Archive for January, 2012

Storytime: Hunting.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

It was a letter. Unusual in these days of instant messages and talking electrons, but it had a few newspaper clippings slipped in there that wouldn’t have gotten my way otherwise. Physical proof adds weight to the claims of the crazy, and it takes just enough longer to take a trip to the garbage can than to the ‘delete’ button that you might notice something worthwhile on your way. Three little articles from two little papers, with seven spelling mistakes between them. A missing car, a missing man, a missing hiker. All in the same place, all on the same road, all without a trace. The letter attached to that was an afterthought of information at best. ‘Come here,’ it said. ‘Help,’ it said.
‘Hunt.’
I thought about the options as I looked over my traveling kit.
Bear. No. They usually don’t do serial jobs, and they certainly don’t do cars.
Cougar. The same.
Humans. Could be, could be. Never rule out humans. It’d add to the challenge, sure.
Accidents. A universal. But maybe not this closely-packed. There’s bad luck, and then there’s bad luck.
And then there could be… something else. Which was why I was carrying the special case with the special tools in my left hand when I stepped out the door and left my latest small, meaningless apartment behind.
I’d say that the job finding me was unusual, but that would be a lie. What I do isn’t work. Great-great-granddad called it by a different name.
It’s the purest play there is, he said, a game humans invented a long, long time ago. And I still haven’t found anything that can beat me at it.
I can say the same thing.

It was a quiet sort of place, tucked away in some leafy little corner of the country that no one really cared about or looked at too closely. A hundred houses spread thin on the ground, two franchise buildings that sold grease and clogged arteries, and a late-night hunting supplies store on the highway that some joker had decided to paint in camouflage which might have been the stupidest thing I’d seen in my life. Country folk, god bless ‘em and screw them to pieces. Nothing important lived for a hundred miles around, which was a good sign of whatever problem that was hanging around it being ‘something else.’ That sort of thing usually sticks off the beaten path. Too noisy, too busy, too many people, and they just run. With this few nearby, they don’t run, they stay and fight.
I ate lunch in a terrible fast food chain coated wall-to-wall in plastic, feeling nostalgia for the good old days when I would’ve eaten lunch in a terrible independently owned restaurant covered in dented chrome. It didn’t really matter, as long as the food was bad. It forced you to think, to look at your map and make marks on it, to do anything, anything at all to take your mind off what was crawling over your gums.
Three vanishings over five years on the same stretch of highway next to the ass of a useless little town that hung off the road like a tick. And no traces ever found. The hiker sets off from his home and doesn’t come back. The driver heads into town and never gets there, nor his car. The idiot drunk gets in a shouting match with his friend, gets turfed out of the car to walk the last mile home by himself, and drops off the face of the known universe.
All locals, of course. It’s the only reason the papers – and by extension, me – know where the hell they went missing. I thought idly about how many people vanish without a trace on America’s highways and byways, and wondered how many of them could’ve happened just down by here.

I set up my blind in the edge of the thicket by the hunting store. A good view over the stretch of the highway I’d penciled out as the likely danger zone, and it’d be easier to explain away what I was doing to anyone to that wandered by. A few rednecks stopping by to stock up on bullets and beef jerky saw me setting up and made tsking noises. No way I’d get deer down there, what the hell was I thinking, blah blah blah. Nothing new, nothing useful.
It was mostly bent branches when I was finished, a screen that didn’t look like a screen, a seamless little blot on the landscape just big enough for me to tuck myself and the contents of the special case inside and vanish as far as eyeballs were concerned. Hidden in plain sight, the best and only real way to do it. Sound would be no problem, not unless I came down with the worst cold of my life in the next two hours, or explosive hiccups, or spontaneous Tourette’s syndrome, because all three of those were just about as likely as each other. That just left scent, and where I was sitting the wind wouldn’t reach.
Everything was ready well before sundown, so I went inside (nearly cut myself on the doorframe – rusty, and jagged as a shark’s mouth) and shot the shit a bit with the owner of the store. A fat, pale weasel with too few teeth and barely any eyes. Like a bloated worm. Those tiny little eyeballs nearly bugged out of his flattened skull when he saw the Gun, though. It was a mistake to bring that in there, I thought he’d take no for an answer when he asked to see it but the whining just wouldn’t stop until it came out of its case.
I told him the truth because that was the easiest way: yes, that was my great-great-grandfather’s elephant gun, old as sin and twice as ugly, yes, I knew how to take care of it, no, he couldn’t touch it, yes, it used black powder, yes, I agreed that it was a bit much to use on deer, blah blah. Yes, I knew how much it was worth, now stop talking I’m leaving. At least he didn’t have a problem with me leaving my car in the lot while I hunted ‘deer’; hell, just for letting me see the Gun he’d probably have let me sleep with his sister.
I went back to my blind and sat there in the dusk, watching the stars come out, counting the cars leaving the hunting store’s parking lot (one, two, three, four… only two left) and measuring the darkness. It was straightforward, normal, the sort of lack-of-light you find anywhere in the world. Not the deep black of an old, brooding forest, not the underworld pitch of a cave, not even the forever sleep of the bottom of the ocean. Just your everyday, everynight nighttime, nothing to write home about or quake under the bed in fear of.
Perfect cover for something else. And while I sat there on the cold dirt and branches, I thought about all the something elses out there that might be roaming my way.
Would it be a bigfoot? It’d been a while since a bigfoot. They were the reason I carried around great-great-granddad’s outmoded monster Gun with me, despite the reload time and the monstrous weight of the thing. All that hair and hide was on top of near-solid bone in all the important spots, and it was hard to find anything that could punch through that on demand.
I remembered that first time I saw one. All that arm and leg, lanky as a colt, but on a torso bigger than an entire gorilla. It looked at me as I pulled the trigger, and I think I saw surprise in there somewhere. I sold the feet to an old, old man in Texas, with a lot of old, old money; the things stank worse than a rotten skunk.
Bigfoot ate anything, just like people, but they steered clear of us when they could. We’re better at killing than they are, and they know it. And even a really big old one would have trouble getting rid of a whole car. Probably wasn’t a bigfoot. Unless it was really pissed off and really smart. Those two traits, they don’t go well together.
Now, while I was waiting and thinking all this, my ears and eyes were on the move, prowling the night around me while my body and brain sat lullaby-soft. And here and now, they came back home and told me that there was something out there, and it was standing just where the brush thickened into trees, forty feet from me, surrounded by branches and needles. Its breath was very soft, but deep and full, and it seemed to take forever for each exhalation to end and another to begin. Big lungs on it.
I moved the Gun into position and got my other hand ready on the big spotlight that was another part of the special case. One second was all it took once I had the range and aim. Turn on the light, and then, in that instant between freeze and flight, bang.
Or, since this was the Gun, BANG.
If I missed, there’d be problems. So there weren’t.
The sound of gravel under a tire rasped on the night like glass against a cheese grater, and the quiet breather in the wood chuffed under its breath and left, whump-thud-whump, off at a trot, paws churning through old pine needles and drained soil, overwritten by the wheezing roar of a pickup truck that had last seen maintenance when its owner was sperm as it hauled out of the parking lot of the hunting store.
I swore inside my head. Two seconds. Three seconds. Maybe two seconds and a bit closer. So near to being a one-night hunt too. Just once, just once (wait, there’d been the time in Puerto Rica) just twice, it’d be nice to have a one-night hunt. No chance it’d come back now, not after a run like that.
The car was my bed, the second of the terrible fast-food franchises in town was my evening breakfast, and the slimy little man in the hunting store was my timekiller, if only because the mildewed air in there put me to sleep real easy. He’d known the man that went missing in the car, he said. A good customer, a regular, a friend. Terrible shame. I’d better be careful, because if I went missing so would the Gun, and that would be the real tragedy haw haw haw haw.
Haw haw back at you. Jackass.

I moved for the second night, set up my blind in the trees. I knew where the thing was coming from now, I knew its sound, I knew its tracks – poorly. The shuffle of its run had been too frantic, all the details had been rubbed raw into a blur of claws. It could be a bigfoot, a big clumsy guy with overgrown toenails, a chupacabra, or even a bear. Too damned messy to say for sure.
And so I waited, and this time my thoughts wandered towards chupacabras. Which this couldn’t be. Goatsuckers like it warm, too warm for it to ever come this far north. Not on the hottest summer of this place’s existence. And besides, they were spindly little bastards that went for goats and cattle, and only took beef when it was asleep. An alert human? Probably not. A car? Not on the best day of the biggest, baddest goatsucker’s life. Especially not since I’d shot her four years ago.
One hunt. One night. One shot. The thing’s teeth had been worn down to little stubs from use, her bites were more like rat-gnawing than needle-pricks. Took the teeth for the trophy rack in the special case, sold the head to a man in Japan. He died two days later. I wonder what happened to the head. Wonder if it made it into the will.
There it was again. There was that breathing, soft and slow. Still quiet, but a bit more controlled, tighter. Not as relaxed, are you? Because last night you got scared off, and now you’re back and
Right
There
baBANGng
I jumped as the shot took, aiming and firing on automatic while my body did its thing. A bear’s face in the spotlight, surprised and wide-eyed in the light, a bear’s body falling over with the head a ruined mess. The Gun had spoken, but something else had too. That was a car door slamming, another one of those goddamned hicks nearly spoiling my shot with his late-night exit after one of those useless long conversations with the storekeep about guns and light beer and how his wife’s a goddamned bitch. Nearly ruined two nights now, and all for a goddamned bear.
All that flew between my ears as I turned to the parking lot, Gun still smoking big gouts of black powder, and then it flew away because the lot was empty. No engine had started. No tires had turned. Just the doors, and then a lot empty except for my own car.
Bang.

The bear had been a nuisance, feeding on the garbage over and over, said the store owner. His own damned fault for not getting better bins, probably. But now it was dead, hoorah, hooray, thank you so much, let me get you some more ammo for free, I’m sure I can have it shipped in, what’s your address, don’t worry, I know a guy who knows someone, wink wink. What’s that, man go missing? No sir, didn’t know that. Ain’t that a trouble there, makes me scared to leave the building. Good thing I live-in, huh? Haw haw.
I hated him, but quietly. I was thinking, and I let myself nod and grunt when he wanted me to while I puzzled over that parking lot.
No tracks. Not a one. And it had made off with a whole car in the time it took me to shoot, swear, and turn around.
Without leaving a track, there or in the bush.
A flyer, maybe? The Jersey Devil had traveled abroad now and then, they said. Not that I’d ever seen the bastard, despite my best efforts. Four trips, weeks each time, and not a single cloven hoof or leathery wingbeat in the night. Maybe it had died years ago; it was hard to sort out the genuine sightings by crackpots from the phony sightings by other, more imaginative crackpots.
It could be a bigfoot. A really old one, big enough to hoist a car, smart enough to do it quietly and cover its tracks, filled with enough simmering, built-up hatred to slow-burn through a massacre of decades, man by man. But no, no, no. At that range the stench would’ve given it away, and the bigger they are the worse they smell. No ignoring it. Besides, no matter how strong the damned thing is, it has to lift a pickup truck and carry it through a forest at about sixty miles an hour without leaving a trace.
Maybe it wasn’t physical. Now that thought got the hairs on my neck tingling; the Gun can’t work on what isn’t really there, and I hunt animals, not ghosts. I checked my watch while the owner paused in his gossipy ramble to take a bite out of his burrito, and was relieved to see the minute hand still frozen at noon. Not a quiver, and with anything with enough mojo to move a truck, it’d be spinning for days. I idly wondered if the store owner was a serial killer and had been using the dumpster-diving bear to dispose of his victims, and discarded it. The man weighed four hundred pounds and seemed glued to his chair. And there was still the matter of the vanishing car.
I excused myself and left the hunting store for someplace less damp, brushing myself clean with both hands, and considered my plan for the evening. Whatever the hell was doing this didn’t matter. It was real, it wasn’t dead, therefore the Gun would kill it. I just had to catch it, and judging from how fast it moved, catch it fast. So I’d have to know where it would be. So I’d need bait.

My sleeping bag was a rumpled, sweaty mess, but for good measure I wrapped it around myself for the rest of the day to make sure it stayed fresh. A couple armfuls of sticks and the use of my coat, and I had a hideous scarecrow that wouldn’t have fooled a nearsighted four-year-old.
But propped up and in a laid-back seat, in the poor light given out by the watery lights of the hunting store… well, things would be different. Were different. I didn’t even need the spotlight this time, just both hands on the Gun and a long, slow breath that never quite ended and was soundless as a falling snowflake.
Not much that could do a thing like this. I was ready for anything to cross my sights. A ripple in the air, a glimmer of an eye, a breeze that wasn’t quite a breeze. I almost shot a raccoon three separate times and each time I refused to let myself relax.
This would be so much easier if I knew what it was, even though it didn’t matter. Doesn’t have to be a ghost to be something a bit more out of my comfort zone than a twelve-foot hairy bastard. Might be a Grey. I heard they’ve been creeping back on-world in the last decade, and those shitheads are spooky as ghosts except they shoot back, and shoot hard. But no, there’d been no lights in the sky, last night, the night before, any night at all. Can’t be them.
Could be a wendigo, this far north. I’d heard some of them could fly, and they got big, bigger with each person they eat. And I don’t think they die of old age. Half-spirit, half-monster, but no ghost. Maybe one had come walking down from the north for a holiday.
Fingers bigger than pine trees flexed in my mind, reaching down, down, down to a car smaller than its nail, picking it up with no more sound than the bang of a car door…
The lights went out.
The Gun went off. BANG.
Flicker, flicker, fizz, and up came the store lights from the dark again, showing me an empty parking lot where my car had been.

I spent the rest of the night in a daze, reloading somewhere but otherwise offline as I searched my head for a next step. The car was gone, which meant my coat was gone, and I liked the damned coat, and most alarming of all I’d shot at something and missed. Or I’d shot something and it hadn’t died. I wasn’t sure which was more alarming.
The store owner was full of slimy condolences on my car being stolen. Oh, it was terrible, must be those damned punks from down the road, kids these days, yes there was a power failure last night how did you know, terrible service around here, pity you were doing so well, third time was the charm, better to go home now and so on.
No, I didn’t need a ride. I’d call in a cab. The idea of trusting my life to that fat slug’s ability to press a pedal hidden entirely by his gut made my eyes twitch. And I had a coat to pry out of something’s innards.

The roof of the hunting store was easier to reach than it looked. Up I crawled, hand over hand, Gun dangling. One good thing about that stupid-ass camouflage paint on the roof; it made my blending in a lot easier. Just laying down nice and flat there, I stretched myself out low and looked over the lot, a god on a fifteen-foot throne, eyes a bit bugged and brain a bit strained.
Perfect.
I climbed back down, ran to my blind, broke it to pieces and scattered them every which way, made it look like a cleanup that wasn’t quite careful enough, like an angry man had broken it down in a temper and gone home.
Perfect.
I took a land mine from the special case, instantly lightening it by ninety percent, and breached many international laws by planting it in the parking lot where my car had been, very carefully.
Perfect.
And finally, I took a very small item from the special case. It was an old souvenir from a hunt a long time ago, the littlest tooth from something I’d killed in a lake up in Canada once, years and years ago. It had left it inside my leg, and I needed all the luck I could hold right now.
Perfect.
I went back to my roof and laid down flat as the sun set. No thoughts this night. Nothing for the mind to distract itself with, no letting it wander while the body manages its own business. No, tonight was just for me and my trigger finger, nothing else between us. The thing would be back, it would be back.
The last red slipped out of the sky, and I settled myself carefully into place for the evening. If all went properly, the only part of me that would move anywhere this evening would be my finger. One finger, one gesture, one shot, blam. I had the positioning, I had the light ready, I had the luck, the hidden edge, and as I shifted my elbow I had a very large camo-patterned eyelid roll open next to my hand.
It was the size of my head, and it blinked at me. Winked at me.
Oh, that store owner, I thought, extremely slowly. Oh, how he reminded me of a worm, a big fat slimy worm stuck to his desk like a hook.
I turned the Gun, and was thrown to the ground fast as lightning as the hunting store bucked under me, landing right in front of it on the gravel with a crunch-crack of ribs and legs and arms. Away went the gun, skipping over the gravel as the hunting store heaved itself up in front of me, its lights flickering on and off like an anglerfish’s, doors clattering open and shut with all their jagged old rusty edges, moist, mildewed air seeping out into my face.

Great-great-granddad, times change.

“Hunting,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: On the Ice.

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Weather is annoying. It can’t help it.
Some places, it’s sunny, some places, it’s cloudy. Some places, it’s rainy, some places, it’s snowy. And yet across the entire planet, without exception, there is not one single place that has never been blessed with bad weather of some kind or another. If the problem can be boiled down to a single issue, it’s most likely that there’s always such a fine line between too hot and too cold.
For Judy, at the moment, it was too damned cold, and in a way that she was pretty used but not at all prepared for at the same time. The temperature was the usual too-damned-cold of the midwinter months, when the sun had run away over the horizon. That was normal, that was okay, she’d planned for that, same as every year.
What she hadn’t planned on was it going on ’till near April.
Well, that was fixable. Probably. With a bit of luck. Judy had a lot more than she’d need put away for her and the girls, just in case. But just in case was about half through, and getting a little more of it never hurt.
Fishing was a good start. Get a line, cut a hole, sit on the ice, wait. And wait.
And wait.

And wait.

And wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and THEN
wait a little bit more and there was a tug on the line.
Judy yanked up the fish and whacked it on the ice. One. Two might take a bit longer.
“So slow, so slow!” said a voice.
Judy frowned as she looked up. A voice had no call being so loud and warm this time of year. It was against the natural order of things. “Pardon?” she said.
The first thing that hit her was the smile. It was a big smile, a broad smile, a wide smile, a tall smile, a smile-little-smiles-looked-up-to-with-shining-eyes. It didn’t gleam, it glowed. The man it was attached to was nearly background after that.
“Waiting so long for one fish so small?” He laughed, a big, jolly laugh that made Judy’s knuckles itch. “Slow! Hah, I could outfish you two-to-one in my sleep!”
“Big talk from a big mouth with a little brain,” said Judy. “Go away. You’ll scare them.”
“Scare them? Hah! I invite them! The little scaly ones, they hear my voice and it calls them in like a mother’s lullaby, just you see. I bet you I can outfish you two-to-one with my big loud voice and your little quiet grouchy one, angry person!”
“Fine. Go fish over there.” A long way over there. Please.
“Hah!” The smile walked away.
Judy continued to fish as she did, maybe with her knuckles a little bit tightened. One fish (got it) two fish (a nice fat one) three fish (better chop the hole open again) four fish and five fish (skinny, discouraging things), and that was enough because she was about to freeze to the ice. There was no sign of the man on the lake, and she felt a vague sort of happiness in her heart that completely deserted her as she approached the shoreline and saw the waving, blurry little smile.
“Ten, and lively to boot,” it boasted. “What was your catch, fair lady?”
Judy gave him a look, and kept walking.
“Speak up now,” said the man, hurrying alongside her, “don’t be shy! We have a bet, didn’t we?”
“Ten,” said Judy, walking faster, “and no.”
“Surely you jest!”
“You said we had a bet, I didn’t. Stuff it.”
“Cruelty, such cruelty! At least give me one of your catch to make up for your cold, bitter heart, fair lady!”
Judy’s head hurt. “No. And stop yelling.”
“Ah, but we’ll settle this score yet! Come again, fair lady, and I’ll be waiting!”
Judy started humming very loudly and walked still faster. The man laughed, but didn’t follow.

“So that’s that,” said Judy to her mother, Anna.
“A twit,” said Anna, chewing her lip as she selected a large knife. Her other hand was busy moving the insides of the five fish to their outsides.
“You don’t say,” said Judy.
“None of that lip from you. See this lip that I am chewing? That is all the lip we permit in this household.”
“This is my house, mom.”
“Details and politicking. Give me that salt.”
Judy gave her that salt.
“That’s the stuff. Now, what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to find out how he’s cheating. Because you just told me that some smartass boy said he was a better fisherman than my girl, and I know that is a lie because the only one that could out-fish you was your daddy, until you out-fished him.”
“This isn’t a big deal, mom.”
“Sure it is. Someone flirting you up when you aren’t asking for it and making jokes on you, and you aren’t thinking of getting them back? The moment my girl takes that attitude is the moment I throw her out of the house and tell my grandchildren that their mommy got replaced by some stranger with her face on.”
“Water under the bridge, mom. He won’t even be there again.”
“What water, it’s all frozen, you are just talking crazy talk. And that man will be there, mark every word I just told you twice. Now take this advice out there with you tomorrow: you watch which way that man goes to fish, and you creep up on him and watch how he cheats. Then once you know, you wait ’till he boasts and you tell him how he cheats right to his stupid face. Got any more salt?”
Judy checked. “No.”
“Dang.”

Judy walked down to the lake. And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t ever see that man again, and she knew that she wouldn’t need to remember a single thing Anna told her. And she still wasn’t at all surprised when the man strolled up whistling as she was cutting her fishing hole and said “So, up for another bet?”
“Go away.”
“Come now, fair lady, giving up so easily? You did so well yesterday, I very nearly had to hurry to catch up!” He laughed, then caught himself. “Well, nearly.”
“Go and fish somewhere else.”
“I shall, I shall, I shall. And when we meet again, I guarantee that I will have caught three fish for each that nibbles your bait, and you can trust that word ’till the end of the earth.”
Judy sighed and concentrated on her fishing lure, and then, hating her mother just a little bit and herself a little bit more, she watched that man walk away out of the corner of her eye and made a note of that direction.
One fish, two fish. Set the pole up, fasten it tight (don’t want to lose that hook), and then off tiptoed Judy, feeling as stealthy as a toddler, creeping over the ice and trying not to breathe too loudly.
Finding the man was pretty easy. That laugh of his carried, and it never let up for long. A chuckle, a giggle, all leading into a big guffaw and then dying back down. In fact, he was so loud that she thought he MUST be right there at least three times, even though her eyes told her otherwise.
He had his back to her fishing hole where he sat, that must be the only reason he didn’t see her coming. The line danced through his fingers, half-fidget, half-play, half-haul, and up came the eighth or maybe ninth, so lively that it was fairly snapping at his fingers.
“Naughty!” he said, and then another one of those long, jolly, side-splitting laughs that made your fingers curl up into angry shapes all by themselves.
Judy was so busy trying to get them to unbend again that she nearly missed what was wrong with the man’s fishing hole. It was about twenty feet across and fish were swarming in it, dashing around under the surface like it was a summer stream.
First she stared, then she swore (very quietly), then she looked around for how the man could be doing a thing like that. Unless the answer could fit into his clothing or he was cutting fishing holes with his line, it was apparently not in front of her.
“Hoo hum ho,” chortled the man, and he pulled up the probably tenth fish as Judy slunk back to her line, thinking. She pulled in her third while she was at it, and her fourth, but she couldn’t make time from nothing and was only at five again by luck when she had to turn back.
The smile was waiting on the shore again, with the man. “Fifteen!”
“Mmm.”
“What? No praise? No adulation? Ah, such cruelty from the unappreciative – it makes me wonder I left my home to travel far and wide, if all men and women everywhere are brothers and sisters in their stingy praise!”
Judy started humming again.
“Ah, my prize is a song? How elegant! If you know the tune, I would not object to-”
Judy started jogging and humming, and didn’t stop ’till she was halfway home.

“Well now that’s strange,” said Anna.
“You’re telling me,” replied Judy. She was rubbing her sore feet by the fire.
“Just a big hole?”
Judy nodded.
“Strange. You’d better go ask mother then.”
Judy flinched.
“Don’t you give me that flinching. Your grandmother can’t help having her Condition. Just don’t talk too loud or get right up in her face and it makes no difference to anyone anyways anyhow.”
And that was why Judy had to go over to the spot where Carol was sleeping and poke her in the back.
“Huh?”
“Grandma Carol?”
“Whuh?”
“We’ve got a question for you now, grandma Carol.”
Carol scrubbed her eyes with a fury normally reserved for the filthiest of her descendant’s clothing. “Uh. Hmm. Er. Now, what was that, Anna?”
“It’s Judy, grandma.”
“I know that, I know, I know. But you do sound like her, you know. You both talk too loud and too much. Makes my head twirl.”
“I’m sorry, grandma.”
“Don’t be so sorry, it’s all right, it’s all right. You’re just perfect you know, just perfect. Now, what’s wrong?”
So Judy told Carol about the irritating smile and the man it was attached to, taking great care to keep her voice down at all times, even when she was describing the annoying laughs. And Carol nodded and listened and growled a bit, and when the tale was through she fussed it over and muttered to herself some.
“That man is irritating,” she told Judy. “You owe him a good fuss-making and an irritation right back at him. Up to some sort of tricks, he is. You sure you didn’t see anything?”
“No. No strange tools, nothing.”
“Hmm. Must be a trick he keeps close. What you need to do now, Anna, is you need to sneak up on him while he’s getting ready to fish, right away. You need to see how he puts up this special spot for himself.”
“Out on the open ice?”
“Don’t speak so loud! I have a Condition, and you know that. Carol knows that. Didn’t she tell you?”
“Sorry, grandma, sorry,”
“Should be. So you do that. And as for that ice, take my old white furry hide blanket with you and wrap your daughter up in that, and then, well, you can guess.”
“Yes?”
“Guess. Go on. Now let me get back to sleep, I need that sleep. This winter is too long and too dark, and all that dark is good for is sleep.”

Judy left Carol to her sleep and brought Emily with her. The girl was big for her age, still growing, and more than happy to have something to get her outside and running, even if the ice was a bit boring. And she got to wear her grandma Carol’s old white furry hide blanket. It was some sort of treat, apparently.
“Four to one?” asked the man, who showed up just as Judy was finishing up her cutting.
“Leave us alone,” said Judy.
“Ah, the child! Adorable, completely and utterly in every way! What’s your name, dear girl? No, no, how rude of me, I shouldn’t pry – hush, and I shall hush and be on my way. Good luck, fair lady! Good luck, little daughter!”
Carol counted to ten as the man walked away, then took ahold of the old white furry hide blanket from Emily. Her daughter opened her mouth to complain, then shut it as her mother firmly wrapped the line around her fingers.
“Stay here,” Judy told her. “Remember what you’ve practiced. And try to look obvious.”
Emily gave her a calculating look, then deferred pouting in favour of fishing. It took less effort.
The man walked, and as he walked he talked to himself – bits of nonsense, really – and laughed. And three times he looked over his shoulder, and three times Judy had to stop moving before she started creeping again, staying real close and real low to the ice while his eyes sailed over her white furry lump on a white frozen sea and bobbed back to that little brown coat by her fishing hole, right where she should be, waiting for him to say “Hah!” (it was always ‘Hah!’) and move on. It was chilly and she got a few mouthfuls of snow, but before her face started getting numb the man stopped and said “That’s that!”
Then he spat.
Judy wondered what he was doing five times in a row before she heard the sizzling. The man’s spit had melted a hole clean through the ice down to the water, and it was gnawing away more and more every second. By the time the drip-drip-splosh of fast-melt had stopped, the man had a practical ice-pond at the tips of his toes, warm as a summer sea. Curious, cold fish were already popping up in it like wildflowers, and there came that laugh again, full of joy and sharp and irritating as grit in your eyelids.

“I caught a fish!” said Emily.
“Good, good,” said Judy. “Let’s go home now. It’s a big fish, and that’s enough for now.” But the man was still waiting for them with his fish, twenty of them, early though they left.
“Too cold?” he asked, sympathy filling him to the brim. “Well, we can’t have the little daughters freeze, or who will be tomorrow’s fair ladies, fair lady? Still, my catch is twenty times yours! You really must pay me back tomorrow, or I’ll have to insist – giving way on this many bets without repayment is simply miserliness, no excuses permitted.”
“Emily, would you please sing us a song?”
“Oh how-” managed the man, and then Emily launched into her favourite one of Anna’s old tunes, plus or minus bits of one Judy had taught her, in a key that Carol had hummed for her. The combined effect was impressive, but the rest of the walk home was a lot quieter compared to the alternative.

“Well, that beats the hell out of me,” said Carol. “You got any ideas, Anna?”
“No mother, that puzzles me thorough to the core. It’s cheating, true, but no kind that’s ever crossed my eyes or ears ever in my life.”
“Slow down and talk quietly,” said Carol. “This is a puzzle.”
“A puzzler,” said Anna.
“No, a puzzle. The puzzler’s the one who made the puzzle, and that’s this smiley man. Didn’t I tell you never to trust a man that smiley?”
“Yes you did,” said Anna.
“Did you tell your daughter?”
“No,” said Judy.
“Well! Now why would you do that sort of thing?”
“She was smart enough to know it on her own now, wasn’t she?” said Carol.
“Don’t get sharp! Too sharp, now, now, now. Now. What are we going to do about this?”
They sat there.
“Tell him he’s a jerk,” suggested Emily.
“No,” said Judy.
“No,” said Anna.
“No, what we need to do is ask my mother,” said Carol. “Why didn’t one of you think of that?”
“Because grandma’s up and died years ago by now,” said Anna.
“Well! That’s no call to not go asking her questions, is it? You’ll make her feel unwanted.”
“I’m not asking any dead person questions,” said Anna. “That sort of thing is just not what I should be doing, and besides, I never was her favourite grandchild at all.”
“And it’s a good thing I wasn’t asking you to go do that, Anna, because mother only had one great-grandchild before she died and that was little Judy. Judy, won’t you be a dear and talk to mother for us?”
“Yes Judy,” said Anna. “That’s a good idea. She liked you a whole lot when she was alive and she probably won’t do anything too nasty.”
Judy looked at Emily, and found no support. She sighed, deeply and thoroughly. “How do we do this?”
“Well,” said Carol, “first we take this handful of…stuff.”
It was mostly plants, or at least maybe plants. “Right.”
“And we is you, because of my Condition.”
“Of course.”
“Don’t you roll those eyes at me! Take that to the fire.”
“Alright.”
“And toss it in.”
Judy tossed the stuff in.
“Now just yawn.”
Judy yawned, and accidentally yawned herself out of herself. But that was okay because there wasn’t a roof anymore, and she bounced off the belly of something big and pink instead.
“Great-grandmother Mary?” she asked.
“No,” said the thing, which had forty five eyes and no nose. “Try again.” It flicked her gently, and she landed on the other side of the building which was also the other side of the universe.
“Great-grandmother Mary?” she asked the ground underneath her, which was made out of faces.
“No,” said the faces. All of them had no ears, and all of them had two sets of eyebrows, one above and one below. “Try again.” They all sneezed, and she fell back inside the building which wasn’t there anymore but now its roof was.
“Great-grandmother Mary?” she asked the roof.
“Yes?”
“I could use a hand with a man who smiles too much.”
“Didn’t your grandmother tell you never to trust a man that smiley?”
“Sort of.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess.” The roof scratched its hip. “Listen, that smiley man’s causing his fair share of troublesome right now, and it’s to more than just you. That’s why I’m helping you right now, that and you’re a nice good girl who makes me very proud, all right?”
Judy nodded, and had to reattach her head.
“Careful! See, this is why you don’t need encouragement to do this sort of thing. Just get him to stop smiling, that’s all you need to do. And tell Emily she’s a pretty little thing, and she ought to sing more often. You and your mother were too quiet, that’s your problem.”
Judy nodded, and this time her head came off and didn’t reattach. It hurt an awful lot, and she had to work her way through half of the kettle of tea Anna had made in the meantime to get rid of the ache.
“Got a plan?” asked her mother.
Judy rubbed her face. “Sort of.”
“Good enough then.”

The next day Judy saw hide nor hair of the man, not on the shore, not on the ice. Not as she cut her fishing hole, not as she set the line, not as she drew up no fewer than ten fine fat fish. She looked left and right and all around as she wrapped up her line and strung her catch, and he was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t on the shore when she came back, and she walked halfway home without a single other soul to break the quiet of her breath.
“Thanks, Mary,” she said to herself and anyone else that could be listening, “but I guess it’s alright now.”
“Hello!” said an extremely cheerful voice in her ear.
“Go away,” she told the man, reflexively.
No, that wouldn’t do. And it didn’t, because that smile never flickered for an instant. “A fine catch! A full belly for all! Such a pity, such a pity, alas and alack. I’d bet you that I’d have to bring home no fewer than five times your catch, and today you exceed the furthest reaches of my imagination!”
“Not difficult in the slightest sense,” said Judy.
“Cruelty,” said the man, “is of no avail, when all I need do to refresh my happiness is to look upon you, fair lady! Although, of course, I must insist on the terms of our bet, regardless of my fondness of you. Behold!”
Judy beheld almost against her will. At least a hundred fat little fish were strung up on the man’s line, maybe far more. His arm nearly wavered as he held them high, but his smile stood firmer than a stone.
“How small,” she managed. “Though that’s normal for you.”
“Your awe overreaches your words, fair lady,” he replied without so much as a moment’s loss of focus. “Truly, I do not deserve your company.”
“You don’t deserve the company of the densest of the smallest of the fish on that line,” said Judy. “I feel pity for it, having to endure so much wind and noise.”
The smile held, but Judy fancied she saw a bit of a brittle shine on its edges. “Ah, but I kill them quick and merciful, so that they suffer little,” said the man. He seemed to perk up. “And besides, there’s no harm at all in a little conversation. One cannot live on one’s own, after all.”
“You talk to yourself enough for three; are you calling yourself lonely now?”
The man laughed and laughed, a big roiling belly-bellow that sank Judy’s hopes with each second it dragged on. The smile wouldn’t end, any more than this conversation would, even with home in sight. Emily and Anna and Carol were all outside with tea, waiting for her triumphant return, and she winced inside at the thought of bringing the man up to them with no way to get rid of him, not with that smile hanging about his face. Especially Emily. The poor girl had already suffered the man once, but…
Oh, there was something she’d forgotten.
“…of course, I need not take payment in fish,” the man was saying, as Emily ran up to hug her. “Maybe…”
“Emily dear,” said Judy, “great-grandmother Mary gave me a message for you!”
Emily blinked.
“She says you should sing more often.”
Emily beamed, and just like that, just as she opened her mouth, just for a moment that Judy would’ve missed if she and Anna and Carol weren’t all watching the man like a hawk, his smile blinked right out. And even when that smile was gone, even when that man looked as scared and miserable as a lost baby, that warmth kept coming out of his face, right through his eyes and ears and nose and everywhere else, and with it came light.
“So that’s where you’ve been hiding,” said Judy, and something about her voice made Emily close her mouth again right away.
The man blinked very fast, shook his head, and tried smiling. “Sorry?”
“You’re a very bad liar,” said Carol. “And if that’s the best smile he can do, I’m very ashamed of you, Judy.”
Now it wasn’t a smile at all, just teeth. “No call for rudeness now, fair ladies-”
“Easy for you to spit up a little melt with all that in you,” said Anna. “No harm in that, none at all, but why you’ve got to go and go lying to my girl like about bets when you plan on cheating, well, I don’t see why.”
“I never said I wouldn’t do it!” said the man, and now his smile was all gone and the fire he’d hidden was all there to be seen for anyone, hanging in the breeze with no smile to cover it up. There wasn’t a face there, either. “I never said!”
“I never agreed on any bet either,” said Judy, “but somehow there was one.” Anna was thumping Carol on the back, her mother was coughing and hiccuping. “And I don’t bet, and I sure as sure don’t make bets with anyone I don’t trust. And I don’t trust you, mister Sun, because you ran away out of the sky and left us in the dark and cold just so you could have a tease and laugh at me. And I don’t care how much people don’t appreciate you, that makes you a twit, and my family doesn’t like twits.”
The Sun was glowering now, a good smoulder. The snow was melting into puddles up to his ankles. “You never said please or thank you or even ‘you-did-a-good-job!’” he shouted. “All I wanted was a bit of fun!”
“I’d stop yelling,” said Judy.
“No! I’m not listening to you! All you do is sneer and ignore me and complain and that’s when I’m TRYING TO BE NICE! Can’t you all JUST ”
Carol’s Condition occurred.

It had been a long winter, and it had been a cold winter. But these sorts of things balance themselves out, across the world, across the years. For instance, that summer was the longest and warmest in decades, and the winter never quite dipped below dusk. The sun didn’t seem to want to come down from the sky.

 

“On the Ice,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

One Hundred.

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

It’s not a very important number but we like the base ten hereabouts.  And THAT, just below us on the page, was the one hundredth full story I’ve uploaded to this particular webpiece.
Now I just have to hit 100 GOOD stories.  That could take a few decades, but assuming the web holds together that long, I can keep trying for a bit.
And if you’ve read some of these, thank you.  Hopefully you liked a couple.

Storytime: Mostly in Your Head.

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

It was a day that was not like any other, and Jimmy Davies, janitor-in-chief of the U.N.N Sanctum, appreciated it with gusto. Breakfast, for once, was not moving when he ate it, and he was thus spared from having to plead to the Completely Invincible Lizard that he safely digest it without exploding or emitting strange vapours from his tear ducts.
After that exciting moment, things pretty much went back to normal – insofar as a day containing such an extraordinary event can be labelled “normal.” Jimmy cleaned out the old tin he used as bowl, plate, and cutlery in the dirtiest corner of the two-fifths-full reservoir, had a good fortifying gulp of quasiwater liquid from the cleanest corner, and was off to tighten bolts, screws, and security all across the majestic hull of the Sanctum, mostly with his fingers nowadays, since he only had the one screwdriver left and it was a large flake of rust attached to a plastic handle.
After that, the outside of the main fusion reactor was given a careful spit-polish. Over the years this behaviour had gradually worn away every single one of the innumerable safety warnings and descriptive emergency instructions that had once coated its hide, probably because of the interesting diet that Jimmy enjoyed. It also allowed him to hawk exceptional loogies when the mood struck him to engage in a solo spitting contest.
This was rarer every day.
Too many bolts and rivets. Too much rust to spit-shine until you could pretend it was actual metal. Sanctum had been built to last, but the dangling coda was “for fifty years,” and the space station’s centennial was coming up, twenty years of which had been with no maintenance crew bar Jimmy, the Sleek Shark, the Completely Invincible Lizard, the Mind All Light, and the Older. Not that they seemed to do much on their own until he prodded them, and certainly not all together. Jimmy knew it wasn’t their fault, but he still felt annoyed about the whole arrangement.
It was the Older he was feeling particularly annoyed with today, when the rust seemed thicker and more desperate than ever. He did his duty without grumbling (much), he chewed off excess flakes and spat them out, he licked the rest clean, he intoned and politely requested the aid of the Older to make the Sanctum fall apart just a little slower, and, well, nothing happened.
He was starting to think he was the only person on the station with a work ethic. Why look at that! Number five docking bay was still receiving power, and after he’d told the Sleek Shark to cut the juice to it no less than maybe five possibly one none times yesterday! The cheek. If the Shark weren’t a terrifying and unpredictable unknowable known, he’d give it a piece of his mind.
Well, if you want something done right, Jimmy’s got to do it himself. And so he did. He marched all the way down to the big old circuit breaker board, which he delighted in saying as many times as he could until it grew unclear and mushy in his mouth (seven hundred thirty-eight a personal best set seven years ago). Four hundred and twenty-two little tiny electronic locks and dams in a waterway web that Jimmy couldn’t understand and never could. He was by far not Sleek enough.
But the Shark was. The Sleek Shark was the Sleekest.
“So it’d be real nice if you gave me a hand uh fin uh whatever here, okay?” he implored. “Just chip in. Just chip in for a bit, a bite, a nibble, a whatever. Swim.”
He pulled a breaker that was probably the right one, and the lights went out.
“Nope.”
Flip it back. Try another. The ventilation system shut down.
“Nope.”
Third time’s the charm. And the PA system, which began playing a song from Jimmy’s youth that had been just popular enough to be unpopular.
“No.”
Fourth time was not charming, but at last the Sleek Shark looked benevolently upon Jimmy, and number five docking bay shut down noisily and without grace. Now all Jimmy had to do was go down there and unscrew all nine thousand bolts sealing the useless module to the rest of the station, turning it into free-floating space junk that he would no longer have to sweep with the stick that was his one remaining broom, just like the other two-thirds of the original Sanctum.
You have time to think, when you’re using your time to unscrew nine thousand (rounded down) bolts by hand. Mostly about how much your fingers hurt, and if your arm has always hurt that particular way, and if the seal on the airlock’s still good enough that it won’t just pop away with the module you’re detaching and spin you out into a part of space that had been scientifically measured to be at least forty-eight percent emptier than normal empty space.
That was important, for some reason. Jimmy tried not to think about why nowadays. Do not think into the too-empty, lest the too-empty think into you. And who knows what happens then. Maybe it’d be like that physicist, the one whose eyes did that….thing he shouldn’t think about or the engineer, with her hand, and the hand went, no, no bad idea.
Jimmy quietly started mumbling a vague request to the Mind All Light to empty his head of thoughts so he could have some peace and quiet. After a few minutes it was the only thing in his head at all, and that was more results than he usually got. It was a blissfully blank existence, where Jimmy was nothing but a pair of ever-working hands, a mantra inside his noggin, and a pair of ears that politely told him that someone had been hammering on the inside of the airlock door for ten minutes and there were two bolts holding the module on.
“Oops,” said Jimmy. “Shark?”

There was a detour to be made, before Jimmy went to the switchboard. He wandered his way to a conspicuously inconspicuous yet well-tidied maintenance panel near his mounded and tangled bedding, opened it up, and counted out one, two, three little helpers from a bottle that had been mended with scotch tape three times. The rest of the maintenance crew had their places, but other people weren’t one of them. Even if they’d all come from other people to begin with.
One, two, three. With no glass of water, because all Jimmy had was quasiwater liquid.
A surprisingly short time later – the Sleek Shark had been feeling helpful just before it winked out of existence for a vacation – the door was open, Jimmy was being Mr. Davies, and Mr. Davies was politely offering his new friend his second-favourite and second-best seat, which was one of only two-and-a-half chairs on the whole space station.
The new friend gave it a dubious look that suited his face nicely and remained standing. He had dramatic eyebrows and hair that was slightly too long and styled to belong to a proper astronaut. His environment suit somehow managed to look much like a business suit, down to the oddly tie-like patterning on its front.
Also, his nose whistled in a way that made Jimmy not quite comfortable. Which meant it was certainly a good thing that he was too busy being Mr. Davies right now to be Jimmy.
“What happened?” asked the man.
Mr. Davies was clearer-headed than Jimmy, but the parting of the fog had left him stranded on a mountaintop. He fumbled in his social memories, and came up with “It’s a pleasure to meet you, what’s your name?”
The man gave him a look that he would’ve been able to identify at some point long in the past. “I am Edward Hemlock. Ed. And you are the janitor of this station, mister…?”
“Davies,” said Mr. Davies. “I’m Mr. Davies.”
“First name?”
“Not right now, Ed, not right now. Wait a few hours and he’ll be back.”
Another, different look. Mr. Davies hoped he was doing this right; he had a feeling he’d either explained too much or too little.
“Mr. Davies,” said Ed, clearly ready to try a different tack, “what happened to the rest of the crew?”
“Oh, you know the way it goes, Ed. One got fired. A few quit. A lot went mad. Some got between the ones that went mad and the silverware drawers. And some just sort of vanished away.”
“Mr. Davies, I had to go through eighteen levels of government classification to get the location of this station, and there were two cavity searches involved. Two. There was at least two hundred pages of paperwork in a very small font involved, and I, Mr. Davies, I LOATHE paperwork, and I tolerated this all without so much as a peep because it let me come here.” He shuddered dramatically. “The most anomalously empty-of-anything-at-all quadrant of the known universe has one man-made outpost in it, and this was it. This was not an unimportant place, the people chosen to crew it were not selected casually. They were calm people. Level-headed, reasonable people possessed of much equanimity. And you’re telling me that most of them went crazy?”
“No, mad. Crazy’s more passive. Technical terms.” Mr. Davies felt the Mind All Light hovering over his shoulder, where it definitely wasn’t. “Can we talk about something else, Ed?”
“Fair enough. How long have you been alone then, Mr. Davies?”
“Nineteen years and eight months. For a little while there it was just me and one of the security guards, but then Breakfast took poorly to him, and that was that.”
“Did he ever say anything about creatures?”
“No. Mostly he just screamed.”
“Hmm. And do you ever see any unusual creatures around here?”
Mr. Davies thought about the Mind All Light and its cronies. But they were probably staff by now, and they didn’t exist at the moment. And even if they did exist, he wouldn’t see them. And even if he could see them, they weren’t his problems, not originally. He just gave them room and board, and a fat lot of thanks he got for it.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“And you’re the janitor? You clean and dust and polish and that’s the extent of your technical skills”
“Yeah, I guess, if you want to put it that way. I handle the plumbing too, on the small scale. And I’ve been checking all the bolts, screws, and rivets. There’s four hundred ninety five thousand six hundred and thirty-six of them, so it takes a while to make a full rotation, but -”
“Mr. Davies, has this station’s fusion reactor been untended for two decades?”
“Nah. I spit-shine it every morning.” Mr. Davies scratched the back of his neck, then considered his last statement of belief, which made a lot less sense to him than it had to Jimmy.
“Hang on,” he said, but he was too late because Ed had hanged onto him first, and was towing them both towards the reactor as fast as he could.

“It’s itchy in here,” said Mr. Davies.
“I’m sure. There was a lot of dust.”
“I hadn’t been dusting inside radiation suits no one ever wore. Besides, none of them fit me.”
“This one does.”
“Yeah, but it’s a woman’s.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Mr. Davies. Now, remember: once you’re through the airlock, you need to check for cracks on the reactor core. If there are any, you need to…”
The explanation that followed was extremely long and complicated. Mr. Davies tried to remember it, but then that hovering feeling over his shoulder crept up again and the jar of little helpers was far away and hidden. By the time the lecture was over he was Jimmy again, and not entirely sure what the hell was going on.
“Do you understand?”
Jimmy hesitantly looked to his shoulder, found a receptive audience, and consulted the Mind All Light.
“Sure!” he said.
“Go on in.”
Jimmy went on in, past two airlocks and a broken de-irradiation chemical shower. There were cracks in things, but he wasn’t sure if they were the right sort of things he was meant to be worried about.
“That a problem?” he asked.
The Older, which had muscled its way into his forebrain, told him it wasn’t.
“What was that, Mr. Davies?”
“Huh? Oh. It’s nothing. But listen, it’s Jimmy, okay?”
The silence was hard to read, but even so, Jimmy could feel it shaping itself into another one of those troublesome expressions. He ignored it and foraged onwards, crawling through banks of depilated equipment, most of which had that odd shiny-grime texture that the Older informed him was a telling mark of things that had never really seen heavy use before falling apart in their old age.
Eventually, there was a console that was on. It was also glowing very faintly.
Jimmy poked it.
The Older told him not to be a dope and to press the buttons like THAT.
So Jimmy pressed the buttons like THAT and sure as sure, there was Ed on the suit radio going on about how great everything he’d just done was.
“…power surge without the blowout. Just beautiful. Whole board lit up like a Christmas tree out here. Of course, it’s got the wrong cord of lights on and the decorations are missing, but that’s fixable! You ready to do some more work?”
Jimmy consulted the Older again, but it had lurked itself away when he wasn’t paying attention.
“Sure!”
He wondered if the screen was supposed to be flashing all that red text on it, but everyone seemed happy so he guessed it was all right.

Ed was a different man under the stronger lighting that now scoured the Sanctum‘s innards. His chin appeared larger, his eyes more sparkling, his breath seemed to smell faintly minty, and his footsteps seemed to nearly ring on the deck, or at least they would’ve if the deck wasn’t mostly made of creak nowadays, audibly speaking.
“Right, and now that THAT’S done we can get to some real work. Are you ready to fulfill the purpose for which this station was made, janitor Davies?”
“Jimmy.”
“Jimmy, now is not the time for nitpicking. At any rate, your circuit board here, the one you wore all the labels off through constant dusting-”
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine. But we need to get power to the director’s room, and the docking module I left the ship at, and this vault over here that doesn’t exist on the station plan.”
Jimmy looked dutifully at the chart Ed was brandishing. “That vault doesn’t exist on the station plan,” he pointed out.
“Precisely my point! Get cracking!”
Jimmy stared at the circuit board and tried to remember which of the four hundred twenty-two locks and dams moved the waters the ways he needed. Of course, he failed.
“Please?” he asked.
“Eh?”
“Nothing.”
And the Sleek Shark laughed at him as it did the whole thing in a flash, a crackling, juddering, fanged mass of cheer and serrations. It gave Jimmy the shivers as he pushed the right buttons, pulled the right levers, set the tide flowing and gave the moon a good yank. Some of the smaller lights on the board went bright red and then winked out, and he hoped that was supposed to happen.
“Damn, you’re a savant, Jimmy!” Ed gave him a friendly punch in the arm, then froze at the sound of cracking.
“Just my scabs, Ed. Don’t worry.”
Ed removed the punch from his arm and gave him a big, friendly grin instead. “Right, right. Sorry! Sorry. Now, there’s just one more big job, and then we’re all done here. And none too soon – this whole place gives me the creeps. The last ten light-years getting here were no picnic either, I can tell you – too empty. Scientifically interesting, yes, but too empty.”

It was a big job, all right. It took nearly an hour just to get to it.
First Ed had to go to the director’s office and open up the re-powered computer. Whatever he found on there made him sweat an awful lot, but he was a quick reader and Jimmy hadn’t had occasion to use the English language as-written for at least ten years, so whatever was so worrying passed him by. It can’t have been that bad anyways, Ed was smiling his face off when he closed the thing down again.
“Done!” he said, and then he picked up the computer and smashed it briskly against the titanium desk until it was an unrecognizable pile of mangled bits. “Come on now, we’ve got to hurry up.”
“That was important, wasn’t it?” asked Jimmy.
“Oh, yes. Hugely.”
“Then why’d you break it.”
“It was too important for anyone else to see. That reminds me, Jimmy, did you see anything on there?”
Jimmy thought. “No.”
“Good, good,” said Ed, with that big smile. “Ah, we’re here. Just move that pile of filth out of the way, and we’ll be done!”
“That’s my bed,” said Jimmy.
“Nevertheless,” said Ed. “Sacrifices must be made by all if we want to pull through.”
Slowly, reluctantly, with infinite care, Jimmy lugged the disintegrating remnants of his nesting out of place. He’d fashioned it himself from plastic tarps and the innards of expired mattresses, and it was as close to him as a sun.
Or a son.
No, a sun. Those were more important to you.
But not closer.
The Mind All Light told him to knock it off and pay attention, which he did in time to not see Ed push him down the hole he’d uncovered in the deck.
“OW!”
“Sorry, sorry, best if you aren’t tense on impact and all that, surprise was needed, etcetera, etcetera, only fifteen feet down and can you see anything?”
Jimmy looked around. “A notebook on a table.”
“A notebook, hah yes. Had to be paper, of course. Doesn’t need power, and if you suck all the air out of the room until it’s powered up, well, it lasts pretty nicely! Anything else?”
“It’s a pretty bad table. Rusty. If I’d known this was here, I’d have polished that rust ’till you’d swear it was steel, honest truth.”
“Yes, yes, yes, that will do. Here, throw that book back up to me, will you?”
Jimmy picked up the book and weighed it in his hands. It was surprisingly light, and he had to check twice after he’d thrown it to make sure it had left his hands at all.
“Oh lovely,” said Ed, peering at a page. “Oh glorious.” He spun them through his palms and chuckled in a friendly and fatherly manner. “This is just perfect. Jimmy, do you know what this is?”
“Nope!”
“It’s a complete record of every bit of abnormal mental phenomena and wildlife gestated on the station! Who thought it up, what the side effects on the host were, predators and prey and parasites…. oh Jimmy, there’s a goddamned ZOO in here, a zoo that could only have been dreamed up here, in this dank little corner of the universe where space goes runny! And we know exactly what sorts of minds breed these things up now! Engineers to make little psychedelic worker ants, security guards to farm unblinking guardians inside their own heads, doctors to make thoughts that really cut, that really have teeth to them. Good show, Jimmy, good show!”
The Mind All Light proposed a question.
“Uhh….”
“Speak up, Jimmy.”
“Are you going to leave me down here?”
“What a silly question!” Ed shook his head. “Honestly Jimmy, just think. What did I tell you I hated?”
“Paperwork?”
“What do you think bringing back an unexpected missing-declared-dead citizen causes?”
Jimmy thought. “Paperwork?”
“Correct! Goodbye.”
There was a clang, and Jimmy was alone in a dark place.

Which wasn’t really all that novel.

He did feel a bit funny though. And his fists kept curling up into these strange little gnarled things, like they did after he’d tightened his four hundred thousandth bolt.
The Mind All Light made an observation: Jimmy was angry.
“Yup,” agreed Jimmy.
Well, Jimmy needed to get out of there if he wanted to be angry properly. Needed a target for those little balls on his arms.
“Damn straight.” Jimmy squinted up at the ceiling. “How?”
He had to spit.
Jimmy spat, and watched as the hatch went all runny and dripped down to the floor, where it nearly ate the toes of his boots. Apparently Breakfast had been just as nasty as usual, just more subtle. He hated to think of what could’ve happened if he’d belched while talking to Ed, although in retrospect that could’ve been for the best.
“Gross,” he said. And then the gravity went off, then came on again in reverse. It was very exciting, and at the end of it Jimmy was spread-eagled on the ceiling, outside the vault once more, staring at the rubble of his bed, and his head was very sore.
He’d better run fast, advised the Sleek Shark. And then it was gone again, along with half the lights in a shower of sparks.
Number five docking bay was barely any distance at all from there, even with a quick pause to get lost – you think you know a place like the back of your hand, and then it turns upside down on you.
To his right, suggested the Mind All Light.
And he’d want to duck and cling in two seconds, added the Older.
Jimmy turned the corner, saw Ed (surprised), ducked and clung, and winced as a gravitational flux sent a sheet of rust bigger than he was into Ed, who was violently shoved into his own airlock.
Better follow. That was the Mind All Light’s take on it, anyways. He needed off here, after what the Older did to the core. That and the little tidal waves the Sleek Shark had sent through the electrical wiring had probably sent the place under.
“Can I get my chair?” asked Jimmy, as he clumsily dove through Ed’s airlock and into an environment that struck him as dangerously clean.
No he couldn’t. Also, Ed was about to hit him in the face.
“What?” said Jimmy, immediately before Ed hit him in the face. It was a good, solid hit, a real shiner-raiser, and it smacked him over on his ass with a very satisfying thud that he was in no position to appreciate on any level.
Ed was saying something by then, but it was mostly profanity and Jimmy was too busy listening to the Completely Invincible Lizard, who was the one that knew about this sort of thing.
He needed to punch high while kicking low, and use that hesitation to get to his feet.
Jimmy punched high and kicked low, and used that hesitation to get to his feet.
He needed to block that next punch.
Jimmy blocked that next punch, and was knocked over again with another bruise all ready to blossom.
He needed another forty pounds of weight, preferably all muscles.
Jimmy didn’t really have time for that, and Ed had lain hands upon him and was now about to toss him into number five docking bay, which was indistinct in the odd haze of depressurizing atmosphere now filling it.
Oh well just belch then.
Jimmy belched. And because he wasn’t feeling quite proper at the moment, it turned into a yawn. A technicolour yawn, if he remembered his slangs properly.
It set most of Ed’s environment suit on fire. And as he swore and flailed around frantically, attempting to pat out the flames, the Completely Invincible Lizard told Jimmy that now would be a good time to hit him where silly monkeys like him kept their reproductive organs. Jimmy no longer recalled what those were for – at least on his off hours – but he listened. And as he did that, and as Ed toppled and staggered and was rudely shoved back into the docking module, Older gave a happy update on the status of those last two bolts Jimmy had forgotten to tweak up that morning, the only things holding number five docking bay to the rest of the Sanctum.
All rusty, Older told him. Terrible thing.
The next thirty seconds weren’t as alarming as they could’ve been, mostly thanks to the total lack of sound in space, and Jimmy didn’t remember them with any real terror, or, come to that, detail. Suffice it to say that he learned how to input the correct password on an airlock in a total lack of atmosphere very, very quickly. Or at least the Sleek Shark did. As to what happened next, well… most of it was sleep, possibly coma.

After that was breakfast. Not Breakfast, with none of the vivid personality (mostly truculence) that entitled capitalization, just small-b breakfast. Toast. With jam. That was even maybe real jam that had been made or at least been near actual, physical berries at some point.
Jimmy was full. And also out of things to do, except for one important thing.
“Thank you,” he said.
It was asked from a variety of quarters whether this meant that he could stop nagging them so much about stupid things when it wasn’t important.
“Right, right. Right. Uh, thanks.” He scratched his chin, uncertainty weighing down on him for the first time in decades. “I guess I’ll just start checking the bolts then…?”
The Mind All Light told him not to be such a silly. They were all very busy, very important people now, and they had no time to sit around doing silly things. They needed to be doing important things, like examining Ed’s computers and deciding which of the people in the address book needed visits.
“Dunno about revenge,” said Jimmy. “I’m a janitor. I make sure things don’t break and I keep things tidy.”
Those were big loose ends. He probably should be going out to tidy them up. Who knew who could trip on things like that, just lying around.
Jimmy thought about this.
“Fine. But no more Breakfast.”
This was agreed upon.

 

“Mostly in Your Head,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.

Storytime: What You Eat.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

You know a lot about a thing, knowing what it eats.
Eating is a messy, nasty thing to do. Something takes up something else and tears it apart and breaks it to bits and it thrives on it, just basks in it, all that decay and downfall. You can make it neat and civilized and give it knives and forks, you can talk about palates and umami and all the flavours of the rainbow, you can do that all you like. You can glorify the act of acquiring your food, the hunt, the chase, the kill.
But you’re still eating, and that’s still not very nice. And what you eat says a lot about you.
Hyenas eat a lot of carrion. Those big strong jaws, they’ll crack open bones that anything else would turn its nose up at, get at all that good tasty marrow in there. That’s productive, that’s industrious.
Wars, they eat the young and the stupid and the deceived. They call them in and chew them up, spit out the little shreds of them into unmarked graves and mass burials and now and then, on special occasions, a casket. That’s tricky, that’s cunning, that’s an animal that hides and sneaks and lies to get what it needs because it knows the moment anyone looks right at it and sees it for what it is, it dies. So they make smokescreens, and snag you in ‘em.
Particular angles, as we all know, eat lines, usually straight lines. They chew them right out of existence, and they use that to force a few more particular angles into being. Mindless, but real thorough. And since nothing eats them, they’ll probably outweigh real things someday.
Societies eat people, of course. But the people eat them right back. It sort of works if you squint one eye shut and take two steps back and tilt your head just right. Unless one or the other chews a little too quickly.
And humans, naturally, are omnivores. Which is a lot worse than it sounds, if you think about it.
This human here was exercising her omnivorous rights that night, at the foot of that mountain, on a rabbit and some stale bread.
(The rabbit isn’t important, not in this story, so we can forget about her for now)
The human was old and leathery and her hands moved in that special slow way that said whenever she wanted to she could turn them into striking snakes. She was also a noisy chewer, on account of having three and a quarter teeth, and this was one-third of what caused the problem. And she was a good listener, which lead her to hear the faint, impossibly low sounds of the rock groaning under her wrinkled toes, and this was one-third of what caused the problem. And because her grandmother had been a pretty cunning and crafty lady who’d taught her a few tricks about this sort of thing, she could recognize the language as an itinerant and casual shaman (most people could talk to animals back then, which made hunting a bit more awkward, but talking to rocks and trees was pretty damned hard). And that was one-third, four-quarters, and the whole nine yards of what caused the problem.
The mountain was talking. A slow talker, of course, but the old human was patient and waited the half-hour for the sentence to finish.
“What. Are. You. Doing?” asked the mountain.
“Eating,” said the old human. “Everybody does it.”
“Not. Me. What. Is. It?”
The old human thought about that and she thought that made sense, sort of. Mountains didn’t really eat anything, although the rain and the wind and the rocks that spawned them were happy enough to chew them up over a couple of eternities.
(Human eternities aren’t so long as all that, and that’s a fact)
“Y’know, eating,” she said. “You chew stuff up – well, that’s not true, lot of things out there don’t chew – you swallow things, and it keeps you going so you keep doing, well, whatever you do. Talking, laughing, walking, you know, all that stuff.”
The mountain thought about that while the old human stashed her half-loaf of bread and stripped the rabbit bones clean with her favourite tooth.
(The rabbit still isn’t important in this story)
“How. Do. You. Swallow?” asked the mountain, at length.
“Just gulp,” said the old human, and then she added “good-bye,” and was off and away down the trails, leaving the mountain there to ponder that sort of thing over for a few days.
Then it went gulp. Just to see what would happen.
A small tree vanished on its slopes, and the mountain felt full. Not only that, it knew what it was like to feel empty.
“Hm. Mm,” said the mountain.
Gulp. There went another tree, and a very surprised bear that had been sharpening her claws on it.
“Hm. Mm,” reiterated the mountain.
Gulp.
Gulp.
Gulp.

Now this sort of happening can’t go on for long before people start to notice things, and not more than three days had gone by before everybody who lived around that mountain started to meet up and put their heads together.
“Folks been missing,” said the fox. “My handsome husband, he’s been up and vanished. And so did our house. And most of the hill we dug it into.”
“My granddad is gone,” said the human boy.
“That he is,” said the human father.
“And grandma too,” said the human mother.
“My wife’s gone, and our favourite fishing stream, and the trees near the fishing stream, and all the fish in it,” rumbled the big bear. “I am angry. I want to find who did this and beat them until they are black and red. Or white and red. Or brown, green, blue, and red. But mostly red.”
“I am agreeing with you here,” said the human father.
“Who did this, though?” said the human mother. “We need to find out that first.”
“Let’s ask the old crazy human that wanders around these parts,” suggested the fox. “She knows weird things.”
So they went out and after a while they found the old crazy human, who was the same person as the old human. She was fishing, or at least sleeping while pretending to fish. Same thing.
(The fishhook was made from a bit of the rabbit’s old ribs, there you go, but it’s still not important in this story)
“What’re you up about?” she asked, annoyed. “You’re going to scare off my fish.”
“People are going missing,” said the human mother.
“And streams,” said the big bear.
“And dens and hills,” amended the fox.
“And granddads and grandmas,” finalized the human boy.
“Huh,” said the old human. “Could be that mountain, eating things he shouldn’t. Now, what you could try is…”
And that wasn’t as far as she got, but it was as far as anyone else listened, because the big bear said in his loud voice “well, there’s nothing for it but to beat it up. Who’s coming with me?”
“I will,” said the human father. “I also want to beat it up.”
“Right!” said the big bear, and they left and everyone else went home, or the closest thing to it.
So the big bear and the human father went up the mountainside stomp stomp stomp. They put a lot of stamp into those stomps, so the mountain knew they were coming nice and easy. And when they got halfway up the mountain it stirred, and it twitched, and it spoke up and said “what are you doing?”
“Who said that?” said the big bear.
“I was just thinking that as well,” said the human father.
“It’s me, the mountain” said the mountain. “I can speak clear and fast, talking all I want since I started eating all I want. You’re stomping hard down there on my foothills. What do you want?”
“You ate my wife,” said the big bear, “so I’m going to thrash you.”
“And you ate my father and my mother-in-law,” said the human father, “so I will also thrash you.”
“Gulp,” declared the mountain, and that was pretty much that.

Back down the countryside, everybody who lived around that mountain met up again.
“My husband is gone,” said the human mother. “I think he made a mistake when he followed that big bear up the mountain to go give it a thrashing.”
“You can’t solve a problem like that with your fists,” agreed the fox. “Too daft. Too silly. My husband, he always said, you want to solve a problem you’ve got to use your brains, not your fists.”
“Let’s go check in with that old lady and see if she knows what’s what,” said the human mother.
So they checked in, and the old human was found a little while later. She was in a scrub thicket, teaching herself to sing birdsong, which was pretty nice, and she was learning from a crow, which wasn’t quite as nice.
“Oh, you again,” she said. “Still got problems?”
“We need to trick the mountain,” said the human mother. “It’s too big to fight, we need to talk it around it circles.”
“It’s only been able to talk like normal animals since a day or so ago,” said the old human. “I think it might not be good enough at it for that to work.”
“I could talk my husband’s tail in circles five times before supper,” said the fox, “and he was dafter than a birch when it came to anything but stealing meals.”
“That’s a good plan,” said the human mother, right over top of what the old human was saying, “let’s talk it around,” and they left right there, and told the human boy to stay put and do what he was told.
“I’m bored,” said the human boy.
“Me too,” said the old human, and she showed him how to make a game with pits hollowed in the earth and little pebbles.
Meantime, the fox and the human mother went up the mountainside, tramp tramp tramp. They weren’t sneaky, but they snuck up on the mountain anyways because it was so busy laughing that it couldn’t hear them.
“Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Aha, ha ha!” it said, very carefully.
“Excuse me,” said the fox.
“HA! Ahaha, ha, aha,” continued the mountain.
“We’re here to-” managed the human mother.
“AHAHAHAHAHAHA! Ha. Ha ha,” said the mountain, so loudly that it bowled them head over heels over head again, and then it noticed them as they were picking themselves up and swearing.
“HA HA AHA, gulp,” it said. “Ha. Mmm. Not sure I see the point.”

Back down the mountain, the human boy was bored again. He’d lost four games and won three games and he’d already sorted out all the shiniest pebbles so now the fun was missing. And he was starting to miss his mother.
“Are they coming back soon?” he asked the old human.
She frowned. “Guess not. That mountain must still be eating things it shouldn’t. Troublesome of it.” She scratched herself with her pit-digging tool.
(The rabbit’s thigh. Don’t worry, it’ll have a story where it’s important someday, just not right now, okay?)
“Listen little boy, your mother told you to do what you’re told, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the human boy.
“Great. Okay, listen.”
The human boy listened.
“Smart kid,” said the old human. “Right, here’s what we’re going to do. Well, you’re going to do. I think I probably made this problem, so I don’t think I can fix it proper. You’re gonna go over there, just a little ways, and you’re going to stand on that big spiky hill. And then you’re going to wait. And when that mountain finds you, I want you to ask it politely to stop eating things it shouldn’t. Now, can you remember all that?”
“Yes,” said the human boy.
“Good. Now get going fast.”
The human boy got going fast, and was up on top of the spiky hill lickety-split-lightning, which was just as well because the mountain was walking down towards him, rumbling along very slowly in a very fast way that it didn’t quite seem able to stop and definitely couldn’t steer.
“Hello!” called the human boy.
“Ho ho ho!” bellowed the mountain. “Look at me walk!”
“HELLO!” yelled the human boy.
The mountain looked down at him. “Yes?” it said.
“Please stop,” said the human boy.
The mountain considered this. And then it went “gulp,” and down went the human boy, hill, spiky, and all.
And that was where it all went wrong for the mountain, because that was when it learned about indigestion, and it learned about it a lot faster than eating. And much, much, much louder.
The sound it made was very, very loud and most of it was on levels inaudible to ears, human or any other kind, but if you squinted real hard at what you’d heard, it’d probably sound something kind of like
HLLUUUUUUUUUUUUURRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGH
But bigger.
And POP POW out came everything out of its top, the rocks, the trees, the water, the bears and foxes and humans and everything down to the very last insect that the mountain had eaten, one after another, tumbling down its sides into a big messy pile.
“Ow,” said the human father, removing the fox’s foot from his face.
“Blub,” commented the smaller bear, wrenching her face free from the stream she had been fishing in a few days ago.
FWOOSH, declared the mountain, and it coughed up some magma. Of course, once it’s out there in the open, it’s lava. Still really hot stuff, though. There was a bit of a rush for the hills, and the nearest one was the spiky hill, which had landed upside down but was otherwise okay.
The old human was already waiting on top of it, and she gave them all a bit of a leg up with those fast hands of hers. She was grinning. “See? All good now. And look, we even got you something new to look at! Needs a name though. Hey kid, you got a name for this thing?”
The human boy shook his head and hid against the human father.
The old human shrugged. “Have it your way then, and I guess that means I do it my way. Well, I’m sure someone out there has something better for it, but I’M calling it a volcano. Unless our volcano here has a better name for it?”
The volcano belched and coughed.
“Guess not.” The old human scratched herself, chewed on her digging bone, and walked away.
And that was that.

 

“What You Eat,” copyright Jamie Proctor, 2012.