Issue 34 - 10/--/20

Mildew Spreading

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Pg 6   Instructions to Follow

I awoke in the hours before dawn from dreams of twelve dollar milkshakes and modern dancers. As I rose and donned my 100% cotton robe, an envelope fell from one of its pockets. I stooped to pick it up and broke its blank wax seal, revealing a tattered shred of parchment. Follow the breadcrumbs, it read in a careful hand.

I opened the window to let what moonlight there was into the room, but spotted no such crumbs. I continued my search through my flat into the kitchen. Out from utterly modern stainless steel countertops I opened the hand-finished pantry door and retrieved my bag of honey-wheat bread. After one last inspection of the flat, it was clear that I would have to make my own breadcrumbs in order to follow them.

I selected the end-piece of the loaf, the thin slice that is all crust on one side, trying in my grogginess to remember what it was called - the foot? I selected it because I never ate these, and didn't want to waste a perfectly usable slice in the event that I should return from my journey before the loaf went moldy. Tearing the foot to bits and holding the pile in my cupped hands, I threw it all overhead, letting them fall where they please. Most didn't seem to go or do anywhere or anything remotely interesting, but then one clump of crumbs disappeared down the drain of the sink, which then produced a gurgle and a sort of burp.

I leaned over the drain and found it wide enough to crawl through if one was determined. I slipped off my robe fearing it might snag and began to work my way down. The drain was cool and damp, and the slime worked me slowly downward until a luminescent green light appeared far ahead. In what felt like no time at all, I emerged from the pipe with a schlick, schlock, and pop into an undulating, dimly flashing chamber. A shadowy figure approached, and asked me to state my business.

I'd completely forgotten my business by then, but, searching, spied the glob of breadcrumbs lying beneath the figure's snakeskin-booted feet. He must have followed my gaze, for he looked himself. "I think I understand," he said. "Third this week."

He gently pulled my head back by my hair and, using a long, sharpened fingernail, slit my throat, holding me there until every ounce of blood had drained and soaked through the cracks of the stone below. He hauled my carcass over to a work table and set to task peeling my skin away, then used a sort of press to stretch, pressurize, and bind my hide into parchment. These he ripped by hand into letters before carrying them away into an adjacent chamber.

I began to feel a strange chill, and wished I had brought my robe after all. Laying there, all green and queasy, I couldn't help but feel I was missing something important.

Pg 17   Bloom

The wine runs over my tongue and wets my throat. Beneath the bite of the alcohol swims the sweetness of cherries and blooming, bloody life. It weighs heavily in my stomach and throbs in my brain. Another day, another bath, then. I submerge myself, uttering the prayer. I soak, I seep, I am separated.

The following evening's batch is much the same as always, but somehow more pure, its incestuous and cannibalistic production gradually winning out. Once more it fills me, and once more I am made whole. I close my eyes and appreciate the power, but only briefly, of course. Returning to the bath, I draw it, undress, and settle in, breaking the steaming surface. My breasts float as islands. The prayer loops and twines from my reddened tongue, and the dialysis begins anew. My head slips beneath as the exsanguination proceeds. Sensing something after a time, I open my eyes and spy a spider struggling through the murk. Reaching to remove the impurity, I stop, feeling something strange, something novel. The spider ceases to struggle, and I know that he is now a part of me, and I of him. A new idea emerges within me, though I am slow to fully comprehend it in my weakened state. We seep, we steep, we brew.

The party proceeds splendidly, though I am struggling, diluted as I am. I ensure the guests drink their fill, make idle chit-chat, make the rounds, make the proper impressions, and ensure the guests drink even more than their fill. The specialty wine is met with many strange expressions on many surprised faces and polite inquiries are raised concerning its origin. I don't remember what I answer. It doesn't matter. In this dress, I had the attention of the men from the beginning, but now that attention is changing, and the women sense it, too. They may not yet realize it, but they are becoming aware of me, and, even moreso, I of them. At evening's end they leave, but they are not themselves, in every sense of the phrase. I go with each of my vessels into the night, spreading farther and farther afield.

I feel this, sinking once more into the bath. Though I'd spread myself thinner than ever before, I already feel unprecedented strength returning, and new life, new sensation, new knowledge along with it. I cannot name the power that binds us, but I begin to understand it, feeling it from the inside out. But where to go from here? I consider the drain, held ever shut by the latch at the foot of the bath, separating me from the pipe, the tank, the plant, the water system. Who can say where I may end up if only I let myself out, now with new life to support me? Ah, but look at your face now as you learn of me. It shouldn't be much trouble, diluted as I currently am. Stick to white wine, perhaps, if you're a germaphobe.

Pg 97   Whole Grain Crumbs

I was still a detective then, and I'd been sent by the Prime Minister (by way of my boss's boss's boss) to detect. I hadn't been told where or what I was looking for, but I was told that I would know it when I saw it, and, all-importantly, I had been told when: November 20th, 1997.

Somewhere near Crystal Palace, I stopped to look through a map. There was one day left to go, and I had a hunch that I was in the right place, a right throb through the hunch in my back. That solved the where as well as when; all that remained was the what. I wouldn't know that until I saw it, though, so there was nothing to do but wait.

That night was blustering, wind so fast it stung my face with grass and dirt, but with big gushes of rain to wipe it clean again. It felt tidy, if arduous. All through the evening, I sat on an exposed park bench, facing north. When finally midnight struck true - it must have been midnight, because this is when the what happened, and this is when I knew that the what happened - a great, succinct pop like a cosmic toy gun sounded and the black night turned a pallid, ghostly white.

I studied it for a while with my careful detective's eye, but when I turned around to see if anyone else was watching, I found that the entirety of London was burning behind my back, swiftly and silently. Surmising that this may be the origin of the what - and still approximately the where, and by definition the when - I switched to studying it instead of the sky, until by morning it had mostly run its course.

Strolling through the ashes, most of which still glowed the same irradiated pale as the sky had been, I came across a streetlight that stood unrazed. A man stood beneath it, dressed well but understated, the sort of man you can rely on to keep the books balanced properly. He approached me and shook my hand. "Job well-done, sir," he said, and we left the remains of the city together.

Since then I have been here, living in happy retirement. This is where they told me to go, and this is where I intend to stay, unless I am called on again. I'm beginning to think I won't be though; it's been so long since I've heard any news of the Prime Minister or of parliament or of the circus. I really can't complain, though. Earlier in the year, I brought a delightful stray cat in and he has all but ended my rodent problem. Occasionally I will find a gory corpse in the bath or beneath the television, but better dead in the light than alive in the dark, I say. Really, please do stop by if you ever need anything; I've plenty of flour and sugar.

Pg 60   The Author's Note

This is a project born of good intentions. I'd been trying to write for years, starting and stopping with various projects, never finishing, always letting myself down. My best work-in-progress was a children's story; that seems so strange now.

Then, all in the course of one sickeningly warm winter day, I found new inspiration and began this collection. The initial kernel was simple enough - creativity practice, exercises in generating ideas spontaneously and prolifically, brief and numerous enough to effectively mainline stimulation to my sense of completion. Practically masturbatory.

Then came the rules: I don't remember when or why the 500-word count specification came to be, though it now feels as though it was there from the beginning. Perhaps it was some underlying compulsive disorder, or some aesthetic fascination, or perhaps a habit of using gimmicks as creative crutches. It worked, though; 500 words proved to be a perfect length, short enough to demand completion, but long enough to require one or two more twists and turns than originally conceived, forcing me to dive head-first into the stories without prior planning. Later, of course, this rule, unbreakable even now, began to be used for something else entirely. I suppose that's how all rules end up: walls that protect you, but that also have the potential to trap you, like good intentions that always end up strangling.

Most importantly, though, this all was meant to be utterly private, never to be shared, therefore freeing me of the obsessive, self-conscious perfectionism that cripples creativity.

Good things always have a grace period, a honeymoon phase, a sell-by date. I delved swiftly and greedily into these stories, and they began to take on an identity of their own - some feeling or some curious place I couldn't quite escape. They soon bled into the way I thought, even after I'd stepped away from my laptop - the display of which soon fell victim to some hardware malfunction, relegating me to my antiquated desktop computer and this knock-off word processor. Before long, I knew this would indeed be shared, spread around, granted its own life. It simply didn't want to sit still.

Grace periods - by definition - come to an end. I should have seen it coming, been more careful. I should have known there were risks. I'm sorry.

Anyway, the technical details: this non-Microsoft processor appears to count words differently, three or four per story either over or under what they were on MS Word. I stick by this count, though, even if it's different for you. I suppose that speaks to the subjective perspective of this experience. Because this isn't about you. At least it wasn't. Not at first. It wasn't until the dust began to settle that I realized I may have put you in danger. If you're reading this, though, it's too late to change anything, so you might as well read and prepare yourself. Has it already begun? Is this part of it? Again, I'm sorry.

Pg 9   Over/Under

After waking inexplicably in the present, I dress and wander through town. The sun sets. The wind chills. Passers-by wince. I am not used to this life. I am feeling very melancholy.

Quite by accident, I find myself lounging in the city cemetery with a friend and a glass of gin. As we debate the merits of differing methods for rolling sleeves, she stops and asks, "What day is it?" I answer that it is Saturday the 3rd. "What a coincidence," she says. "Would you like to hold a séance?" A what, I ask. I know what a séance is, at least in the theoretical sense, but the question has caught me off guard.

"Hold on a moment," she says, and I drain my glass as she dusts the grass off of her legs and approaches a tombstone two rows away. It protrudes from the earth at an angle, and is so old and weathered that no name or dates remain. My friend knocks on the stone ungracefully with her fist then returns to me with a casual smile. It turns out that I was mistaken about séances after all.

Before I figure out which question to begin with, black fog materializes next to us and takes the form of a human woman. "Evening," my friend says. "Hello," says the fog. "Who is this one?" I introduce myself and ask her name, unsure of séance etiquette. "My name is Karma," the fog replies. I nod, interested. "I know this might be weird for you. Any questions?" Streams of convincingly genuine blood are beginning to pool at her feet.

I tell her of how I've woken up in the present, and inquire about what she can tell me about the nature of time. "What does this look like," she asks, "a fucking fable? Get that bullshit out of here. You think my name means something symbolic? My mom was a hippie, that's what it symbolizes. What else do you want to know, what lies beyond? Dirt and worms, kid, easy, and I get to pop out here every once in a while and I don't need some miserable cunt throwing metaphysics at me." I nod. "How are the Yankees doing?" the fog asks my friend.

After they've said their farewells and we've headed back through the black gates, my friend asks me politely not to embarrass her next time. Several years pass and I am struck by a car while minding my own business on a sidewalk. As the burial agreements are being made, the cemetery director informs my estranged sister that he's received a request that I be inurned elsewhere, please and thank you. "This happens form time to time," he says, and looks at my remains. "This one must have been a real sack of shit, eh?" "I wouldn't really know," my sister says. "For the best either way," he says, "he'd end up getting bullied here." After about a month, mushrooms begin to grow on my grave.

Pg 58

"What is there to do? How did we end up here?" the woman asks the man. He frowns and holds his arms out as if to say "Beats the fuck out of me," but the woman interprets this to mean "I'll hold this position so you can crucify me, if you please." I check my watch and cross my legs as she lays into him, unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse so violent she must lean forward to brace against her own force. She is unhappy to be in couple's therapy. As such, she soon levels her fury towards me, berating me for constantly checking my watch and seldom offering up much more than meaningless numbers as though counting down to something. "Is that fair?" she finishes.

"133 now, yes. Counting up, though, not down." She grimaces. "And what, pray tell, are you using our valuable time to count up to?" she asks. I prefer not to say. "I prefer not to say," I say. "But I think you may be able to figure it out. In fact, that would be preferable."

"Do you actually," she begins to say, but stops short with an expression of concerned nausea. "I feel...weaker. Spent. It's getting worse." Her eyes widen. "What does your watch say now?" I decide to indulge her. "224." I smile. "And now 229."

She stumbles slowly away, no longer focusing. Her husband, bewildered, chimes in. "I don't understand. What's going on?" She doesn't respond. I don't respond. "Who the hell are you, anyway? And what the hell are we doing here?" I reply, "You might want to economize all those expletives. And so many questions; I'll help you out and only answer one. Which would you like?" "Darling," the woman whispers, still not looking up. "Darling, stop..." "Who are you?" the man persists. I look at her, not him. "Call me 'the armchair slasher,' perhaps," I say and check my watch. "332."

The man seems slowly to comprehend the game being played and his role in the proceedings, and he never utters another word. The woman, meanwhile, becomes frantic, tracking around the walls of the room like a caged animal looking for some sort of escape. There is no door to be found, unfortunately for her. "It's quite useless," I say calmingly. "Go wild or sit hardly breathing, you're always doing something worth describing." I flip my pen through my fingers. "There is one logical action you might take. It won't work. But you might try it all the same. 431."

She turns from where she's been clawing rabidly at the drywall, pulling away chunks, and stares at me, her wild eyes settling on my thin, black pen, scratching away. "The pen," she says to the man, though he is lost, "we have to get his pen. Break it!" She stalks towards me, but, unfortunately for her, I'm finishing with a flourish what is to be her final line. "498," I say.

Pg 62

The man is waiting at the top of the stairs, heaving. "140," I say, waving the door open. With a whimper, he rushes in and surveys the room. The room is bare. Sun from the open window reveals only a thin coffin, standing tall and black against the far wall. The man turns to me. "You said she would be here!" He hasn't the energy left to be angry, and I wonder if I've driven him too hard too fast. "You said I could save her from being alone!" "And I would never lie to you," I answer, gesturing to the coffin. He comprehends it for the first time and sinks to his knees. "Go on," I console him, leaning close to study each tear as it wells and drops, "over halfway." He looks into my cold eyes. "You're a psychopath," he blubbers. I smile. "Then you wouldn't want to disappoint me, would you?"

Before long, he's up and laying a shaking hand gingerly on the lid of the casket. Do I hear footsteps coming up the stairs? He's crying again as he attempts to pry the lid off, but it sticks, and before he can manage it the intruders arrive. "Sorry to interrupt," a man in a dark suit says to me. Behind him are two nearly identical copies. This was unexpected. "This is turning out to be a dull one anyway," I say. We watch as the man rips the coffin open, falling back and splitting his head open on the floor with crunch. "And premature," I begin to say, but stop as I perceive the contents of the coffin: a man made of bone, but not in the form of a skeleton; rather, as though someone had made a cast of a full human body and filled it out with solid bone. Living eyes set upon me with a twinkle. "Also unexpected."

I return my attention to the men. "Who are you?" I ask. "We know what you are," the one in front says coolly. We think you might be able to help us. Meet us here tomorrow." They turn to leave. "This place won't exist tomorrow," I say. "It didn't exist yesterday," he calls back without turning.


Pg 41   A Brush with Death

The Maid wasn't necessarily a friendly ghost, having never spoken, but she was at least helpful. Family even, Leda felt.

School had come to an end, and summer meant a stay at the old family cabin, just her and Eliza. Leda had brought her daughter to her childhood home every year since she was two. At so young an age, she did not know to be afraid of The Maid, but now, at a precocious seven years, Eliza began to ask questions. "The Maid is real even though I can't see her?" she asked. "Yes," answered Leda, smiling at her bedside. "Like God?" asked Eliza. "I suppose so, yes," said Leda. Eliza coughed, still in the throes of a sinus infection which Leda hoped would be cured by the sunny vacation. "Watch," she said, holding a spiny hairbrush aloft. Sure enough, it rose from her hand and began to run itself through her hair with the care of a mother's gentle touch. Leda closed her eyes and was herself, for a moment, seven years old again.

Eliza squealed and concealed a grin with the knit blanket resting over her like a shroud. Suddenly she gave a cry, her excitement cut short by the pain of her infection. Leda stopped the brush and leaned over the child, softly shushing her and running soothing fingers through her hair. Eliza coughed curtly, her eyes clamped shut. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," said Leda, bringing out the digging tool and a tissue. She leaned and inserted the bent wire loop into Eliza's ear. Carefully, it probed and scraped until the swollen ear was clear of the wax, fluids, and debris that the infection incurred, and Leda turned to clearing her nose, calming her all the while. "When I was a girl," she said, "I let The Maid groom me as much as my mother. Maybe more! Every night she brushed me, and every day she would apply my make-up before school, once I was old enough to wear it. I would lay out all the containers and pads and brushes on the bed, then sit here and read or watch the birds outside or talk to her as she went to work. And she was good, too! I was the homecoming queen many years ago, if you can believe it. My friends used to try endlessly to get beauty tips out of me, but I doubt they'd've believed me if I'd told them." Eliza had fallen asleep smiling. Leda kissed her, said goodnight to the room, and retired to her own bed.

That night she awoke abruptly, as though a brief sound had burst the bubble of her dreams. She rose to use the bathroom and check on Eliza. By the nightlight's glow she found her daughter's face mangled, unrecognizable, the cleaning tool protruding from deep inside her ear and her sinuses ripped out over the bloodied sheets. Horror paralyzed her. The brush rose and began to run gently through her hair.

Pg 112   Wild Is the Wind

When my parents informed me that we would, the three of us, be taking a luxurious vacation to the other side of the world, I replied that I was thirty-nine, and could not run off from my life at the drop of a hat. The latter half of this statement was profoundly false, and yet anyone for whom it was true would believe it to be true for most people, and thus it should have afforded me proper pretense and excuse. Then, though, they informed me of my father's heart condition and said he didn't have long, and so I gave in. He died two weeks before the vacation, but my mother insisted I go on alone regardless. This is how I found myself in a small, winged tube thousands of feet above the ocean.

When the plane crashed, there was more confusion than fear in my branch of economy. The plane hadn't dropped, the wings appeared intact, and nobody seemed dead or injured. We had simply stopped, abruptly enough, though, that my neighbor's drink had spilled on me. The pilots opened the front door and escorted us outside onto the cloud we'd become stuck in. It felt like walking over thick snow. Breathing was difficult, but safe as long as we didn't exert ourselves, they said.

The fifty-or-so passengers quickly spread and divided into groups. Some elected a leader peacefully, others through violence. Many were thrown off of the clouds to their deaths and their baggage claimed. The only resources to battle over resided on the plane, and this is where the inter-group conflict took place. After much bloodshed, I was one of a dozen or so survivors.

After a few uneventful hours, a spotlight lowered from the sky above, and two angels descended with clipboards. They took down our names and personal information. When this was done, we inquired about the nature of their visit to our cloud. The angels said that air crashes such as this were prime recruiting opportunities, though there are usually far more than necessary, and they often must organize battles to the death in order to determine the best fits for the job. When one of our number informs them that this has already come to pass organically, the lead angel nods, mildly pleased.

That is how I received my pair of wings, new title, and a new office job all in one afternoon. My job is to help organize the right air passengers onto the right flights in order to "maximize recruitment synergy," or so I'm told. I think I'd much rather have received the role of swordsman, or night-visitor, or, if a desk job is unavoidable, advertising. It's true there are no wages, but room and board are provided in the catacombs far beneath LAX. All in all, I can't complain. There is talk of expanding soon. I've been trying to get a performance review with the boss for weeks; sometimes it feels rather isolated down here.

Pg 63

I've never returned to a place of my own making. I worry it will be impossible, or perhaps over-taxing, but then I am there, standing in the pool of blood that hasn't yet soaked through the unfinished wooden floor. The man's body is gone, and the casket is, probably for the best, closed tight once more. The light has changed, cold and dead against the window, the street outside devoid of movement or noise. Degradation?

Soon, the three men return. "86," I say. "Or perhaps you're aware." The leader's face reveals nothing. "More or less," he says. "How did you find me?" I ask. "How do you know about me at all?" I begin to pace aside, tracking bloody footprints. He smiles, watching them. "You leave traces. The smell of gunpowder after the weapon's been disposed of; the candle-wax not yet dried; cosmic sheets left wrinkled after a romp. You think you operate in a void - true, but only to a certain extent." I find myself before the coffin, staring into my polished reflection. "Even if I believed that," I say to it, "I don't know who you are." "Oh, you do." He raises a silver badge with some government-looking insignia or another. "I guess it doesn't matter." I face them. "You're the ones who want something from me. And you're the ones who've managed to find me. So, I suppose you've earned my attention." I check my watch. "245."

He laughs, amused. "500 words. In, out; here, then gone; how did that start?" "I thought you knew about me." "Enough. Not everything." He turns and nods to the two behind him, who then leave down the stairs. "All this power, all this control - and you use it to, what, torment people? No reason other than pleasure?" "I thought you knew about me." He smiles again. "I suppose we've worked with stranger than textbook psychopaths." Such a boring word. "But you are not textbook, and here we are." "335." "Of course. We're here because we can be of mutual benefit to one another. A symbiotic relationship." "So what can you do for me?" I ask. "And if your answer boils down to 'by not interfering or harming you,' then that's not symbiotic. That's blackmail." "And you say you don't know us." He smiles and begins to pace as well. "But we haven't come to that yet, have we? I had hoped curiosity would be enough for you. It must get tedious."

He looks expectant. "What, 400?" "423." A curt nod. "But think. I believe you must have an idea of what we're asking, and so you must see that you'll still be pursuing your favorite little hobby. Kick your feet up. Let someone bring the flies into your web for you." He exits, calling back, "Tomorrow - somewhere private. We'll find you."

"Tomorrow." He seems to understand so little. And yet. I depart, uninterested in witnessing the resolution of this overused place.

The coffin remains.

Pg 66

He's pissed himself. I take a break. "So how does it usually go?" asks the man in the suit, who I've learned is called Chanterel. "As the sand flows through the hourglass. Do they gradually weaken and go out with a sigh? Or build to a grand crescendo?" "It varies." "Does he even know what this is?" "Not yet. No need." "And yet we haven't learned anything." I look at him. "You want torment?" He nods.

I return to the whimpering mess, tied to a chair, eyes darting. "I don't remember who you are," he says, voice cracking. That's alright. His wife is here, now, all wrapped up in another man. He begins to stammer, mouth agape, but no words come, only tears and confusion. This isn't the main course - just an appetizer. The opposite of anesthesia before a surgery. I can feel Chanterel's eyes on my back. After he's fallen despondent, I snap him back again with a beam of light, an abduction into a flying saucer - trite, but understandable even in his state. A grotesque creature appears over him, looking like a reptilian burn-victim but creaking out understandable English: "What is coming?" The man squirms, but sets his jaw. "What have you planned?" The man screams as a probing needle breaks his skin and finds his kidney, releasing the toothed tether that begins to work its way through to the ureter, simulating an endless parade of kidney stones tearing through his system. It stops just before he passes out, spasming and sweating.

I place my face inches away from his, breathing in his terror. "Well?" "Bomb," he stammers, "two...weeks." He vomits and I pull away. "Where?" He gets out some European address that I don't bother to remember; that's Chanterel's problem. "Kill me," he whispers. "Good boy," I say. "I will. But not before I explain to you what..." The man seizes and looks past me in horror. Turning, I find my alien has turned into...the man made of bone, the same from the coffin. He leans in close, squinting as the man finishes dying of shock, before straightening to face me, his eyes piercing and brazen against their shell. With a wink, he turns to dust and falls away.

More than curious. "That your calling card or something?" Chanterel is asking. "Apparently." The dust blows over my shoes. "Well it works. I told you we'd learn something." "You don't know that was true. The man was born of my mind, and I'm no terrorist. So to speak." "It's true. You're tapped into things more than you know. You expose yourself. You create these...characters. These characters are born of pure zeitgeist, like mildew spreading." "And you're not 'tapped in?'" "Well yes, but this?" He looks around. "I play golf on the weekend."

As he exits, I kneel and take a scoop of the remaining dust in my hand. It drifts through the air, casting shadows.

Pg 119   Airport Law

They say a liar won't trust anyone else. Similarly, one who listlessly observes others always feels watched themselves. I, for one, want something from everyone I meet, be it validation, attraction, favours, leverage, or discounts at the car wash - the usual suspects. As the pattern goes, I should assume that everyone I meet wants something from me as well, and I do believe this. It was in fact true - up until now.

She's still smiling. The airport foot-traffic squeezes around us and this bitch - she just won't stop. Not one to let lifelong streaks go undefended, I don't either. Her eyes gleam, her smile effortless, perfect. Usually in cases like this, there are loopholes wherein supposedly altruistic acts are done in order to feel the resulting dopamine rush of selflessness, or the satisfaction of leading a life which benefits others, etc. But no, I can't find it. A family with a stroller passes, and the baby cries out, sensing the unearthly aura. Selflessness drips from the woman's pores.

It would seem that we've reached an impasse, though now a thought crosses my mind. It's the only possibility, so I decide to brute-force it. I drop my bag, lean in very, very close, and stare into her eyes, the smell of peppermint rising between us. I whisper into her ear. She begins to realize she is found out as reality warps around us, perverted and bent by the gravity of our profane existence. Called to attention, the threads of life, nature, and the universe race to exorcise the cyst in their collective membrane. Time flickers past us, which, at an airport, doesn't mean much, actually. Our scene is frozen, ourselves isolated in cosmic quarantine until balance is regained. I come to the conclusion that she bore no intelligence of her own in the first place, as beneath the brilliant gleam, her eyes are deep and empty pools. Severed from her unholy connection, her previously picturesque profile begins to twitch and then to stretch, pulling backwards over itself. Her tongue juts aggressively outwards, then another, then a third, until six tongues reach out to fill each orifice on her head. Melting in on itself in such a manner, she continues until no trace remains except for a bubbling brown pool. The singed air smells of rotten teeth.

I snap back into real time, a few minutes older than I was mere milliseconds before. I'll have to put in a request to get that reimbursed. My shoes are slightly stained, now, but I find my way onto the plane, happy to have gotten to the bottom of yet another saint.

Pg 125   Accidents

The plane crashes, naturally. It's not bad though. A few limbs are tossed here and there, but I've been put in the correct seat, as ever, and am unharmed. I find my bag, slightly damaged and which I'll have to request a reimbursement for, and find my way out, hopping off the severed tail-end to the asphalt a dozen feet below. Before the emergency vehicles arrive, I am taken underground by a hidden lift. That's the plan, at least. The plane wrecked several yards off-target, coming to a sizzling rest atop the lift entrance. This puzzles me. I would think quickly to find an escape or an excuse that wouldn't compromise my employers if I cared more about this job, but I really don't. The fire and rescue crew are shocked to find me, doubly so after inspecting the rest of the scene.

Under the interrogation-room light I don't hide anything. I haven't done anything illegal, so far as someone with my rank and job title would be informed. I'm the inconvenienced party here. They ask about the ones who dwell below, always watching, always seeking to recruit. I tell them of their need for the utmost precision and control when it comes to what wrecks, how, when, where, and who survives, who doesn't, and how. I tell them of my role as tester, a sort of crash-test passenger, the liberally reassured guinea pig that helps confirm specific seats survive unharmed when wished. I pause here, noticing that they seem bewildered and, yet again, amazed. Well, it's not all excitement and dental benefits, I tell them. No, things go terribly wrong. Once, a wreck didn't happen at all and I found myself spending a weekend in Pittsburgh. I've seen some horrendous stuff because of this job, that's for sure. That's why I'm looking to get out, and this may just be my opportunity. Why? asks the questioner, barely following. Well, I say, these guys rely on secrecy, so now that I've let the cat out of the bag, things will probably go south in a hurry and I won't have a job to return to.

In the end, they let me go because, despite the pervading dread I seem to have unleashed upon their fragile souls, they don't know what else to do with me. Night is falling. I decide to catch a cab back to my apartment, slightly saddened about leaving my jacket in the underground facilities. I have friends there, even a girlfriend and a pet rat. I suppose I'll never see them again. Oh well. Like I said, I'm over this job.

Pg 70

"Too fast," I hear, "you're killing him." I look at the captive who's lost a significant portion of his entrails. The fifth in as many days. Growing dull. I lean in close, brush my hand over the man's cheek as he looks into my eyes, and then, "Spontaneously," his head explodes in a grand burst. Chanterel curses and spins me around. "That was a good one and you wasted it," he snarls. I shake my watch. "80." He's furious. "Another. Now. Or else it may be time to re-visit the terms of our deal." "Excuse me?" He throws his clipboard. "We missed one. San Francisco, yesterday. 40 dead." "'Or else,'" I repeat. He falls into a chair in the corner and glares.

The pig has grown fat.

I pull up a chair and sit before a fresh, gagged captor, blood from the previous one dripping down my face. "Afternoon," I say. He is untouched but his eyes are wild. "I'm going to be frank with you: you're not real, at least not how you thought. I'm the Author. I created you. This is a story. I create characters because I enjoy hurting people. I count the story down to its end, you go mad over your brief existence, I watch. This way is safe and convenient. That government man found me and now uses my hobby to get characters like you to provide information about things in the real world. This is possible, he says, because I am unusually immersed in the infosphere, tapped into the zeitgeist, and so, author as I am, I create you, and you are...relevant. You know things I don't know I know." "Is this really the most efficient method?" Chanterel interrupts. "But I'm going to tell you a secret. The government man lives somewhere else. The real world. He somehow came here and somehow leaves." Silence. "So he thinks. Oh, but that's not it at all." There is a door in the rear of the interrogation room behind Chanterel. "What are you doing?" he asks, slowly standing. "It's nice when characters have a bit of depth." The door swings open and knocks him to the ground. I savor the first hints of fear on his face, always so stoic. "Are you going to leave now?" I gesture to the door. "389."

He backs through it as I follow. "I don't believe you," he stammers. "I'd stop talking. I don't think I'll be seeing you again." The world opens up into a vast maze of dark trees which he races through. "Do you believe in God?" I call. "Even if he exists, you weren't made by him, and you will never meet him. The stars you've seen, the air you've breathed, the water you've drunk is ink on paper from trees you've never touched, and your soul would be melting away, now, if you had one." He's collapsed. "So? Tell me: gradual weakening, or crescendo?" 494. "My regards to the void."

Pg 76   Friendship Lake

After the workweek, I head into the woods to get away from things and unwind. It's snowing tonight, spreading the clouded moon over the leaf-strewn ground. There has been death in this place, but I have no interest in searching out its remnants.

A bird joins me, brazen red popping from one tree-branch to the next as I pass beneath, watching me quizzically. I follow as it proceeds ahead, and soon come to the shore of a great, black lake, half-frozen and still. A boat sits half-run-up. I gaze out at the water and the far shore before pushing it in and climbing aboard, using the oar to guide me straight out. No breeze stirs, and only the boat sends ripples sliding over the blank surface, beneath which cold fish and other unseen things churn in the deep. We stop near the center, my companion perched on the prow. Soon a ghostly green rises and spreads through the water around us, and, brighter than the moon, the spectre of a beautiful woman emerges robed in water and beholds me. "Evening, Betty," I say. Betty squints and says, surprised, "I thought you were never coming back!" "Habits change," I say. "You look well." She blushes. "Easy enough to manage when..." she stops, alerted, and seems to tense and emit, like a cat, a low growl. With blackened eyes she disappears below the water. The bird has gone as well, and all is deathly silent.

A man walks on the far shore, hidden in shadow. His gait is long and slow and gives me pause. He disappears sidelong into the treeline and I hasten to row back from whence I came. I check my watch, look around, and curse; so much still to go. As I finally reach the shore and step out, a stick cracks somewhere in the unseen woods. I am safe here. I am in control. There is no need to fret, nothing to fear. And yet. Realism can be a double-edged sword. Further into the trees, the moon is all but blotted out. The air has grown humid. I come across a small clearing. Sickly white moss or mold covers the tree-trunks, and before I can continue much further, it spreads and forms together like a web of disease, barring my passage. A slow footfall sounds behind me and comes to a stop. Through the thickening haze I behold the boneman.

"Miss me?" He seems to smile, despite lacking a mouth. "I don't understand," I say. "That thread was finished. I didn't understand you then either. What are you? Why are you following me?" His presence is profoundly alien, and my gut is turned beneath his prolonged gaze. I stumble back, breaking up webs which envelop the air with their haze. He advances. "I'm leaving," I say. "Don't follow." His eyes shine. "Where's the fun in that?" His slender arm raises and grasps my shoulder. "Don't look away," he says, and the world punches

Pg 77

into my gut and out again, tearing us from one story into another. He releases me and I fall on my back, head swirling. I've never made such a direct connection, not without exiting first, and not so quickly. And I've certainly never taken passengers. The boneman looms overhead, gaunt, stoic and menacing. "I'm glad I could get your attention," he rumbles. The room around us is blank, unplanned and unfilled, pervaded with a deathly green glow while foreign energies flow behind the walls. "You created me so long ago," he says, "I was beginning to worry you were never going to address me." "No," I say. "I didn't conceive you. I never wrote you into being. You just...showed up."

"Have you ever had an idea you didn't understand?" he asks. "Have you ever - I believe you call it - meditated? Watched as thoughts unbidden are born and die, passing like clouds across a mountain peak? Did you create them? Or did they arise independently, products of the rolling depths of your psyche, not its feeble control room, bobbing on its surface like a fishing boat?" I study the room from the ground but there are no exits in any surface, and I can't concentrate enough to... He stares. "You're slower than I'd come to expect - Mr. Extraordinarily Connected, Mr. Breathe-Life-Into-Stories - yet you fail to see part of your own mind even if it strikes you in the face." With that he lashes an arm, hard and cold as ice, into my eye, and my head is on the floor once again, my vision blurring. "You never thought a man like you might have some sort of baggage or trauma down here? You never thought that this little hobby of yours might be walking defenceless into the monster's lair? No, it's playtime. No, you're the swarthy villain of your own fantasy land." His foot hammers down, fracturing my shin. Oh shit.

My watch is spinning at 5836, then 3338. His next kick finds my ribs and I can't crawl away any longer. "352, dear," he says. "What happens at 500 this time? You've never been hurt down here, have you? Does it carry over? Is it real? You might even be starting to wonder, what happens if you die down here?" An ancient TV switches on across the room, spitting static over an old black and white program. An old host watches me, reciting: I pray that I may live to fish until my dying day... The boneman kneels, crushing my chest. And when it comes to my last cast, I then most humbly pray... His eyes burn amber as he raises a clawed finger to my eye. When in the Lord's great landing net and peacefully asleep... It slowly pierces my eye, stopping only at my skull. That in his mercy I be judged big enough to keep. I scream, and I do not cease to scream.

Pg 78

When I come to, the room is unchanged: TV hissing, knee crushing, walls empty. I can see. Leg intact. His eyes alight. "So you get to start each chapter fresh," he says. "How fortunate." "What are you?" I ask, stopping to cough, expecting blood but seeing none. "Forget that - what do you want?" He lifts off of me and stands, tracing a finger thoughtfully over the decrepit wall. "Ideas are funny," he says. "Sometimes they pass, not seeming to touch anything; but sometimes they linger, and sometimes they collect, growing, like mildew spreading over anywhere it can gain a foothold." There is a wicked delight in his eyes. "Do you feel infected?"

I rise and stagger over to the TV, the only object in the room. The same host is mumbling behind rolling static, but it won't switch off. "Think carefully. Any changes over the last year or so? Quiet at first, tickling your soul, until it's sweating through your pores? Ah, that's it. What do you refer to me as? If you ever talked about me, which I doubt. Your vengeance? Your perversion? Your blood-lust? Your psychopathy? Such the boring term." Some form of manifestation then.

The TV focuses on an old movie in which a pair of woodsmen are surrounded in their camp by wolves. One brandishes a torch, shouting, Fight them with fire! Keep the devils at bay! I say to the boneman, "Then you're part of me; why attack your host?" "Eat yourself away from the inside, you mean?" he says. "That shouldn't be so unimaginable for a writer. It's cliche, even." "How does this end?" "What do you do with inner demons? Exorcise them, of course." He begins to turn to dust once again, clouding in the static from the feet up. "Do be ready though. We take after each other so - and we love to play a good game with our prey." He fades away, leaving me imprisoned with the TV. with...

Pg 12   Praetergeist, Scales, and You

It's not that I have any particular dislike for dancing; it would be more accurate to say there never seems to be a proper occasion for it. Flailing your limbs and grabbing around in the air is what it is, but would I go and do that alone in my living room? No. Weddings are far rarer than people think. Clubs aren't what they used to be. So, in a way, I take dancing more seriously than anyone. And why not take it seriously? A thing should be taken seriously if it is serious, and a thing is serious if it has serious consequences.

There are profane facts which lie dormant and forgotten, an atmosphere-layer beyond the zeitgeist, dipping and swirling into it here and there periodically, its source unknown to us, seemingly appearing out of nowhere and perhaps disappearing just as enigmatically. Books no longer contain this information, or if they do, then we no longer contain these books. One night, two years ago, I was walking home from my clerk job at the video store when I was struck in the back by a splinter of this praetergeist. It first took physical form somewhere over Nashville before finding me all the way in Toronto, sparking and cold.

The wound closed quickly, but in the weeks following, I began to notice a sort of bubbling in my veins, traveling from the wound, eventually reaching my brain one warm Friday.

When my coworkers asked me to join them for a night out, I was reticent for many obvious and many non-obvious reasons. I don't know why I obliged. Perhaps I was lonely. Bored. Horny. The new girl I'd done my best to avoid would be there, after all. But that wasn't it. Perhaps, as the tumor pressing on my instincts grew, I in turn grew weary of it, and the risks inherent in ignoring what I'd learned seemed lesser while the upside of continuing life safe from risk seemed increasingly pointless. Time had slowed, or perhaps sped up, and become about quality more than quantity. I was curious, if nothing else.

The scales had evened, if not tipped, and there I was, swaying back and forth on an un-ironic disco floor, the tiles underfoot alternating between neon pastels. The music pulsed, everything about it utterly, stereotypically 70's. Only her and myself remained, the rest of our friends lost elsewhere in the maelstrom of bodies. She was heat itself, sweat on a stringy blonde brow. Heat poured from everyone, steaming, collecting in streaks and clouds of violet and crimson that perhaps only I could detect. As the conjunction of souls continued to compress and spark, her face, the only one I focused on, became blank amidst the thrashing. Yellow bloomed in her eyes, and her skin began to ripple and harden. I noticed all at once that I'd grown rough scales to match. The channels were opening, excited. The foreign consciousness pressed into my decaying mind.

Pg 99   Bennigan's

I arrive around midnight, as far as I can tell from the moonless night. I'm soaked through with rain, but now that my walk is over, the storm begins to subside. I approach from the back road and find a doorman at the unmarked entrance. A few small groups loiter, but there is no line. The doorman, ever stoic, raises a thoroughly ringed hand. "ID." I show it. "Business?" "Just visiting." "Business?" he repeats. "Back-room still open?" "Not sure. You're free to check. Been through before?" "Not really." He studies me a moment longer before stepping aside and nudging the door open.

The pub is busy enough, bustling with diverse patrons, at the bar, in antique booths, animated and noisy, hunched over, coming, going. A deal on pitchers tonight, apparently. I slide through to the far side of the bar where a swinging door connects to the kitchen. Back against it, I give one last look to the simple invitations scrawled in yellow chalk before backing through. The kitchen is equally bustling, though less raucous. A pair of scruffy cooks pass on autopilot from item to item while a teenager wrinkles his hands scrubbing away in the sink. I get a dirty look or two as I navigate through the shelves to an unmarked door in the rear. I slide it open and enter. The four old men in antique armchairs sit in a circle nursing cigars, passing folders back and forth with wrinkled discussion. They look up as I enter but take no interest as I hug the wall to the other side of the hazy room. Through the door I step into a dim room of neon and music. A few men huddle around the stage as the dancer spirals around the pole, pouring this way and that, watching every step I take. An empty chair crowds the walkway and I have to shove it aside to get past. Another door swings open in the far wall, inside of which a modest crowd of shouting, sweating men surrounds a pair of boxers, pushing and shoving as they collide and flail, slinging blood this way and that. It's a frustrating trudge, but I've soon pushed my way through. In the room behind the fighters, mostly empty, a bowed chair resides near the door and a long, rough rope has been tossed over a board in the ceiling. It's practically impossible to see, but, step by step, I reach the door beyond.

My daughter is inside, on the floor of the bedroom playing with tiny dolls, her messy, curly hair new but familiar. "Hello!" she says. "Are we going?" "It's stormy outside," I say, "would you rather stay here where it's cozy and safe?" "This is nothing," she says. "I'll go with you." I take her hand and we pass back through the maze of rooms until we find ourselves outside. She catches rain on her tongue. She must be cold, though. I'm not sure where to go.

Pg 86   Outside

I lived a good life for a year. There was memory of some that had come before, and some that had come before was forgotten. It was usually difficult to discern the rough proportions of this dichotomy; though I felt it was around 80% remembered, could it have been less? 50%? 10%? 1%? I suppose there's no point in dwelling on it.

I read books. I worked a simple, humble job. I loved. I took few risks. When Autumn came around, I ordered a book. I was in the mood for something horrific and season-appropriate. I've never read a book that's truly scared me, but I appreciate the various dark aesthetics and overall spirit of the enterprise. This one arrived bent and torn, filled with dust and moldy odors to the extent that its "acceptable" quality rating would allow. As I leafed through the publishing information and title pages and began to read, something curious happened. The story was unremarkable - utterly mundane - and yet I felt the language begin to affect me, as though characters and words and patterns of words and their black placement on the blank pages floated as spores to me and took subdermal root. I began to sweat and felt the beginnings of a stomach cramp. The book fell from my hands but maintained its grip on me, some pressing desire to visit the arctic circle, but that isn't what bothered me so. Through all this time, a room lay dormant in my mind, and my experience with this book didn't unlock it so much as it accidentally knocked a hole in the wall while fighting in an adjacent room, opening a line of sight into the black chill beckoning so quietly and so loudly.

Have you ever remembered a time you'd forgotten, and suddenly the history of your life feels longer? It can be satisfying, a pleasantry gained, or it can be painful and cystic, a sore on your timeline adding mass that you feel your mind can hardly contain. This was neither. Torment and terror and Tranmere came flooding back, an incomplete sketch of a torn map of my experiences from a year ago. There was the room, the falling, the dust, and through all of it the boneman. Beyond him, though - or perhaps out of him - loomed a black bubble of thought, a ribbon of truth which flashed over me again like an MRI before resting, obscure and living and menacing. Visions and memories of other lives and other events and other spheres and other realities altogether interloped within mine, all but shattering me there on my tasteful rug. As though through the carnival-mirror lense of a stroke, I watched old memories, new memories, false memories, and untethered memories flow unbidden past alike to some arcane meditation. The book turned out to be decent. The ending wasn't as thrilling as had been hinted at, but it left me eager to read the sequel. I felt compelled to end here.

Pg 144   Para Traducción

Uno pensaría que la gente notaría que la alarma de un coche se dispara cada diez minutos aproximadamente. Hay muchos autos en esta área, pero obviamente es la misma alarma. Muy específico, con muchas sirenas al alza y luego alternando sirenas de estilo europeo. Se le podría perdonar por pensar que la primera mitad fue un ruiseñor particularmente ruidoso que hizo una gran impresión de la alarma de un auto que escuchó una vez, pero luego la segunda mitad realmente hace que ese escenario sea prácticamente imposible.

Uno pensaría que la gente llamaría para quejarse, francamente, no solo para darse cuenta. Ha estado sucediendo durante la noche. Algunas personas deben vivir junto a él, manteniéndose despiertas como si fueran torturadas por ruidos. Estaría en la calle organizando un grupo para llevar el auto por la calle. ¿Que es lo peor que puede pasar? La alarma ya está sonando. A quién llamas? 911? Ya me colgaron cuando logré usar el sistema OnStar integrado para llamar y pedir ayuda. No me creyeron. Supongo que no los culpo.

No tengo control sobre mucho más. Puedo encender los limpiaparabrisas y creo que puedo encender y apagar las luces, aunque no puedo ver para confirmarlo. Sin embargo, no puedo arrancar el motor y ciertamente no sería capaz de conducir de manera eficaz si pudiera. Simplemente no ese tipo de configuración. Aunque no sé cómo van normalmente estas cosas. ¿Cómo lo harías?

Pasas por la noche y notas una puerta de coche abierta, la luz interior brilla como un foco a través de la oscuridad de la medianoche en una barra twix en el asiento del pasajero de cuero gris. No has comido en 12 horas. No hay nadie alrededor. Te acercas para agarrarlo y sientes un empujón desde atrás, y luego estás cayendo y donde deberías sentir contacto con el asiento o el tablero o algo que sigues dando vueltas hasta que te detengas, no tanto porque finalmente golpeas algo sino porque simplemente ya no estás dando vueltas, pero no puedes sentir tu cuerpo ni ver nada. Reaprendes tu sistema nervioso solo para obtener limpiaparabrisas como respuesta, y cuando finalmente logras gritar por pura fuerza de voluntad, es en forma de alarma. No es tu oso promedio.

Eso es todo. Gritando y esperando. Todavía quiero ese maldito twix.

Me hago amigo de un pequeño grupo de ardillas que han reclamado esta rama del estacionamiento como territorio de recolección. El macho, Fil, me confió que la hembra, Girg, no parejas para ser claros, solo ardillas platónicas, no distingue entre la izquierda y la derecha. Él le pedirá a ella que vaya en cierta dirección porque había una patata frita dulce, y ella irá en la dirección opuesta. Le preocupa que sea atropellada por un coche o algo más temprano que tarde. Le digo que intentaré correr la voz para conducir con cuidado por nuestro vecindario.

Pg 148   Lachrymose 

I find myself delightfully intoxicated on a weekend evening. It's mostly due to wine, a cabernet sauvignon, but also two splendid honey beers. I brought them myself, as I am the evening's host, and the guests are appreciative of my hosting efforts. Ever above and beyond, there also is self-diced garlic bread with oven-baked brioche in the middle, sliced into effortlessly rippable servings which my guests can partake of one inch at a time until the footlong morsel is finished.

The party progresses as guests exchange pleasantries and bandy about the entryway, living room and kitchen. Before long, a man who I have never met - purportedly a close friend of one of my coworkers (and who am I to pry) - takes me by the arm, face flushed, and whispers in hushed tones that he is feeling suddenly ill. I lead him to the bathroom and attempt to put him at ease, but he emerges a scant minute later looking as pale as a windswept cloud and sweating profusely. He moves to involve some further party goers in his poor gastrointestinal luck, as this is surely all it amounts to, but I catch him by the arm and prevent him from re-entering the party area. What is a host's duty if not to protect their guests from harm?

Into the backyard under a chilly moon, I aim to extricate the wrongdoer for good. Dragging him bedraggled through the yard to the drafty tool shed, I slam the swinging door firmly behind us and pause to study him. Alarmed yet befuddled, he stumbles first over to the nearest wall, holding his frail frame aloft by stitches. Gradually he sinks to the woodchip floor, drawing a trail of pale slime as he goes, his pathetic form contracting and shifting within his cheap suit. Soon all that is left is his true form: an undulating and translucent slug writhing within the trappings of a man.

I take up my pitchfork, ever ready by the door, and prod at the creature until it begins to crawl deeper into the interior of the shed. I kick the door back open and allow the moonlight to illuminate in my burgeoning night vision the sickly mass of slime and flesh heaped at the rear wall of the shed, watching studiously and responsibly as the new slug finds the pile and hesitantly but inevitably works its way into the writhing heap. Once it is clear that no aspect of these otherworldly intruders have any intention of escaping tonight, I close the door behind me and return homeward.

A scant few guests have been wondering where I got off to, but for the most part no harm has come from my deft diversion. As I make my way around the party I subtly check my hidden salt traps. None have been triggered. This is good, as I've no idea how I would explain them. I hope no one looks inside the shed, as that would be even more humiliating.

Pg 181   Faraday Cowboy

Rain cascades around us as the party winds its way through the low rocky foothills, mud beginning to stir underfoot and grab at our boots as the flash storm intensifies. The Ethiopian highlands have granted us a warm welcome up until now.

Our guides - dutiful ambassadors of the Roga tribe - wordlessly decide to break and make for the edge of the massive caldera that's been looming to our side as we wormed our way around this series of rocky twists. Doctor Fillips and I, eager to press on, watch them for a discouraged moment before following. Fillips' other assistant, Gary, sighs and brings up the rear, shouldering the heaviest pack.

We sit on the edge of the great crater-like basin next to a toppled formation of rocks which shelters us from the rain on one side. The slope before us runs for several hundred meters, flattening out in a small basin. The amount of water collected at the bottom has quadrupled since we first set eyes on it, oddly black and buffeted by the continued downpour.

Laughing, one of the three Roga guides turns to the Doctor and signs something to her. Fillips signs back. One of them stands and beckons at me to follow, then walks out into the downpour towards the edge of the crater. Doctor Fillips tells me they want to race. Is that safe? I ask. They say they do it all the time, she tells me with a shrug, and when in Rome and all that. I say that that doesn't sound like particularly academic anthropological talk. She says that she's been trying to lighten up on the weekends. It's Thursday, I say. I meant that figuratively, she says. Why can't Gary do it? I ask. Gary's more expendable than I am. Gary looks offended. Gary would lose, she says, and Gary looks offended at her. She hauls me up by the arm and gives me a shove towards the waiting guide.

He hands me one of two small logs he's found and we situate ourselves at the edge of the slope astride them and push off. We pick up speed alarmingly quickly over the slick earth, shooting downwards like droplets over glass. I'm blinded by the gusting wind and rain and have no idea whether I've won or lost, only aware of the explosion of water as I hit the pool at the base. Robbed of any directional whereabouts or sensory context, I thrash around trying to surface but feel myself being sucked downwards, the water pressure growing. Soon I'm being swept blindly through an underground river, my skin being cut to hell by rock, sure I'm moments away from drowning. Suddenly I'm spat out into a warmly lit chamber where my father is reading the paper in his recliner. He affects a pretense of being happy to see me, but in virtually no time at all is telling me he told me so about going into anthropology being a bad idea.

Pg 131   Velvet Sherbet Dreamcoat

A friend has asked me to watch her apartment and feed her cats while she goes on holiday due to a terrible disease which she has contracted. She won't tell me any details about the disease, but insists that it is truly dreadful and not to dwell on it. In the morning she drives past and flings her keys at my door without stopping, due presumably to the aforementioned mysterious malady. I put on my going out shorts for the first time in two weeks and head over to my friend's home.

It appears to be a modestly handsome apartment complex, but the entrance is gated off and I can't figure out how to trigger the opening mechanism. I park deftly and emerge hoping to progress on foot, but there doesn't seem to be any way around the system of fences. A concerned woman checking her mail asks whether I need in. I affirm that I do indeed, thank you, and she beckons me to follow her onto the median of the entry street. She stoops at the base of a small oak tree there and digs through some mulch until she pulls up a small trap door. She stands aside and gestures for me to be on my way. In the dark opening I can see a thin ladder, which I step onto and begin my descent. She closes the hatch over me as soon as my head is clear and I am engulfed in darkness and a putrid dank smell. 

After what feels like minutes of climbing I reach the bottom, a stone sewer-like tunnel with thin trickles of stagnant water running and pooling here and there, the walls lit by far-spaced dim sconces. There is only one direction to go, so I proceed, the tipping tapping of my footfall rattling chaotically through the tunnel around me. Soon the path ends at yet another ladder, so I begin upwards again and, just as my shoulders are beginning to ache from the exertion, come to the corresponding trap door which takes a terrible heave to shift open. Dirt falls into my face. I emerge and wonder if the sky, now a pale green, has changed in the short time I've been underground or if I simply hadn't noticed before. It's funny what some time away from something will make you appreciate.

From here I find my friend's apartment swiftly, drawing on instincts honed by years' work as a late-night delivery driver. The key turns smoothly in the lock and I step inside where the freshly conditioned air washes over me and a truly enormous cat leaps and snaps my neck without hesitation. It takes the beast a couple days to fully consume me, which I watch from the throw pillow which my spirit jettisoned into during the initial mutilation. Nothing much happens for the rest of the week, and all is in order when my friend arrives back home. Appearing well-rested, she thanks me for watching.

Pg 183   The Poisoned Well

We arrive at the village just after sundown. The storm has cleared up and the sky swells with deepening purples and blues. Far be it from me, a scientist, to wax poetic, but I've never seen views like this. As we proceed on the winding path up the hill to the village proper, tribespeople and children stop their busy evening activities to watch us. This curiosity is typical, but usually there is more excitement. Something in these peoples' eyes betrays a weary fear.

We are led to the top of the hill. I expect to find the air is as clear and fresh as ever up here, but it takes on a noticeably pungent, stale, perhaps even singed smell, as though lightning had struck a rotten tree. There are no broken trunks of wood, but three bodies lay slumped. The doctor checks their vitals and then signs with the leader. She tells me that these were the tribe's kuuts - comparable to shamans or monks - who meditated up here day and night but were found dead the day before. Only one remained. The deceased appeared to range from 40 to 60 or older, while a boy of no more than ten sat in Lotus staring wide-eyed ahead. He turns his head to focus first on me and then the doctor, which the leader seems surprised by. The boy begins signing with the doctor. I sit in the stony mud, my feet eager for relief.

After a couple minutes of this, I ask the doctor how the kuuts died. She says she doesn't understand what he says about that, but he seems to be going on at length about things he's been seeing or experiencing. Like what? I ask. Practically nonsense, mostly, she says, although I think the plot to Inception is in there somewhere. There's more about oceans of brine, underground caverns, bats made of fire lighting the sky, a man made of bone. I can't make sense of it.

The boy turns to look at me, doing that thing where someone looks at the spot right above your eyes so you can tell it's just slightly off, continuing to sign to the doctor. He's talking about you now, she tells me. He's telling me about the time you wet your pants in first grade, and that you didn't get into Harvard because the head of admissions hated your hair, and that you will die on January 20th but he won't say which year. Fascinating, I say. 420, she says. What? I ask. He just said four hundred twenty, she says. Why? I ask. No idea, she says.

This goes on for about an hour before the doctor and I begin to feel mildly queasy, and since we don't seem to be making much headway into our investigation, decide to retire for the night. We are led a ways back down the slope to a small hut which we are to share with several of the village's goats.

Pg 119   Verisimilitude

We arrive at the West Midlands marshes near Stafford. On one hand we seem barely off the M6, but my friends and I are enveloped in darkness and quiet soon enough to feel adequately isolated. I can't recall why we endeavored here to camp in the first place, but now that we've arrived and set up our meager bonfire and cheap tents, I find myself at ease; the briny air, foggy stars, good company, and port wine blend to create a sort of gothic kaleidoscope of quiet revelry. This area is purported to have fine birdwatching, but I scarcely expect any sightings, uncommon or otherwise, to take place tonight. Besides, I have neither binoculars nor any avian knowledge.

Late in the evening, the crescent moon high overhead and staunchly yellow, we edge closer to the fire as it has faded to a low red aura. The darkness, gently noisy with insects and toads, encroaches. Someone tells a story of how their childhood pet tortoise escaped their backyard and they had to cycle after it half a mile down the road and haul it back in a wagon, and contain it within a special fence ever after. Amidst the laughter, someone retreats to some thick brambles nearby to relieve themselves of their wine. I can't help but watch as their outline fades into the black mire before even the sound of their steps dwindle. Fog like steam off a pot of rice churns about, and over the fire I swear for a moment that a pair of red eyes are peering out of the nearby treeline.

I excuse myself as well and head towards it. Cool air fans around me as the light of the camp fades behind and the shapes of the thin, reedy trees rise all around. A rustle sounds from a nearby thicket, and I wade through them to discover a swamp monster, green and slimy and man-shaped with gills and sharp fins and the red eyes which I'd seen. We sit on a fallen mossy log and discuss what life in the marshes is like year-round. He explains that termites aren't such an issue due to the moisture, and property taxes have actually been on the decline, but ultimately the main sacrifices pertain to social life (not much is open very late.) I tell him that I've actually been contemplating a move, and that on the whole I wouldn't mind getting away from it all. Eventually he acquiesces and takes me to a hollow where he submerges me in bogwater and I emerge weeks later a fellow swamp monster, green and begilled.

I happen upon my friends around dusk. I explain that I'm quite happy here, thank you, although I could do with some food more substantial than squirrels. We part ways amicably and I return to my haunt. In the end - and again I wouldn't say I'm anything like an expert on the matter - there doesn't prove to be very good birdwatching here at all.

Pg 28   Casting Shadows

A black spider is climbing my shoulder, promising red truth and poison.

Every film I've ever loved, I held to be a little font of magic. Every book, certainly every album, invariably the artist bore some pale degree of mythos, even those insisting just the opposite. No, no, i insist, don't play coy; here is some fate at work, the scripture of a sleeting day. This artist agreed, behind the curtain though he was. That artist is a middle-aged father of two, who paints in profane alchemies and sacred fires forays into a third place between us where I am more real than where I work, legs aching and stomach complaining.

At every opportunity, I strain to escape myself. The contradiction lies deep, the cornerstone of my being. I dismissed gods many schools and homes ago, and my hands touch only the earth. I require only the real, as a rule, but this same breath I employ towards spying that which I know is not. Why do I need lies to sublimate the truth? Why do I need pretense to feel anything in epilogue? We say art is what we make it, but then it all is inherently bunk, for I know that I am nothing, a vital but unattainable ingredient, resigning anything which requires my participation to the junk heap for words that don't word good. There was never a spider on my shoulder, but it lent me something magical, didn't it? I told you a lie, and for a moment you felt as though you might've found a hint, a piece of the puzzle you've labored over all your life. Why do we demand a spring of water from the rocks? Why is the red haze in our minds more real than the black and white on the page, stained with oil where you held it open, imploring?

Are questions more important than answers? This is about escapism, this is about imagination, I suppose, is the answer. But when these result in profound, tangible change, how can they not be as real a tool as the hammer or the wheel? These spinning platestomatoss, apples, bell peppers, bananas, sweet potatoes, tofu, kale, green onion, bread, tortillas, buffalo sauce, mustard, pickles, wine, crunchy peanut butter, a replacement spatula, macaroni boxes, rice boxes, black beans, garbonzo beans, diced tomatoes with hatch green chili medium, swiss cheese, mixed cheese, crackers, soy milk, la croix, coffee, eggs, frozen stir fry vegetables, steamer bag of vegetables, butter, fake chicken, fake sausage, toothpaste, body wash, advil pm, deodorantwill not sync up, attuning to the other, and still they will not crumble. I wonder if it would not prove better to have avoided scrutinizing them in the first place, curtains drawn, hood shut. Here, then, is the spider bite.