Storytime: A Nice Night Out.

July 15th, 2015

Somewhere, in quiet suburbia, a white cat walked.
Well, strolled. It was a cat, after all.
And as it swaggered its way up a set of porch steps not its own, the second thing you noticed was its shade, which maybe wasn’t white at all. It was practically glowing; the rich, healthy, vibrant thrum and pulse that cartoons usually give to plutonium. The sort of colour you expect to see behind your eyes as the oxygen runs out.
The thing shaped like a cat and shaded like hazardous waste surmounted the steps, located the front door, studied it, then turned its back and began to pointedly ignore it.
A moment went by. The door opened. The cat sighed majestically and began to wash its face.
“Oh my! It’s that urgent, is it?”
The voice, unlike the cat, was nothing BUT concern; a deep, compassionate, bottomless font of sympathy burbled up in every syllable. A senator would’ve sold their soul to possess an ounce of the authenticity inside it; a president their nation’s future for five minutes with the sincerity it stood for.
Its current owner was five foot two and passingly balding and bundled up inside something that must’ve been at least technically a sweater, in the same way that an elephant is technically related to a mouse. And she was making little clucking noises with her tongue that anyone listening in would’ve sworn were impossible for a human to emit.
“Well, well, well! Tsk tsk! We’d better get moving then, if we want to fit tonight’s game in! Samson, dear, there’s a can of tuna under the counter. The good kind. Now be a love and put the can in the recycling bin when you’re through, will you sweetie?”
The cat glanced at her out of the corner of its eye. There was an alien expression forming in there very much like human disgust, but larger.
And growing.
“Ohyesyooouuarreee. Here, who wants skritches?”
…But willing to compromise for ear skritches.

Five minutes and five hundred skritches later, Edith Bell locked her front door, shut her back door, and opened her side door, the one with the handle that needed to be turned and jiggled and then hexed in a particular way. Then she stepped out, sideways, past the suburbs and into the special places.
It was cold out, so she’d put on another sweater.

It defied definition. But it was about as elsewhere as you could get in comparison to the home of Edith Bell. The walls didn’t merely brood; they’d successfully clutched forty years ago and their offspring were on their third litter. The foundations were deathly silent; they’d strangled the life out of the soil underneath them uncounted decades before. The air creaked. And the attic was, quite simply, unspeakable.
The front door was very nearly the most welcoming part of the entire house, in that it was merely venomous. It was also losing a battle to the death with a fluffy black cat who had never seen a door-knocker before but was game to challenge it.
The door opened, sending the cat inside with a muffled thud.
“Oh. Cauliflower.”
The cat looked up at the old woman with wide-eyed benevolence, no worse the wear for its impact. By mass it was eighty percent fluff; there were stuntmen with less padding.
“So I take it she’s coming then? Good. Very good. About time. I swear, that girl. That girl!” She made a sharp noise somewhere between a tsk and a hiss. “She needs to get her head out of the clouds.”
Iris Cook’s cardigan was all black. All the shades of black. It contained the souls of nine hundred arsonists and four thousand murderers and fifty-six serial killers and one young man who’d rudely demanded her purse in an alley one day. It didn’t shrink in the wash, but it shrunk from her touch.
She hauled it over her shoulders with the idle ruthlessness of the bank executive and studied her selection of umbrellas critically.
“I think… Peabody today. Don’t you, Cauliflower?”
The cat replied by pouncing on her toes, and was repelled with a gentle kick.
“Yes. Yes, Peabody. I put out some water and a dead mouse for you. Go on. That’s a good girl. Now have a nice night, and don’t bother us. We’ve got work to do.”
Peabody’s hilt was cold iron and its handle was hot steel, baking with the fiery tempers of the spiteful dead. It made the air shimmer around Iris’s knuckles as she gripped it, writhing resentfully in her bony hand.
She took one last look around the house, and adjusted a book that had dared to move a millimetre out of place. Then she opened her umbrella, stepped into her chimney, and spilled out of the normal places and into the odd.

The odd is like the ocean, or an iceberg, or the quiet stupid person at a party. Nine-tenths of it is hidden out of sight, below the surface. It’s also the same nine-tenths that contains the teeth, the jagged hull-breaker, or the list of names and the loaded gun. Don’t travel the odd casually, and don’t travel it alone, and don’t go unarmed.
Edith did all three. Iris merely went alone, but in her defense she would’ve argued that (1) nothing she ever did was anything as pitiable as ‘casual’ and (2) ‘unarmed’ implies that one can divest oneself of one’s own harmfulness, which in Iris’s case would require lobotomization.
Iris’s cardigan was fringed with one hundred and four lobotomists. She sometimes picked at them when she was irritated enough to fidget.
They met at the usual place, somewhere in the hazy land just underneath human imagination and above the inky, off-colour pools of time. Edith brought a lawn chair for a stool; Iris, a human tombstone.
“You’re slow,” she said.
Edith struggled through the laborious process of putting her chair up the wrong way round. “Well, Samson always has trouble with the can-opener, poor love, and I didn’t want to leave him crying. I don’t know how you can bear the sound, Iris – it’s the saddest little noise, like a baby left alone in its crib.”
Iris shrugged. One finger toyed idly with the immortal remains of a Dr. George Beckett.
“Anyways! What’s all the fuss about now?”
“The end of the world.”
“Oh. Oh! That’s right! We never did check in on that now, did we?”
“We did. You said you’d handle it. And then you didn’t.”
“Oh dear,” said Edith. She clucked again. “Dear, dear, dear! Well, between Stewart’s birthday, and David’s newborn, and the music festival, and the dance classes, it must’ve completely slipped my mind! I hope it hasn’t all gone wrong too badly.”
“It’s coming in about an hour and a half.”
“Oh drat,” said Edith in a generally put-out and sorrowful way. “I’m so sorry. I made a note on the calendar and everything. Cauliflower must’ve gone and hidden it again and I never found it.”
“We’d better do something.”
“Hmm? Oh yes! But first…”
“Well, yes. Of course.”
The board was octagonal. The pieces were ephemeral. And the stakes were impossible. But somehow or another, the game kept happening every week.
The rules were as follows:

But really, if you were a good enough player, you could ignore them.
And Edith and Iris were both very, very, very good.
The session ended 2-1, Iris’s favour. As usual.
“Oh, shucks,” said Edith. “You know, I don’t know how you manage it.”
“I cheat,” said Iris. “That’s part of my job.”
“And I just said part of mine,” said Edith cheerily. “Now, what was this about the end of the world?”
Iris checked her watch, which was really more of an armed guard. There were sixty very specific seconds imprisoned in its central core keeping it one hundred percent accurate at the expense of shattering agony. “Thirty minutes.”
“Oh yes. We’d better hurry.”

The odd has layers, like an onion or a craton. Unlike those wholesome and simple objects, most of the odd’s layers underlap, overlap, and occasionally sashay through one another, like a three-level cake put through a tumble dryer made of the collective psyche of the entire planet.
So, although Edith and Iris were travelling DEEPER, in some senses they were merely travelling ALONG. But in other, more meaningful senses, they were in fact just going deeper.
Neither of them dwelt on it. Edith had plenty of nieces and nephews to tell stories about; Iris had plenty of silence and an umbrella, the latter of which came in handy when they had to pass through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“What a mess. All those poor fish.”
“They’re all going to die anyways.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But it’s still sad.”
The ocean went away and they found themselves temporarily enmeshed inside a city’s, all sprawl and soar and gleaming glass and broken concrete spanning decades of dreams crushed and hatched.
“They’re so cute when they’re babies, bless them,” said Edith fondly.
“And they never grow old.”
“Neither do butterflies or rainbows, Iris. But don’t we love them still? And besides,” she said, patting at a hallucinatory brick holding the mind, soul, and a hopes of a family of four in a small apartment, “some of them do make it.”
“Only when they dig deep. And vanish. And they don’t count anymore. You don’t count once you hide.”
“Of course you do, silly. Otherwise how can you play hide-and-go-seek?”
The city was gone and they were into the real bulk of the planet now: the dead bits. Most life and most species and most organisms are dead, and most of them are used to it by now. Ghosts and ghouls and husks and fossils tipped their heads and nodded at the two old women. The dead are not xenophobic; having crossed one border, they see all others as pointless.
Besides, anyone down here must know what they were doing.
And a little past death, and past the depths, and into the aching wide chasms measuring less than nanometres where the plates squealed over rock too melted to move, there lurked a fierce dark glow that burned without light at a temperature that could sear the sun sideways. The tiny bubbles of incinerated civilizations older than DNA floated around the two women as they took the final steps down.
“Oh dear,” said Edith.
Iris didn’t say anything, but by now she’d tugged on Dr. Richard Bowen, MD so firmly that his sense of self was becoming unspooled.
“I’ve forgotten my sunscreen.”
“There’s no sun down here.”
“True. But you know, it feels right. Oh well.”
And with that Edith squared her shoulders and trotted into the core of the planet, into nickel and iron and degrees of heat that plunged through any human scale.
Then she came out the other side, and waited a moment for Iris, whose umbrella had nearly gotten stuck.
“You need a hand, dear?”
Iris placed one shoe firmly, pulled with her legs, not her back, and freed Peabody from the farside of the Earth’s core.
“Oh, that’s lovely. And now, dear,” she said, turning to the emptiness at large that surrounded them, “what’s this all about?”

The end of the earth was neither liquid nor solid, fish nor fowl, black nor white. It had something that could’ve been called a personality, and if that personality could have used words what it would’ve said to Edith was

OUT OUT OUT OUT hungry OUT hungry OUT hungry

“Yes, yes, we know about that, love. But that core’s needed to prevent the planet from getting all stuffy and cold and then stripped dry by solar winds, sweetie. So maybe you could just keep your hands off it? I promise you, it’s not even close as tasty as it looks.”
It’s hard to read your conversation partner’s face when they don’t have one, or the ability to understand conversation. But both of them could practically feel the frustration curdling in the air.

out out FEED
hungry HUNGRY

“No,” said Iris. “Not again. You were let out last time and now there’s only one planet left to work with around here. What a waste. You ought to learn some self-control. You’re certainly old enough. And if you won’t learn from common sense, perhaps from history. Do you remember what happened last time you did this?”






With one hand, Iris detached Dr. Clarence Hughes from existence entirely. With the other, she unfurled Peabody. He glistened in her hand like wet lightning.
Then he drooped like a tired accordion as Edith patted her arm. “No, no, don’t fret now. I think I’ve got just the thing.”
Then she stuffed her hands into her pockets and began to wriggle like a caterpillar doing the hokey pokey.
After a moment’s silence, Iris helped her.
After a minute’s work, the greater and outermost of Edith’s two sweaters was detached. It hung in her arms like lead; no breeze could have moved it, no force could have stirred it.
“Here!” she said, presenting it to the end of the world. “Now, isn’t that lovely and warm?”

The trip back home was silent and unremarkable, save for a short moment’s unpleasantness with a very dead and very restless bear, which Iris took out an hour and a half of frustrations on. At last they reached their gaming-place, and there they took up their chairs and bid one another adieu.
“See you later!”
“Don’t forget to send back the cat.”
“And you tell Lyle and Howard this never would’ve happened if they’d sent us a damned Christmas card.”
“Oh dear. You know they mean well. Well, sometimes.”
Iris snorted. “And if meaning well was well enough, we’d still be married to them. Set Samson on the silly sods if you’re not up for it.”
Edith laughed, and that was goodbye enough for her.

The odd is a nice place to visit, but you never want to live there. Iris’s first act upon arriving home again was to pour herself a double scotch twice.
Her second was to give Cauliflower a good skritching.

The first thing Edith did was pour Samson a saucer of milk.
The second thing she did was forget to send him home. She knew Iris would come pick him up eventually.
The third thing she did was start work on another sweater. The poor thing went through them in about six months nowadays, and she found it best to get started on them early, so as not to disappoint it.

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