Archive for September, 2011

Storytime: Business.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

“Now the thing is,” said Eddie, to Edward, as their pickup truck crunched its way into a resting position on the gravel driveway, “not to take things too fast. Hastiness makes mistakes. Slow and steady can’t hurt anything but patience, and we’ve got enough of that.”
Edward nodded at his father. Or maybe he was just listening to his iPhone, it was hard to tell.
“Well, I expect you’ll pick it up,” said Eddie as he swung himself out of the cabin and dug through the truck’s back. Extracting a large toolbox, he peered into it, then shut it with a satisfied grunt. “Allrighty. Pay attention.”
Ringing the doorbell produced no reply for approximately thirty seconds, after which the sound of something heavy falling end over end could be heard. There was a brief pause, and then a wincing, heavy-set man opened the door.
“Eddie North and sons,” said Eddie.
The man looked at them. “Where’re the others?” he asked, after a pause that was just long enough to be uncomfortable.
Eddie shrugged. “Give ‘em two, four years and they’ll both be in highschool and I’ll start bringing them along. Just don’t want to have to change the business name twice, you know?”
“If you say so.”
“You got a boggart in your fusebox, you said?”
The man nodded wearily as he beckoned them inside. “Alan Thompson, and yes to your question. Two weeks now. Little bastard’s got it worked out top to bottom – he turns the lights off right when I go down the stairs, pulls the plug on my computer before I can save anything, and if I use anything rechargeable he just waits until it needs a fresh shot of juice and then he gives it a power surge. I’ve been living out of my neighbour’s sockets for a week.”
Eddie nodded thoughtfully as they were led to the fusebox, its flat, grey face an impenetrable mask. “Righty-o. You try dislodging it yourself?”
Alan looked embarrassed. “Yeah. I would’ve called you in sooner if I’d known it could get this bad. At first I tried chalking a circle around the fusebox and burning mistletoe, but then it just set off the fire alarms. Then one of the guys at work suggested mare’s blood, but that’s hard to get ahold of. Took me four days to beg so much as a half-pint, and when I tried to use it, the damned thing took the power out of the fridge and hasn’t let it back on since.”
Eddie nodded solemnly as he wrenched open the box and peered at its contents. “Righto. Well, I hate to bear bad news, Mister Thompson, but you’ve made no mistakes that aren’t common. See, maybe some of those tricks might’ve worked if you’d caught the little bastard right away, before he could worm a grip in, but now he’s got a firm hold on your wiring. No, we can’t win this one by playing his game anymore. Son, hand me the screwdriver. Phillips”
“’Kay,” said Edward, putting as much sullen wretchedness into the demi-word as possible. The tool was extracted and handed over – rubber-handled, with a silvery tip.
“Now the thing with your basic boggarts,” said Eddie, as he sized up the fusebox’s innards, “is that they’re scarperers. You want to get rid of them, you got to get them when they don’t expect it and nail ‘em with one go. Sir, would you mind flicking the lights on and off repeatedly, just to get its attention?”
The man hesitated, but did as asked. There was a whiff of smoke in the air and a sharp and ear-cleaning whistle erupted from the fusebox, which turned into a truncated yelp as Eddie stabbed his screwdriver viciously into it, puncturing metal and something more insubstantial. The handle hissed, and he swore and let go.
“You okay?”
“Fine, fine. They like to leave a bit of a bite for you to remember them by now and then.” Eddie sucked his fingers as he watched the screwdriver’s handle gently ooze apart, flowing down its own blade. “Damn and blast. I’ll have to fix that up over the weekend. Should be fine now, unless it left a trail for its relatives. I’ll give you some milk spiked with holy water, leave that out a few nights.”
The man looked worried. “Have you got anything less… lethal? Only I think I’ve got pixies in the back garden, and I don’t want any collateral damage.”
“Nah, they’ll be fine,” said Eddie. “A little holy water might give ‘em diarrhoea, but it’ll all come out in the end. So to say.”

“Now that,” he told Edward, as they drove away, “was an easy one. They’re not always like that, and that’s why you’ve got to be careful, take as much time as you need. Plus, on some jobs – big jobs, the ones you don’t want to screw up or some silly thing runs off with your shadow or head or something – you get paid by the hour and there’s no sense at all hurrying it then. Understand?”
A half-shrug, delivered while staring out the window. Oh well, good enough.
The next stop, he was careful to point out, also wasn’t a big deal. A regular customer, a middle-aged woman named Susan who lived just a little too close to the park and didn’t keep her security wards running in the daytime – “to save on bills,” she said. Eddie was more than happy to take the money that would’ve gone to the magitechnical company.
“It’s goblins again,” she told him morosely, leading them down to the cellar door. “I just don’t know how they do it. I turn on security as soon as the sun so much as looks at evening, everyone says they’re nocturnal, no questions asked, and the little bastards still make it in. Just don’t ask me how.”
Eddie chewed his lip as he examined the door. What may have been ambient house-sounds leaked out from behind it, hinting at something more sinister than mere settling foundations or creaky boilers. “Son, go get me the sledgehammer – back of the truck. It’s all right,” he explained hurriedly at Susan’s pained wince, “I’ll be careful. You renovated recently?”
“Yes,” she said.
“More’s the better. They like the dark and damp, so I’ll have ‘em off-kilter. And they won’t have had any time to dirty the place up to feel like home yet.” Probably, he added in the privacy of the realm underneath his baseball cap. Then, after a moment, he appended: much.
Edward returned, sledge in tow, having taken neither an offensively long amount of time nor a particularly quick go at it. Eddie felt a little twist at his heartstrings – so, he had been listening to him earlier. He took up the big rusty instrument with a grunt, and reminded himself to polish it later – there was still some congealed ichor on it from its last use, an ice troll inside an industrial ice-cream maker.
“Righto,” he said, taking off his hat and replacing it with the special one from the toolbox. “Wish me luck.” And then he pushed the door open and stepped inside, shutting it carefully behind him. The click was extraordinarily loud, and gave the impression of having cut off a number of inaudible conversations, leaving the room that special sort of quiet you can’t hear, only feel crawling across your skin.
“All right boyos,” he said, words too loud, intensifying the silent feeling of incredible creepiness, “you know how it works. I’ve got iron in my hand, you’ve got hives from nice clean furniture and carpets. Clear out or it gets messy quickly.”
A high-pitched giggle – no, giggles were for children. That was most definitely a snigger.
“Right then,” said Eddie. “Don’t say I didn’t give you little shitheads fair warning.”
He flicked the light switch and was completely unsurprised to find that it did absolutely nothing. For effect, he jiggered it up and down a few times, then started swearing softly under his breath. The sniggering sounded in the dark, maybe five feet from him, and he heard the quickly-moving pitter-patter of little flat webbed feet.
Right, he thought. That’s enough of that. He flipped the headlamp on.
The first through seventh things he saw were an assortment of screaming, terrified goblins frantically covering their light-sensitive eyes and dropping their assorted nasty little murder implements. The tenth, eighth, and ninth things were the tasteful sofas that they’d overturned and pushed together to use as makeshift lairs. Past that the details got awfully vague because he was busy and there wasn’t time to waste – walk quickly up to a spasming light-blinded goblin, bludgeon with the hilt of the sledgehammer, repeat. The seventh one had time to shake off its paralysis before he got there, and received a somewhat more businesslike and vicious soporific in exchange for most of its front teeth and quick dose of impromptu rhinoplasty.
“All clear,” he called, signalling Susan and Edward to come in with flashlights. Susan looked weary at the mess, but somewhat pleased at the relative lack of carpet-staining carnage. Edward was mildly interested, or possibly bored. It was hard to say.
“Found your culprit too,” he added. He showed her the shiny little metal loop dangling with charms that he’d yanked from the trophy-festooned vest of the chief goblin. “They swiped your keys somehow. Keep an eye on them, will you? I don’t mind the business, but I think you could use the break.”
Susan looked equal parts irritated and thankful for his concern, and waved off offers to help right furniture. They departed while she was gathering cleaning materials to rinse up the sticky black goblin nosebleed from the carpeting.

“Right,” said Eddie. “One last job – best for last too. Some lady says she’s got a changeling hiding in her plumbing. Haven’t heard of that before, but they’re little bastards, and I wouldn’t put it past them; it’s not like they can’t breathe water or fit through a u-bend.”
A shrug, one-shouldered. Good as an answer, really. Within five minutes the truck’s tires crunched on gravel, in seven they’d been escorted inside the house by a nervous-looking woman named Holly, and now they were carefully examining the toilet.
“Most likely outlet,” Eddie was explaining confidently. “Sure, they CAN squeeze ‘emselves through a faucet and into a sink, but it’d take longer, and they get bored easily. I think we’ll need the plunger for this one – hand it over.”
Edward rummaged through the box and silently, languorously handed over the ash-handled, rune-engraved plunger. Holly hovered behind them as Eddie bent low over the toilet, accepting the tool with one hand.
“Right. So what we’ve got to do here is flush ‘im out – not literally, we don’t want to get rid of him, we want to keep him here, so what we’ll do is get that scaly creeping bastard GET HIM!
By the end of the sentence the bathroom tableau had been slightly altered. Eddie was now standing, Holly now looked at least as angry as she did worried, and Edward was being pinned headdown in the toilet bowl by both of them.
“Right,” said Eddie in a menacingly cheerful voice as Holly yanked Edward’s head out of the water, “tell me where my son is or you get plungered.”
Edward was showing his first emotion all day, a mixture of befuddlement and confusion. “Dad, what are you –” the sentence ended in brisk plunging, with all the unpleasant sounds that came with it.
“Don’t you dad me, mister. My son is a cheerful and helpful young man and you are a walking cliché that was obviously manufactured by something with only the foggiest ideas of human nature based off of wild stereotypes. Also, my son would presumably recognize his own house, own bathroom, and own mother. You didn’t even take a proper look around when you took him, did you, you little attention-deficited moron? Now spill it: where’d you stash him?”
“I don’t –“ Vigorous plunging once again commenced, this time more forcefully.
“I can keep this up all day, you shapechanging son-stealing little shit,” said Eddie. “Where is he?
The changeling looked at least as bedraggled as resentful now, but also slightly terrified and very much out of wind. “Attic. Bound. Unharmed. Please stop. Plunging.”
Eddie nodded. “Right. Holly, could you hold this for a minute?” The nasty glint in his wife’s eyes as she accepted the plunger hinted that she may have something more unpleasant in mind, and Eddie felt something almost close to sympathy as he left for the attic. The first squelching sounds of furious plunger-hammering began immediately behind him, and he winced as he opened the attic trapdoor.
Ah, there was Edward. Tied up in the Christmas tree lights and gagged with tinsel, but otherwise apparently intact. More annoyed that injured, really, as he proved by his first words upon freedom, which were “What took you so long?”
“I didn’t realize it wasn’t you ‘till we were out of the driveway, and by then, well, why waste time? My clients expect promptness. It was a tight thing squeezing you in before lunch as it is – we may have to eat and run.”
Edward brightened up at the thought of food, at least. Well, he had missed breakfast. “What’s lunch then?”
“Sandwiches. Your mother was going to make something, but she’s a bit busy with your changeling right now and I don’t think she’ll be through making an example of him for about an hour. We may have a cleanup job when we get home.”

 

“Business” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010.

Storytime: A System of Checks and Balances.

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

It was the flyswatter that got him in trouble in the end.  Jeremy had known it always would.
It was an ancient thing that had been owned by his grandfather, formed from some unknown metal that had been shaped with brutal lack of care into an inefficient rusty killing machine that was probably almost as dangerous to humans as it was flies.  Especially humans that were overdue on their tetanus shots.
Jeremy liked it because it made a very satisfying clanging noise whenever he brought down a fly.
The flies liked it because it let them know loud and clear wherever Jeremy was, what he was doing, and how to act accordingly.  For instance, the loud thud of the swatter being laid to rest in its drawer was the signal for the plan to start.
Jeremy was a heavy sleeper, which had, in the past, lost him two separate jobs and cost him uncountable exams, projects, and assignments.  It was once again about to bite him in the bollocks.
There were three sounds which, if he’d heard them, would’ve made the next few hours of his life much more straightforward.
The first was the slow and ominous creak of his prehistoric door being shoved open.
The second was the soft, high-pitched whispering.
The third was the scamper of a thousand tiny little legs getting closer and closer.

The end result of all this was that Jeremy woke up due to a headache and found himself to be upside-down, suspended from his unusually sturdy ceiling fan with his arms tied behind his back.
“Ow,” he said.
“Order!” called a voice.  It wasn’t a nice voice.  It wasn’t a voice that would speak kindly, or use soothing words, or reassure, or even placate.  It was the sort of voice that would speak harshly, or use words like “insolent,” or demand.  On occasion, it might venture to dictate.
It was also very, very tiny.
“I will have order or I will have this room cleared!” threatened the voice.  Jeremy looked at the floor and locked eyes with a fat spider atop a matchbox, coming up six short.
“The defendant is now awake and this court is in session, so would you all SHUT UP!” it hissed.  Jeremy found himself almost hypnotized by its manner of speech: its legs seemed to be trying to play a mixture of tag and speed tic-tac-toe with each other.
A dull murmur died at its request – the hum of hundreds of tiny little things talking to each other, and Jeremy realized that the room was crawling.  Except for the bits of it that were buzzing around in midair.  Ants, flies, spiders, the odd earwig or two… everything in the house with an exoskeleton.
“What the fuck is going on?” asked Jeremy.
The spider glared at him, and Jeremy realized with small astonishment that he could read its expressions quite clearly – a twitch of the mandible, a sudden lustre in its fifth eye, all adding up to the overall appearance of someone who hated his guts, a hatred so solidly-defined that it brute-forced its way past body language in order to shove its feelings directly into his forebrain.
“You,” said the spider, putting as much contempt as could be summoned in a single syllable, “are on trial.  Will you represent yourself, or would you like a lawyer?”
“On trial for what?”
The spider slammed four of its legs onto its matchbox stool, making it jump.  “Reply to my question with a question and I’ll have you done in for contempt of court!  Do you want a lawyer or not?”
Jeremy’s head hurt too much to handle its own thinking.  “Fine, lawyer.  Listen, the phone number’s on the fridge -”
“No!  No fancy lawyer’s tricks for you – you’ll get the same as all the rest of us.  Bring forth his lawyer!”
A small centipede sluggishly pulled itself through a knot of ants and stood at the foot of the matchbox.
“I’m here,” it said.  “Where’s my client?”
“Directly above you,” said the spider.
The centipede looked up.  “Blimey he’s a big one.  You sure about this?  I’m not sure about this.  I thought you said this job was going to be a nice, simple easy one.  You never said my client’s eyes were going to be ten times my weight.”
“He’s entitled to proper representation,” snapped the spider.  “You defend him, I adjudicate, he’s judged by a jury of his peers -” a leg was waved at a set of ants and flies, which waved back – “and then we execute him.”
“Those aren’t my peers,” said Jeremy, thickly.  All the blood rushing to his head seemed to be settling into his tongue.
“Nonsense and lies!” fumed the spider.  “Blatant denials of reality!  Near-sociopathic obliviousness!  These are your housemates, your roomies, close as family!  By god, if I had the power I would smite you down right here and now on the spot, and save the public the uproar of an execution!”
The spider’s anger was so firm that Jeremy very nearly felt it as physical warmth, tickling at his eyebrows.  He recoiled as best as he was able, and nearly swung back into the judge’s bench in the process.
“Cease struggling!” called the judge, hastily sheltering behind the matchbox.  “Bailiffs!  More restraints!”
Dozens of (somewhat smaller) spiders leapt from above and trussed Jeremy further in webbing, grousing all the while.  Several muttered what he suspected were slurs, and one spat on his eyelid as it climbed back up to the ceiling.
“If there are to be no more outbursts from the defendant,” said the spider, giving Jeremy eight of the most evil eyes he’d ever witnessed, “the trial will commence.  Will the defendant’s lawyer…. where is the defendant’s lawyer?”
The centipede was missing.  A fly in the audience volunteered that he’d run away when Jeremy had lurched on the ceiling.
“Cowardly little mangy excuse-for-an-accountant,” said the spider.  “We’ll make do!  Human, you’ll have to take his place.”
“I want a lawyer.  You said I could choose to have someone represent me!”
“And someone is, you spoiled gadabout!  You’ll just have to fill in for him.”  The spider slammed its legs again – presumably its version of a gavel.  “Now!  Order in the court!  The schedule will proceed as follows: first witness, second witness, third witness, followed by recess for dinner and finished with the proclamation of guilt.  Human, do you plead guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty,” said Jeremy.
“Lying, deceitful, castles-in-the-sky clod.  Very well, no one will judge you for your pathetic attempts to evade justice.  Now!  First witness.”
“Objection!” said Jeremy.
“Objection spat upon,” snarled the spider.  “Witness.”
The witness was a lamed fly, who crept up to the stand on four legs, using his one wing as a balance aid on his lop-side.
“Now,” said the spider, “is this the man who crippled you?”
“Yup,” said the fly.  She spoke slowly, as if she was afraid haste would let the words run away.
“And what did he use to commit this abominable deed?”
“Objection!” said Jeremy.
“SHUT UP!” roared the spider.  “What was his weapon!”
“Swatter,” said the fly.
“Was it THIS swatter?” asked the spider, waving a leg at Jeremy’s grandfather’s most prized possession, retrieved from its drawer and currently held under custody of a squadron of beetles on the bedside table.
“Yeah, that’s it,” said the fly.  She scratched herself.  “That all?”
“You may depart.”
“Objection!” yelled Jeremy.
“If it will make you stop talking, then by all means, object away, you vicious clod!” said the spider.  “What is it this time?  Whining about you having to pretend to be your lawyer again?  Are you uncomfortable?  Do you need a drink and a kiss and a hug?”
“You’re the prosecutor,” said Jeremy.
“Congratulations, you win a medal!  ‘Most redundantly unneeded person man in classroom for schooling!’”
“But you’re the judge!”
“If even you” – and this was a truly venomous ‘you,’ a ‘you’ that could strip paint and bleach bones – “can manage to be your lawyer and yourself at once, I think I’m perfectly capable of separating and reconcilitating the roles of out-for-your-blood psychopath of the system and unbiased and impartial official, you villainous cretin.  Now silence your yapping maw before I have the bailiffs cram webs in it!  NEXT WITNESS!”
A millipede crept forwards, one step at a time.  This took about three minutes.
“Sorry, your honour,” he said.  “Nerves.”
“Yes yes we’re all nervous now spit it out: what are your grievances with this swine?”
“Pardon, your honour?”
“Your complaints, your issues, your beefs!  What did this scumbucket do to you and yours?”
“Oh.”  The millipede scratched its head in thought.  “Uhh… well, one time, I was sitting on the front walk…”
“As you had the right to.”
“Yeah.  Yeah, as I had the right to.  And then.  And then he came walking along.”
“And who was he?”
“You know.  The guy.”
“Which guy was this?”
“The one right there.”
The spider’s mandibles were opening and closing in a very slow but stupendously hypnotic way.  “Are you referring to the defendant?”
“Yeah!  Him!”
“Good.”

“And?”
“What?”
“What did.  The defendant.  Do to.  You.”
“Oh!  Oh yeah!  Well, he stepped on me.  Cracked my carapace wiiiiide open!  Lost half my guts and now my nervous system can only run one foot at a time.  Real pain in the you-know-what, right?”
“Right.  Thank you.  Go away.”
“May I cross-examine the witness?” asked Jeremy.
“Who asked you?” said the spider.  “He’s said his piece, it’s buried you in evidence of your own guilt… I think we’re done here.  One more, let’s get the formalities over with.  Next witness!”
The spider hopped down from its matchbox and cleared its throat.  “Thank you, your honour.  Now, one -”
“You can’t be the witness, judge, AND prosecutor!” yelled Jeremy.
The spider whirled about and was sitting on his left eyelid before he could so much as blink, and by then if he’d tried, he’d have been interrupted by its teeth.
“You are the scum of the earth,” it said, in a matter of fact tone.  “You are vile, and you are worthless, and you are an inconsiderate and oversized vermin.  Every day I spun my web on your mailbox, your terrible, tacky, worthless mailbox, and every day I caught insects that would annoy you – apologies, ladies and gentlemen of the jury – and EVERY DAY WHO OPENED THAT MAILBOX EVEN THOUGH THEY KNEW DAMNED WELL THAT THEY’D NEVER GET SO MUCH AS A ROGUE FLYER?  WHO, EH?  WHOM?”  It vibrated with such passion that its fangs seemed about to cause a microscopic friction burn on Jeremy’s eyeball, then turned away in disgust.  “No more questions.  Now – court is in recess.  Everybody go get some dinner.”
The court at large nodded in acknowledgement and seized its neighbours for devouring in a businesslike manner, some being consumed themselves even as they swallowed their own meals.  A single potato chip crumb was procured for Jeremy from underneath the living room couch and forced into his mouth against his protests.
“That’s a crumb that could feed half a colony of ants, you ungrateful sot,” growled the spider.  “I bet you don’t even appreciate it, do you?  Feckless bastard.”
Jeremy thought of a half dozen things to say, then a hundred reasons not to say any of them.  Instead, he preoccuppied himself with thoughts of chips, and how tasty he found them.  Unsuccessfully.  He suspected that his crumb was actually a wad of lint.
“Court is now in session,” said the spider, brushing a few specks of fly from the bits of its face.  “Verdict is guilty.  Jury, what do you think?”
“Guilty,” chorused the five surviving members of the jury.
“Couldn’t put it better myself.  Any last words before the execution, defendant?”
“What am I charged with?” asked Jeremy.
The spider stared.  Then snorted.  Then fell over on its back and laughed, laughed, laughed, legs waving all at once.  “You don’t know?” it cackled.  “Really?  REALLY?  After all the witnesses, the maimings, the stompings, the web-crushings… after everything you’ve done, after seeing the swatter used as evidence… you still don’t know what you’re on trial for?”
Jeremy’s heart sank.  “I guess not.”
“Well,” said the spider.  “Well.”  It shook itself briskly and adjusted its matchbox.  “It’s a bit complicated, but, you see, the long and the short of it is that we’re all members of this household – as are you – and after all we’ve seen… we just think you’re sort of a waste of space.”

“A what.”
“A boring tool.  A needless drag on the property.  A lead weight.”  The spider shrugged, an expression that might’ve almost been embarrassment marring its permanent venom.  “Sounds a little silly saying it like that.  Oh well.  Executioners?  Do your duty!”
And with a one, two, three, snap went the fangs of the spiders at Jeremy’s feet, snip went the webs around his ankles, and whack onto the floor went Jeremy’s head.
This immediately revealed two glaring problems with the execution process.
First, Jeremy was a tallish man and his room was a crampedish one.  His feet had dangled from the ceiling, but his head only travelled two inches before it hit the floor.  This gave him immense back pain and a large bruise, but not much else.
Second, Jeremy was a stoutish man and his floor was a shoddy one.  The floorboards bucked, the bedside dresser jerked, and Jeremy’s grandfather’s flyswatter fell off it with a screech of rust, smearing the beetle squad with its handle, gelatinizing the audience with the shockwaves of its impact, and crushing the judge and jury to an even pulp over the mesh that looked a bit like blackcurrant jam.

Spider silk is strong stuff.  Picking his way free took Jeremy several hours.  But it gave him time to think, and time to plan.  And what he planned his way to first (once he’d rubbed some blood back into his feet) was a cup of very bad and very hot coffee.
“Must be the pesticides,” he said aloud, scalding his tongue very badly.  “I’ve got to use different pesticides.”

 

“A System of Checks and Balances,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2011.

Storytime: Evergreen.

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

My mother was a pretty quiet lady. I was a pretty loud kid. If you filled a book with things she told me, it wouldn’t make it past chapter three. So anything she said, I tended to remember. So I remember her telling me: “stay out of those woods.”
Now, this was stranger than it sounded. For one thing, our house was surrounded by woods, and I was an outdoorsy girl from the get-go – as soon as I could walk I was finding rocks to trip over, and since home was nothing but a beaten-up, overgrown cabin and a shed with a door-squeak that could wake the dead, the farther I wandered the better. For another, she didn’t mind me wandering around out in the forests ’till just past dusk; as long as I carried the big stick with nails in it in case I ran into a bear. It wouldn’t do much to the bear, mind you, but it was a good reminder that there were things out there that could hurt you, and it kept me cautious. Sometimes.
So, it wasn’t the woods. They weren’t the problem. No, it was those woods. And here was where mom made her first mistake, because when I asked her the natural question, which was “what woods?” she told me where she meant. So I didn’t stumble into them by accident.
Then she made the second mistake, which was when I asked her “why?” she told me it wasn’t important.
Of course, first thing you do when you’re told that sort of thing, you go see what all the fuss is about.

So off I went. Mom hadn’t given me an exact distance, or a precise direction, but I knew where I was going – one of the older, more beaten-down paths led right where she’d pointed. It was right into old growth, where the trees shut out the sky and ate up the noise. Very quiet. I’d never been that deep in before, and if mom hadn’t warned me off, I probably never would’ve. Being a parent’s tough.
The boundary of where I knew I shouldn’t be was obvious. The trail went from near-gone to overgrown, and there was a blaze carved into a dead redwood that looked older than the snag itself. I kept going. After all, how was I supposed to know why I shouldn’t go there if I hadn’t been there?
It took me ten minutes to get pretty far into the off-limits area – there was some thick brush in there.
After about five, I started to notice things.
This was all gradual, mind you. It wasn’t like I took one step, two steps and BAM pins and needles up and down my arms. It was just something you noticed after a while, like that the breeze’s stopped, or that there’s a goddamned lot of flies out today.
When I did feel it – in a little clearing where a tree had died and rotted in place – it all sort of came to the surface at once. I stood there, one foot half in the air, and tried to tell what the hell was going on. It was hard to sort out, but what I remember as being the biggest thing was the air. It felt… thick. Not heavy, just thick. Like you could reach out and grab it, like it was stuffed with something. It was full. That’s what I remember the strongest. The air, straining at the seams to keep something inside.
The light was strange, too. Even filtered through a summer canopy, it was, I’m not sure, spotty. Wobbling. Like it was being passed through some sort of filter. And it was quiet, the quietest spot in the quietest depth of the forest, but it was because there was a blur over it all. Like white noise, but like breathing.
Oh, and it smelled like growing things.

I’d say I spent less than two minutes in that place before I lost my nerve and ran for it. Didn’t stop jogging until all the way back home, and I earned myself a black eye and four bruises on the way because I wouldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. Felt like something was watching me the whole way.
Mom was worried sick, of course, and scolded me up-and-down-and-all-about. If she’d known where I’d been she’d probably have done more than scold, but I told her I’d just gotten caught up in practicing skipping rocks on the creek and ran home a little too late and a little too quick. She probably wanted to believe that as much as I did, so not too many questions got asked and I got put to bed without any more sore spots than I’d given myself. Took me hours to get to sleep though. The window kept making me itch, even after I pulled the blinds on it.

That was the first time, and afterwards I pretty much followed mom’s advice and forgot about the place. Closest I’d have gotten at that age to admitting she was right about anything. So I hiked, hunted and fished and was reluctantly cattle-prodded off to school, where I learned what other people were. Whether I liked it or not.
David… hah, David was very much “liked.” Nice, but stupid. That was the age, though – I wasn’t exactly Einstein myself back then. God, we got up to some stupid things. Usually at his house – his parents both worked, and some nights they couldn’t make it home at all. Mom was always home at my place, so that was out for half the fun we wanted to have. And that didn’t really matter for a full school year. We had our routine and it worked out fine.
But David was curious. Always curious. Hell, if he was curious enough to date the crazy girl from the woods to see if she really ate raw meat and skinned her own clothes, he was curious enough to want to see firsthand if she really lived in a log cabin like everyone said. He kept asking and I kept turning him down, and finally he turned the screws on me right as summer was starting, because his family was going to go see some relatives cross-country and this-is-the-last-time-I’ll-see-you-for-what-have-you. Worked like a charm.
Mom was happy to meet him – I’d told her a little bit, just as part of the parcel of stories I gave her as reassurance that I was fitting in with the other kids. She had some half-stale raisin cookies we’d been avoiding eating for a week, David was polite and managed to eat three-quarters of one, and it was almost nice. Awkward as hell, but nice.
Then mom wants to go to bed. Early-to-rise, you know? So she asks us to keep it down thank you very much and heads to her room, and me and David, clever little idiots that we are, decide that this is the perfect time to head outside and enjoy the night, just the three of us: him, me, and Jack Daniels.
Of course, that plan was off the rails before it hit the track. I told him sound carried so we’d have to get some distance before we really relaxed, but of course we can’t wait to crack at the bottle and we’re taking swigs before the house’s lights have gotten dim behind us. Looking back, it’s pretty lucky we didn’t break our necks on the path, even with the flashlights. We sure as hell couldn’t hold them straight for very long. Must’ve given a dozen owls heart attacks.
Now, in between drinks, what we were doing kept changing. At first we were trying to make out. Then we were trying to complain about our parents – well, he was; I only had half as much material, and I got on pretty good with mom – and after that we were trying to find a really pretty spot in the woods I wanted to show him. I think we were going to make out in it, I don’t think I quite knew what was going on even then. By then the only one of us that wasn’t sloshing when we walked was mister Daniels.
So that’s the best guess I can give as to how we went off trail. I lived in those woods for years and years and never got lost once, ever. And I’m not about to count this as ‘getting lost.’ We were moved. One moment we were skirting along the edge of the old growth, and the next we were walking into that empty little clearing full of not-noise and with the moonlight filtering in all broken up. And I couldn’t smell the booze anymore. Just green growth, hanging in the too-thick air.
I sobered up fast, once I could blink enough to see where we were standing. David didn’t get it, he just asked if we were there yet… probably. I was practically carrying the poor boy by then; we’d both have probably passed out and slept ’till noon if I hadn’t caught wise right then.
So, what was the first thing I did?
Well, I giggled.
Yes, yes, very smart. Well, I’d just gotten lost in what was practically my own backyard, found myself in a place that had terrified the life out of me as a little girl, gone from smashed-flat to stone-sober inside five seconds, and was listening to my no-help-at-all boyfriend mutter something about how beautiful I was while he dribbled a little at the mouth. It was giggle or shriek, and you don’t shriek when it’s just two of you, only one awake, alone in the woods at night. It isn’t going to make you feel any better.
Now, don’t go thinking I was completely off my head yet; while I was giggling I was getting a better grip on David’s arm and generally getting him into a position where I could run like the dickens and bring him with me. And that’s when he dropped poor old mister Daniels. Smash, right on a rock, blasted right apart. And because I was a dutiful, clean (all the other girls in school made jokes about the smelly hillbilly who lived in the woods; I’d foolishly thought this would make them stop it), conscientious, stupid, stupid, stupid girl, I leaned over to pick up the biggest pieces and immediately cut myself.
Right away, the second that I felt that nasty prick in my finger, the air broke. I’m fairly sure that’s the right word for what happened: it broke. Snapped right in half and sprayed bits of light and colour everywhere, like stamping on a prism. Of course, it was night, so most of the colours were shades of grey-to-black, but it was pretty damned impressive, even so. More startling than the lightshow (fleeting though it was) was the thud you felt in your gut and your ears, because for just a little less than a second whatever it was that had made the air so heavy had been dropped right into it, and it was just as surprised as you were.
That last sentence needs a bit more explanation, I think. You see, when I’d blinked away the blindness, the first thing I saw – beyond that David was now moaning loudly and clutching his head – was a pair of big yellow eyes looking at me from just a little higher than I was. They were very large, seemed spread very wide, and I can’t remember what the pupils were like. Matter of fact, I can’t remember anything else at all, right up until I slammed the door of the house so hard that it nearly knocked mom out of bed.
We had a bit of an argument, Well, she asked me what the hell was going on while I put David to bed on the coach, then I passed out while she groused at me. I woke up in my bed, so I guess she wasn’t too cross with me. That, and she might’ve smelled the fumes and decided that I’d have enough punishment come morning whether I slept on satin or stone.
David was a bit dinged up in the morning; however I’d gotten us home, it hadn’t been without a few bumps. The poor boy looked like he’d been five rounds with an angry bobcat, and there was half a bird’s-nest stuck in his hair. A bit less of a romantic goodbye than he’d hoped for, but I suspected that after last night he wasn’t quite as upset about leaving me behind as before. The feeling was mutual. Some people like a relationship where they get to play the hero now and then, but if you ask me, anyone who needs to be dragged through the woods dead drunk at fifteen miles an hour is someone I’d rather not be sleeping with. Maybe it won’t happen twice, but once is too much. David met some other girl when he was out east anyways. Mom seemed almost upset that I didn’t need any consoling.
The biggest change from that night was that I didn’t spend as much time in the woods anymore. After ending up in the place where I shouldn’t be through god-knows-how, I wasn’t about to get one inch closer to it than I needed to. Even the brighter, noisier, younger parts of the forest put me on edge. Felt like someone was always looking over my shoulder. I didn’t tell mom any of this, of course – she’d have put it down to the drink, and that’s fair, so would most people. I wasn’t going to take that chance. And after seeing those eyes, I wasn’t going to wander outside as often. And never at night.

There’s a few things I should mention before I talk about the third time, which was maybe ten years after that.
First, a couple of dogs went missing within a week of my little adventure. Big, healthy, well-trained animals. No sign ever found, no tracks, no tire marks. Just gone from someone’s backyard without a trace. There was a good-sized search, but nobody found anything. They figured someone stole them.
A month later, another dog goes. This one was on a hunting trip, and the man swore it went into the bushes to grab a bird and never came back. Same thing: no tracks, no marks, no muss or fuss.
Three days after that a rich guy loses a horse a few miles away, and that’s what makes people start connecting dots. Given another kick by some of the hunters complaining that it’s prime time for deer and they’ve barely seen so much as a hint of antler. I think they decided it was a really smart bear at the end of it, or maybe a cougar that had balls of steel. Neither one made much sense, but they were the best ideas they had, so they took them and ran with them all over the woods, with guns, with hounds, and at one point the rich guy hired a chopper.
Of course, they didn’t find anything. Probably for the best. Nothing else went missing.
But the deer stayed scarce. After the fifth year of that, the hunters gave up and moved on.

Things were already changing by then – I’d finished school, and I was doing most of the heavy work around the house. Mom was still tough, mind you, but her spine was more oak than iron now, and she appreciated that she had someone doing the lifting for once – especially the town runs. After school, I was more used to people than she was, and the old truck was drivable enough. It also meant mom had the time to make tea more often. God, the stuff she tried… I’d swear she worked through every single plant within ten miles, and she would’ve made tea out of the animals too if she’d still had the vision to take a proper shot with our rifle (or if any of them could be found; the wildlife kept getting more skittish). If it could be dunked in boiling water, she’d put it in a mug and give it to you without warning.
Anyways, this kept on for another five years or so. Slow and steady, but not much more. What brought that to an end?
Well, I met a man.

I was coming back from a fishing trip when I met Stewart. He almost got me killed right off the bat – the clever, clever idiot had managed to find one of the almost-gone deer left in the forest for miles around, then startled the thing into the road almost immediately. It left a dent in that truck’s hood that looked like it went all the way to the pedals, and it was only sheer luck that the dent didn’t end in my forehead instead. I did my best to show Stewart exactly what I meant, and I was pretty happy that he’d been blessed with a thick skull once my temper cooled down. For a minute after he keeled over, I almost thought he wasn’t going to get up again. Left a nice little scar, though, where one of my nails caught his scalp by mistake.
So once Stewart had woken up and I apologized, we got to talking what to do about my truck. He diagnosed it as a complete write-off ten years ago and said it was a miracle the deer hadn’t just sailed right through the rust holes, I said I was really sorry about hitting him again, and we agreed that it was only fair that he drive me home and we split the deer fifty-fifty.
Mom was happy to have guests again – if anything else, it gave her someone new to inflict all her favourite teas upon. Stewart was as polite as he could be with his headache, and in general everybody had a nice time for a little while before we had to go out back and butcher a deer. It’d been a long time since me or mom had a chance to do that, and we managed to… what’s the opposite of ‘many hands make light work’ again? Cooks and broth, yes. We spoiled that broth to hell and back – the deer came through all right in the end, but it took twice as long as it should’ve and some of the cuts were shaped in pretty peculiar ways when we stashed them in the shed’s freezer. I don’t think a steak is meant to be comma-shaped.
After that, we were all just about tuckered. Barely had the energy to cook up some of the meat for a late dinner, but Stewart helped. Man knew his way around a kitchen. We talked about the truck over the evening, and Stewart volunteered to loan us his. He’d just moved in a month or two ago, he said, and he was within hiking distance if we ever needed to borrow a ride. Everything was just warming up nicely when we heard the shed door squeak.
Now, when I said that door could wake the dead, I was only exaggerating. Slightly. But that rusty wail the thing made could, at the very least, make them roll over and complain in their sleep. And right there, in the middle of that shriek of cruddy old iron, there was a noise. Somewhere between a growl and a grumble. If we’d had time to think, we’d have stopped right then, but we were all a bit caught up in the moment and were right at the doorway before our brains could get moving. At least we had the presence of mind to snatch up our guns.
We only had a single instance of face-to-face time with the thing that was already half out of the shed. Then it was leaping into the bushes. Overall impression: almost as big as the shed, very large yellow eyes, furry, probably not a bear, and very, very fast.
And right when we should’ve all been frozen and thinking what-the-hell-is-that there goes Stewart off and after the thing down the trail.
Well. Of course I had to follow him. Who knew what sort of trouble he’d get into. Maybe nobody’d gone missing hunting after this thing before, but they hadn’t been alone, it hadn’t been night-time, and they weren’t right on its heels when it was trying to eat. Besides, the brave moron would get lost out there. As well as I remembered those trails, I hadn’t walked some of them for years, and they were overgrown. Somebody had to bring him back.
That midnight run through the woods was the run home with David turned inside-out: I remember every single step I took on that path, every branch that brushed my shoulders, every thought that went through my head, all as vividly as if I’d practiced them half a dozen times over before. And I knew all along, just as I’m sure you do right now, exactly where the trail would end.
The clearing was the same as it ever was, as if nothing had changed since ten years ago when I cut myself – I could even see the glitter of glass on its floor. The only changes were in its residents: Stewart, me, and whatever our runaway visitor was.
It was a poor thing, and I don’t mean that in the isn’t-it-cute sense. I could count every one of its ribs – huge things – and its eyes were sunken and erratic. Every breath it took seemed to exhaust it more than the last, and there was less calm in the slowing of its pants than there was, well, finality. Its four long legs trembled to keep itself upright, and its chocolate-coloured fur (milk chocolate, to be precise) was marred by patches of manged skin. Its mouth was wide-open, but the fangs inside it looked about ready to drop out – one of the canines was snapped off near the root, and something was glistening unhealthily on it, mixed with the bloody remnants of our venison.
John’s rifle was low and at his side, I saw. All of us could see that it wasn’t necessary. He gave me a look that was somewhere between sad and embarrassed. All three of us were wearing something like that. Along with, in my case, probably a pretty big helping of guilt.
“Good boy,” I said, softly. Its ears twitched. They were oddly long for something its size. Reminded me of a fox. “Good boy.”
It crouched lower. Not to pounce, not to flee, not even to relax. Just because it didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
Stewart opened his mouth, and although I didn’t know precisely what words would come out, I knew that they would be stupid. Then he shut it again.
“Good boy,” I repeated, glancing at him. He gave me a look.
“Steady,” I said. I started walking towards it. It wasn’t going anywhere. “Calm now. You’ve been a long way from home for a long while, haven’t you? Brave boy.”
It sunk lower. Its belly was on the ground now, its head cocked to one side at me. A noise came out of its mouth, but it was too slight to tell whether it was a growl, purr, or hello-how-are-you.
“Good boy,” I said, picking up a little bit of glass from the ground. “I know this hurts, but it’ll just be a little more. Don’t you want to go home again? Hold still, brave boy.”
The nose twitched a little as I held the glass to its ear, but just a little. I had to stretch to reach, and its muzzle pressed into my side. Its breath was surprisingly warm.
“Good boy,” I said one last time for good luck, and I cut loose one drop. Which I let drip.
The air didn’t break. At least, not any more than it already had. It just… slid aside. To make room for whatever was pressing against it.
Nothing big, nothing new. Just different air, with a different sky, popping into place in the middle of the clearing. It was funny, how much more normal that made it seem.
One sky under one canopy: impossibly tall and green, with a sun brighter than a light in a mirror.
One wind, calm and steady up above, brushing through leaves that were odd, with the sound of a breath that didn’t end.
And that smell, that smell of deep, pure green life, all around.
Something furry and frightened scurried away in the underbrush, and I felt our visitor’s nose twitch against my stomach again.
“Good boy,” I whispered. “You’re home.”
It sighed, and I’m pretty sure that it was happy. The sigh broke. And then we were in the clearing again, where the skies overlapped and the wind blurred and the air was thick with somewhere else pressing close against it.

That was the third time. And when I moved in with Stewart two years later, there still hadn’t been a fourth. It didn’t seem right to go there. And when mom’s heart took her just before your tenth birthday, well, it didn’t feel right to stay anymore. We buried her under the flower garden she’d started – god, she could barely get dandelions to sprout, but she tried so hard that it always almost worked – and that’s when we decided to move.
So now you know what you need to know, Tommy my boy. Because someone should know about this, and now that it’s just me, we need someone else. My chest hurts a little more than I’ve let you know (thanks, mom), and it’s been getting worse since your father left last May.
I’ve left you this letter, and I’ve booked a flight. I think there’s time for a fourth now. Don’t cry too hard when you find this; you’ve always been a brave boy, and you know that nobody lasts forever. And if you ever want to find me, now you know where and how.

Goodbye.

 

“Evergreen,” copyright 2011, Jamie Proctor.