Location

May. 18th, 2017 04:58 pm
fodschwazzle: (Default)

 

They arrive when the ice melts enough. There is a cave in the mountains that changes with the thaw, when the lakes are at peak capacity.


“We don’t go up the pass except to tend to our herds during the witching week,” Da says. It can’t be helped--it was always a warm season that brought the danger hidden in the cave, but hard to tell when to stop bringing them up that far until we can see it for ourselves.


I am eight the first time I’m asked to follow and help my da tend the flock, the first time we flee the mountain, running back into the village. My da leans across the threshold of the dark cave and tucks his head back, sputtering with fright.


“They’re here!”


We run through bushes and down the steeper slopes as if death itself stands for less than what would soon to crawl through that cave. When we reached the square, my da tugged on a bell that resounded throughout the village. My brother rushes out of our home and grabs my shoulder to drag me back inside while my father begins to butcher a sheep to smear its blood on the ground outside each house.


They would tell me later that I had survived similar nights, but I never remembered it. Probably my mother was starting to become sick, and my brother and father felt harried in watching over us all.


The dark expands as the sun passes behind the peaks surrounding us. The houses in our village are silent except for the bleating of goats. When we look out through the wooden slats of our doors and can barely see the road, we snuff out our candles as well and silence our whispering.


Outside, someone is shuffling down the road through our village. Several things speaking in human-like voices that I can’t understand and are walking past our door and dragging fingers through the blood on our doorsteps. Some sound like women, but it’s hard to discern.


As quickly as they’ve come, they’ve gone. They leave no trace of their presence in town except that all of our goats seem to have returned to our farm.


Regardless, Da has a grim facial expression. We sell the goats as soon as we can to the city and buy more, as my da believes that they have been cursed.


*****


When I am ten, I am taking care of the goats alone so that my family can work closer to town. I know how to run home now, but I forget to leave the goats where they are and just take care of myself when I see what my father saw at the back of the cave.


It’s a natural light where there was none in the previous months. Curiosity grabs at me, but panic grabs harder. I begin to run but get no further than five seconds away before I remember to grab the goats.


“Stop! Wait!” I yell pointlessly after a goat as it strolls into the cave. I wait for a moment, but the goat doesn’t return.


I charge in after him, hoping to catch him before he crosses too far into the cave, but he’s long gone. I’m surprised to note how similar this place is to mine when I cross into the light--it’s a snow covered mountain breaking into patches of grass that slope down towards a village.


“That must be where they come from,” I mutter aloud.


“Yes, we live there!” a boy behind me and a little older shouts.


I scream until I see that he’s holding my goat.


“My name’s Tam!” he says cheerfully, adding, “don’t worry, I’ve got your goat. You’re not the first person who stumbled this way.”


It’s cold and the way back is apparently sealed now behind me, so I follow him into town and meet her: the magic girl.


*****


When I’m in my own world, I can barely remember her. Something clots my understanding and memory, but I rationalize that it’s my age, the way we always forget the background from which we grow. I’m twelve, and I’m staring up into the mountains while I’m supposed to be tilling the fields, feeling that something is waiting up there for me, and though I can remember walking into that cave to get the goat that wandered off, all I can remember is the dark and a warmth unlike anything else on that mountain.


I’m thirteen and lying in bed, tossing a stone at the ceiling just to see if it fails to come back down. The snow on the mountain is too dense to look into the cave even though I’m getting strong enough that I could cross through it with the right clothes. I walk up the mountain, as close as I can get to it, and it’s still frozen shut.


When I’m fourteen, a fire bursts out of our house and claims my parents, my da while he is trying to spare my mother. I don’t know where to lay the flowers I pick so I just stand outside the charred half of my home and the spot where Da gasped his last breath and gaze at the mountain. The melt is strong that year, so I go up to the cave and dig a hole to get in, only to find that the cave terminates where my memory assured me it continued.


I start to wonder whether I made up the story about locking all of our doors and waiting out the witching week until my brother discusses how, as the new head of our farm, he’ll be responsible to ring the bell should anything go wrong. He’s changed in the absence of our parents, and I can feel him becoming colder and more businesslike with each day.


Still, he allows me to tend to the goats, which I do with relish because that lets me keep an eye on the mountain. Even as years pass, I can’t quite lose the sensation that there is something more.


And then, one evening during a hotter than normal summer, a light shines through the back of the cave.


Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow!


Before I can even cross to the other side of the mountain, I remember it as if it’s my own. Willow and Will grown at the same time but hardly the same.


She’s waiting for me in the cave and something new is sown inside me just to look at her. I can’t discern what it is.


“Will!” she says, “Do you remember me?”


And I do. All at once I can recall that she taught me magic. I pick a stone off of the floor and toss it into the air, intoning words I had forgotten.


The stone hangs in the air.


“Of course,” I say. “You’re the one that taught me magic.”


*****


I stay for seven days, but it feels like no time at all. I learn everything about her home, her familiar, her smile. I even relearn the generosity of these people on the other side. As scared of them as I was when they first came down from the mountain when I was 8, they were only there to bring back the goats that we'd left stranded on the mountain.


She even teaches me more magic. I watch everything she does with more study than I’ve ever given a thing in my life.

 

I know know that I'll have to return home to help my brother, make amends for being gone so long, craft excuses that don't make these people look like monsters anymore, but the fear is undeniable--I know that when I cross back over, I'll begin forgetting it all.

 

So I touch her face and kiss her mouth and feel a spark not unlike static shock ripple through my veins.

"That's the magic -- telling us we're meant to -- it's meant to be. No matter what, remember that," she says.

And I don't forget anything about her anymore.


“I’ll return to you, Wil. I promise,” I say as I step back through again.
 

*****

I do forget my own village, or at least their paranoia. The first time I try to broach the topic of the seven days I spent away from the farm, I am ignored.


My brother drags me into the house and curses at me for speaking nonsense about my experience. I try to reason with him, but he begins to become physical, grabbing my arm too tightly. He’s strong, and I can’t make him see that the village on the other side of the mountain is worth getting to know by fighting with him.


For three years I needle at my brother’s sense that I’ve been cursed by my stay with Wil on the other side of the mountain. All I find is proof that he and the other people I was raised alongside want me to have nothing to do with the cave. They watch me climb and a few follow me up the mountain when the melt is strong the next year. The way is not open, so I stand and just apologize for not being able to make it back.


Two men are shouting at me on the way down. I can’t convince them that this is safe. In Willow, a home was planted. It’s starting to blossom, a flower unlike any I’ve known in my life. This is love.


A year later and the entrance to the cave has been boarded up. I smash the barricade to pieces with nearby stones until I can get in, but the way is shut again. Again I apologize to her, hoping that she can hear how desperately I want to see her.

*****
 

Twenty is the right year. An uncommonly warm breeze rustles through the valley.

They’re waiting for me at the mouth of the cave.


“What do you think you’re trying to do?”


“Are you seriously trying to get in touch with those creatures?” my brother asks.


I try to push through, but they’re strong. I don’t fight back and take my hits before they lock me into a room in my own house.


All I can think of is her face and the magic she taught me to control, and then I see it all. I see her waiting for me in the open cave, standing with her arms crossed, waiting out the whole week. I struggle against the door. I plead.


When my brother finally lets me out, I knock him down on the way to the cave, but it’s too late. The back wall is solid rock once more.


The village is waiting for me when I return.

“We have no choice but to banish you if all you’re going to do is bring ruin to us.”


“Banish me if you like, but you’re not keeping me from going through that cave the next time it thaws. If you want me to cross over to the other side and never come back, that’s fine. I’ve never tried to harm you and only want to see the woman that I love,” I reply.


“I cannot believe that you’ve fallen for something over there, Will,” my brother taunts.


“You’ve not loved anyone since our parents died, so I’m hardly surprised,” I reply.

 

He tries to fight me, but this time they hold him back. “What if he’s cursed?” a man asks.
 

“My only curse is that I was born here. Leave me be, and I will go with no problem.”

They don’t let me stay in town, and I have to forage for food and work for neighboring villages that are less given to superstitions, but none of them stop me when I visit the cave in the following two years.

 

*****

I can feel her start to lose hope. When her father passes, I feel it reverberate in my own body. I’m twenty-two and lying awake at night, throwing and then watching stones float over my head as a reminder of my promise.

That summer, when I return again, I pass through the cave with no intent to ever return.
 

I see her face rearranging with the realization that I’ve come back. I see her mother knowingly smirking when I kiss Wil in front of her.
 

I see Wil nod when I get up the guts to finally propose to her, even though I know we’re bound together between worlds.

I see my ring wrap around her finger, and the home she planted inside of me is in full bloom now and fruit bearing. I’ve found my place, at last, by her side.

fodschwazzle: (Default)

Something is wrong, and it’s making Marileth cry. She sits on a wooden bench outside her log cabin and weeps into her hands, but she can’t remember the last time she walked outside. She reasons that it has to be grief over her lost child--sometimes people lose track of details when they’re grieving. What was my baby’s name?

“What seem to be the problem, ma’am?” a woman in a leather doublet with hair tied into a red ponytail asks. The woman is armed, but the sword is sheathed.


“My baby!” Marileth screams in a voice that does not seem her own. Her face contorts with the grief of a mother whose whole world has been uprooted. She says no more.


There is a lull while the woman vacantly stares over her. Suddenly, the stranger shouts “I’ll rescue your child!” and begins running in a straight line away from Marileth, off the trail that leads to her door.


Wait! Marileth wants to say but can’t open her mouth. Where are you going?


She continues to sit on the porch as day turns into night and back into day again. It seems grieving causes a person to lose track of time because Marileth feels like she has only been waiting for an hour.


The woman comes back, this time clad in a studded leather ensemble with a cloak and an entirely new sword that she sheathes just as she approaches. She pulls the baby out of her backpack, which is filled to the brim with swords and poison flasks and direwolf fangs, and gives the child to Marileth.


“Oh thank you! Oh seven stars shine on you, stranger!” Marileth exclaims, her face contorting into an exuberant smile. The stranger listlessly stares down at her for a long minute before reaching down and grabbing at the air. Suddenly, the stranger is wearing a heavy iron helmet.


“Happy to help, ma’am!” the stranger says through the faceplate, running away.


Marileth stares down at the child in her arms before walking inside her house. I guess everything is alright now that I have my baby returned to me, she thinks. Moments later, a new hero approaches, the baby is gone again, and she’s weeping on her front porch.


“What seems to be the problem, ma’am,” a hulking barbarian says with a husky voice.


“My baby!” Marileth screams. Her face shows no facial expression whatsoever. Why am I repeating this?


*****


Starshine is the first MMORPG to offer real characterization from every non-player character. Every entity in the world has accessed 50,000 fantasy and roleplaying stories as well as modern dictionaries to procedurally generate different reactions to player decisions and the world around them. They are even able to form their own choices to change the direction of quest events or interactions. Starshine: Never the same game twice.


*****


Something is wrong. Marileth asks around after a dark-skinned sorceror returns her baby. She leaves the baby sitting on the chair next to her, rationalizing that if it can be carried in a backpack full of proximity exploding glyphs, it’s probably going to be fine. She has named the baby “Curse.”


“Yesterday? Can’t seem to recall. Seems ridiculous to think you could lose your baby two days in a row,” the tavern keeper says.


“All I know is the forge. Hammer against steel, the heat of molten iron,” the blacksmith replies.


“Fresh bread! Get your bread here! We’ve got baguettes and pastries and sweet rolls!” the baker roars.


“It’s like I’m the only person in the world that can remember being alive yesterday,” Marileth mutters to herself. Before she can continue the thought, she’s whisked back to her cottage and weeping into her hands in front of her log cabin while another adventurer runs up.


*****


Starshine: Quick Review

By Jim Sweeney

(2 out of 5)


Starshine sells you on the premise of a flexible world, replete with human-like interaction with NPCs, a concept that has been attempted in the past by offering random quest systems beyond main storylines and dialogue lines based on attire or status or faction affiliation. All of those prior attempts “shine” better than Spellsoft’s latest derivative tripe.


Combat and player development aren’t anything we haven’t seen before, so they aren’t available as distractions from the fact that every character spews the same lines ad nauseum, ripped from the worst sins of the fantasy genre. There was a city guard inside of one of the main cities in the sprawling game world that literally said “It’s always the ones you least suspect,” to me as I passed by, as if I’d just asked him what his philosophy on criminal profiling was. When I stopped to push him further on the issue, he changed tack entirely and started to drone on about how an old injury had ended his dungeon crawling career early.


The rudiments of the Starshine’s touted NPC system aren’t even apparent. Maybe main quest givers show a little more depth of expression and seem more genuine as they lead you on raids that will end in their deaths, but they just return to their allocated starting points to make the exact same decisions for the next adventurer. They’re not really learning from repeated deaths if they just smile and nod while you accept their quests.


There was this one woman in Portsworth that spooked me. I took her quest to rescue her baby from goblins. When I returned, she was standing on top of her house and screaming down at me, shrieking in unpronounceable syllables. I had to toss her baby at her to complete the quest, and she gave me a bale of hay as a reward. I would have thought it was funny if it didn’t give me nightmares. Probably a glitch.


*****


“My baby!” Marileth screams, adding “Don’t you dare bring me my baby!”


This adventurer, a paladin in full plate, spends an awfully long time gawking down at her. Some travellers pause longer than others. Marileth has determined that they are all looking at something she cannot see.


“I’ll rescue your child!” she says at last, galumphing off in the same direction they always do.


“NO!” Marileth howls, and she begins chasing the adventurer, beating at the armor with her tear covered fists.


She chases the adventurer through the cavern that apparently holds her baby, wondering why the creatures never attempt to attack her. She and three goblins manage to corner the paladin on top of a spike trap. The paladin starts to frantically eat loaves of bread as if that’s going to stop her from bleeding out.


“Maker claim me,” the paladin whispers eventually, collapsing before being absorbed by a radiant beam of light.


The goblins eventually stop attacking the bare floor and return to the spots they were in before the paladin arrived. Marileth just jumps around, clapping gleefully. There’s a duration before she gets moved back to the front of her cottage, and she knows it intuitively now. Plenty of time to celebrate breaking the cycle.


*****


Starshine--Server Version: v1.12.3
Upcoming Version: v1.12.4
- Resolved an issue where bow damage at close range was greater than it should have been.

- Fixed an issue where Borak would occasionally fall into a pit of lava right at the start of the Numenus raid. Checking for consistency in all instances of NPCs participating in quests.

- Fixed an issue where quest giving NPCs could damage player characters directly.


*****


“I need you do something for me,” Marileth requests. “I need you to bring me five incineration runes.”

“I already have them,” the adventurer replies. It’s so nice to give a task with an item that isn’t unique, Marileth thinks.


“My baby!” Marileth screams, adding “Make haste!”


“I’ll rescue your child for you!” the puny mage replies, dragging his cloak on the dirt as he scampers off.


“Good luck!” she shouts after him. Marileth sets the traps about thirty steps from her house and stacks bales of hay around them to make a channel to funnel the adventurer through. Observing how they react to her decisions is becoming a meaningful pastime.


He walks right into it on the way back, no doubt baby in tow. Marileth cringes just a little bit as she watches him go up in flames--something of a maternal instinct still rings within her, even though the baby doesn’t eat or sleep, and can only really be used to hold down other objects.


The man writhes in the fire and eventually falls to the ground. Marileth reaches into his backpack and pulls out the baby, saying “Oh, thank you! Seven stars shine on you, stranger!” in a chilling, sarcastic voice. She puts an iron helmet on top of the charred body as radiant light consumes it.


*****


Starshine--Server Version: v1.12.6
Upcoming Version: v1.12.7
- Resolved an issue where quest giving NPCs were capable of laying traps to harm the player character.

- Fixed a critical error where entire raids would run off cliffs. Invisible borders exist to all NPCs now, but players must still watch their footing!

- Fixed an issue where Grammel, the baker in Strothham, was giving the maximum amount of bread possible with every purchase, burdening players with thousands of loaves.

- Monitoring the blacksmith in Kranburg, who players have reported for dismantling epic armor when clicking on the “Hone” button. More testing needed.


*****


When adventurers approach Marileth’s house now, flames shoot out of the top of it.


“Welcome to hell, traveller!” she sobs.


“What seems to be the problem, ma’am?” they’ll say, because no one can free them from the horrible cycle of their lives besides Marileth, the goddess of endings.


“My baby is evil! He dwells in the goblin realm and plots with them to end my life. Please go rescue him? Also, please find me four greater immolation glyphs.”


“I already have them. I’ll rescue you child for you!” and then the downtrodden victim of fate’s cruel loop runs away.


Marileth installs one of the glyphs on the roof and keeps the others for later. She has discovered that she can retain items even when she is reset into her weeping position, and items she has places do not go away. She follows the adventurer halfway and then waits beside a deep gorge. The adventurers always intuitively know where she is when they rescue the baby, so they come right to her.


“Brave traveller, do not bring the demon child to me as it will slay me right away. You must jump into this ravine with it. This place is called Devil Slayer Canyon because it is the only way to stop a true monster. I will rescue you with magic before you hit the bottom.”


They don’t always accept the bait, but the opportunity to jump to one’s death on mere confidence grips most more than Marileth expects.


“I HAVE RELEASED YOU FROM YOUR ENDLESS LOOP!” she cackles at them in the guttural voice she has been practicing as they fall to their deaths on the crags below.


I am a goddess of endings, Marileth reassures herself. My only design is to destroy.


She takes the rest of the duration before her reset to weeping position to lay down additional glyphs.


*****


Starshine--Server Version: v1.15.3
Upcoming Version: v1.16
- Complete server roll back after an NPC placed invisible greater immolation glyphs over the entire surface area of the game world and then set them off, causing immense graphical and network lag, bringing down the server.

- NPC Marileth has been removed from the game.

- Other NPC actions are being examined for deviance from ordinary behavior. Please send an email to spellsoftsupport@yougle.com if you observe something odd, and we’ll reward you with a limited edition mount--the Braying Jackass could be yours if you send in a support ticket!


Thanks, as always, for playing. We at Spellsoft have had quite the journey with Starshine, and we know our players have as well as the game has metamorphosed over the last three years. For your trouble with the roll back, we are providing each player with the “Marileth Bonus Pack” in remembrance of the millions of players who encountered this wild NPC while we let her roam about freely--ultimately, she completed her self-made narrative when she blew up the world, but she'll never be forgotten even as we scrub the server clean of her choices.

 

Share your best Marileth stories below and happy questing!


__________

This was an entry for the prompt #1: The Rent I Pay. For someone like Marileth, simply maintaining the illusion of a fantasy world was her "rent."



Change Log

Apr. 18th, 2017 05:07 pm
fodschwazzle: (Default)
 

When I drove my car into a light pole after being run out of my lane by a self-driving semi-truck, I died slowly. It took a long time for first responders to get to me and start talking options, but they were fairly helpless as they asked me meaningless questions, to which I slowly nodded.


The dark overtook me eventually, starting at the edge of my vision and working inward until it gobbled up the last mocking flicker of street lamp.


I opened my eyes in a forest with a sun breaking through the trees--no pain, no stress at all, like someone pushed a reset button on years of pent up tension. To breathe in and smell the pine like the few times my family was able to go camping, damp grass at the foot of each tree trunk, each cloud strolling across the sky with a peace that surpassed my understanding, I cannot express how it broke me when I realized that someone really did push a reset button.


There was a quirk to it all. The same cloud shapes started to recur. A butterfly crossed from behind a tree and landed on my nose as I lay sprawled out in the grass, weeping, thinking I had made it to heaven after all. And then another butterfly did the same thing. I crawled on my belly to the other side of the tree just to see a third instance of the butterfly leave the base of the tree as if it had grown from the bark itself.


I understood then. When I nodded to the paramedics, I volunteered to transfer my consciousness to a virtual world. Vita Secundus. I would continue to be alive until someone decided to cut my participation in the program, likely after I settled my estate with my family completely--though I had nothing of importance except loans.


I only knew what I saw in videos--people reporting back from death, looking very much like themselves, grinning in an impossibly bright sunlight even though they were all just digital reconstructions of their old identities. The top comment would be a racial slur, but the next highest comment would be about how the “uncanny valley” had become an inhabitable place. Someone further down the line would suggest that it was all a hoax to give some hope of an afterlife to those who were too tainted to expect redemption. I figured that the reconstructions were just avatars of the system, remarking like puppets on things they could only know if their families played ventriloquist and gave facts. The reaction videos of families speaking to their dead always felt hammy.


Of course, I’m here now, wondering if my mom will ever get to hear my voice again.


*****


There were early adopters. They were quick to report that, transitioning from death to consciousness again, they retained no memories of an afterlife in between.


Naturally, this caused stocks to rise considerably for Ceohl. Other knock-offs of Vita Secundus popped up, but none could compete with the newly original option for an afterlife, especially when the pretenders had to use in-service advertising to remain cost competitive. And Ceohl was always faithful about applying updates as necessary.


Initially, it was a cost prohibitive service. I wasn’t certain what caused it to change until I was also uploaded to the program.


*****


After several days of nonstop walking without tiring or eating, guided by increasingly artificial sun and moon cycles, I found a town.


It was an amazing creation considering there weren’t any hewn trees for the log cabins that spanned the valley floor. Perhaps it was just laid out as a barren meadow, or perhaps someone tweaked it after settlements started to be built--maybe someone would wake up in the morning to find that his treeline was inexplicably receding. From the top of the ridge, it looked like a compass rose with points going in four cardinal directions.


Every little cabin had friendly people and cozy furniture in it. I talked with them as much as they were willing to talk--they weren’t fake people, sure enough. Roger, one of the first men I came across, was incredibly open about the affairs he’d had and the drugs he’d taken while alive, of which only a few sounded familiar. Full disclosure of things like that made it almost certain that he was hiding something more, but he smiled broadly and offered to get people together to build me a house.


Because none of us were capable of feeling exhaustion, the building went very easily. Apparently, all one needed to do to get lumber from a tree was to expectantly hold out one’s arms in front of one. The tree would entirely vanish as a stack of lumber was added to my arms. If I laid down the stack a, wall would immediately spring up at that location. It was surreal to watch, initially--how seven people working for five minutes managed to make me a larger home than I’d ever had with better furniture as well. My residence sat on the end of one of the points of the compass, which was a bit initially galling since everyone had seemed so warm just to put me as far away as possible.


“Do you like your place?” Roger said, brushing his hands on his pant legs as if he’d gotten sawdust on them.


“I suppose. I mean, do I really need a house? I can fake sleep anywhere and never need to eat, so…”


“We do it to preserve the appearance of normality. I know you noticed pretty quickly that things here are repetitive. Even your breathing and heartrate are locked at the same constants unless you force them to be different. We labor to give uniqueness to our world. Humans are always a fluid variable in our environment.”


“I’d like to say I agree with what you’re saying, Roger, but don’t people also have a prescribed limit? I mean they put our whole consciousness in here--it has a data cap right?” I replied.


“It does, but it’s so much farther off than the trees that make up your cabin. I was an early adopter of this system, you know?”


“And you still live in a log cabin?”


“There’s a reason for that,” Roger answered, adding, “One I hope you don’t need to know.”


He sat down on the mattress we built by throwing bird feathers and cut grass at the ground until it took the form of a bed. He started to tell me about the early days of the program. Apparently, it was a nasty experience. Exhaustion and hunger were enabled but couldn’t be overcome by eating or resting. Spastic weather effects often ruined any attempt to bring human construction to the world, and random world shapes often caused deep caverns to run beneath the surface, creating massive sinkholes from which people couldn’t escape.


“As an afterlife, it was something. You had assurance that your existence continued and that, because someone was making money off of you, it would probably keep continuing. In those days, we still had watchers.”


“What is a watcher?” I asked.


“It was a person who monitored the content from the outside. If you saw videos of us speaking about our grievances, watchers were choosing to air those concerns. For example, I met a deer early on that looked like someone had assembled it piece-by-piece. It charged me even though its back legs were backwards, it screamed with a woman’s voice, and it had human fingers instead of horns. Needless to say, I put forward a complaint about that.”


“What was the problem? Did they say?”


“Everything is generated from math. It’s just that someone accidentally used variables from the human table to create this particular type of deer. It bore qualities of someone or maybe several people who were once alive--and everything that comes from the human table is supposed to delete upon use so that there is only ever one version of you. Essentially, whoever made up that deer will never exist again.”


“Wow.”


“It escalated,” Roger continued. “People who started this program are incomplete. Not all of their consciousnesses migrated over. Some are more stunted than others.”


“You said you’re an early adopter, but you seem fairly normal to me.”


“Yes, I’m not the worst case, but I lack the capacity to learn in my state. I’m exactly as I was when I died, except more complacent because I’ll never be able know more than I know now. An existence without learning is hardly any existence at all. I can share information from new people, so I tend to live through your experiences.”


“Can’t you have a watcher tell you what is going on in the outside world?” I asked.


“There are no more watchers. We’ve not had outside contact in probably five years.”


Roger wished me well and walked out after that, leaving me to lay on my bed and recall that I had seen his face before. Three years ago, a promotional video for Vita Secundus was released, advertising that a new pricing system was available so that much poorer families could participate. Roger was right there, telling people how stable the program had been for the last two years. No complaints.


*****


It was well into the night when they attacked. Human forms with wings came out of an empty sky and tore the roofs off of houses as if they were ripping open a box of toothpicks, seized the people inside, and carried them into the black.


After the chaos, we burned their houses in a bonfire and said the names of those taken. It was a strange sensation to mourn someone whose existence was snuffed out a second time, but the other villagers made it quite clear that the victims of the attack would not be returning. In the light of the bonfire, it was also obvious why they had me build my house at the end of a point. One of the arms of the compass rose was completely ravaged.


“It was a one in four chance it could have been you,” someone told me while I gawked at the scene. It was a woman of about my age who hadn’t helped me build my house but had stood nearby, arms crossed, while it was being done. “We always draw lots to see who lives where each week. They come once, randomly, at some point during that time. They always attack the points that are farthest from the center and then leave. Probably whatever they see first, they attack.”


“What are they?”


“We don’t know,” the woman, whose name was Yanna, responded. “New people live on the outside first, before they see an attack. Sorry, but we have no reason to sacrifice ourselves if we can help it.”


“Is there any way to fight it?”

“We’ve tried making weapons, but this program has something against it. Anything that looks like a tool for fighting just falls apart. Hard to put traps in the sky, as well. So no. Most of us just sit here and wait to die again.”


Two days later we drew lots. I pulled a short stick, while Roger pulled a longer one. I was at the end of the X, and he was in the middle.


“Why do we just wait here and let them take us?” I asked Roger, knowing that one of us was likely to be taken no later than a week from that night. “We could make barricades if all they do is just attack the nearest house.”


“Come with me,” Roger said, gesturing to me with the back of his hand as he turned and walked toward the center of the village. I followed.


*****


We descended into a tunnel that was held by wooden supports. A ladder dropped far down into the subterraneous caverns that Roger had previously described--except that these were now reinforced with hard stone.


“See?” Roger said, holding a lantern behind us.


There were hundreds of little tunnels that extended from our stone chamber. Holes that were barely big enough for my body merged with our room in all directions except down.


“What happened here?” I asked.


“They got bored of it.” Roger shrugged, shifting the light in his hand so that the darkness twitched within each carved out hole. “We tried filling this hole and other holes so many times to stop them, but they came through anyway. They used to demand sacrifice from below. Now they take their sacrifice from the sky.”


“Did you reinforce this room with the stone?”

“I did. I’ve been here longer than anyone. It seems that they’ll never come for me, so only I can stay around and maintain this place to remind people how helpless we are, even though I knew some of the vultures once upon a time. They don’t talk to me anymore.”


“You knew them?”


“The vultures were people once, you know. They were always people that afforded more control.”


“Over what?”


“Everything.” Roger sat down on the floor of the cavern and propped his chin up against his lap, holding his head in his hands. "Look, I’ve said all of this to hundreds of people before you, and they’re almost all gone, so I hope you’re alert to what I’m telling you and showing you. You cannot win.”


“Can they be talked to or reasoned with?”


“They’re not really human anymore. At least, not by our standards. They paid the premium price to get a more diverse experience back when Vita Secundus was just getting started. None of them came in quite right, however, and they’ve long lost interest in enjoying the simple fact that their existence means something. They grew claws for burrowing when living above ground became tedious and wings for flying when they needed to see a cloud up close for what it really was--a two dimensional image printed across the sky. And they started to consume people when more came in.”


I thought about the initial crowd that bought into the Vita Secundus. It cost millions of dollars to sign up, so it wasn’t too hard for me to imagine the self-serving insanity the original occupants must have adopted, especially when the bar was lowered to just a couple thousand dollars.

It occurred to me then that someone must have told the outside that the original users were getting bored with their content. In an effort to appease their clients, someone decided to allow other families in for the purpose of predation. No wonder that don't have watchers. No one cares to report how our afterlives are going, I realized.


“Do you suppose they still have watchers?” I asked.


“I think they must. How else could they have made it so that we only feel pain and fear when they hunt us and only perish when we’re caught? I think someone is listening to what they say and making changes to the program to accommodate their wants, no matter how inhumane.”


I’m not a great person. The record of my life prior to my passing was just a sputtering series of failed take-offs. I didn’t feel any great desire to amount to more, but neither did permanent death in a world after death feel like much of a threat compared to constant fear of attack from the vultures.


“If I outlive tonight, I’m going to try to do something about these creatures.”


“Then I hope you don’t outlive the next night,” Roger snarled. “I’ve had enough of fools that cannot accept that there is no other way. Every time someone decides to act up, the likelihood of us being too ordinary to be bothered with decreases. Don’t you understand? They need you to be human so that they can recall the feeling! You can’t kill them, can’t convince them not to attack, but they’re falling into routine! It won’t be long before we’re beneath their notice!”


“I don’t think it’s your ability to learn that you’ve lost, Roger,” I retorted. “I think it’s your will to live. Your essential humanity.”


I ascended the ladder to the surface with him swearing behind me, wondering if it was perhaps Roger who was the cheery outside contact after all, collaborating with the vultures to ensure that the right amount of fear always permeated our village, spreading lies about what happened inside Vita Secundus just to ensure that people would continue to arrive as food for the birds.


*****


That night, they attacked again. Roger’s cabin was ripped to shreds. I watched as he was also dragged into the black sky, a note of shocked confusion echoing from his body as it vanished in the dark.


Something in the pattern had shifted. The vultures had gone after someone they once knew, someone who had been there since the first iteration of Vita Secundus, and they had gone after the person in the middle of the X rather than someone on the perimeter. When we burned Roger’s house, the tension was palpable. No one could say his name.


“Every person must hear me!” I shouted over the crackling of the fire to the hundreds of people that waited there wondering if it would be their turn to soon be whisked away, never to be seen again.


When I suggested that we needed to do more than sit on our hands and await permanent death or whatever the vultures did to the people they carried away, Yanna put her hand on my shoulder and shouted my name. They all shouted my name.


And we made a vow to live our afterlives to the fullest, even if it meant we had to sacrifice ourselves to stop an enemy we had no means to defeat. I wondered if someone outside the program was watching our sudden swell of righteous volition and laughing, but in the darkening flame of the bonfire, I did not care.




fodschwazzle: (Default)
 

It was a couple of weeks ago that I saw it where they stopped work on the new road branching off from Highway 55, red spruce swallowing the unfinished asphalt. I was wandering between the branches to try to figure out why the project stopped there when a shrill cry penetrated the trees.

You were surveying roadwork at night? That’s weird.


I like hanging out in the forest at night. Don’t judge me. I heard the cry of something and went further in to investigate. I couldn’t see any footprints nor anything else that marked a creature or thing like the one that had made that sound. Little did I know that the best evidence of a presence was just waiting in the underbrush, covered in a thicket.


I followed the sound as best as I could, crossing a fair distance in when I started to hear something like chatter. It was a bit higher pitched than an average human voice and had two tones to it--whatever it was didn’t travel the woods alone. I could hear the snap of twigs as I approached, like the creatures were still moving, but then that noise abruptly stopped. With the full moon in my face, I approached.


The full moon was last Saturday, but you said this was two weeks ago.


Was it?


Yeah.


Fine. It was waxing then. Waxing gibbous. It was really bright, and I blindly came next to the bodies of some things that were muttering softly into the dirt. On the ground, a halo of light shined on a flat board that was covered in letters. I startled and accidentally brushed up against a tree, revealing myself. The next thing I knew, my eyes were on fire. I started to howl with pain, and the creatures shined their light directly into my eyes. It was like being swallowed by the sun. And then the shrillest scream I’d ever heard in my life left me, paralyzed and hanging there long before I’d realized the creatures were gone.


That would be scary. Wow. Coming across a couple of them unawares, I would wet myself.


I think my heart almost stopped beating, yeah. I only figured out just what was going on when I went to the main road and saw a car pulling out of the underbrush and quickly driving away. I’m still finding salt in my eyes and hair.


Good one. Have a marshmallow. Is it my turn?


I’d like to hear your story.


Excellent. Well, as you know, I’ve had some trespassers on my property in recent weeks. I was hoping they’d be more forthcoming because I like guests.


It hasn’t worked out that way. These people had been blundering about my property for two weeks now. I had thought they were operating alone until I followed after them one night. Someone made tiny graves on my property next to their campsite and littered the earth with these little figurines made of popsicle sticks.


That sounds like something you would do though. I mean, you say like guests but you never invite us to your place.


He’s far too hairy--


Sorry.


--it’s fine, and it wouldn’t be good luck to have you there. Trust me, I know these things. At any rate, someone must have been stirring them up. When they woke, the three trespassers lost their shit. They were crying and started to talk about going back to the car, which would have been fine except that someone had moved the flag posts they were using to keep track of their path. When they had walked in a loop around ten times, probably about seven miles, they started to figure it out. By the time they settled in for the night, they were pretty rough with each other too.


And you just watched them the whole time? So mean.


What else was I going to do? It was pretty funny, after all. I decided to do them a favor and rerouted the flags to my house. If they were willing to meet me, I might be willing to let them off easy. Just a little hex for my trouble, nothing life changing.


Turns out that they were idiots all along. They walked into my house without turning the lights on, and they had apparently been trying to walk with cameras held to their faces the entire time. So a couple of the kids were unconscious in the basement with their cameras next to their bruised faces pressed against my floor, and the third was sitting upstairs waiting for his director or whatever that is to show up. I was so mad.


That is wild. Why are kids so stupid?


It’s been awhile since you passed away, so you might not really realize that they’ve escalated so much in their blithering idiocy. I knew there was a reason I moved to the country.


Want a s’more now?


Don’t mind if I do. But you might as well just give me yours since you’re burning it.


I crushed my throat when I died, so I really only can inhale the fumes. I know it’s weird, but it still tastes pretty good.


I wondered if being ethereal would hinder your ability to eat s’mores. Sorry. I guess I’ll suggest a chili cook-off next time and bring a candle for you instead of food, or something.


Don’t mind me. What about you, do you have a story?


Of course. I’m new to these parts, but I had a run-in about five weeks ago.


Oh! Do tell!


I heard the highest pitched sound I’ve ever heard in my life, late one night. I don’t think you’d even be able to hear it. I ran after the racket, thinking that it might be some kind of owl I hadn’t seen before. I like birds, after all, on a full moon when I can see them especially well. We could learn a thing or two by watching owls.


The sound stopped when I got close, just like in your story. But a moment later, I was being stabbed on all sides. It was actually nice, like finding a really rough piece of bark and rubbing your entire body on it. Such a good feeling.


When they realized I was enjoying a good scratching, someone screamed "pewter!" and someone else started firing a gun. I started running, because I don’t like bullets. They fired about six times before they evidently ran out of ammunition, but they didn’t stop chasing me.


An angry mob had come for me. They were blaming me for eating a flock of chickens, which I probably did, but I don’t always like raw chicken. They didn’t take me by surprise, but they nearly chased me into an abandoned windmill with their pitchforks and torches. That would have been obnoxious.


Ugh, yeah, good thinking.


Eventually I managed to retreat to my den before a cloud blocked the moonlight, transforming me again. Even in numbers, they were too hesitant to follow me in there. It’s not like I would’ve hurt them, it’s simply hard to find your way in a cave in the dark. I would hate to go spelunking in my own home just to rescue some poor guy who didn’t watch his footing.


So that’s when you decided to come out here, eh?


That’s right. It feels a lot more cozy out here. Even I get lost in the forest sometimes, and I have a great sense of direction.


I’ll help you out if you need it. Just say my name five times, and I’ll be there.


Appreciate it.


Well, it seems like you have the best one this week. I can’t really compete against having an angry mob try to kill me. I guess you could say that this round of stories has gone to the wolves.


That’s awful.


I thought it was pretty good. May I have a s’more?


Normally chocolate is poison for dogs, right?


My tolerance changes based on the time of the month. And really, who doesn’t like chocolate and marshmallow and graham cracker smashed together?


No one. Trust me, I know these things.

 

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Here is my new account: https://fodschwazzle.dreamwidth.org/

I'll be moving here completely after all of my journals carry over.

fodschwazzle: (Default)
This is my new journal.

Once I have all of my journals imported, I will close the LiveJournal account down, I think.

http://fodschwazzle.livejournal.com/
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)


The morning before our option vote, a culmination of many years of work, a nightmare brought me back.

I dreamt that I was five again, the night a tree’s branches erupted through the floor of our bedroom in the middle of the night. I remember that I was pushed upward before the tile caved in through an expanding thicket of leaves. My mother and father tried to grab me before I fell down three stories through a snarl of pipes, maple limbs, and other apartments, but they were on the other side of the foliage. We were living on the sixth floor of an apartment and a man had died in his sleep on the fourth floor.

It was amazing that everyone survived that night--I could still remember the sound of twigs scratching at the ceiling until the growing stopped before it could penetrate the next floor.

My mother had told me before that night about how people changed on death. I knew that because we were poor, we had to live in taller buildings while others could be closer to the ground for their own safety. I knew that the maple trees that would sometimes interrupt the middle of the road were once people. I knew that hospitals were sprawling single-story networks with immediate access to the outside, regardless of the room, but I never really appreciated why until I was about to be crushed against the ceiling of my home by a tangling mass of once human limbs.

When I woke up, sweat curling around my chin, I felt chilled by the sunlight coming through the window. Somehow I understood, even then, that it would be my last day knowing your husband.

*****

Outside the gate and a floor down, a mob hissed at our window. They had been there all week and had grown in number and aggression. “Protect the Change,” a sign read, featuring a real picture of a severed human maple’s stump with the prohibition sign on it in red. It was one of the kinder slogans. Another said “Murder for Money” and had a picture of Doris Geats next to her cut stump, linking her case with our Option Coalition even though that happened five years before us. Worse still, one sign read “Cut Him Down” with a human maple’s growth rings replaced by an image of the head of my boss, Paulson Branner.

“They’re not moving,” Paul muttered, startling me as I peered out through the blinds.

“Of course they’re not! They know we’re getting a vote. Did you see what happened with Jean last night? They almost changed him!” I argued.

“Killed him, you mean. Can you make sure that he’s taken care of? Like, does his family have enough money to pay for the medical bills? I’ll write a letter to send home to him later.”

“Write the letter tomorrow. I don’t want to see you changed.” Paul started to shake his head, grinning slightly like he did the first day we had a protest. “You could leave through the emergency escape on the side. We could turn on the lights on out front and distract them long enough to let you go.”

“You’re going to go first. Do exactly what you’ve said you would do for me--it’s a good idea, but it’ll only work once, and you’ll have to move quickly after you get out. I’m going to stay and watch the results of the option vote.”

“Those people outside aren’t like the protestors anymore, Paul. They hurt our own! They’re killers now!”

Paul looked at me, sighed, and sat on the corner of his desk. “You’re using their words, Abby. We’ve worked hard to make sure that people have an option in changing or dying. I want to know, right here at the desk I’ve worked at for eight years, whether we’ve made a reality out of being able to choose how our remains are used.”

Trees are sacred! People are sacred! Branner must go! Some idiot had gotten a microphone hooked up to speakers and was using it to have the crowd shout and drown out all other sounds.

I was watching them out the window when Paul tapped on my shoulder. When I turned to look at him, his eyes were narrowed. “I’ve scheduled all doors in the building to be automatically locked in ten minutes. If you don’t leave, you’re stuck here. No one is going to hurt me once that happens, but I’m not leaving until the vote is over. The police will keep an eye on the outside and put it down the moment someone tries to get over the fence.”

“What will you do if I stay?” I asked.

“I’ll fire you,” Paul said with a grimace.

“Wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t know what to do with a yes vote if you fired me. It’s not over when we win the right to an option--we’ve got to implement it.”

“I know. I’m working on it.”

I wished him good night and then checked every door on the way out just to make sure the building didn’t have the digital lock disabled like it normally would be. Having even two people in a building with the lock on is a serious code violation, so we would normally leave it alone.

It was dark, so I managed to get out through the tree escape reasonably well and coded out at the gate before the mob noticed me. I was in my car and driving away when a brick glanced off of my rear door. By the time I had reached home, the Congress still had not voted on our plan. Too many men were dragging it out by talking about the importance of divine will as manifested by roots--the usual drawling monologue we were accustomed to getting but this time done by our nation’s leaders.

Turning the light on in my driveway, I looked at the gouge caused by the brick. I figured I would sleep poorly knowing that someone who had meant to change me with it was still waiting outside the gate at the Option Coalition, waiting to inflict divine will at any moment.

*****

I dedicated my life to not having to relive the night my family nearly died when I was five. I helped design networked wristwatches that could perform survival reporting for cheap so that almost everyone could have some choice in how much damage their changing inflicted upon their family or house or other families--habitation care, done traditionally in a scenic, open space, would no longer need to be a choice available to only those with constant health exams and doting family members.

I never expected how much resistance I would get. I starting receiving death threats at age 24, two weeks after I announced a prototype. Just moving a body away from a place where its skin could start rooting and sprouting was considered to be a breach of a holy prerogative. I guessed that most of the concerns came from people who could live in single story houses, where rebuilding around a tree was a feasible option. Most probably had never seen it happen--how jarringly brisk a human could transform into his or her own kind of building-shredding maple tree.

Paul Branner saw me on the news after they interviewed me about the death threats and helped fund my research until we sold the idea to our government for distribution. It was then that he approached me with the idea that people should be able to choose whether their own tree continues to stand after they change and how that lumber is used. Only then did I really appreciate how traditional I was in my own thinking. I was appalled by the idea for half a year before he managed to talk me into it.

Couldn’t discern why he was so dedicated to the option idea, though. He was not very communicative about himself and his background. All I really knew about him was that he was inexorably devoted to the people he worked with and the values he held. He was the best boss I ever had.

*****

It was hard to tell how he had died. Half of the facility was burnt to a crisp, but it hadn’t reached him before emergency water systems shut down the flame and the fire department had arrived. His watch, which was stranded high amongst his branches with much of the rest of his soaked clothes, stated that his change happened at just after midnight, which police officers noted was about twenty minutes after several individuals broke free and crossed the gate, and about five minutes after the fire started. The door locks were disarmed, but it was impossible to tell when that happened.

When they were willing to let me survey the items retrieved from the scene, they gave me a letter he had written to me that night. Part of it was a substantial check he cut for Jean Lawson, who was physically attacked by the protesters the night before Paul died.

I hope you will spare me from reciting it out loud for you. It was a lot of legalese, mostly. Paul knew that his death was imminent and wrote out a will pre-empting the martyrdom that he knew it would bring. When they received word that the firm backing the option proposal had lost its leader in the middle of the night due to violence, the congressional vote swayed hard in our favor--and Paul became the first adopter of the right to choose what to do with his own remains.

I want you to know that even though Paul was never more than a colleague for me, his passion for what he did edified my mind and spirit and helped me do what I needed to do. His reasoning surpassed my understanding until I read his will and came to find your treeless marker on this hill overlooking the ocean.

He wanted me to say all of this because I was the person who knew him best after you perished. He never believed in a purely afterlife-through-growth concept because he lost you to a fire before you had a chance to grow into your own human maple. He rebuked the linear thinking of everyone around him because you were always around him, a silt carried by the air. On the chance that you can hear these words as you are, I want you to know that I will carry on his legacy for him as he moves forward to be with you.

He hopes that as I burn the ashes of his lumber here, that he has a chance to mingle with your ash in the breeze, or find you at the bottom of the sea, or become fertile ground for a new tree together.

As he transitions from the face supporting all of my goals to the coarse vertical ridges of this bark I now toss into the fire, may you know him again as a fine dust on whatever wind you now inhabit. May he find you wherever you roam and may you find respite together.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
I write songs sometimes. I do this slightly less frequently than I write stories, and I do both with a fledgling sense of good form. In both cases, I have only been creating for the last two years. I accept that I am a novice and firmly believe that I can improve if I set aside time to do so.

I fantasize that one day I could have my songs played in a concert. I would probably start crying pridefully the moment the conductor raised the baton. Music has always been the first medium of expression to hit me in the soft, squishy chambers of my heart, and hearing a tuba bellow out a harmony line, no matter how critical I’d been of it while writing, would melt me completely. Accepting that I can occasionally plug notes onto sheet music and actually like what I'm hearing enough to listen to it hundreds of times fills me with joy.

Except this one. This one I wrote just because I had to unclog something in my brain before I could move on to other things. This is a godawful song. Don’t listen to it.


If I had to conceptualize what this song is about, I would guess that it’s probably a coronation song for a king that is also a bigoted pig. I giggled incessantly while creating it.

*****

I played my trumpet throughout middle school and high school--improvising solos during jazz band performances probably gave me the most capability to write a song largely by ear without really grasping chord structure or whether the instruments I gave parts for a song would even be physically capable of playing it if they tried.

I have another, stronger influence, however, that I have not disclosed while writing for this competition even though nearly all of my early pieces were derived from it. I love video games. I was born only four years after the Nintendo was released, and the blippy-blip sounds and pixelated worlds of that 8-bit system and the 16-bit Super Nintendo that followed formed the axis around which my childhood turned. I moved constantly, so characters from video games were often more consistent than friends.

My songs are also derived from games. I grew up worshipping Nobuo Uematsu, the creator of music from the Final Fantasy series. I will not claim that my songs sound like his, but when I make something that I think sounds decent, it’s Uematsu’s work that frames what sounds decent to me in the first place.

And now, a confession: every story I’ve written with the tag “Deathless” as part of LJ Idol, starting back in Season 9, was written as a part of a sandbox-style game world I eventually hope to create. Writing into that template helped me start with short stories when I had no other experience doing so--it felt safer to create for something that already had a big picture, especially when none of the stories reveal the whole shape of that world.

no title

Deathless is an artificial world created for the last remnants of the human race following an apocalyptic event, which also ended the capability of death in all organic forms. Rather than dying when significant trauma is incurred, life bounces back a little stranger than it was before. It’s like when Mario stomps on a Goomba in Super Mario--will the same creature be there the next time and move the same way just to receive the same fate? Many of story concepts of the Deathless world are twists on commonalities gamers essentially expect in what they play.

For example, the sun itself never moves in the stories, just like how certain areas of games are designed to have the same fixed lighting effect perpetually. In Deathless, whoever relocated the few survivors to this world also gave them a fake sun. People utterly lost the capability of determining time by the angle or absence of the sun, so they’ve created other methods.

The point of mentioning this is that Deathless has hit a kind of phase two. I am now writing songs for areas or moments from that world.



This song, which I originally titled “Frazzle” because I just name songs after whatever initially comes to mind, is based on a moment from this story:
From Ashes

The moment occurs right after the last story break, when Lillian uses what powers she has gained to raid Vaust’s retention facility for the women of the town. The game idea would be that the player character would be able to assist in this event as well, working together with Lillian to become an unstoppable natural force and liberate Vaust’s women from sexual oppression and manual labor.

*****

A place that nearly has a song for it is Coburntown. Three stories happen in or around Coburntown--it’s a place that has spurned knowledge whereas Vaust has spurned creation. Each town in the world has some essential virtue lacking and a shrine that needs to be cleansed in order to mend the respective town. These two pieces best reflect that problem for Coburntown in particular.
Death's Demesne
Schism

The song I’m working on is unfinished. The start is way too rough for my liking--I was trying to do something other than a succession of adding new instruments in every four measures until a whole piece emerged, but it feels too abrupt right now. The melody line has been stuck in my head for the last three weeks intermittently, and it doesn’t adequately convey the danger that willful ignorance represents, especially when Coburntown’s elected leaders encourage it openly. As one the two largest cities in the world, there is a bustle and almost a marching pace to the song that seems to work, so I could fold in a bridge that changes the tune to reveal or imply more of what is going on under the surface.

I don’t know how to do that. Here is what I have so far, rough and misshapen though it is.



The pictured creature is my cat, Basil, who is now a long cat of about twenty pounds. I posted his kitten picture to the song because there was a time when music did not upset him so much that he needed to bury his face in my armpit just to block it out. Also, I used a picture of my cat because I don't have graphics or gameplay footage to show. Phase Three and Four are a long way off.

*****

If Deathless only turns out to be a springboard for other concepts, it’s a success because it let me start creating in a way that made me feel safe, with support from folks such as this LJ Idol community who lavish praise on even fledgling efforts from new writers.

I don’t need to produce work to see it performed by Yo-Yo Ma or published for a massive audience. For now, right now, this is enough of a stage.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

A lot of folks like to make judgments. Someone told me that 90% of what we know about a person happens at first glance, without speaking. I’m no saint, but that always seemed to me a cop-out, an excuse for poor behavior.


We’ve heard and talked a lot of fuss about the MacDonalds’ front yard. I know what you folks are thinking. It’s a mess. You’re not wrong. There are Lego pieces strewn all over the dead grass, they’ve got a broken chain dangling from a tree over a water-filled tire swing, and part of their front railing is rotted and falling down where one of their boys crashed into it while playing catch. They’ve got one of those inflatable snowmen deflated on their lawn like he’s lurking until next winter, which is unconvincing since he was never inflated this winter.


I realize that I’m new to the Board, but shouldn’t we send a fee or a notice at least before taking further action? It’s not like we can really know a book by its front. We don’t know for sure what is going on in their house just by walking past their driveway. Let’s not be rash by acting on assumptions.


Honestly, the ones with carefully shaved grass, especially when no trimmings are left behind, and walkways that always get shoveled within a couple of minutes of a blizzard come across as belonging to folks who perhaps care a little too much. Margaret, your porch swing makes a familiar squeak and has a floral pattern on the seat that looks like anyone’s adorable grandma could own it. Gerry, your petunias are immaculate, and your snapdragons are so impossibly perfect that their little petals nearly make me cry every time I walk past with my dogs. Richard, your doormat actually says “Welcome!” and your doorbell literally makes a ding-dong sound. If any homes merit suspicion, you folks sure look like you’ve got something to hide.


No, I’m joking. Of course I’m joking. I know it doesn’t usually look like I’m joking when I am. My wife always tells me to smile more.


In seriousness, aren’t we overlooking something? Yes, I know we’re not permitted to discuss it. I read the bylaws and my own contract, but it does seem a double standard that we’d be willing to discuss calling DHS and foreclosing on the MacDonalds while ignoring the nondescript white house at 224 Murray Street.


No, I’m not joking now. This is serious. I don’t even like walking my dogs past it because as soon as we get to the mouth of the driveway, I hear the distant cry of an baby. When I turn my head to look, I always see a lone, cobblestone road carving a twisted path up a dark mountain through cracks of lightning and torrential downpour, winding up to a summit wreathed in flame, where sits a colossal, celestial infant with gleaming eyes and a contemptuous scowl, and it speaks in guttural chords beneath the register of men, “Woe unto thee if thou wouldst obstruct My Succor!” before the image fades, and I find myself huddled in the fetal position, weeping on the sidewalk.


I’m not sure that’s a shared experience--just making an observation about one of our neighbors. I mean, I get it if the Board doesn’t decide to make an action item for 224 Murray Street. It just seems like, you know, the elephant in the room. It's not like it happens every time I walk my dogs past, just once every couple of weeks.


Was that time? Is my time up? Thank you.

Freischütz

Mar. 5th, 2017 09:00 am
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Robbie knew that he was stuck after he said yes.

By the time he was escorted into a room with three other varsity players and forced to lie prone on a cement basement floor with his pants and underwear at his knees, it was far too late to go back. After one wearing rubber gloves like Robbie’s dad used to clean dishes shoved a needle into Robbie’s right butt cheek and then poured whiskey over the puncture, choosing to do football cleanly was almost a triviality. If he stuck with the plan, nothing would be more humiliating than this--they only used his butt for the shot for the first time to make Robbie prove that he was committed.


No more hours and months at the school gym for gains that couldn’t be measured. More time to keep up grades and more time to have friends if you’re not always needing to lift just to stay competitive--arguments like these were icing, though, because Robbie craved power and the appearance of innate talent. Robbie wanted to be a “natural” and knew that he could only achieve it by doing something unnatural.


*****


I asked the specter which one of the seven magic bullets would send my spirit to hell, and he laughed and said, “The seventh one!”


If I’d listened to my soul then, I would have known that it was always incremental. Now that I hold the seventh in my hand, I know that I could fire my gun anywhere in the world, and the bullet would carve the air and break clouds just to pass through a keyhole and puncture my lover’s heart. It doesn’t even need to be the magic bullet anymore--anything fired from my gun will do it.


It was simple enough the first time. There was a dragon and a hand in marriage for the one that slew it. I already loved Agna from afar, but maybe I didn’t love her enough to show my brave face once I met the dragon on a mountain top outside of town. I had a magic bullet in my gun, and the beast still pinned me against a stone with its clawed hand and cackled as its talons closed in on my shoulders and torso. I don’t remember pulling the trigger on the gun that was pressed across my chest, but the beast took a shot to the side of its face and tumbled to a ledge beneath me. The deafness and the smoke rising from my barrel informed me that I had been the one to shoot even though the trajectory of the bullet was impossible.


No one else was around to claim the kill.


I soon realized that I was damned from the beginning. I’m no murderer, but after her father reneged on the deal and told me that I could not have what was mine because I was low-born, I thought of him while shooting a hart for the weekly hunt. I killed the hart and found no trace of the bullet because it had left the forest entirely. Funeral processions were already begun for the old man by the time I returned home, finding Agna weeping over his body as it entered the pyre.


I hope someone can learn from this letter. I went on to kill four more people: her mother, my own father, a man who also loved her and dared to keep looking at her even after we were betrothed, and a judge that started to question the order of these events. My own habits and beliefs damned me before I ever accepted that deal with the spirit for these bullets. I think I deserve everything, and that’s why I’ll be left with nothing. I act on impulse, and that’s why my gun will fire a seventh time no matter what I do to circumvent that fate.


The only thing I can do to provide any relief from this fate whatsoever is to push the barrel of the gun against my own head now and coerce it into claiming me too. Maybe it will decide then that my life is enough. Maybe this was really the purpose of the seventh bullet since the start.


*****


Past college days and athleticism itself, Robbie tried to drop it. He had managed, through great effort, to reduce his usage. He felt frail and sickly whenever he tried to reduce, losing track of days spent lying on the floor of his bathroom just to have easy access to a toilet.


Robbie always looked at the injections as a solitary curse, started in secret and finished in secret. He often realized that he was still trying to prove a kind of strength by not speaking to a physician about any of his problems. Even the man who gave him the injections knew that he was losing a client and encouraged him to see a doctor.


Regardless, Robbie would stand over his trash can with the last injection in his supply clutched in his hand and unable to let go. Or some nights he would toss it in and take it all the way to the dumpster before ripping open the bag again and pulling it out, hands trembling and breath faltering with the weight of his dependency.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
I also want to be shorter and deadlier, so I am rejoining Idol at this juncture. Piece for current prompt is underway.

I'm In

Nov. 10th, 2016 08:28 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

I'm so in. Lemme at this Idol thing again.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.


When you ask me why I followed you, I can’t say for certain why. You had a look. Black coat and a funny hat and an arm full of my newest vinyl records. It's not that I suspected, you know, that you would kill someone by putting a record player with Maroon 5's V album on loop inside their living room until their house filled up with sugar. But when you started to phase through doors, I did get a little suspicious. When Taylor Swift's 1998 caused the old man you gave it to to start bleeding out of his ears and mouth, I was certain I had found the culprit.

I really didn't suspect that you would catch me watching you when you played Hozier's Hozier album and we both literally went to church. That was a surprise!

You're not responsible for the murders back then? Who was?

Is your organization going to kill me too?

You only perform assasinations with music and your own record player? What will happen to me, then?

Thank you for sparing me. If you're going to keep me as your supplier, we're going to have to talk about your over reliance on best-seller lists. Stick with me, and I'll show you some really killer tunes.

Psychopomp

Apr. 15th, 2016 06:00 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.”


“Pardon?”


“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.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.


Raymond nodded.


“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.”


“Really?”


“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.


“No.”


“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.


--Doctor Thomas Holland

Chums

Apr. 1st, 2016 05:33 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
The slick stones near the lighthouse were full of water passages that filled during high tide. As the tide ran away, especially in the early morning, interesting things could be found in the gaps between the rocks against the walkway.

Brandon found a squid. It was as big as his torso, but it was trapped between several large rocks anyway. It sat on a slab, thrashing and stretching to place its arms into the tide nearly a half of a meter below it, but the only crack available to the squid could fit only two of its arms at a time. Brandon watched it struggle as if he were watching a sick bird die in its nest; he could intervene, but observing the end of a life cycle was fascinating for a nine-year-old boy. The sun was rising, giving the rocks a purple tinge, and it would still be an hour or two before Brandon’s parents were awake to scold him for going to the beach alone at such an early hour. He had plenty of time to watch the squid die.

It thrashed. In flailing against the rocks, it eventually managed to turn itself over, putting one giant, surprised-looking eye facing Brandon directly. It noticed him. The thrashing abruptly stopped.

Brandon was entranced. Either the creature was so afraid of him that it stilled its limbs, or it implored him to act. He held its gaze for around a minute and then started to lower himself towards it, grabbing the edge of the walkway with his fingers while dropping his body down to the stones. As soon as his feet touched the seaweed strewn stones, he slipped. His fingers let go of the concrete platform as his body rushed down the side of a slab towards an assembly of sharp edged rocks. Brandon braced himself and managed to stop by placing his shoes against two different stone points. This is why Mom told me not to play on these rocks, he considered. His back ached, and his trousers were wet, but he managed to land right next to the squid.

It was heavy, but calm in his hands. Getting it over the lip of the stone it was wedged against was quite a challenge; eventually, however, Brandon managed to heave it over the edge into the endless ocean beyond. As soon as it hit the water, it was gone, swimming away at a blinding speed.

Later, burying the soggy trousers at the bottom of his dirty clothes pile, Brandon smiled at the good deed he had done. He never forgot the intense expression of the squid’s eye as he stared into it.

*****

A week later, Brandon was checking the walkway for another squid or something else interesting when he saw an object flash and drop closer to where the walkway connected to land.

The rocks were safer to climb over away from the lighthouse. Brandon scampered across the sharp points quickly and recklessly.

At the water’s edge, he saw a collection of CDs tucked into a nook. Most were cracked. Most were advertisements for an online service that Brandon had never heard of. Another one popped over the edge and landed in the pile. Brandon couldn’t see where it came from even though he tried. It was a Yanni CD: “Live at the Acropolis.”

Remarkably, it worked when Brandon put it into his CD player later. He listened to it all night.

The next day, Brandon waited at the same spot. There, a pair of hiking shoes dropped over the edge. Then, a pair of sandals. Then, a very soggy pair of bunny slippers with seaweed tangled about their faces.

None of these were his size, but he took them anyway.

Gifts kept coming each day. Every now and then, Brandon could see just a flick of the tentacle that delivered them. He laughed and grinned when he found the nook to be full of rock lobsters--he had to get a bag to grab them and his mom was very happy with his haul.

Before long, summer was almost over, and Brandon had little time left to spend mornings watching gifts fall into the ocean pocket. To say goodbye, Brandon filled a plastic bag with cocktail shrimp he stole from a platter at a party.

Waiting at the walkway, Brandon watched as a huge clam was raised over the lip of the stone. It dropped over with a clatter. Brandon had never seen a clam that large before.

Before the squid could retreat, Brandon leaned over the rock and dropped the shrimp into the water. The water was calm except for the ripples caused by the shrimp. Then, the squid’s arms grabbed at the shrimp, vanishing immediately. It had grown in the three months since he rescued it; now its limbs were easily larger than his body.

Beneath the water, Brandon could see the eye staring back at him, contemplating. When he cracked the clam shell later revealing the biggest pearl he had ever seen, it seemed just like the squid’s eye.

The boy had little more time to visit the beach. The squid stayed and waited, every night.

*****

It was easy for a boy raised by the ocean to grow up fascinated by the ocean. Brandon became a marine biologist working for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. He was insatiable in his love for the ocean, so it wasn’t long before he was assigned to ranger services for protected ocean life zones around New Zealand’s southern island.

One day, he received an alert that fish were dying in droves within ten kilometers of the coast and was dispatched to resolve the issue. It was extremely apparent what was causing the disturbance the moment Brandon’s boat entered those waters: bottom trawling. The ships left a murky stew of debris in their wake.

It was uncommon to see so many indistinct boats committing illegal fishing inside of the protected area. By the time Brandon closed the distance enough between his small survey boat and the five trawling boats for them to hear him over a megaphone, he had little time to negotiate with the poachers before he was held at gunpoint and taken aboard.

The fishermen barked at him in a language he could not understand. He pointed to his boat and made “telephone” gestures to try and suggest that he could get a translator, but they hit his face with the stock of a rifle and abandoned his boat, heading further out to sea.

Brandon knew he needed to act. He would likely be killed if the men got a chance. He would likely be killed if he gave them one. He wasn’t tied down, so he decided he would try to stand and jump off of the boat.

The moment he reached the railing, the stock of the gun hit the back of his head. He sank to the floor as blackness flooded his vision. Just before he lost consciousness, he heard a man on another boat scream frantically.

When Brandon opened his eyes, he was back on his own boat, lying down, soaking wet. Wood and twisted plastic drifted through his vision, floating on the water. He blinked, forcing himself to turn over even though the pain in his head made him retch.

He watched through hazy eyes as the last fisherman was dragged beneath the surface by the mace-like tentacles of a tremendous squid. The wreckage of the trawling fleet was scattered across the sea. Beneath the surface, Brandon could discern halves of boats sinking.

Beneath the surface, Brandon could discern hundreds of giant eyes looking back at him. “Thank you,” he mouthed, and they vanished.

The original squid could not have survived to see Brandon reach adulthood, he knew. At night, Brandon played his Yanni CD and remembered his first cephalopod friend.
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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



  1. Always use a grounded outlet.


  2. Never leave the air duct open as deflation may occur.


  3. Do not attempt to use as a floatation device.


  4. Cease use if feelings of nausea persist for longer than four hours.


  5. Acts of god are not covered under Premium Warranty.


  6. Let contents sit for over a minute once heated.


  7. Fragile: Handle with care.


  8. Contents under pressure.


  9. If smoke or electrical discharge occur, discontinue use.


  10. 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



  1. Failure is growth.


  2. Bravery is beautiful.


  3. Love is limitless.


Penance

Mar. 15th, 2016 04:00 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.


“Hey!”


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.


Maggie felt all of these events happening as she looked into the eyes of her new child, Laura, and back to Paul again. Outside the hospital, beneath the cement sidewalk, earthworms that were trapped when the concrete was poured became alive again, wriggling out and up to the surface.

Refresh

Mar. 11th, 2016 05:59 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

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.


And although she lived in a house where pictures disappeared and walls were removed or shifted on a regular basis, she never thought twice about it until the day she went into the closet only to find that the door had disappeared behind her. Carol Rolph had time to reflect then, slowly perishing due to hunger and an inability to use a bathroom except on the floor at her feet. She remembered that her name had once been Susan Sturm. She remembered that she'd once been married for years (or was it days) to a man named Brian Rogel. She remembered everything, and then she passed.

When her tombstone appeared later, just outside the kitchen window, some unseen hand would place it in a faraway cemetary filled with hundreds of others who had suffered from similar identity crises just before being trapped and forced to die in a closet. Even though it had been a strange existance, it looked an awful lot like really being alive before someone had decided that it needed to end.

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