Archive for April, 2014

Storytime: Scal’s Shoes.

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Scal was a thousand thousand years old or maybe a lot more than that – older than dirt, at any rate, or at least the dirt that lay around her little house in the big forests. She’d been sorry for things once, but now she was old and with age had come shamelessness. Older. More shamelessness. Close enough.
Anyways, Scal was lying in her house sleeping one day when a tree fell on her – ow! – right across the middle, like that.
“Eh?” she shouted (Scal had always been a great shouter, but she shouted louder and longer these days). “Who’s up there? Who’s up with that? What’s that going on?” She kicked the tree off herself, looked around, saw a woman with a chainsaw, and put three and six together. “Nine!” she shouted.
“Pardon?” asked the woman. “Are you alright?”
“All-right? Of course I’m not all-right – because you’re WRONG, and you’re standing here being WRONG, and you’ve WRONGED a tree onto my house!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the woman, “but I’m a forester, and I had to take that tree down before it landed on someone’s house; it was old and rotten.”
“It landed on MY house!”
“Ma’am, your house is a small dirt hillock. I don’t even know how you fit in there.”
“Well, it might be perhapsing that I took a snooze for a few longs,” said Scal. “But there’s no excuse for what you’ve gone and done, and here you are trying to make it! Nettles nip your nipples and may a rabbit nest in your ear!”
“Look,” said the forester, “there’s no call for that sort of language. Whatever language that is. Before you go criticizing people, why don’t you try and walk a mile in their shoes? Then you’ll see how it is for them.”
“I don’t have any shoes at all,” said Scal proudly, and it was true. Her feet were bare, bony, and leathery as a sea-turtle, now and ever since the day she was born, whenever that was.
“Well then you’ll never know how it is for me, or for anyone else,” said the forester.
“Oh really? Well, we’ll see about that!” snapped Scal. “Give them here!” And with a quick jump and a punch and a wrestle and a little biting (Scal was never fair in a fight, and also pinched and spat) Scal had procured herself a new pair of forester’s boots. It only took her six tries to put them on the right way round on the right feet, but she felt that they looked mightly fine.
“These boots are mightily fine and I do feel that way,” she told no-one in particular. “Now let’s walk them.”
And walk them she did, one foot in front of the other, checking step by step to see how her mile was going, tromping through the woods.
“I’m a forester,” said she, measuring the trees with a jaunty eye. “I’m monitoring and tagging and logging and learning. I know all about the spruce budworm and the Asian longhorn beetle and I even know what an Asia is, isn’t that something? Hey, you, tree! Come here and taste my saw!”
The tree tasted it, found it not to its taste, and protested by keeling over.
“That’s it for you then, you sluggard. But you were hanging over the road and that was a problem that needed to be fixed. What would we do if you fell on a car, eh? What then? I know what a car is too, mark my words.”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?!” shouted a businessman.
“Nothing,” said Scal. “I’m a forester. What’s wrong with YOU, that you’re being so rude to me?”
“You dropped that tree on my car, you crazy old coot! I have a meeting in five minutes with important people who have important money in important places, and now it’s all ruined forever because of you!”
“Well!” said Scal. “I don’t see why you’re so upset about such silly things, I truly don’t see at all. Here, give me your shoes and we’ll sort this all out then.”
The businessman blinked expansively at this, and a great sense of distress and confusion filled his life in a way he was not prepared nor equipped to express adequately. He felt a man adrift in a world that worked quite differently from how he’d come to expect it to, as a castaway upon a darkened sea. If only he had someone to ask, someone to turn to, someone to explain for him this strange new place that his comfortable life had become. Unfortunately for him the only person present was Scal, who smacked him head over heels and took his shoes without asking permission.
“Hmmm,” said Scal, wriggling her toes in them. “These are BUSINESS shoes. For business. There is no business out here, this is all wrong. I’d best go to where the business is.”
So Scal clambered into the car, smacked its wheel until it worked out of embarrassment, and scooted down the roads and the highways into town. Which wasn’t really a walk, so it didn’t count as her mile. She parked in the biggest space in the biggest lot in the biggest building and marched out into the fresh sunshine and saw profit six ways to Sundays.
“Ahh, business!” she sang. “You! What’s your name?”
The woman stared at her.
“Doesn’t matter and I don’t care anyways, you’re part of the team! Turn in tomorrow at eight so we can fire you without severance for non-compliance! Hurry up or we’ll sue you for breach of contract. That makes me thirsty – do you have a drink? Give me a drink, somebody. Hey, give me that drink, you.”
The man holding the drink indicated with two of his fingers that she should get her own drink because this drink was his.
“That’s ungrateful and unmannerly and shows a lack of appreciation for business,” said Scal most severely. “Don’t you know that I am a businessman and I make jobs for you, with my business? If you keep me happy maybe I’ll hire you and fire you tomorrow too, won’t that be nice? But not anymore. Now I’m just going to leave and it’ll serve you right. You don’t deserve to have a minimum wage anymore. I’m going to see if I can cut your welfare checks, see if I can’t. Bum.”
Scal skipped down the street merrily, then stopped to giggle. “Heh. Bum.”
“Agreed, friend,” said a man in a nice suit. “You look like a good fine businesswoman, am I right?”
“BusinessMAN,” corrected Scal. “These are businessmen shoes.”
“Errr…right,” said the man. “Well, I’m a politician and I’d love it if you gave me a lot of money. I agree with you that the man over there’s a bum, and if you give me a lot of money I’ll see that the bums are put to good use under the helm of fine upstanding citizens like yourself.”
“Hmmm,” said Scal. “That sounds like business to me, but it’s been a mile. I’m done with business now, go ask someone else.”
“Oh come on,” said the man. “Look at me, I’m standing up for the little guy here, I’m just doing what’s best for the people, come on come on. How can I do that without help from all the people, especially the good businesspeople with lots of money like you? See it from my point of view, why don’t you?”
“Good point,” said Scal. “Give me your shoes.”
“Will you make a contribution to -?” asked the man, and that was as far as he got before Scal took his shoes. Past that mostly he was unprintable, so he’s not in this story anymore.
“Hmmm,” said Scal. These shoes were different. They weren’t as comfortable as the business shoes. They weren’t as tough as the forester boots. But they were dynamic shoes, shoes that looked like they talked the talk as they walked the walk. These were shoes that promised a brighter future without neglecting the traditional values of the nation’s past and incidentally my opponent has advocated reptiles in the past next thing you’ll know he’ll want you to marry them.
“My,” said Scal. This was turning into one of the most interesting walks she’d had in decades, even if it was a bit long and rambling. But before you could walk you had to fly, as she’d heard. And she was needed elsewhere in the country, to sit in a big room somewhere and argue extensively.
She walked towards the airport, shaking hands and making promises. A television crew came by and she told them just how much she cared for the taxpayer, in the tones of a man offering sympathy to the condemned. She opened an area business and walked in a parade and got noisily drunk in public while a businessman – or maybe another politician – or maybe a businessman – or a politician – or was there a difference? – handed her a bottle of ridiculously expensive wine and told her that this was just a little gift between friends with no obligations but if she didn’t back bill C-dj8QB3RT she was a dead woman walking who’d be turfed by an opponent with stronger patriotic feelings for the Mink Milking industry.
“I am behind this country five hundred percent because it is the best country in the world,” said Scal, who threw up behind a dumpster. “We need to put those bums to work.” Then she took a rest stop for a while, because her feet were really quite sore now. She’d walked up mountains and under the oceans without a blister, but these shoes were very pinchy and they were making her head swim. Or maybe that was the smog.
“I’m just going to put this all behind me,” she told the press. “Now is not the time for blame games and partisan politics, now is the time for action and I am willing to take that action and that action is to go for a walk in the woods. Goodbye.”
“But what about your responsibilities to the taxpayers?” asked a reporter.
“Well, I’m always something little guy voters,” said Scal, but her heart wasn’t in it. She must’ve walked at least a mile and a half in these shoes already, and the novelty had worn off as much as the soles of her feet had. “But the fact of the matter is that I’m bored stiff and you lot aren’t helping. Gales gut me you’re a tedious natter of toads.”
“Look, it’s my job,” said the reporter. “Why are you blaming me for doing my job? Do yours and we’ll talk.”
“I can do both, just you watch,” said Scal. And then she beat up the reporter and took his shoes on live television. And then, because they were HER shoes now, she reported on it.
“Corrupt councilsenatorMP(P) assaults reporter, drinks in public, makes molehills from mountain,” she noted. “Defrauds electorate I guess or whatever, corruption, sure.”
She wandered in her new shoes, stretched out her muscles a bit, shook her hands loose.
“Businessman eats baby: we bring you both sides of the problem,” she sketched as she watched old people argue on a new camera in a building born of an architect’s mid-life crisis. “Here are my thoughts as expressed in this column’s headline: UNACCEPTABLE Print isn’t dead because it isn’t because. Want to read a letter? Here’s someone’s letter. Here’s my opinion: both sides are to blame. My anecdote overheard in a diner in my twenties is an analogy and I will use it. Watch me.”
Scal got stuck halfway through her column and went for a walk to clear her head, shoes dangling around her neck. She’d walked a good few miles in a good few shoes, but it felt like something was missing. Oh, yes, it was lunch. She’d go home and pack something for the next leg of the trip. There were a lot of shoes out there, surely she couldn’t have gotten them all already.
“Could I please have my boots back?” asked the forester, as she rummaged through her house.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” said Scal absently. “There are lots, you know. Just take some. I have.”
“Yes,” said the forester with a wince. She had been keeping an eye on the news the past few hours and was really getting quite alarmed. “Look,you need to stop.”
“But I can’t stop yet,” complained Scal. “I haven’t walked a mile in everyone’s shoes yet!”
“Ah, but I misspoke when I advised you,” said the forester. “You shouldn’t walk a mile in anyone’s shoes at all.”
“Burn down buildings and boulders!” swore Scal. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“We don’t measure in miles anymore,” said the forester. “We use kilometres. If you want to walk in everyone’s shoes properly, you’ll need to walk a kilometer.”
Scal swore a swear that tore the ground new holes and left it blushing. “And start all over?!” she shrieked. “Nonsuch and nothing doing! You and your shoes – ALL of your shoes, and all of your yous – can go dig a pit to the Pacific and fall into it! I’m leaving!”
And she kicked off her shoes and walked into the woods with her head held high.
As a matter of fact, she held her head so high that she didn’t even see the poison ivy until it was up to her ankles. That – or at least two days past that – was when Scal the sorry walked the woods again.
She simply couldn’t be anything otherwise.

Storytime: Potential Applications.

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Arthur Helman wasn’t sure what crossed his desk anymore.
Oh, he knew the content as well as anything – requests, pleas, wheedles, beggings, simperings, wafflings, and simple bureaucratic twaddle – but there didn’t seem to be a good term for it now that all of it came in as electronic mail. Surely it couldn’t still be called paperwork?
Well, this morning’s appointment was a blessed relief from all that: an honest-to-goodness’-sake in-person meeting. A mixed blessing, of course, since normally an elaborate network of junior managers kept him discretely separated from all of that sort of thing with mechanical precision, but he was so bored that he was willing to pretend to be bored for half an hour as a break.
…Now if only he could remember what the fellow was here to show him.


You can tell a lot about yourself from what you think you can tell about someone else. In Arthur Helman’s case, he prided himself on his apparent ability to discern character through one’s door-knock. This one prickled his spine: it was just north of hesitant, west of incompetent, and only a few degrees wide of annoyed. It was the sound-based equivalent of a limp, clammy handshake.
“Enter,” he said.
The door slid open – just a crack, efficiency was at a valued premium here – and in sidled his appointment, whoever that was. It obviously wasn’t for a fashion position; the man looked cadaverous. Properly cadaverous, not its normal use as a synonym for ‘skeletal.’ There were lumps where there shouldn’t be, and a general appearance of swelling.
“Yes, yes, pleasure to meet you, etc.,” said Arthur, refreshing google repeatedly on his keyboard without raising his gaze and crisply pronouncing the period in ‘etc.’ “Take a seat Mr….”
“Salt. Porter,” said the man, who did not take a seat. “Dr.”
Arthur managed not to wince, but only just. The voice was thin, so very thin that it seemed to have been driven to whistles and screeches just to be heard. “Yes, of course. Now, what was it you had to tell me?”
“Show you.” Dr. Porter’s mouth moved compulsively, Arthur saw. It wasn’t easy to tell if he was trying to smile or eat his own tongue. Not just his mouth, too – his entire body appeared to be made up of nervous tics. “Hyptertensile fabric stronger than steel. Lighter. Many uses. Here you go.”
A bundle was deposited on Arthur’s desk without permission, about the size of his fist. With some mild misgivings, he picked it up and watched as it unfurled into a sheet of silky smoothness about the size of a tea-towel.
“Try to tear it. Hard.”
Arthur tired to tear it, and it was hard. He applied the corner of his desk, a pen-tip, and finally a pen-knife, and finally had to admit that it just wasn’t happening.
“Impressive,” he said. “And your request is?”
“Time space and labroom. Need more to make more. Prototype but no mass production yet. Need privacy. Nobody comes in. Nobody. Deal?”
Arthur didn’t even need a moment to think. Yes, for reasons he couldn’t articulate this was one of the most utterly repulsive humans he’d ever spoken to, but this was also one of the most marketable things he’d encountered in years, and he’d happily signed onto contracts with men who’d driven their best friends into bankruptcy over golf disputes. “Deal.”
The handshake was even worse than he’d presumed. Dr. Porter seemed to only comprehend fingers as things that flew out with as much force and speed as possible, and if a palm got in their way so be it.

Three months and three research assistants later, Arthur stood outside the door of Dr. Porter’s laboratory and spoke at him.
“The first says he wasn’t permitted entry. No explanation given.”
Dr. Porter’s brows convulsed, but no commentary was made. He was theoretically a good listener in that he never broke eye contact, but his apparent reluctance to blink sabotaged this.
“The second says she was refused entry three times – again, with no explanation. The third didn’t hear your reply, attempted to open the door, and says you quote ‘jumped at him,’ and screamed until he ran away. When security checked in, you said everything was fine and denied he’d ever been there.”
“He shouldn’t have come in,” whispered Dr. Porter. “You shouldn’t be here. Very delicate all very delicate. Critical stage could’ve had to start over. I need no assistants you should not send more.”
“Not even one? This isn’t a small project you’re on here. You’re supposed to be refining this thing until it can be mass-produced. Did you forget? One man can’t do that by himself, even with the budget we gave you. And that reminds me of the next item on our little talk’s agenda.”
Arthur examined his phone, which he’d laboriously learned to use over the course of eight months and several extremely patient grandchildren. He still felt that a folder lent these kind of moments more rhetorical weight, but carrying around that physical weight was a task best left to the him of a decade or two ago.
“The budget is gone. I realize that is what a budget is meant to do, Dr. Porter, but ideally there is some sort of book-keeping involved in the process. A receipt at least. Perhaps two. Where are your records?”
“Well, this is a private enterprise. Owned privately. By private individuals. Who are employing you to perform tasks that will make them money, privately. And if you are not more public to them about their private concerns they will throw you back into the public sphere very firmly and quickly. And where are the results for this?”
“Inside the laboratory.”
“Good. Show me.”
Don’t come in!
Arthur’s hand froze halfway to the doorknob, not least because Porter looked as if he’d have bitten it. He was tenser than a highwire.
“Delicate in there very delicate. Wait.” He slid in through the crack of the door as he always did, and left Arthur standing on the cusp of his own lab for three minutes like a child in detention. He would’ve been insulted, but he felt as though terrible things would happen if he moved.
Eventually the door creaked open – creaked? The place was only a decade old at best – and Porter emerged again, fingers-first. Clutched in the fingers was something silky and smooth, around the size of a napkin.
“This is smaller.”
“Different application different role different results. Emergency bandage naturally sticky surface applied to flesh speeds clotting very tough will hold you together from the inside out. Look.”
This drew Arthur’s gaze to Porter’s other hand, which he was startled to see he hadn’t noticed before, given that it was clutching a live, extremely agitated rat. The rodent was thrashing madly, teeth bared, yet seemed too traumatized to actually bite.
Porter’s fingers jumped, and the thing squealed. Red burst over his palm in the moment before the cloth covered it. Arthur hadn’t even seen him move.
“Anesthetic properties theoretically applicable but no luck so far slightly painful will have to work more to sedate patient.”
Then he was gone, and the door was shut again, shades down. There were no windows in this lab, Arthur recalled. He wasn’t sure if he’d have wanted to look inside, though.

Six months. Half a year of Salt Porter living under his roof; and it was living, he was sure of that now. The security cameras alone confirmed that he never left for sleep, and his few excursions were late-night errands to fetch big brown boxes without labels. Some of the un-noted budgetary expenses, no doubt.
He shouldn’t be there, Arthur was sure of it. Every month more and more leaked out – dripped out, more like, dripped and puddled under his desk and made him uncomfortable in his own skin. The security guards avoided the wing now. The adjoining labs had doubled their days off sick, ‘sick’ or otherwise. He’d have thrown the man out face-first by now, if it weren’t for the way every other month he was pulling out a sample for the board to drool over, a new use for his miracle fabric. A bulletproof vest, a tether, a net. The applications seemed endless, but he was so damned shy of showing them the process, and mass production was always ‘later.’
But this. This might be what he was looking for. It had taken a lot of phone calls, a lot of talking (fast AND slow), and at least one private investigator, but he’d built up his evidence, he’d built up his courage, and most importantly he’d sent a security guard ahead to open the door for him and get Porter out of his face while he carefully explained what was going to happen next. And then he’d never have to listen to that awful voice again in his life.
See, there? The door was open. His pulse was even. It was all fine, all ready, and to show how he felt about this, he thrust the door wider open still as he walked through, relishing its transgressive bang against the wall.
Well, would have. Instead it was a muffled thump. The room was a dimly-lit mess; Porter seemed to have coated every single surface with a thinly-woven trial version of his fabric – chairs, tables, cabinets, sinks… It was hanging from the damned ceiling for Christ’s sake. How did he get at anything in here?
Arthur peered at the huddled figure at its desk at the lab’s far end, the security guard standing resolutely at its side, and he shook it off. He could get the cleaning team in later, this was important. He pulled out his phone, cleared his throat, and spoke as crisply as he could manage.
“Mr. Porter. It looks like I got it right the first time.”
No reaction. Arthur began to walk slowly, like a shark cruising towards an idle surfboarder. “We checked, you know. It doesn’t matter how much pie you promise is up in the clouds, eventually we start asking who’s promising. How long did you think it’d last?”
Dead silence. Relishing the absence of the horrible little voice, Arthur pressed on. “There’s no ‘doctor’ Porter. There was a PhD student, mind you, although his name was Felix. It takes a special kind of arrogant to only change half your name, you know that? And a special kind of stupid to walk that far out of field. Your thesis wasn’t on material engineering at all, it was on – let me see here – ‘Genetics and Arachnid Intelligence in Jumping Spiders’ – and it never got published because it was speculative junk that led nowhere. Just like your work here. You’re not just a con-man, you’re an incompetent one.”
Arthur was really quite close now, and he was starting to grow irritated. Yes, Porter seemed to shut down at criticism, but he’d hoped for some spite, some fire. He’d anticipated seeing the security guard pin him down and drag him off by his ill-fitting collar.
“Whatever you were up to, it’s done. Anything to say for yourself? Anything at all?”
Porter didn’t even turn around.
“Fine. Take him out. His desk can come later.”
Arthur had only waited three seconds when it became obvious to him that something was horribly, horribly wrong. But he was a man who liked to be sure, and it was because of that instinct that he reached forwards towards the security guard and touched his shoulder.
The guard wobbled at his touch like a bag of jello, and something unpleasant and damp spurted over Arthur’s fingertips, bringing fiery pain and sudden numbness with it. He bite back a curse as he yanked his fingers back, watched the guard spin slowly in mid-air, suspended by thinly-transparent strands.
Porter. “What have you DONE?” he yelled.
No response.
Arthur supposed he’d been wanting to do this for some time, but was only just now admitting it. He balled up his aching hand and drove it into the back of Felix Porter’s skull with as much force as he could muster.
It sank in up to the wrist with no resistance. It felt like dry leather, and something tickled his wrist.
Arthur shook his arm, this time not bothering to stifle his swearing, and the body lurched free of the chair with no resistance. It couldn’t have weighed more than ten pounds, and it made a sound like dead leaves as it crumpled to the floor. Arthur himself, overbalanced, was not so discreet. He landed shoulders-first like a sack of bricks, eyes-wide. Which put him in a perfect position to see the ceiling more clearly.
Yes, there were sheets and strands and billows. And hugged in amongst them were shapes. Rats. Sheep. Mice. Test animals. Withered and dessicated like mummies, dry and empty. Wrapped up in fabric – in silk.
And nestled among them, hundreds and hundreds of little silken spheres.
Some were popped open, he saw, in that strangely clear vision that appears when the active mind is turned off.
You shouldn’t be here.

Arthur felt his heart leap into his throat and drag the rest of his innards along with it for good measure, yet still worse than the voice – not a voice, it had never been a voice, it was a hiss, a hiss elongated and mangled into a mockery of language – was the small tight click of the door shutting.
Dr. Salt Porter was there in front of it, standing large as life. His body twitching alive, their mouth gnashing. They were jumping out of their skin, tiny eyes glittering in the darkness.
As the increasingly obscured form leapt towards him, Arthur realized that he had been screaming for the last twenty seconds of his life. It was almost completely inaudible over the seething, hissing strum of hundreds of tiny legs rubbing together.

Storytime: All Hallows.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

On the eve of October thirty-first, within the last few decades or nearabouts, a small, angry little man waddled the streets of suburbia, swearing, hissing, and spitting to himself over his stout puffs for air. And though none of this was unusual in either behaviour nor appearance, the identity of the man himself was of note: he was a goblin. Oh, Ivrint fit in well enough as far as human looks went – perhaps his belly was a bit too round, perhaps his head a bit too bald, maybe his teeth were too crooked and spiky and his eyes sparkled too delightfully when in the presence of small evils – but it was all for nothing in the face of his voice: he talked so thoroughly through his nose that a head cold rendered him utterly mute, and there was no hiding this from even the most complacent, bored, lackadaisical suburbanite.
Fortunately, those same qualities of his neighbours lent themselves quite thoroughly to apathy, and so though almost anyone who met him guessed Ivrint’s identity before he could say ‘boo’ few cared even slightly.
Well, very few.
Almost no one.
Ivrint sighed as he neared his home – Jack O’Lantern pointedly NOT on display – and the drear reality of his doom sank down over him, slumping his shoulders even lower than their natural angle. Really, it had all seemed so reasonable to him at the time; what reasonable home-owner’s association would not permit a pillar of the community to fend off pests from their yard? Yes, the pests were pets, yes, they were cats, yes, nonlethal traps were encouraged but scarcely mandated, and yes, it was in poor taste to skin and eat the things on your front lawn, but he defied any man or woman to find a specific regulation in the book that he’d actually broken as such. The spirit of the rules had been violated, perhaps, but the letter remained pristine. This was North America, that sort of behaviour was meant to be celebrated, was it not?
Regretably, his punishment was as extrajudicial as his sentence. He was under no official obligations, penalties, censures, fees, or geasa. This was simple a friendly annual request by good honest hard-working friendly pillars of the community who would knock over all his garbage cans every morning for the rest of his life and steal his recycling bins if he refused to bow to their every command.
And it was only one command. Just one. A tiny, teeny, insignificant little command. But it was a command all the same, and the one thing a goblin hates more than not being able to order people around is being forced to do the same.
The sprawling mob in front of his home looked up from their stashes. Rough-spun robes fluttered in the air. Drool dripped from oversized fangs, eyes glowed, knives were brandished against the cool autumn breeze.
A single creature stepped forwards, a head taller than Ivrint and nearly as broad, its face smeared with crimson and hastily stitched together. “Let’s go, stumpy,” it said.
And if there was a second thing a goblin hated yet more, it would be human children. The more the hatefuler.

(A third thing, perhaps, would be peanut butter. The damned holiday was infested with it, and the scent always took days to fade from his nose)

Ivrint’s final stop before his home had been the general store.
“Cindy let go of the stop sign.”
It had been a small, simple purchase, but it was an annual tradition.
“I don’t care if you want to, we’re not walking down to Beachfront Avenue, that’s six miles and the little ones’ legs will fall off. No, you can’t tape that, nobody you want to know would be interested in paying for it.”
Also, a necessary one.
“Clyde, don’t open that gate; there’s no pumpkin and that dog will bite you. Leo, stop hitting Suzy unless you want her to bite you again. Teresa, don’t dare Francis to eat that, you know he’s diabetic and the police would be on you like fleas on puppies. Simon would you…”
Ivrint gagged momentarily, pulled out his bag of horrible throat lozenges that didn’t quite taste like cherries soaked in vinegar, and popped three into his mouth at once – one for swallowing, one for chewing, and one for sucking for ten seconds and then accidentally chewing. He’d empty the thing halfway through the night, if he was any judge.
“… put that d- okay good you already did. Hurts, doesn’t it? Well now you know why you’re not supposed to pick them up. No, Jess, we’re not allowed to play tricks, just take your damned treats. No, your parents won’t care if you tell them that I said that word because they say worse themselves. Tell all you like, just shut up. Oh, you want to tell them something? Tell them this: Ivrint Gattlekrik says your father is the fattest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve hunted denning bears. Your father is fatter than that. And genetics says you’ll be fatter still. That’s right, you eat that candy. Eat it through the tears, fatty. Your fat, fat tears.”

There was always a casualty, of course.
“Look, just put it back on the stoop. Yes, I’m sure they’ll notice; they put out a pumpkin, not ten pounds of smashed shell and guts. No, I don’t care. No, you can’t light the candle again, you’re too stupid to know how – no, I don’t care if you have your mother’s lighter. Hands off – OFF, Cindy! Cindy listen to me NO I AM THE BOSS OF YOU.”
And in the ensuring chase – of course there was a chase, of course there was, every damned year he ended up chasing some kid for some reason for some distance – it all ended as it usually did. The kids split. The kids vanished. And Ivrint stood alone in the middle of the street, one hand locked around the collar of Herman Gish, the tubbiest and least-aerodynamic of them all, and swore ‘till his feet turned blue. Occasionally Herman would chime in with an effort to rhyme along.
Eventually, Ivrint’s jaw got tired and he stopped with a creaking, wistful sigh. There was a job to do, or he’d never hear the end of it. They’d made enough of a fuss about a few cats gone missing, although he was prepared to argue that even a cat was a more enjoyable companion than the presence of Cindy Warburn. Probably. On most nights.
He looked down at Herman. The boy stopped mid-swear, his chins still wobbling.
“C’mon. You can hold the bag.”

Goblins are thieves. Everyone knows that who knows anything about goblins. And like most things that everyone knows, it’s not really true at all. It would be more accurate to say that goblins often like stealing things. It’s sort of a family pastime.
And like most pastimes, it had become a hobby, then nearly a sport. Now it was just one of those things you did. Most Americans followed baseball, most goblins kept an eye on America’s Most Wanted, and for largely similar reasons.
Ivrint could have gone pro back in his youth, a century ago. Nowadays he mostly kept his looting sack around for nostalgic purposes. Nostalgia, and Halloween.
He squinted upwards into the boughs of the tree. It was some sort of spruce that had long ago left its species behind in favour of becoming as large as physically possible, and maybe a little bit bigger. “C’mon down, Suzy.”
Branches rattled at him, followed with a hiss. He sighed. “No, Suzy. I know you’re not a velociraptor. And they don’t climb trees, awright? I saw Jurassic Park four times in theaters, I know this shit. Now get down here.”
The hiss rose to a screech, and a cone bounced off his bulbous nose.
Ivrint spat into his palms. “Awright, don’t say you didn’t have a fair chance.” He grasped the tree and shook violently. After a few seconds, a thought struck him.
“Oh yeah – hey Herman, hold that bag open, will y-“
Around then, Suzy struck him. Head-first.

Two blocks and five children later, the goblin sack was a good deal plumper and squirmier, and Ivrint a good deal sorer and angrier. Suzy had been just peachy – the average goblin skull was lacking in bone, using instead a sort of jelly-like cartilage – but half his head was one big bruise now, and she’d been bitey besides. He could still hear her hissing at him from the inside of the bag, where she’d clambered to the top of the pile. It reminded him of a rattlesnake.
“Get outta there, Leo,” he said.
Silence. The wind rustled down the street in a casual sort of way, sneaking through lawns and peeking in the windows for blackmail material.
“Leo, I’m going to count to five. Ready? Gonna start now, but it’ll take a while. One.”
He waited for a moment, looked up at the stars. Wondered if any of them had to deal with shit like this. “Two. Hey, Leo, you want to know something cool about that yard you’re hiding in? Three.”
“That’s old man Murray’s place. You remember how he used to run that alligator farm, right? Four.”
A small splash.
“Well, when he retired, they decided they’d give him a bit of his work to take home with him, and that’s around when he installed that pool you’re standing next to.”
A noise somewhere between a rumble and a gurgle filled the night.
Leo dove over the fence, muscled Herman out of the way with unnecessary force, and fought his way to the bottom of the sack. Ivrint snatched up the bag hurriedly as Suzy’s gleaming eyes appeared at its entrance again, but even the brief wrestling match that followed couldn’t dampen the haunting sensations of job satisfaction that had filled him at that moment.

An hour later, Ivrint would’ve given an arm and a leg (someone else’s, of course; he wasn’t stupid) to bring back that feeling. One two three fourteen kids in his bag – including Herman, who’d started whining about how tired his legs were – and no Cindy. His voice was growing hoarse, he was out of lozenges, and to top it off the sewers were alive with scurries and guffaws as the imps and bogeys and nasties rustled along their tiny tunnels, giggling and gargling to themselves with delight as they gorged themselves on extinguished pumpkins.
Ivrint’s face puckered inwards with un-delight as he considered the merriment of his near cousins. As bad as kids, they were. No doubt they’d get along like houses on fire.
Oh. Right. That would explain it.
Ivrint dropped the sack in the middle of the road for a moment (ignoring the squeaks, swears, and gut-churning growls – and fumbled in his pockets for a moment, eventually producing a single, jagged key that looked like it had been cold-forged from half a cobblestone. With careful bludgeoning love he hammered it into the nearest storm drain, wrenched violently, and dropped down into something incredibly unpleasant that called his mother something regrettable.
“Yeah, and same to you,” he growled into the face of the imp.
It gave him the wrong finger, failed to correct itself, then hoisted all of them at once as a salvage effort.
Ivrint rolled his eyes. “Right, right. You win. Where’s the kid?”
Ivrint was round and slow, but his arms were whip-thin and much longer than they looked, which was how they made it around the imp’s neck before the end of this sentence. “Talk or squeeze. C’mon, even imps know this game. Pick one.”
“I don’t hear it, so I guess I squeeze it.”
“T’LK!” squealed the imp.
“There, that so hard? Go on.”
The imp gabbled a stream of sewer addresses, navigator’s-marks, and tramp-signage that would’ve been indecipherable to anybody with good solid primate in their ancestry, then made a hasty retreat before Ivrint decided to bite its head off.
Not that he would’ve. Probably. He was all full on lozenges and nausea caused by lozenges, but then again a snack might’ve settled him.

Midnight was a dangerous time of night. Halloween was a dangerous time of year. The sewers were a dangerous place to be most anytime, at least if you were easily turned around and annoyed and lost your bearings and slid down the wrong pipe three times running.
Ivrint hadn’t done that, of course. It was something like six times by now.
He trudged down the latest in a series of tiny, cramped, mostly-rusted metal sludgetubes and wished the bag he was dragging would stop griping at least. He could hardly hear himself think, which was probably why they were lost.
Or maybe not.
Ivrint looked up from his feet into someone else’s feet. A bit farther up and he made eye contact with something’s chest. If he nearly fell over backwards, maybe a chin would be visible.
“P’sswurd,” grumbled the troll.
“’Password,’” said Ivrint. It wasn’t a guess. It was a troll. Trying to get it to learn anything else would’ve made its head explode.
“’K,” it agreed, and it slouched back lazily into its burrow as he hurried past it into the main chambers of the undersewers.
Now THIS… this was a bit much. Ivrint lived up above, and he liked it. There was tap water on demand, sugary foods, and best of all, minimal lurking involved, which was a fine thing when you were as round and fat as the average goblin. Waddling was a far more effortless mode of transit, and one that seemed to be catching on in popularity among humans. He fit right in.
Down here it was different. Imps and bogeys and bograts and boogums all LOVED to lurk. Lurking was their bread and butter, their Christmas present, and their favourite colour all at once. It was what they were, not merely what they did. He’d tried sixteen damned times to get the little bastards to come topside to start some sort of co-op with him, and each time he got as far as explaining ‘sunlight’ to them before the shrieking and cowering began. They had less spine than centipedes.
Except on midnights. And Halloween. Halloween midnight especially. They didn’t get braver, but they certainly got rowdier and more moxious. Moxious enough to, say, kidnap a human child and pit her in a knife-fight with blunted butter knives against a hobgoblin.
Despite Cindy losing her knife, Ivrint noted that the hob was faring poorly. Most likely because she’d misplaced it somewhere in his left eyeball, just shy of the pupil. He felt strangely proud at that.
“Alright,” he shouted over the din. “Show’s over. Past midnight. Up and at ‘em. Cindy we are LEAVING. We are LEAVING NOW. We are LEAVING NOW or you WON’T GET CANDY. Are you listening to me?”
Cindy gave the grandest, slowest eye-roll possible and strode over to him with forced casualness, the squelch of her footsteps the only sound in the suddenly quiet and extremely staring hall.
“Into the bag,” said Ivrint.
“What-ev-err-r,” she said. One last, languid roll, and Ivrint was alone with a sack full of children and seven hundred and forty-nine point six extremely annoyed, bored, and curious bogeymen.

A chase scene followed, much of it paint-by-numbers, although it almost got interesting when the bottom of the sack – and Herman – almost got stuck in the mouth of the manhole Ivrint was trying to exit through. But then Suzy got loose, and after that the pursuit waned with remarkable speed. Ivrint considered attempting and then immediately gave up trying to get her to spit out the imp-finger that she’d claimed as a trophy; the girl had tough jaw muscles.
“Right!” he announced to the assembled children as they filed out of his goblin-bag onto his lawn, under the annoyed gaze of their parents. “That’s it! Halloween’s over, you all have candy, clear off. Pick whichever set of adults flinches the least at your funk and head home with ‘em, thank you very much, happy Halloweehaahahah can’t finish that sentence. Good riddance!”
He stomped up the door, slammed it, sat down to undo his laces, and fell over as someone opened it into his backside.
“WHAT?!” he shouted.
“Heyit’smeee…” said Cindy. Muttered Cindy. Cindy made some sort of a noise, at least.
“What d’you want? Go home. Eat too much candy. That’s what Halloween’s for, right? Treats. We already did tricks, you little hooligan. Go for it.”
Cindy chewed her lip and whined a little through her nose. “Liiiiiiiisten.”
Ivrint rubbed his head and tried to figure the bruise from the headache. This seemed to encourage her.
“Treat! Bye!”
Something bounced off Ivrint’s head, the door slammed, and he was happily, blissfully alone.
With a chocolate bar.

Of course the damned thing had peanuts in it.

Storytime: The Profit and the Fishers.

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Jose Adams looked into his webcam and exactly fourteen million five hundred thousand sixty-two faithful, loyal, patient, willing, paying subscribers would stare back at him. In ten hours.
He cleared his throat a little as his prerecorded guest-host startup line played, along with what he knew would be the catchiest jingle written in this decade.
“Good evening,” said a celebrity not worth remembering whom everyone knew, “and welcome to today’s mass broadcast: the forecast that even you can afford! If you’re too slow to catch this one, or you’re missing out on last week’s tips, gold subscribers get archive access! And remember, sharing prophecies without the prophet’s consent is theft, and everyone who does this for the next two years WILL be caught.”
This was a lie, but a very helpful one. It had increased the number of subscribers by several million, all of whom were gullible enough to pay for extra services.
“Now….here’s Jose!”
And there he was. He’d already taken in his breath, and as he counted out the seconds it left his body in a hiss of words.
“All parents whose social security numbers both end in ‘8,’ your daughters will feel blue this week due to green envy, causes may vary. If you are a white male between the ages of twenty-two and thirty who was born in July look both ways twice before crossing the street this month or run the risk of being struck with a semi-truck. Owners of cats that are both orange AND striped should keep them indoors to prevent rabies. A free tip for the gambling men out there: this week’s biggest celebrity drug scandal item will start with ‘C.’ On no account should any children under the age of ten step on sidewalk cracks this week; mother’s backs will not break but their ankles might due to faulty construction work. Construction workers, take the day off for a job hunt, your companies stand a 85% averaged chance of being immobilized by lawsuits and sunk within the next year. Do not trust anyone whose middle name rhymes with ‘orange.’ Begin buying low and selling high. If anyone promises you the deal of a lifetime, they’re crooks. Take your time over lunch but skip breakfast and get home fast. If you see a reptile, run away. Goodbye.”
Jose took off his headset and closed his eyes, basking in the invisible applause of exactly fourteen million five hundred thousand sixty-two loyal, willing wallets. It was like a hot tub for the soul.
“Viewership’s up this week, sir,” said one of the happy, underpaid interns he employed to tell him things he already knew. “Should we get Craig Watson on again next week to do the intro? He’s so well-spoken!”
“No,” said Jose. “He’ll be busy.” He bundled his coat into his arms and counted how much change he’d have. “I’m going to get a coffee and something expensive and baked. I’ll be back at twelve nineteen and forty-two seconds seven milliseconds to do our premium personals.”

Life was good, knew Jose, as he retrieved the most expensive baked object in a two-block radius – some sort of insane genius’s dream of a cinnamon roll. Well, maybe not in general, but his was. And what made that life so good was knowing exactly how long it would remain so: in his case, for the next seventy years minimum. Maybe longer if he got off his ass within the next two decades and started funding some serious science in that direction. Every other billionaire he knew did nothing but fuel lobbyist groups and private think-tanks – nobody ever thought big. Luckily, Jose was there to think for them. Just like he did for everyone else.
He closed his eyes, and bit into something soft and warm. As predicted.
The taste, however, was something else.
At the tail-end of a fit of dry heaves, still foaming at the mouth with spittle, Jose looked at his incredibly expensive, incredibly delicious, yet somehow foul, odorous meal. He looked, and he understood that not all of the white matter caked atop it was frosting. And then his ears kicked in and led his eyes to the source of the trouble: a white-winged cackler circling in the breeze overhead, somehow managing to leer at him through a beak.
A common seagull.

“It can’t be impossible.”
The man over the phone shrugged as he heard that. “It is. Always has been, always will be.”
Jose rubbed his temples and tried to forget the taste of guano, despite knowing that such a thing would not happen for the next thirty years of his life. “I can forecast a researcher in Antarctica and every single slum-dweller in Atlanta. I can describe the exact life-cycle of a given rat. I can read the future of the WEATHER. And you’re telling me that it’s impossible to foresee a seagull?”
“Common gull or black-backed gull?”
“Yeah, no chance. Black-backs you can see, it’s just a bit fuzzy and it’s mostly them murdering and eating smaller things. Commons are like trying to read a newspaper with your ears, through earplugs. And you’re in New York and the newspaper’s on Olympus Mons.”
“That’s lunacy.”
The man over the phone shrugged at him again. Jose had never bothered to learn his mentor’s name, but he was the wealthiest individual in human history by a factor too high to pronounce, possessing more money than all humans born before 1902 had ever accumulated. He spent most of his days on some nice islands he’d had removed from the geography and history books. “It’s how it is. Just accept it. Do what I did and pay somebody to hold a little umbrella over you whenever you’re outside. You’ll be fine. And don’t glare at me so much, I don’t want to have you assassinated. Bye.”
Jose refrained from glaring at the phone; he was the fourth of the man’s apprentices. He contented himself with cursing quietly, pacing rapidly, and spinning around to stare out the window at odd moments.
His intern knocked at the door to tell him that the first private premium personal sitting of the day would be dialing in within the next minute.
“Sir, the first-”
“Cancel that,” Jose snapped. “Something important just came up.”

It had taken him six tries to find a veterinary clinic that had a gull present. ‘Rats of the sea’ didn’t get much sympathy, even from animal lovers, and those were less than affluent. Fortunately, neither were many veterinarians, and it didn’t take much cash to persuade the parting of vet and bird.
Jose stared intently at the thing. It seemed to be smirking at him. You couldn’t smirk through a beak, right? But you couldn’t leer either. He was pretty sure of both those things, but less so than he had been that morning. That was a horrible feeling, and he was eager for it to be over – surely the proximity would do it, surely being this close would fix it. Close enough to touch, and everything got so much easier…
“I know you,” he told the bird and also himself. “I know you better than you do; inside, outside, inside-out, past, present, future and miscellaneous. I have personally counted the number of skeletons in our president’s closet – three and six vertebrae – and peeped the what-ifs of the life of Temujin, Genghis Khan. I know what I will have for breakfast for the next fifty years of my life. I can see all this, and I can see all of you.”
He reached out a hand and concentrated. The seagull bit him.

Jose’s second seagull was not as conveniently restrained as the first had been, but it did not have a broken neck. As he watched it peck at the scattered potato chip crumbs on the boardwalk, he felt a certain inclination to alter that. He’d been staring at the damned thing point-blank for two hours and nothing had happened. He would’ve had more luck prophesizing a stone, something he had a proven success record at.
Jose thumbed absently at the bandaid on his right palm as he considered his options. It was the first time he’d used one in over a decade. “What are you hiding?” he whispered to the bird.
It stared at him. It awrked at him. Then it turned its back and trotted away.

More manpower was needed, obviously. He hired the best men. Then when those men questioned his decision to have them tail seagulls he fired those men and silenced them with payoffs, blackmail, or assassination as needed. Then he hired men who were not quite as good but more predisposed to keeping their mouths shut, some out-of-work ecologists, and just about every amateur birdwatcher in the city.
“Seagulls,” he told them. “Let me know about the seagulls.” And in only a few weeks he did know about the seagulls, he knew as much about seagulls as any man alive, as any head of the National Audobon Society ever had, as much as a seagull itself. Entire libraries-worth of information on seagulls had been sent into his computer. Sometimes he found himself walking very nearly like a seagull.
And yet the one bit of information he actually wanted remained elusive. They seemed to mock him for it as he passed them in the streets, gazing down at him from the lightposts and storefronts with their pudgy bodies and beady eyes.
“I’ll have you soon, you’ll see,” he’d hiss at them.
And the seagull would ignore him, or more likely proclaim aiiek, aiiiek, awk awk awk awk awk, and a great anger would well up inside him like blood in a compound fracture.
A week went by. Two weeks. Two weeks with no progress. Something had to be done.

Jose Adams clung to the underside of the dock as the saltwater lapped against his spine and hoped that he had imagined the shark fin in the harbour, because he didn’t need the distraction now. He was so close to the nest of the Big One that he could almost taste it in his mouth, taste it like the befouled cinnamon roll that had led him on this path of destruction. A week of careful hands-on surveillance, days spent in meditation, nights spent painstakingly drawing together information from the charts in his office and his own eyes. All brought to this.
Now. Now he would see what they were planning.
Carefully, achingly, he used one hand to prise the tiny periscope loose from his wire-tight jaws and shimmied it up the largest knothole he could find. Then, trying to persuade himself that he was only imagining the swirl of water beneath him as anything other than normal wave action, he pressed an eye to the eyepiece.
The view was blurry. Then there was a beak in it.
Jose jerked backwards in terror, lost his balance, and plummeted with a blubbering cry onto the head of a mature female great white shark measuring sixteen feet six inches in length who had been examining him out of morbid interest. She reacted in the only way she knew how.

It was only a little bite, the doctors told him. Just a little bite. A few stitches, really. Walk it off in a few weeks, ha-ha, don’t worry.
Unfortunately, Jose Adams had not required his medical insurance for years, and so the bite inflicted upon him was much larger than one any shark could inflict. Combined with funding half a city’s-worth of private investigators, ecologists, and birdwatchers for almost a month and the angry lawsuits for breach of contract from his advertisers, celebrity clients, and staff, and he was somewhat short of pocket, as well as short of any clothing fancy enough to possess pockets.
Well, needs must. He could make it work, of course he could. He was a prophet, wasn’t he? Any man with that could make money hand over fist in five minutes, and once he saved up a little dosh through the backroom blackmail circuit he could have a new face, a new name, and a new career. Maybe he could even foretell his own death, and wouldn’t that be a kick?
All that was down the chain, of course. Right now he had other priorities. Top priorities.
There was one down the road, pecking at a donut, and Jose’s eyes narrowed.
“Got you,” he whispered.

Six seagulls later and he was no closer to finding one that would squeal. It didn’t matter what questions he asked, what threats he used, how many splinters he shoved into the webbing of their feet, they weren’t giving up a damned thing. His stomach gurgled with rage and indigestion from the half-consumed wad of French fries that he’d fished out of a trash can and called lunch.
“HOW’D YOU DO IT?” he screamed at a sentry atop the nearby coffee shop – possibly one he’d owned a controlling share of, once upon a month ago. “WHY?”
Awrk, it commented. It ruffled its feathers.
Jose felt the bile rise up in him again, and this time it didn’t settle down. He spat curses, spat liquid into the gutter, and charged the bird. Nothing else existed, nothing else mattered – not his future, not the city’s future, not the world’s future, just the future of the bird that stared at him with its beady eyes and yellow beak. He focused all his might and intellect upon that hateful, mocking little face, he tunneled down the world that he’d played like a piano to one atom of one blemish on a single key.
He saw it picking up a French fry from his outstretched palm.
And then, for a great and glorious moment, Jose Adams felt hope rise up in him, lifting him from the ground as light as a feather. His perspective spun, the world shone bright and strange in his eyes, and his heart fluttered like a schoolboy’s before the momentum from the semi-truck left his body and sent him skull-first into the asphalt.
Something hard jabbed his palm.

Jose Adams was buried on his birthday: July eighth. On a pleasant day with a bright sun, cool breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. And a lot of seagulls.

Storytime: A Shortcut.

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

The tibia slid from rock to stone with the smooth, seamless grace of a galumphing walrus, nicking thrice-nicked epicondyles and chipping its shaft and visiting all manner of unspeakables upon innocent bone the likes of which it had all seen at least four times previously, so it was quite all right. Eventually it spun to a gentle stop at William’s feet.
He looked at it. It was the first thing he’d seen for half a hundred miles that wasn’t a rock or ice, so he felt he owed it that much.
“Hello there.”
William looked up and saw the first human he’d met for half a thousand miles. At least, it was probably a human. Last he’d heard nobody’s brought any chimpanzees up this way, let alone any completely bald ones.
It waved at him.
“Hello,” said William. “How are you?”
“Tolerably well, tolerably well,” said the thing on its rock-pile. “I’d be better off still if you’d care to toss that bone of mine back up here. It is my favorite and I miss it so dearly.”
William shrugged, kicked the battered piece of humanity six times until it popped up into his fumbling left-handed grasp, then gave it a gentle underhand toss. It smacked into the thing’s forehead with a sound like a melon being dropped in a basket and sent it gently cartwheeling down the same path that the bone had so recently taken, with even less elegance.
“Ow,” it said eventually.
“I’m sorry.”
The thing waved a hand. “Think nothing of it. The view up there was growing dreary anyways. Oh, my manners! I am nobody of nowhere in particular. And yourself?”
“Will McKenzie,” said William. “Have you seen the northwest passage?”
It squinted to itself. “Oh! That! I was looking for that! That was a while ago, of course. Before I found my bone and built my seat. I was much busier back then, all hurry hurry hurry. No time for rest nor chat nor bone. It’s no wonder my own quit on me, you know? I certainly never gave them a break. Why I’ll have you know I’d barely placed the keystone of my chair in place before my own two legs up and left me behind, the treacherous snakes, and my left arm soon followed. Of course, that was a few long times ago. But I digress: what’s your name again?”
“Will,” said William. “Have you seen the northwest passage or not?”
“Oh! That! I was looking for that! That was a while ago, of course. Before I lost my head and found my legs. Well you see hey now where are you going?”
“The northwest passage,” repeated William, adjusting the hauling straps across his shoulders. They were huge thick things that very nearly became a second coat where they crossed his chest.
“With that great sledge? You’ll never make it, take it from me. My sledge was twice as big and there were dogs on it. And now I don’t have dogs or a sledge and look at how well it’s all turned out for me, eh?”
William looked at how it had turned out for him. One of the rocks on the seat teetered and slowly made its way downwards, landing with inevitable but gentle force on the thing’s freshly-swelling cranial bruise.
“Do you think I could tag along? Please?”

The sledge was stuck on a rock.
“Pull on it.”
William pulled.
“No, no, no! Push it! You’ve got to push it!”
William pushed.
“Oh dear that won’t do that won’t do at all, at ALL! Wiggle it up and down, up and down!”
William wiggled it up and down.
“Maybe left to right then?”
The sledge’s runner snapped off with a tired squeak.
The thing shrugged. “Well, it was a good try. When’s lunch?”
William squinted at the horizon, where the sun hadn’t risen in three months. “Now,” he decided.
They sat down to eat, William with his bulky and inopenable canned food, the thing with its bone. It gnawed on it happily, gums smearing with love across familiar grooves so ancient that they half looked to have started healing over.
William had something better than bones. He had canned food. Modern. Lead-sealed. Air-tight. Unspoilable. Each had enough basic nutrition to keep a man three times his weight walking for three times as long as William could walk, which if William could still do math correctly was nine hours and six pounds four pence. He asked the thing, to be sure.
“Sounds good to me,” it said. “How’s it taste?”
William’s brow furrowed. “Don’t know. Can’t open them.”
“Oh. So what’ve you been eating?”
“The lead seal,” said William. “Soft. Chewy.”
The thing nodded thoughtfully. “Huh. So it is. It reminds me of the days when there was marrow in my bones, back before I found my other bone. That was a while ago, of course. I had a crew, a crew of men, human men, human men who spoke the same language as me and thought the same thoughts as me and laughed at the same jokes as me and grew their beards just like mine. Those were fine days, back when we had days. I think we had days then, now the sun just seems to go up and down.”
“What happened?” asked William.
The thing shrugged. “I can’t remember. But I don’t think it was very nice. We were on a job to find something very impressive.”
“The northwest passage.”
“Right! That! I was looking for that! That was a while ago, of course, when-“
William inserted the bone gently into the thing’s face, where it began to gnaw happily. Little flecks of bone dust came loose from its jaw in its enthusiasm.

They made camp that night by the wreckage of three schooners, each one slightly smaller than the other. It was the first fire William had seen in a hundred days and nights, and he had the thing to thank for it: whenever he tried to bend at the waist unbearable pain lanced through his hips up to his heart and his vision turned black with purple highlights.
“Purple?” asked the thing, dangling from his arms as firewood dangled from its arms. “What’s that?”
William pursed his lips – cracking open a dozen fissures in his skin in the process, which slowly coagulated with red matter in the subzero air – and considered the question.
“Like blue,” he said.
“Like blue?”
“But more red.”
“Huh. What’s a red?”
William pointed at his sores. The thing looked.
“Oh,” it said. “That. That’s funny! Haven’t seen that in a while. That was a while ago, of course. When I was looking for the northwest passage. Have you seen the place? Awful nice. I took the sea route, of course, but then the boat got stuck. That was a while ago, of course. A while ago, of course. A while ago. A while ago, of course. A while ago, of course. It was a while ago a while ago a while ago, of course it was a while ago, of course.”
It blinked.
“Excuse me. But yes, it was a while ago, of course. Are you headed there?”
“Yes. Where is it?”
“Right behind. Forty miles.”
William craned his neck over his shoulder. “I didn’t see.”
“Really? It was right there.”
“You could have said.”
“No I couldn’t. My lips were stuck together and I didn’t want to make a fuss.”
William sighed, a deep and elemental force that welled up from within the tattered leather bags that had once been his boots, or maybe his feet.
“Thinking of quitting, eh lad? Don’t be like that. You’re almost there. Go on, up and get ‘em, chin-first. The early bird worms the day is won. Come on now, let’s be off. Do you need a slap on the back to get you going?”
“Yes please.”
The thing’s hand came down against leather with a firm whack, sending a knuckle bouncing away over the lonely stones, already powder as it cartwheeled. William hiccoughed, spat out a tooth, and hitched up his harness once again.

“Come on.”
The sledge had been left a good fifteen miles back. The last runner had come a cropper sixteen earlier.
“Up and at ‘em.”
The cans had had to be left behind. William had tried to put some in his pockets, but he’d eaten his pockets a month ago in an effort to stave off scurvy with the lichen that had become enmeshed in their fabric. He’d put one in his mouth instead, and discovered that its contents had leaked out months ago. Even the lead solder had rubbed off.
“Go on, you. Go on!”
His left hand was making a godawful racket. The thing was in it, that was the problem. It had gotten very annoyed when he tried to leave it with the sledge, and the way he’d fallen over right after he’d uncoupled the harness seemed to be making it very angry.
“Look now what a world it would be if we all gave up like this. I gave up myself, you could too, but that was a while ago NOT NOW come on and get moving, you’re better than this!”
His right hand was much quieter. He preferred his right hand. It hadn’t moved more than dancing in the breeze since the sixth week he’d worn the harness, but it kept clenched tight around its burden and didn’t smell too badly. The salt air was doing wonders for it, when there was air instead of ice-wind.
Two things occurred to William then. First, that he must be dying. Second, that he hadn’t used his brain this much in more than a year. He wondered if the two were related at all.
“Up! Up for goodness’s sakes and peas and rice and all the little fish! You’re HERE! You’re at the northwest passage! UP!”
“Can’t see it,” said William.
“That’s because your eyes are shut, and you aren’t clever like me. I can see right through my eyelids! You can’t! Stop making me talk loudly, it hurts my throat and I don’t have much left to hurt! Go on! Get up! Go on! UP!”
William used the burden in his left hand to steady himself, opened his eyes, and took one more breath.

He was standing on a cold, icy, rock-strewn shore. Behind him was ice. Ahead of him was ice. Farther on was a bit more ice. But the little compass that dangled on his gutted lapel and the head full of rotted charts told him that this particular ice was ice nobody had ever seen before.
Well, nobody from… home. Had ever seen before. Yes.
Oh, that was right. He’d better hurry.
“Hello? Can you see it?”
No time for that. William dropped his left hand – ignoring the protests that resulted – and applied it to his right. With a vigorous yank he removed it, along with its burden, and struck the stony gravel masquerading as dirt with as much force as he could muster.
Fwip, and the cold breeze took it. The flag flared in its grip like a little second sky. The salt and cold had bleached it blanker than a blanket.
“Iclaimthisinthenameof-“ said William, and then that breath ran out and he died.

For a while he stood there very sturdily, then the cold breeze took him. Fwip.

“This reminds me of back when I had a seat. That was a while ago, of course.”