for long.

Of course it wouldn’t. It never does. Decker was already standing, and she reached down to help me to my feet.

“That was fun,” she said. “What’s next?”

Head forward through the passageways. I’ll guide you. You’ve got less than three minutes.

We started forward at a trot. Once again I appreciated the texture of slug-insides on my unshod right foot. At least I still had my sock.

“Those people were slugs,” I said as we trekked along what might have been an enormous slug kidney. “And this thing we’re inside is a slug. How does that work?”

“It’s not a slug,” said Decker. “It’s a snail.”

“Huh?”

“When I broke through the lobby I ended up in this crazy maze that looked like it was made of colored porcelain. I solved it when I realized it was a snail’s shell and the twists followed the golden ratio. What did you get up to?”

“I opened a lot of doors,” I said. Damn. Whenever we got split up she always made it sound like she had wild fantasy adventures while I filed the paperwork. Which was more or less how our delivery business worked, now that I think about it.

“Are you going to leave that eyeball on your face?” Decker asked, “because you are totally pulling it off.”

Here we are, said Axon before I could respond.

“What, here?” I asked.

“Is this it?” asked Decker. She swung her bag around to her front and unzipped the top. “I’ve got a bag of sand in case we have to match the weight of an idol on a pressure switch.”

“There’s nothing here,” I said.

It’s through that membrane there. You’ll have to find a way through.

I stepped forward and touched a piece of wall that was apparently a membrane. It stretched from floor to ceiling, about seven feet up, and was made of a thick, tough material. It’d take a lot time to hack through with the Damascus steel broadsword that I conveniently forgot to bring. Or own in the first place.

“How much time do we have?”

A minute and a half.

“Crap. Maybe there’s something in the package that’ll get us through.”

No. The package is for when you meet Sigmurethra.

“This is a snail, right?” asked Decker. “Et voila.” She reached into her bag and pulled out an unopened two pound box of coarse flake Kosher salt.

“Why the hell do you have that?” I asked.

“You never know when you’re going to have to bind demons,” she said. “Or Kosher a side of beef.”

“You’ve never done any of those things!”

She grinned, tore open the top of the box, and threw the entire contents onto the membrane.

“I don’t think this will work at this scale,” I said. “Factoring in biology, I mean.”

“Of course it will,” said Decker. “Esoteric sources show that Tsunade, paramour of Jiraiya the Gallant, utilized salt to develop her slug-based magic system.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but sure enough, as we watched the membrane dissolved into a pile of shriveled, desiccated organ meat. I don’t know if it was magic or osmosis, but it worked.

Once it was gone, the flesh-wall revealed an ordinary looking room. Unlike the office building, this one really did look ordinary. It resembled a small apartment, and I could see cheap Ikea furniture, one of those green fridges left over from the sixties, and the back of a 22 inch CRT TV.

The only thing unusual about the room, aside from the fact that it was in the middle of a giant snail, was the fact that the walls and the ceiling were all covered in pictures. Pictures of flowers, of grass, of gardens, and of other snails. They were all from a low angle, and shot with craft and artistry. If snails had photo contests, these would be serious competitors. There were also pieces of paper with streaks of slime across them in some kind of pattern.

It’s writing, said Axon. Writing in snail.

Snails have a language? I asked.

They do now. Right here. In this room.

Can you read it?

I’m working on that.

“We have a live one,” said Decker. I hadn’t noticed her walk into the room. She stood just past the television and waved me towards her.

I walked over and saw what she was pointing at. Just past the TV there was a small table. On it sat a small, ordinary looking snail, staring at the screen. Until that moment, I wouldn’t have been sure I could tell the difference between a terrestrial gastropodic that happened to be facing a television and one that was actively watching TV. But how that I saw it, it was obvious. The TV was showing some kind of gardening program, close ups of grass and flowers, some shots of snails slowly munching on weeds and just really enjoying themselves.

“Holy shit,” I said.

Decker looked over at me. “You’ve got something, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”

It hit me all at once, with the weird logic lat lets you know when your cat wants the chicken instead of the fish. The most dangerous thing in the world, whether you’re talking snail monsters or world leaders, is a crappy imagination given the resources to make it real.

“This is all like, snail fantasy,” I said. “Gourmet snail-restaurant advertising. Snail porn, maybe, but that cheapens it.”

“But snails barely have brains,” said Decker. She wasn’t contradicting me. Just exploring the edges of my idea. “They can’t process art or porn or art-porn even if someone gave it to them. Their minds are too small.”

“That’s the point,” I said. “Somehow, for some reason, someone has taught this snail how to dream.”

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Prologue Part 4

Office

Prologue: Why Gardening Doesn’t Scale

Part 4

I ran towards the closest of the two remaining doors. I had a lot of experience doing stupid things while holding my breath, but my chest still felt like it had been kicked by a mermaid wearing a flipper shaped wedged heel shoe.

This isn’t the right door, said Axon. Move on.

Right. Does that mean you are fully synced? I asked.

Enough to know this is null data zone.

Okay, I’ll be quick. I didn’t want to leave out any door if she wasn’t fully synced. There was an outside chance she was wrong, and even if she wasn’t there might be an Axe of Smiting or something behind the door. Also, I play too many video games. I grabbed the handle.

Stop. The word smashed into my consciousness, like there was an anvil in my head, and someone had dropped it into a cartoon piano player who was also in my head, then hit the anvil with a big stick.

What the fuck? What was that for? I’m only taking a look.

There’s no axe of smiting. Damn mind riding. We have less than two minutes. Don’t waste time.

Alright, I know better than to argue with you when you’re like this. So I didn’t. I started to turn the handle instead. But she was too quick for me.

Stop or I’ll fill your head with close up pictures of red monkey ass.

Damn. My kryptonite.

Can you…can you do that? I asked.

Do you actually want to find out?

Nutsack. Okay, fine. If it’s that important to you. I turned away. Then it hit me. There was only one explanation for this behavior. Okay, there were probably five hundred, but only one I was smart enough to come up with in the moment. She’s in there, isn’t she?

Axon didn’t answer for a moment. It felt like a long time, taking into account the fact that this whole interchange was at the speed of thought and only took a few seconds.

There is a greater than 74% chance that she is.

God fuck it, Axon! You know how important this is to me.

That’s why we can’t get sidetracked. If you open that door you are going to get sucked in like you always do, and the timer will run down. This is destructive behavior, Dendrite. We can’t allow it.

I sighed. She had won, and there was no point arguing. Instead, I twisted the handle and shoved open the door.

And there she was. The scene that greeted me looked different than anything I’d seen in the slug-building so far. Oh, sure, the classroom inside didn’t look too far out of place with the rest of the office. The walls were a different color, and the chairs were a different design. And the esoteric engineering specs and mathematically paradoxical building blueprints that cluttered the walls, ceiling, desks, and every other available surface didn’t fit with anything I’d seen so far. But it was more fundamentally different than could be accounted for by any of that. It didn’t belong. I knew, because she was sitting there. The girl with the raven hair.

She sat hunched over a notebook, furiously scrawling away. She didn’t see me as I lumbered in; she was too intent on her writing, like there was a bomb in the paper that would explode if she wrote less than 50 words a minute. As she wrote, something bizarre happened to everything else in the room. All of the notes and drawings and everything taped all over the walls and drawn on the blackboard pulsed, like they were trying to peel off of their surfaces and fly towards her.

“Hello,” I said. My voice cracked a little, because of course it did. “My name is Darius. I’ve been looking for you, and…”

Her head jerked up from her writing towards the sound of my voice. She looked straight at me, eyes wide.

“Darius?” she mouthed the words, but no sound came out. Then she said something else, something very urgent that I couldn’t make out.

“What are you saying?” I said, my voice thick with urgency. “I can’t understand.”

“You need…” and then a string of unintelligibility.

“What? I need what? Tell me!”

She started, as if she heard a terrifying sound. She looked behind her. Then she looked towards me, a look of terrified panic on her face. I blinked. For that micro moment while my eyes closed everything was dark.

Then I heard Axon’s voice in my head.

I’m glad you are finally seeing sense. Now let’s go. One more door.

I was standing outside the door I had just opened, my hand still on the handle. Apparently, I had never even opened it. Did I imagine all of that? No, it was too real. I was struck with a moment of ontological agony at the paradox of what had just happened, but it was balanced out by relief that I wouldn’t have to find out if Axon could make good on her monkey ass threat.

I turned, and ran towards the next door. One of the office workers, or slug blood cells, whatever the hell they were, stepped around a corner and into the hallway. A man in a dark grey suit. I almost collided with him, but at the last moment I dove to the side and narrowly avoided it. The momentum was too much, and I couldn’t slow myself down. I crashed into the door. It knocked the air out of my lungs.

“Excuse me?” The man turned around and looked me in the eye. “And who might you be? I don’t think I know you, and I know everyone around here, yes I do.”

Fuck. My cover is blown.

It’s okay, said Axon. Stay calm. They’ve noticed you, and will certainly do horrible things to each of your orifices if you give them the opportunity. But all you need to do is get through that door.

Right. Just needed to get through that door.

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I’m just the new janitor. I just need to get into this door here, do a spot of cleaning.”

Why are you doing an Indian accent? asked Axon in my head.

It’s Pakistani. And I don’t know; I was nervous.

“The new janitor?” said office guy. “I didn’t hear anything about a new janitor. No, that doesn’t seem very likely at all. It’s not like we’re running out of janitors.” He turned around and called out to a woman at the other end of the hall, the only other person visible in this area, “Hey Meg, have you heard anything about a new janitor?”

Now’s your chance, said Axon. Go.

I turned around and faced the door. I took a deep breath, but chances were it was too late for that; he had already noticed me. I wouldn’t be able to hide. But like Axon said, this was it. Whatever mission goal I had in this place, with this package hanging under my left arm, was through this door. All I had to do was enter, and perform whatever task I needed to, and this would all be over. I reached down to turn the handle.

The door swung inward rapidly before I had a chance to touch it, and someone on the other side started to leap out into the hallway. Then she saw me, and she stopped. It was Decker, still wearing her ski mask, brandishing what looked like a chair leg in her hand like a weapon.

“Darius,” she said, “you’re here, awesome. Did you drop off the package? Can we get out of here, because there’s a lot of people right behind me just that would totally get off on killing us.”

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Twigs, Part 2 of 2

scary

Another 37, Day 10

Twigs
A Short Horror Story
Part 2 of 2 (Part 1)

 

It was when I was walking home from school, this time in the spring. Now that I think about it, it was the last day of school, so there was an extra bounce in my step. Most of the time I walked home with my best friend Genna, but her parents had picked her up directly from school so they could set out on vacation straight away. So I was all by myself. I knew I would miss Genna for the weeks she was gone, but summer vacation stretched out in front of me and nothing could bring me down.

I took the long route home along the back roads and over near the edge of town where the rich people lived. Or at least, what he had that passed for rich people. They had gardens in full spring bloom and trees covered in blossoms and it was beautiful. I used to go out for walks by myself all of the time, and even though I liked walking with Genna or my other friends I realized that I missed this solitary time to just be out in nature with no one around to distract me. I wondered why I never did this anymore. A moment later, I remembered.

“Pick us up,” said a deep, scraggly voice just a few feet away from me.

I shrieked and jumped into the air. My bag flew off my shoulder and smacked against the ground. I heard a muffled shattering noise that could only mean the unfinished Snapple in the bottle pocket had broken, and my books and notes would be soaked. I didn’t care.

“No,” I said, half to myself. “No, you’re not real.”

“That’s right,” said the voice. The voices. “We’re not real. Nothing to worry about. Just pick us up.”

I couldn’t do that. Anything but that. I had to get out of here. That’s what I thought, and I barely noticed my outstretched fingers until they brushed against the bark, and felt it pulsate.

“No!” I screamed. I jumped back and began to run. I didn’t stop to pick up my bag. I didn’t turn around to look. At one point I tripped and scraped my knees and my hands, but I just picked myself up and kept on running.

I burst through the gate of my front yard ten minutes later, slamming so hard against the fence that white paint flew off in chips as it crashed against the other side. I hunched over and breathed in ragged, gasping pants. Fire lanced up both of my sides, the scratches on my knees screamed, and my lungs felt like I would cough them out in bloody clots. But at least I was home. At least I was safe.

“We won’t forget about you, little girl.” The words scratched their way into my ears. I turned in horror towards the sound to see a small branch just a few feet away. It undulated on the neatly trimmed grass. “We never forget. So go ahead. Pick us up.”

 

I locked myself in my room that night and hid under the covers. When my mom came to wake me the next day for First Day of Summer Breakfast I told her I was sick and I couldn’t eat anything.

“You do look pretty ragged,” she said as she felt my forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever. Better just get some rest. You look like you haven’t slept in weeks.”

“I feel like it,” I croaked. It wasn’t far off. I hadn’t slept a single minute the night before.

“Poor baby,” she said. “I’ll make you some chamomile, okay? I’ll bring it right up. Let me know if you need anything. I can make you some soup.”

“Maybe later,” I said. My voice was very scratchy. I didn’t like the way it sounded. “Thanks, mom. Mom, can I ask you something?”

I was about to bring it up. The twigs. Then I saw her face. It froze up, into a mask. Before I even said anything.

“Yes?” she asked, her voice utterly empty.

“Nothing, mom. Nothing at all.”

 

I didn’t leave the house for a days. It wasn’t like me, but the rest of the family chalked it up to my illness. I did feel ill, but not for the reasons they thought. So I stayed in and I read books and I watched Netflix and played card games on my tablet. Anything to keep me busy, keep me from thinking. And I tried not to look out the window. They were out there.

Was I going insane? Surely there weren’t really living, talking twigs littering the streets of my town, begging stray girls to pick them up. I tried to tell myself that. That I was crazy, or that I had just had some kind of weird dream. I could almost believe it, except that it all felt so real. I could hear the blend of deep, craggly voices, thick with anticipation as I reached for them. I could smell the lilacs in bloom in the exact spot where it happened. I had always loved that scent, but it now it sickened me.

It took a week before I dared put a foot outside the house. I volunteered to check the mail. It had been my turn a few times, but I got out of my chores because I had been sick. My parents both believed me because I never stayed in this long, and because what kid fakes being sick right after school lets out? But after a week trapped in my own house I felt cramped and restless, and I knew I couldn’t stuff myself inside forever.

So I walked through the front door, hesitantly. I inched towards the mailbox, one step at a time, glancing in all directions and starting at the noise of a squirrel as it scurried up a nearby tree. I made it to the mailbox. I grabbed the mail. I was almost in the front door when I heard it.

“We never forget.”

This was real. This wasn’t going away. I was terrified, but I couldn’t let it keep me from the world. I had to do something. I had to tell someone. Someone I could trust. Genna. I had to tell Genna. She would be back from vacation in a week, and I would let her knew. She was my best friend, and she was the smartest person I knew aside from my dad and my 6th grade math teacher, but I was scared to talk about this to an adult. Genna would believe me. Genna would know what to do.

I counted down the days until her return on my room calendar. The stretched out far, far longer than summer vacation days are supposed to. I went outside a few times. I wore headphones so I could blast my music.  I tried to stay as far as I could away from fallen branches, but it was impossible. Sometimes I saw movement out of the corner of my eyes. Sometimes I thought I heard a voice, and I turned my music up. All the while a single question ran through my head: what would happen? What would happen if I picked them up? The thought terrified me. But at the same time…no. Best not to think about that.

Finally the day of Genna’s return arrived. I texted her in the few days beforehand that I missed her and I really wanted to see her as soon as possible. She said she felt the same. So it wasn’t hard to arrange to go over to her house the day she got back.

“Hey Stace,” she said as she opened her front door and I hugged her. “What’s up?”

“Nothing much,” I said as I stepped in. “It’s just been boring around here without you.”

“I know, right?” she said.

“Hello, Stacey!” her mom called to me we walked through the living room towards the stairs up to Genna’s room.

“Hi Mrs. Beaumont!” I said to her.

“You kids want some snacks?” she asked.

“Maybe later, mom,” said Genna, and we raced up the stairs.

“How was Paris?” I asked.

“It was super fun,” she said. “But I wish you could have been there. And we went to way too many museums.”

I giggled.

“So what’s on your mind?” she asked. “You sounded like you had something way important to tell me.”

“Yeah, it’s…it’s nothing. I was just bored, like I said.” She gave me a skeptical look. I wanted to tell her. I had to tell her. But not just yet. Not when I had this chance to have fun with my best friend and forget about things for a while.

So we sat on her bed and she showed me the pictures she took on her phone at the Eiffel Tower and her “favorite French cafe.” Then we played with her dolls for a bit. We were both way too old to play with dolls, of course, but that’s why we only did it when we were together. Mutually assured social destruction. Then she showed me the fan fiction she was writing and I gave it a Serious Critique.

It was fun, but as time went on my stomach started to twist up. I couldn’t put this off much longer. Did I really want to tell her? I had to. They were still out there. They weren’t going away. If I didn’t tell someone I would scream. So after we ate dinner and I helped her do the dishes we ended up back in her room, and I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer.

“Genna, can I ask you something weird?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course.”

“No, I mean, this is really weird. You might not like me anymore after I tell you. It’s that weird.”

“Weirder than when you told me you liked Josh Corbin?” she gave me a wicked smile.

“Yes,” I said, and my voice sobered. “This is serious.”

“Jesus Stacey,” Genna said. “You’re freaking me out. What’s going on?”

I took a deep breath. “Have you ever, I mean, have you ever seen something so strange you couldn’t make sense of it? Like, something…I mean, have you ever heard of a stick, like, a twig or something…talking?”

Genna’s eyes widened, and her face became a mask of horror. I heard her door open behind me, and the sound of footsteps.

“Did you…did you hear a twig speak to you?” She sounded terrified, more scared than I had ever heard her.

“That’s normal,” said a voice behind me. It was utterly without inflection. I turned around and saw her mom holding a tray of cut fruit. Her face was expressionless. “Don’t worry about that. It’s normal.”

“Mrs. Beaumont?” I said. “Are you okay.”

“Everything is okay,” she said mechanically. “Everything is normal.”

I looked back at Stacey, and she regarded her mom in shock. Then Mrs. Beaumont’s countenance softened. “I thought you girls might like some dessert.”

“Thanks mom,” said Genna. And I muttered my thanks as well. Mrs. Beaumont put down the tray and smiled at us and walked out of the room.

“What did you see?” Genna hissed in a loud whisper. “What did you hear, did you…did you touch them?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, almost, I…”

“Don’t pick them up!” Her voice trembled. “For the love of God, Stacey, whatever you do, don’t pick them up!”

“Did you…Genna, have you seen them? Have you heard them, too?”

She shook her head. “Not me. But my sister did. She told me, before…”

“What are you talking about? When did this happen?”

“Isabelle,” she said softly. “ A few years ago. My little sister. Isabelle.”

“Genna, what the hell are you talking about?” I looked at my friend in confusion. The next words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to realize what they meant. What they suggested. “You’ve never had a sister.”

“Yes,” she said as she closed her eyes. “I did.”

Genna and I didn’t talk about it anymore, after that. But things between us were never the same. Sometimes secrets bring people together, and sometimes they make you think about things you don’t want to think about. I didn’t ask her about Isabelle. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe it was because I did want to know, and that scared me even more.

That was a long time ago, now. The twigs were telling the truth. They never forgot about me. Oh, I didn’t always hear them. I didn’t always see them writhing just on the edge of sight. Sometimes years would go by with nothing. But they always came back. And I could never forget them, not for a single day. Any stick, any severed branch could be one of them. Could speak to me, could tempt me.

They’re talking more and more these days. They’re getting harder to resist. Harder to ignore the voices that sometimes come from everywhere. More and more I just want to stop running. I don’t want to be scared anymore. And maybe there’s something else, too. There’s always been something else. Something that made my fingers reach out before I could stop them, so long ago, in that park, in the twilight. Maybe I want to see what happens. Maybe they spoke to me, of all people, for a reason.

It would be so easy. So very, very easy. Then it would be over. Then I would have my answers. The simplest thing in the world. All I need to do is reach out

and pick them up.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 5

A Planetary Nebula Gallery (NASA, Chandra, 10/10/12)

 

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

You saw it. On the day that Graemoreax rose up to surround everything and an eleven year old girl soared towards its massive form, you saw it. We all did. We just didn’t know what we were looking at. We so rarely do. And so we didn’t notice. And we didn’t remember.

A strange sensation coursed through Ari’s body as she burst through the earth’s atmosphere and out towards the sparkling firmament. It felt tingly, like the air right before a summer storm. Times a thousand. It was so intense she could barely stand it, but it wasn’t a bad feeling. On the contrary. She felt excited. So excited she thought her bones were going to leap out of her skin and dive into the luminescence.

That’s what it is, she thought. I’m diving into starlight.

It pressed against her body, rubbed against her hair and made it stand on end. She had spent so much time looking up into the starry night, drinking in the tiny trickle of magic that made it down to the ground. Now it was everywhere. She was swimming in a Van Gogh painting. Her tiny ship of cards had punched through the barrier that separated all of the dense, gravity bound creatures that scurried across the earth from the liquid light of the heavens.

She laughed, and the sound was as loud as a gunshot in her ears. It was so…terrestrial. So real. It didn’t belong here, somehow. The things that swam in the interstellar ocean did not laugh. But at the same time it was not unwelcome. She didn’t get a sense of fear from the enormous creature she now hurtled towards. Most likely, these things didn’t fear, either. What could something like this possibly be afraid of?

But no, that wasn’t quite right. This thing wasn’t afraid of her. At least, she didn’t think it did. It was hard to read its facial expressions when it had a billion billion faces, and none of them really worthy of being called that. The way it looked at Ari felt more like curiosity or fascination than fear. But just because it was big and powerful didn’t mean it couldn’t be afraid. Elephants were afraid of mice. Uncle Jacob had a friend who was a mixed martial arts champion, but she was so afraid of pathogenic microorganisms that she brought pockets full of sanitizing wipes with her wherever she went. Even though she had never actually seen a single amoeba.

The creature grew larger and more clear as Ari approached, but she still couldn’t make out its features very well. It was like it didn’t really have features. It was shadow and flame, like a Balrog. Like, Morgoth, who had made the Balrogs. No, like the thing that had made Morgoth.

She approached incredibly quickly. She looked behind her and she could barely see the earth. No, she couldn’t see the earth at all.

Because my eyes are closed.

The realization surprised her. She hadn’t noticed that her eyes were still closed. It felt natural, and she had no inclination to open them now. She wouldn’t be able to see anything if she did. The glowing nebulae around her lit up the universe around her more brightly than full moonlight, but if she opened her eyes there would be nothing but darkness.

The one thing on the being that she could see more palpably as she neared were its mouths. It seemed to be almost entirely made of mouths. The burning darkness that only suggested a shape was there merely to bind the mouths together. So they wouldn’t fly off. But still, she couldn’t make out any more actual detail on the mouths. They didn’t become clearer, as such. It was more like they became more real. More solid. They still looked like the rough approximation of mouths. No, that wasn’t it. Like proto-mouths. What mouths looked like before the universe had the physics and matter to make lips and teeth and gums.

But mouths they were. As she neared she noticed that they moved. The entire creature was moving, uncoiling around like a great, many-bodied snake. But the mouths moved in unison with each other, and it was a different kind of movement than the rest of it. Its body slithered as if pacing, or like a person shifting weight from foot to foot. The mouth movement was more directed. More conscious. They were opening. Every single one of its uncountable number of mouths was opening. Every. Last. One.

Horror welled up inside of her at the realization.

It’s going to eat me! The thought screamed through her head. Instinctively, she yanked on the throttle-stick in her hand. Her Ship of Cards screeched to a halt. With a sickening wrench her body flew forward, and she crashed into the hull just a few inches from the front of her face. The thin plastic walls collapsed the instant she collided with them. Cards sprayed out everywhere as the ship burst into pieces. Ari’s body hurtled forward, unsupported, into the brightly colored vacuum of space. Towards the creature. Towards its infinite open mouths.

Panic seized Ari’s entire being. She was in space. She couldn’t breath. She clamped her mouth shut and pressed her hands over her nose. How much oxygen did she have left? Was she going to freeze, her blood turn into beautiful red crystals floating in the endless darkness?

Light flashed in her vision and her head swam as her brain struggled for air. Images spiked into her mind, sharp and clear and strong. She saw madre, splashing paint onto her face with a wide-bristled brush. She felt daddy’s arms underneath her armpits as he picked her up and twirled her around underneath the dappled forest sunlight of their backyard. And she saw Uncle Jacob. He smiled up at her, sadly, from some place very far beneath her. He was somewhere very strange. His eyes shown up at her like twin moons. His teeth were bright, and the twinkled like stars.

BREATH.

The voice that uttered the word was so surprising, and so enormous, that she dropped her hands from her mouth and gasped without realizing it.

“What?” she said.

BREATH, the voice said again, shaking the universe around her like a volcano had erupted next to each one of her ears. BREATH. YOU ARE SAFE.

“I…I am?” As she said it, she realized it was true. She could breathe quite normally, although it didn’t exactly feel like breathing. And she wasn’t hurtling through space anymore, either. Had she ever been? She couldn’t quite remember. It was like waking up from a dream. But the ground beneath her feet was perfectly solid. She looked down, and gasped again.

Beneath the soles of her shiny black shoes, she stood on…something. It was kind of like scaly skin, and kind of like lava, and kind of like what darkness would look like if you could make it into paving material . She didn’t know what it was made of, but there was no mistaking what it was. She stood on the skin of the creature with the infinite mouths. She had arrived.

YOU ARE SAFE. Ari threw her hands up to cover her ears, but it didn’t help. She felt like the voice was going to shake her apart.

“Do you have to talk like that?”

IT… the creature hesitated. It was caught off guard. Ari was surprised that such a thing could be caught off guard by a simple question. THIS IS AS IT SPEAKS. Ari’s brain rattled inside of her skull.

“Well it isn’t very pleasant,” said Ari. “Can’t do you something about it?”

There was a long pause. Ari tried to read what it was thinking on its many faces. They filled her entire vision, and in shape and form were utterly inhuman. Not even like an animal, or anything spun from the matter of the universe. But all the same she thought she saw contemplation, there. Like someone trying to work out a challenging but not impossible math problem. She could also see that its mouths were still opening. Very slowly, but they were opening. Was it still going to eat her? Clearly it didn’t need its mouths to speak. Not like a person did.

“It is done,” said the creature in a much softer voice. Now that it wasn’t shaking her apart, she could hear its tone and timbre. It sounded to Ari like a whole bunch of voices speaking together in chorus. Some were deep, and some were high, and even though they were simultaneous she could pick out the thread of each individual voice. It was strange, but not altogether unpleasant. She decided she had probably been wrong to think it wanted to eat her. At the very least, there was no use fixating on that right now.

“Thank you,” said Ari. “My name is Ariana. Ari, though. What is your name?”

“It is called GRAEMOREAX.” The last word was enormous, again. Like it was the only way to say it. Most of the voices uttered that word. Graemoreax. They stretched it out, each syllable resounding across the brightness around her. But others of the creature’s myriad voices said other things. “Archkthonios,” whatever that was, and something about “uncountable toothless maws” and “burning at the heart” of something or other. One tiny, beautiful voice said, “devourer of the eversong,” and it made Ari’s heart ache.

So that’s what happened to the eversong, she thought, though she had no idea why.

“Nice to meet you, Graemoreax,” the name felt flat on her tongue. It wasn’t the same name as the creature had uttered. Anymore than saying the word “tsunami” is the same standing underneath the wave as it crashed down.

There was another long pause. Then Graemoreax said, “It is pleased as well.”

“What do you mean, it?” Ari asked. “Aren’t you it?”

The creature paused again, and once again its “faces” looked contemplative and puzzled. Perhaps this thing was slow to react because it was so large. Or perhaps Ari was merely asking difficult questions.

“We are it,” said Graemoreax’s many voices. “We are pleased.”

“Good enough,” said Ari. She opened up her mouth to ask “what are you,” but then she realized that it had already answered. GRAEMOREAX. That was the answer. The creature had told her what it was, in a deeper and more comprehensive way than she herself could have answered the same question. This thing knew exactly what it was, and it had told her. She didn’t entirely understand its answer. But then, she hadn’t really expected to.

Ari didn’t know what else to say. It was almost funny; she travelled god-knows how many light years to get here, on a magic ship made of cards, and now she stared at this impossible, gargantuan beast and an impossible, gargantuan awkward silence hung between them. It was always this way when she met new people. Why should this be any different? She knew what she wanted to ask, but she couldn’t. Not yet. It might ruin everything. But she had to say something. So she asked the first important question the jumped to her mind.

“Why are you?”

It was out of her mouth before she realized it. She had long since learned not to ask questions like that anymore, because adults didn’t like to answer them and tended to brush her off when she asked. She asked Uncle Jacob why that was, once. His answer didn’t make very much sense.

“People are uncomfortable with too much curiosity.”

So Ari was surprised when Graemoreax’s gargantuan heads perked up all at once. So much movement in her field of vision made Ari’s head swim. It turned its many gazes upon her with increased intensity.

“That question has no answer,” it said.

Ari grimaced. “Is that just a fancy way of saying you don’t know?”

Graemoreax paused again, and then said, “We are before ‘why.’ We are of a time without reason, before reason. There is no why. We are.”

Ari considered this for a long moment. It occurred to her that her face must have the eleven-year-old girl equivalent of the ponderous look that had just possessed Graemoreax’s features. She wondered if the creature was trying to read her thoughts the way she had tried to read its. She shook this thought away and turned back to considering the strange thing it had just said.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said finally.

The infinite featureless holes that passed for Graemoreax’s eyes glared down at her. “We are before time. We are before matter. We are before mind and causality and reason. In the primordial destruction that spawned us—before spawning, before destruction, before the primordial—we were…”

“Okay, so you’re old,” Ari cut it off. “That doesn’t mean you have no why. It doesn’t mean you don’t matter.”

NOTHING CREATED US, its earthquake voice boomed out of it once more, and its coils shook beneath Ari’s feet. She had to grasp tightly to the coils of blackness that grew from its skin like hairs to keep from being hurled into space.

Then it steadied itself, and continued. “We are undetermined. We no not matter, as you say, because we cannot. We have scoured every syllable of the Pits of Transcendent Articulation. We have raked our molecular claws across every crystalline grain of the Desert Behind.”

The space around Graemoreax bent into shapes and colors as it spoke. Half-formed images of the impossible vistas it described. Ari could almost feel those sharp grains between her fingertips.

“We have fought battles that raged on for three forevers. We have burned stars upon bonfires built from the charcoal of dried galaxies, and read the divinations in the castoff ashes. We have resonated along every note of the Neversong. There is nothing. We are nothing, and we grow weary.”

With each word she felt its weariness. It lay over her like cold, soaking woolen blanket. It pressed her down, made her flesh clammy. She wanted to lay down, go to sleep, never wake up. She felt its longing, its quiet, lonely desperation, its endless fatigue that could wear down planet-sized mountains. Its spark had dimmed long enough, and it had gone to the stars, only to find no rest their, either.

Gone to the stars.

Anger spiked through her as she realized what she was hearing. “You’re giving up!” she shouted, and she knew it was true. “You’re giving up! Why does everyone give up? It’s so stupid, you people! You all give up! Just like madre. Just like, just like Uncle Jacob…” her voice trailed off.

“We did not give up,” said Graemoreax. “We cannot. We searched, and found nothing. There is nothing.”

She gasped in horror as it hit her. She looked up at it, at its gigantic, uncountable mouths. They were opening. Every single one of them was opening.

“You weren’t going to eat me,” she said softly. “You were going to eat everything. The entire universe.”

“There is nothing,” it said again, this time with a hint of desperation. Of defensiveness. “We searched. For so very long. We clung to our fire. It burned, and it dimmed, and still we searched. For so long. We found nothing. That is all that is to be found. It is all you will find, if your fire burns long enough.”

“Just because you found nothing doesn’t mean it wasn’t there!” Ari snapped.

“We have experienced everything in the four universes. Tasted every star, mingled with every mind, spanned every…”

“Have you met Hobdob?”

Graemoreax stared down at her, saying nothing.

“He’s a grass goblin. He has tufts of grass coming out of his ears like hair, and he writes terrible poetry about ferns and lilacs getting together and falling in love, and he’s delightful.” She put defiance in this last word.

“We…”

“How about Sinifi?” Ari continued. “She’s a nightingale. She sang herself out of…out of a fragment of the eversong. What, you thought you’d eaten it all up?”

Graemoreax’s eye-holes widened.

“What about Wonder Woman? Have you ever dressed up as Wonder Woman? Well?”

NO.

“Ha!” Ari laughed. “How can you say you’ve experienced everything in the, what was it, four universes? How can you say you’ve experienced everything if you’ve never even dressed up as Wonder Woman? All you need is a sparkly protractor. You people are all the same. There’s a billion-grillion things that you don’t know anything about, because you haven’t ever even stopped to give them a chance. Daddy says Hobdob isn’t real because you can’t pick him up and put him on the hood of your car.” Tears burned her eyes, but she didn’t care. “Well so what? Lots of things aren’t real. You can’t touch them. Like love and dreams about billions of fireflies and…and Darth Vader. But they’re there. And they’re amazing.”

Ari paused to catch her breath. She was ranting, now, but she didn’t care. But before she could continue, Graemoreax spoke again.

“You can do these things?”

“I can…what?”

“You can show us these things?” Graemoreax asked again. “These…sparky protractors?”

“Yes!” Ari cried out. “I can show you all of it! Everything! We can dress you up as Wonder Woman and we can sail the seas of grass and…we can go to the Desert Behind, and I can show everything you missed last time. Because I’m sure there is a lot of stuff. In the sand.”

It stared at her for another long moment.

“Very well,” it said.

It look Ari a moment to register what she had just heard. “Very well?”

“It is so.”

“So you’re not going to eat the universe? Universes?”

“We will let you show us what it is we have not seen,” said Graemoreax. “If there truly are such things.”

“So you won’t devour the universes if I can prove to you there is stuff worth not-devouring?”

“That is so. We will give you twelve breaths.”

Twelve breaths?” Ari said. “Only twelve breaths? That’s not very…wait, how long is one of your breaths?”

Once again the space around the creature shifted, colored, and shaped. She saw a great blue sphere. It took her a second to realize it was a planet, seen from high above. It took her another second to recognize the outline of the single, enormous landmass surrounded by oceans. It was the continents of the earth. All of them, joined together as one. Before they broke apart. Ari burst out laughing.

“It’s a deal,” she said.

“Very well,” said Graemoreax. Did it sound excited, or was it just her imagination. “Lead on.”

Ari took a deep breath, and nodded. “I will. But I should probably get back to my birthday party first. People are probably…well, okay, they’re probably not worried. But I should still get back. Is that alright with you?”

The heads all nodded. Every single one of them. It was a startlingly human gesture.

“Just one more question before I go,” said Ari. Now was the time to ask. It couldn’t wait any longer, and she had to ask. “Are you real? Is any of this real? Is this really happening?”

Graemoreax gave another one of its long pauses. She was going to have to get used to that.“We are not real, Ariana,” it said at last. “None of this is real. Yes, all of this is happening.”

She nodded again. “That makes sense. Sort of. So how do I get back?”

“It is simple,” said the creature. “You already know.”

“Yes,” said Ari. “I suppose I do.”

Then, for the first time since she had sailed off in her magic ship, she opened her eyes.

 


 

 

“There you are, sweetie.”

Ari heard madre’s voice from behind her as she walked through the hall. There were still a few people left, standing in the corners of the house, chatting quietly with empty cups in their hands.

“Yes,” said Ari. “Here I am. Is there still any cake left?”

“No,” said Madre. Then she smiled. “But I save a piece for you.”

Ari walked over and wrapped her arms around her mother. “Thanks, madre. You’re the best.”

“Happy birthday, Ariana.”

Ari smiled turned to walked into the kitchen to get her cake.

“You’re friend was asking where you were,” said Madre.

“My friend?”

“A black boy,” said madre. “With pretty eyes. Someone from school?”Ari blushed a little and nodded. “He said to tell you he’d see you.”

“Oh,” said Ari. She didn’t know how to feel about that, just now. She decided not to think about it.

“So where were you?” Madre asked. “I barely saw you the entire party.”

Ari grinned. “I went to the stars,” she said. Her mother’s eyes widened, just a little. “I went to the stars, and then I came back.”

She thought for a moment that madre was going to ask what that meant. But then she didn’t. “That’s nice. You enjoy your cake, dear.”

“I will, madre.”

Ari turned once again and walked towards the kitchen. She was grateful her mother had saved her a slice. It was very good cake. Of course, she’d had plenty of cake at the party, and if she had any more she would feel terrible the next day. But that didn’t matter.

It wasn’t for her.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 4

Attack Of The Playing Cards

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Imagine you are hand-washing dishes. The sink is full of soapy water, and you are scrubbing away at the dried tomato sauce stuck to a plate from your favorite mocha-colored tableware set. Your fingers are starting to prune, but it’s a little cold in the kitchen and the warm water feels good on your hands.
You aren’t really thinking much about the task of cleaning plates and cutlery. Your mind wanders to something a friend told you earlier today involving a rumor for an upcoming movie about panda bears you’re both excited about, and you’re wondering if the rumor is true. Then, all of a sudden, the plate in your hand begins to sing.

It lets out a slow, sonorous note that resonates throughout the kitchen. For a moment you entertain the idea that you are imagining it, or that the music is coming from somewhere else. The thought passes quickly. As crazy as it is, there is no denying the reality of what is happening in front of you. Your plate is singing. You barely have time to even gawk in amazement when the sponge in your other hand joins in, a smooth tenor joining the plate’s resplendent baritone.

They are singing opera. You know barely anything about opera, but this is unmistakable. The words are in what might be German, but it doesn’t matter that you don’t recognize them and can’t understand them. They are stirring. A moment later the soap bubbles chime in a high chorus of joyous soprano voices that crackle and pop in the air exactly the way you would expect soap bubbles to sound if they were operatic sopranos.

You’ve never cared for opera before, but that doesn’t matter. You’ve never really heard it before. By the time the tomato sauce on the plate adds its tones of loss and heartache to the mix, you can barely move. You are paralyzed as your mind is moved in more new and powerful directions than any previous moment in your life. You have no idea how to react to this impossibility that fills the world around you. Should you be freaking out that you are either going insane or will have to rethink everything you have ever known about sentience and life and the entire universe? Should you just give in and burst into tears at the sublime beauty of it all, and worry about everything else later? Are you moved because it is a beautiful performance, because your plates are singing, or because you suddenly realize the world has had glorious opera and singing plates all along, and you are only just now coming to notice?

Do you have all of that in mind? Good. Now ditch all of it, and imagine that you are a precambrian archkthonios, who was ancient when the second universe was birthed from the egg that remained when the black sun that first shone darkness upon the primordial destruction before existence collapsed in upon itself. You are Graemoreax, and the opera-singing-plates-and-sponges metaphor is a single trickle in the planet-sized ocean of what washes over you when, against everything you have ever known and believed, an eleven year old mortal girl stands on a pile of coats and looks up into infinite featureless holes that pass for your eyes.

 


 

“I have to get closer,” said Ari. She knew it was ridiculous as she said it. This thing was nested in the stars millions of light years away. Plus, as far as she could tell it was larger than the entire universe. It wasn’t really up anymore than it was down. But none of that changed the fact that when she strained and stood on her toes she could see it more clearly. It didn’t make sense, but that didn’t make it less true.

“What is it?” asked Stefan. Even in her nearly overwhelmed state, Ari noticed that he didn’t sound either dismissive. Just excited. And curious.

“I don’t know,” said Ari. She put her hand over her eyes to block out the sunlight, but that didn’t help. She couldn’t see the sunlight through the ceiling. Just the stars. As she strained to look the enormous thing began to uncoil itself from its nest, like a billion snakes unfurling their bodies together. “It has a lot of heads. Well, maybe it does. I see a lot of mouths.”

“How many heads?”

“I…” the question took her aback. She tried to count them but she couldn’t. It wasn’t that there were too many; she couldn’t even count to one. As soon as she started she got confused. The numbers slipped off of the creature like water off a newly waxed car hood.

She grimaced. “If only I could see it better. I need to get closer.” She felt Stefan take her by the hand. She turned her gaze away from the impossible creature and looked into his eyes.

He grinned up at her. “Do you know how to get to the roof?”

 


 

Graemoreax knew about mortals and mortality, of course. The same way you know about dish soap. And in the same way it believed it knew what they were. It was there when every ingredient that made them up first came into existence, from the entropy that allowed for their ephemerality to the meat that serves as the platform for their evolution, maturation, and decay.

It knew exactly how much of the Devouring Allmind’s sundered mentality could exist within each body, and the complex machinery of cells, chemicals, and electrical impulses that shaped their functions. It had witnessed the generation from the latent energy of space of every photon that would ever bounce off of every mortal’s retina and join its brethren to paint a momentary picture of the tiny slice of the universe just in front of its eyes. In its enormous mind it understood all of these things, with a depth that no scientist, philosopher, academic, or occult magician ever would or could.

Yet absolutely none of that explained how and why an eleven year old girl now stood on a pile of coats and looked up into the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes. Every one of its uncountable heads shifted towards her. For the first time in hundreds of millions of years, every fragment of Graemoreax’s gaze turned towards a point in the universe small enough to fit into the trunk of a vehicle owned by one of the beings that lived on the life-bearing planet that orbited the brightest star in the galaxy that had coalesced inside its discarded toe-claw.

A sensation filled the archkthonios that, if translated to human terms, could only be called intense excitement. It had been a long, long time since last it felt like this. The allure of the mystery pulsed through its entire being, and is spasms could be felt throughout the four universes. It knew this might be a phantasm. A false trail, like so many others. It held only the tiniest flicker of hope that there might be even the hint of an answer to its question in the enigma of this mortal child. A flicker it might be, but eons had passed since it had last felt that much warmth.

Amidst the excitement, the Bearer of the Uncountable Toothless Maws that Snapped at the Black Dawn also felt something like gratitude that this new puzzle did come wrapped up in a mortal. Mortals occupied their forms for such a very short period of time, and they were so uncomplicated. It would simple to investigate this phenomenon before it finished devouring the four universes.

As she crawled up the pull-down ladder that led from the attic to the hatch that opened onto the roof, Ari was aware that the thing nestled in the stars stared at her. She didn’t feel it on the back of her neck the way that heroines did in stories. No, she could see it. Whatever direction she looked with her daydream-vision the creature’s eye-holes gazed back at her.

 


 

“Wow,” said Stefan as he emerged onto the roof. “You can see pretty far from here.”

Ari poked her way out of the hatch and pulled herself to her feet. Stefan was right. Even though this house wasn’t nearly as big as their Summerfax home, it was still the tallest house on the block. She could see out to all of the other houses and shops that made up this part of town. Bathed as it was in the light of all the colored stars, it was almost beautiful. Almost.

“It’s so windy!” Stefan exclaimed. He stretched out his arms and twirled around.

The wind made Ari’s eyes tear up and her chest ache the way lakes on overcast days or pan-flute music did. The way she felt when she thought about Uncle Jacob up there in the stars. The kind of sadness that poetry was made out of. The stiff October breeze carried the scent of changing leaves, and something else she couldn’t quite place.

“Stars,” she said as it dawned on her.

“Huh?” asked Stefan.

“The wind. It carries the scent of stars.”

Stefan’s expression became serious. “You’re right,” he said. Then he grinned again. “I’ve smelled that before but I never knew what it was.” Ari nodded.

“Can you see it better from here?” asked Stefan. “The monster?”

“It’s not a monster,” she said, and she realized it was true. At the same moment she noticed it’s myriad eyes do something very strange. They widened. In surprise? Could this thing be surprised, and by something she said? She was so small.

“So what is it?” asked Stefan. “Can you describe it?”

Ari shook her head. “I still can’t see it very well. I have to get closer. I have to get up there.”

“To the stars.” Stefan said. It wasn’t a question.

Ari groaned in frustration. How in the world was she supposed to get up there? She couldn’t fly. Even if her nightingale friend from Summerfax was here she doubted she could have carried her that for. She had a stuffed winged-hippo in her bedroom, Lorelei, but she was far too big to fit on Lorelei anymore.

“That settles it,” said Stefan. “You need a spaceship.”

“A spaceship?”

“Yes. A magic spaceship.”

Ari scrunched up her face. “And how are we supposed to get a magic spaceship?”

Stefan smiled again, showing all of his teeth. “I’ll make you one. I’ve just so happen to have some magic right here.” He slapped his hand against the back of his pants.

“In your butt?” Ari asked, confused. “You have magic in your butt?”

Stefan roared with laughter. “Well, yeah, but I meant in my pocket.”

He reached behind to where his shirt hung over his pants and pulled out a deck of playing cards. It was a little bigger than a normal deck. He must have had very large pockets. The case was made out of leather rather than the usual plastic, and when he took the cards out Ari saw that they didn’t look like normal cards, either. They looked a little like the tarot cards madre used to read before she stopped doing things like that. But they weren’t tarot cards. They had the same suits and characters as playing cards, only the art was fancier and more stylized. Older-looking. And unless Ari was mistaken, they were hand-drawn.

“Where did you get those?” asked Ari.

“Nicked them. Like I said.”

Ari knew from Uncle Jacob, who had spent a lot of time in London, that “nicked” was a British word for “stole.” She wondered vaguely where Stefan had learned the term.

“From the magician?” she asked, remembering how the magic mime daddy hired for the party had lost his cards.

The party, she thought. It seemed so strange to think that the worst birthday party she had ever had was still going on underneath her feet. Still going on despite the stars being out during the day, and this enormous creature wrapping itself around the universe. Probably no one down there realized she was gone. But they were probably all wondering where Stefan was. The thought could have filled her with resentment, but it didn’t. He’s up here. With me.

“Like I said,” said Stefan. “Magic!” He laid the cards out on the roof leaned two of them up against each other to make a V, which he then reinforced with a card perpendicular to either side. “Perfect for spaceship building.”

Ari clapped with delight. “Perfect.”

She watched as Stefan began to stack structure upon structure to build his Ship of Cards. Every so often he pulled a card out of his palm or his sleeve with sleight of hand just to make Ari laugh. Neither of them questioned why the wind, which even now made her hair whip along her face and his shirt billow out into a flapping sail, did not disturb the delicate shape that emerged from Stefan’s hands. After all, the cards were magic, the wind was scented of stars, and Ari was about to fly up to meet a creature with infinite eyes and uncountable mouths whose body surrounded the universe. What was there to question?

 


 

Graemoreax did not hunger for the ingestion of the four universes. It opened its mouths on that day not out of desire, but out of a deep conviction throughout its being that there was nothing in the universe to desire. But as it watched this mortal girl and her companion build a transportation vessel out of cards to carry the girl up and out of the gravity of both her world’s mass and the conceptual stasis of its collective thoughts, the precambrian archkthonis hungered to see what would happen. Its gaze fixed on each and every discrete atomic moment as one collided into the next, watching the scene at the tiniest scale, where causality and time and impossibility melted into the intoxicating liquid of absolute possibility.

The gaze of Graemoreax is not like ours. It is not a passive observer, recording and translating into a limited mind the impressions that collide with its sensory equipment. It is absolute. It defines and reinvents whatever it observes, and is at the same time defined and reinvented by it. Graemoreax willed that this unlikely vehicle should bring Ari up to meet it, and so it did. At the same time, Graemoreax willed this because it was already so.

It watched as the two children struggled to find a way to fit Ari into a ship that was much smaller than her physical body. Its attention was completely unswerving as, against everything that should, they figured it out. Their solution worked because Graemoreax willed it to be so. It willed it to be so because their solution had already worked.


 

“Do you have it?” Ari called down to Stefan.

“Yeah!” he yelled back. “It’s perfect! Go ahead!”

Ari gave him a thumbs up, closed her eyes, and started to walk forward. A thrill of fear spiked through her at the thought that she was now walking along her roof, thirty feet off the ground, with her eyes closed. She wasn’t afraid of heights under normal circumstances. She had been climbing trees since her limbs were long enough to reach from branch to branch. One of madre’s more successful sculptures was of Ari climbing the rocks behind the art history museum. Or at least, that’s what madre said the sculpture was supposed to be. It was hard to tell.

But this was different. All of those times her eyes had been open. She had been in control. Now she was blind as she put one foot carefully in front of the other and felt the fierce wind as it attempted to knock her off onto the pavement below. She could see nothing at all of the roof, which right now felt like flimsy support indeed. She could see nothing at all of the world around her. She could only see with her other sense. With her dreams. And there was no roof, there. Just the creature. And the stars. And, she realized with astonishment, the spaceship.

Oh my god, she thought as she observed the complicated, card-based machinery that revealed itself to her closed eyes. This is actually going to work.

“I can see it!” she cried out in delight. “It’s right in front of me!”

“Awesome!” said Stefan. “Keep going. You’re right on track.”

It was a little difficult to hear him over the wind as she took step after step towards her goal. It had been half his idea and half hers, for him to crawl down to the lower portion of the roof and look up at her. From his more distant, angled perspective, the Ship of Cards was larger than she was. If she looked at it with her eyes she would walk right past it. But as long as he was the only one looking she should be able to fit right in.

“You’re almost there!” called Stefan. “Just a few more steps!”

“I know,” she said softly, though she knew he couldn’t hear her. She strode forward more confidently now. The fear gripping her chest didn’t ease. It tightened, and it took her a few moments to realize that it had changed. She was no longer afraid that she would walk off the roof, or that this wasn’t going to work. She was afraid that it would. She wanted to fly up to the stars and see this creature. She needed to. But at the same time she was terrified.

What if it doesn’t want to talk to me? But she pushed the thought down, and took another step.

“You’re in!” Stefan hooted. “You’re in!”

Ari inhaled to calm herself, and breathed in the stars. She was in. She closed her eyes more tightly to keep hold of everything in her mind. All around her she could just barely see the structure and controls of the ship. Like something out of the corner of her eyes, glimpsed but never seen. She reached out and grasped something jutting out in front of her. It was a scepter, held by a the queen of diamonds. It was the throttle of a starship. It was both.

“Stefan!” she said loudly against the wind, which seemed to be blowing even harder, now. “Thank you! I’m going now!” She heard him call something back to him but she couldn’t make out what it was. She didn’t have any time to waste. This had to happen, and it had to happen now.

She pulled down hard on the throttle. There was a click, and then a lurch that made her head swim and her stomach turn over. Her nostrils caught a whiff of fire, and exhaust, just barely detectable beneath the scent of autumn leaves. The world around her began to shake. It shook so hard she felt her bones rattling beneath her skin. At the same time she barely felt it. There was a loud, deafening noise that faintly registered in her popped eardrums. The whole world lurched again, and she was gone.

 


 

Stefan watched as a gust of wind picked up and blew over his card spaceship just a few seconds after Ari stepped inside of it. The slivers of plastic whipped into the air and flew off of the roof and out into the sky. He put his hand along the side of his face to block out some of the wind so he could see better. It was sharp, and he was starting to get cold. The cards dance around each other as they rose higher and higher up. Towards the firmament. Towards the stars.

“Ari,” he said, “do you see that?”

But Ari was gone. Of course she was. Wasn’t that the whole idea? Stefan didn’t pause to consider whether Ari was really flying up in a magic spaceship to have some kind of meeting with a gigantic tentacular monstrosity. He didn’t take the time to wonder if he had just witnessed the most singular and miraculous occurrence of his entire life.

Instead, he climbed back up to the top roof, opened up the hatch to the attic, and crawled back down into the house. Where, even if it had been night time, he would have been unable to see the stars.