All Was Darkness
David put out a hand for his smart phone. He found nothing but the upholstery of his overstuffed recliner. Frowning, he looked away from the television to find it, but the slab of plastic and glass was gone. A push of a button froze his show on the screen. The press of his palms against the cushion started him to his feet.
He stretched, arms crooked over his head as he twisted languidly and carefully passed gas. Middle age meant learning never to completely trust a fart. Experience had affirmed that truth more often than he would ever admit. Loose and expressed, David renewed the search.
A slow turn let his eyes pan over the entirety of the living room, revealing nothing. Hands wedged like blades between cushions accomplished as much. With rolling eyes, David lowered himself to the carpet by way of the armrest of his chair and the scarred edge of his dead father’s bequeathed coffee table, careful not to let a respectable paunch overbalance him. He smiled in passing at the rings left by decades of the old man’s coffee mugs and beer cans. To the late Mr. Duppy, senior, coasters smacked of the bourgeoise; they were not to be tolerated. Material things, like the people who owned them, were meant to age and pass in their own time.
Pressing his cheek to the carpet, stained but clean, David squinted into the spaces beneath the chair and the table. There was nothing there but shadows and dust. Rocking back on his heels and haunches, he patted the pockets of his brown sweatpants to find his phone and switch on its flashlight. A few light slaps leaving him feeling quietly stupid, David took hold of the armrest and table’s edge again and leveraged himself upward.
David chastised himself, “Come on, dufus.”
Scrunching bare toes with unconscious pleasure in the cool carpet, David reached a hand beneath a navy-blue t-shirt, faded until it resembled denim, to scratch his navel with the unashamed freedom of solitude. Turning on his heel to face the kitchen, he searched his memory; which of three junk drawers held an actual flashlight? There wasn’t a lot of ground to cover, his home a two-bedroom ranch style built in the same year as his mother was born. He opted for the closest, nonetheless. David wasn’t one to waste steps.
Funny, he thought, I don’t think I’ve actually used a flashlight in years. What’s the point when smartphones do the same thing? Crap. I hope the batteries aren’t dead. Pete’s sake, do I even have spare batteries?!
The thoughts died away when David noticed the television was turned off. He faced the screen fully, mounted on the wall like a masterpiece. Where the frozen image of a woman young enough to be his daughter, if he had bothered to have any, would have been, there was only a void of black glass. David scratched his shaggy, salt and pepper mop of hair, then rubbed at his stubble until his palm prickled.
“What the hell?” he asked, then decided he must have switched it off. Losing his phone was enough of a distraction that the error seemed plausible. He didn’t think of himself as particularly absentminded, but to err was human.
Putting the anomaly behind him, David headed into the kitchen and opened the nearest junk drawer. Silverware clattered, startling him so that he took a step backward, jerking his hand away like he’d nearly stuck it into a trap. Cautiously, he edged forward and looked over the cutlery as he repeated himself.
“What the hell?”
It wasn’t just that they were in the wrong drawer. Those weren’t his forks. Those were a stranger’s spoons. Panting with nerves, David reached out a shaking hand and closed the drawer. Closing his eyes with the first two fingers of his hand still wrapped around the little handle, he took a breath, let it out slowly, and opened the drawer again.
The contents of the drawer were as they should have been, a random collection of twist ties and lighters, paper clips and rubber bands, tape and a bottle of glue and all the other things a home needs, but do not merit a place all their own. He reached in cautiously, as though there might also be some hidden danger. When nothing out of the ordinary happened, he rummaged in earnest.
Pulling out a pen light, he flicked it on to test the batteries, “Must be tired. What time is it anyway?”
David patted his pockets reflexively. He frowned when he didn’t feel his smart phone, then rolled his eyes and felt stupid. Slipping the little flashlight into one of them, he looked toward the clock centered amid the stove’s controls; two in the morning.
He cocked his head, “That can’t be right.”
Certain he’d been enjoying a quiet afternoon in front of the television, David looked toward the dirty, bay windows of his living room. All was darkness. Automatically, reasonable thoughts sprang up to comfort him. I must have passed out without realizing it. I’ll just find the remote and go to bed. Nothing to freak out over.
Content with the lies he told himself, David walked back into the living room to resume his search. He couldn’t take his eyes off the bay windows. The closer he got to them, the harder it became to keep pretending he was looking out at the night. When he was close enough to reach out and touch the glass, the sight was too wrong for his imagination to keep up.
There was nothing out there. No lights, no cars, no buildings, no nothing. Even the tiny expanse of his front yard was gone. Beyond the glass, it was perfect, unbroken blackness.
Bizarre as it was, there was something else about the unearthly sight that tickled at the man’s mind. Not daring to get any closer to the void, David peered, eyes squinting in thought as he worked it through, then growing wide as it clicked. It wasn’t just that there was nothing outside; the absence was deeper than that. There was no reflection.
As dark as it was out there, David knew he should be able to see himself as through a mirror dimly. There was only the blackness. None of his things were reflected, either. When he waved his arms, there was no image of himself waving back.
Then, David jumped backward, a scream escaping the gravitational pull of adult decorum and male ego. Just for a moment, it seemed as though something had responded with a wave of its own. He couldn’t have said what, couldn’t be sure he’d actually seen anything at all, but he had the distinct feeling that something out there had shifted in response to his movement.
Only his heel kicking up against the baseboard stopped David’s retreat. He kept trying anyway, pressing his back against the wall like he was hanging his toes over the edge of a cliff. Suppressing a terrified sob, he thumped his fist against the drywall, then did it again. The impotent acts of aggression didn’t make him feel any better, but staying still was worse. He kept closing his eyes, only to snap them open again at once, unable to shake the thought that if he didn’t keep looking out there, he wouldn’t know it if something decided it wanted to try to get in.
Someone, he assured himself, not something.
“Probably not even a burglar,” he said aloud, “Just some punk kids playing ding dong ditch, seeing if I’m home.”
David stayed there, trying to believe his own explanation, staring out into the blackness until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to do something. It was either that, or go crazy, so he pushed off of the wall and advanced on the window. Drifting like he was in slow motion, the man raised a shaking hand and reached for the hanging chain at the side of the frame. It seemed to take days, but then his fingers wrapped around the tiny steel beads of its length and he pulled the blackout drapes closed.
The heavy fabric slid in place with a whisper like a shroud pulled over the face of the dead, and no light remained within. Alone in the darkness, David patted his pocket for his phone, then pounded his fist against his thigh, idiot instinct making him its fool. Wincing against the throbbing pain spreading over his quadricep, he felt for the pen light and switched it on.
Nothing happened. He flicked it off and on again, pushing hard with his thumb, insisting he’d just checked it. Still nothing. In a flash of rage, he cast it away and shuffled toward his best guess at a light switch.
All the while, David refused to respond to the questions his mind kept screaming. If it’s pitch dark outside and I didn’t have any lights on because I fell asleep during the day, where was the light coming from before I closed the curtains? Biting his lip to keep from admitting the riddle, he moved without lifting his feet, fearing if he went too quickly he might trip and fall. The idea of being in such a helpless pose bunched his shoulders until his neck throbbed with tension, but he didn’t let himself step farther than the blindly waving worms of his fingers could reach. At last, his fingertips, and then his palms, pressed up against cool drywall, and he slid them in a whispering caress until they met the ridge of switch’s plastic plate.
He flicked it. Nothing happened. He did it again. Still nothing.
“Crap,” he breathed, not daring to raise his voice above a whisper. Not with that presence outside. He told himself it was a blown fuse, maybe a local power outage, that monsters weren’t real, that he was alone. But what if I’m not?
David closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. He tried to push the fear back down into his gut with his will and the feel of the roots of his teeth shoving hard into his gums. Keeping a hand on the wall, he turned and headed down the short hallway toward his bedroom. The fuse box was in the other direction, through the kitchen and down the stairs into the basement, but he had had enough. Frightened into a twisted echo of boyhood, David wanted to find his bed, get under the covers, and simply wait until the bad things passed him by.
He heard his short, careful steps echo off the porcelain surfaces of the bathroom now beside him and knew that he was close. A few more shuffling paces, and he turned in place, waving his hands like a blind man in the nothingness, feeling for the open doorway of his bedroom.
He whined in pain and surprise, a fingernail bending, then lifting from his finger as his hands jammed up against a door he never kept shut. Muscle memory coming up short, he bashed a knuckle against the doorknob. Trembling, he grabbed it like a drowning man and turned.
It didn’t move. He pushed and pulled, but the fixture and its door may as well have been carved from stone. No matter how much he threw his weight into the struggle, breath hissing between his teeth, sending out flecks of spittle to patter onto his lips and the stubble of his chin, it was as though he wasn’t there at all.
David only stopped when he heard the woman screaming. He couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from, only that she was afraid. Sometimes it seemed as though it came from behind the sealed door of his bedroom. Other times her cries echoed hollow from the bathroom. Shrieks lunged down the hall from the living room. The sharp sounds lashed at him so that he shrank against the door, pressing himself against it so he wouldn’t fall to his knees.
Then it was as though the woman was directly behind him, the terrible sound of her fear piercing his ears, her breath stirring the hair on the back of his head. Screaming himself, David spun around with his forearm extended in what his reflexes meant to be a desperate clothesline. He didn’t want to hurt her. He’d never hurt anyone, but he was supposed to be alone and he wasn’t and nothing had ever left him feeling so vulnerable in his life.
His arm swept through the place where his mind screamed someone must certainly be, encountering nothing except for the hard of edge of a picture frame. He thought it might be the selfie he’d taken with his grandfather, the last one before the old man died. It wasn’t the best lighting or the right angle, but it was from when they were together. Even if it was only out of the corner of his eye as he went to take a piss, he liked to see the two of them smiling together.
It occurred to the man that he’d never hung a picture along that particular stretch of wall, and then it didn’t matter. He felt the frame topple over his fist. David lunged for it, but in the black he had no idea where it went until it crashed to the floor and invisible daggers of shattered glass leapt in every direction.
Terrified to cut his feet wide open in the dark, without anyone there to help, without a phone to call 911, David lunged backward from the unseen shards and his bedroom door thumped wide open beneath his weight. He screamed as he fell over the threshold, eyes squinting against the sudden brilliance of early morning streaming through the gossamer curtains.
Gasping, breath hitching as he began to sob, David rolled on his side and looked at the bed that wasn’t his. The light fixture on the ceiling was familiar, as were the windows and the general layout of the space, but everything inside his bedroom belonged to someone else. He put a hand on the wall and made himself stand up, eyes darting over a white dresser, its top littered with jewelry and makeup, the open closet overflowing with skirts and blouses and high waisted skinny jeans, the pink paisley comforter spread over a bed that stood a foot taller than his own.
Then, he saw the shape of a woman beneath the blankets. He followed the curve of her hip up the gentle slope to her shoulder. Soft, brown hair obscured her face. The only part of her that was visible was the ridge of an ear where it poked through the auburn tresses. David walked to the foot of the bed, drawn as if by gravity, one hand held out as if in supplication.
Who is she?! What is she doing in my house?! What’s going on?!
He wanted to take the woman by the shoulder and shake her awake so that he could ask her those things. More than that, he wanted to touch another person. He lived alone and he knew it was crazy, but he was so afraid that David couldn’t help the need to feel that he wasn’t alone in that madness. Whoever she was, even the touch of a complete stranger would be a comfort. If he frightened her, so be it. She couldn’t be more scared than he was.
David shuffled sideways along the narrow path between the bed and the wall. He held his breath as he moved toward her, as though she might vanish if he woke her too soon. He put his hand down on the blankets where her shoulder would be and they collapsed under his hand.
The man watched in horrified fascination as the comforter slumped down to the mattress. He looked up at the pillows and the brown hair was gone. He wondered if he’d imagined her, if his fear strained mind had invented another person, if only for the sake of not having to suffer alone.
“No,” he breathed, stepping away from the bed so that his back pressed against the wall. It was cool despite the bright sunlight, as if the day meant nothing to it at all. David tried to tell himself he’d never seen the woman, but he could see the concave roundness where her head had lain on the pillow.
“It’s not possible,” he announced, as if there were some unseen witness that might affirm him. When all that followed was the sound of his own panicked breaths, he lunged and threw the blanket from the bed, looking for her, “That’s impossible!”
Like the pillow, he could see how the mattress and sheets suggested someone had been there. David spun in a circle, his racing mind wondering giddily if she might have snuck past him somehow, cursing as he barked a shin against the bedframe. He toppled howling to the mattress, his weight erasing the woman’s shape from the bedsheets.
Sitting up at once, David snatched up the pillow and threw it across the room, “Where are you!”
Needing to prove something was real, that the woman had been real, the man shoved himself off the bed and crossed the bedroom in three quick steps to stand before the dresser that wasn’t his. He yanked open a drawer and grabbed at random; a handful of women’s underwear. Laughing, he threw it over his shoulder, slammed it shut, and opened the next; t-shirts.
“I knew it!” he shouted, pulling the drawer out completely and tossing it onto the bed, heedless of how it rebounded and smacked into the wall, punching a hole in the gypsum board, “I know you’re here! I know you’re real! Please, I won’t hurt you! Just come out and talk to me, okay?! I need to know what’s going on!”
David froze, certain he’d felt a sense of presence behind him. Spinning about to face the doorway, he saw a young woman standing at the threshold. He knew it was the same person who’d been in bed, under the covers. She had the same hair he’d seen draped over the pillow, but it didn’t hide her face anymore.
The woman was beautiful, but it was hard to see it through all the silent screaming. Her blue eyes were wide with horror, her mouth open so that he could see her uvula shaking with the force of her cries. She didn’t make a sound. The woman may as well have been a shadow, barefoot in little gray shorts and a white tank top.
He took a step toward her, holding out his hands with the palms up to show he meant no harm, “Please. I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry about the mess. I was just freaking out. My name is David and I’m really, really scared. Please, can you tell me what’s going on?”
He took another step, but the woman didn’t see him at all. Her eyes panned around the room, looking through him. David looked with her and saw the space was in shambles. Did I do all that?! I thought I just opened a couple drawers.
David looked down at his hands and saw his nails were ragged and bloody. Everything the woman owned was scattered and torn. There were claw marks along the walls. He walked up to one and extended his fingers. The marks fit his hands exactly. My hands are beat to hell, he thought. Why don’t they hurt?
Remembering the woman, he looked back to the doorway to find her crying without a sound. It was eerie, like someone had pressed the mute button, but his eyes lit up when he saw a phone in her hand. He took a step toward her, “Miss, please! Let me use your phone! Oh, God! I need to call the police or something! Please?!”
For no more than a moment, their eyes met and David knew that she had seen him. Elated, he smiled and took another step, but she backed up quickly until her back rammed up against the wall on the other side of the hallway. Again, there wasn’t any sound at all. The impact and her renewed screaming were so utterly quiet that David realized for all his panic and exertion, he couldn’t hear himself panting.
Then, before he could do anything else, the woman turned and ran. Crying out in fear and despair, David ran after her, but when he left the bedroom she was gone. The woman had vanished, just as she had when she’d been in bed.
Shouting wordless sobs, David started running back down the short hallway to his living room, but it wasn’t his home anymore. The carpeted floors were hardwood now. The walls were painted a complimentary gray. He dragged a hand along the wall as he ran for support and the pictures he knocked down weren’t of anyone he recognized.
“You need to stop.”
David stopped as if he’d hit a wall, but there was nothing in front of him. He thought he’d hit his head on something, but when he rubbed his ragged fingers across his forehead there was no pain. When he looked again, there was an old woman, bent with age so that she was half his height. He tried to look past her, but she fixed him with her stare so that when he tried to look anywhere else, all he could see were the blurry shapes of furniture he knew couldn’t be his.
“You need to stop,” the woman said again, her voice smooth and rich though she couldn’t have been less than eighty, “David, I know this is hard to understand, but you need to listen. You don’t live here anymore.”
“I don’t understand,” David sobbed, “I’ve lived here for years. Please, I’m so afraid. You’ve got to tell me what’s happening.”
“Come with me,” said the old woman, and the man found he had no choice but to follow. She was like gravity, drawing him along inexorably. In one hand, he saw she held a rosary of crystal beads, each of them blazing like a miniature sun. In the other, she held a silver wand, the tip crackling with electricity. He knew it was impossible, but the objects were there just the same.
She drew him down the hallway and into his living room. He looked around, but other than colors and blurry shapes, it was hidden from him. He saw a human silhouette by the windows and thought it must be the woman he’d seen before. Desperate and afraid, he tried to call to her, but suddenly the old woman was standing in front of him again.
“No,” she said, “You need to stop. This is not your home, David. You don’t live here anymore, and you must come with me.”
David tried to lunge past her, tried to throw himself away from the ancient, but she lifted the wand and he saw how the lightning at its tip extended to him. It connected with his chest and disappeared into his body, tethering him like a leash. The beads of her rosary flared when he struggled, and he understood they were like a battery that powered the wand.
Snarling in desperate anger, he lunged for the wand, but the old woman simply gave it a twirl and he screamed as the electricity burned his hands. Howling in frantic fear, he threw himself toward the rosary, but she simply offered it. He couldn’t touch it any more than he could the wand, the heat of it beating him back lest it sear his skin.
Beaten, David went limp, letting himself drop to the floor. He wouldn’t take another step until he understood what was going on. After a moment, he realized he was being dragged. No, he thought, I’m sliding! The old woman had simply started walking again, passing through the kitchen toward the front door, and he had glided along behind without any kind of friction between his body and the floor.
He screamed and thrashed, lashing out at anything that might anchor him. Mostly, his hands simply slipped away from anything they chanced on, like everything was made of ice. Now and then, he managed to hook something, but it simply toppled over and drug along for a bit until he lost his grip and it got away.
“I’m sorry for the mess,” said the old woman, “This one is confused. He doesn’t understand what’s happened. His fear gives him strength, but you must be brave, else you’ll just keep adding to it, understand?”
David realized she wasn’t speaking to him. He followed her gaze and for a moment, the silhouette by the window became distinct. It was the brunette woman. She was barefoot in black leggings and a loose t-shirt, and she was staring down at him in wide-eyed, open mouthed astonishment.
“Please,” he begged, “do something! Get her off of me! Make her let me go!”
Then, the world blurred and all at once, David was standing side by side with the crone at the threshold of his front door. He looked around, but everything was dim and indistinct; shadowed. Then, the old woman opened the front door and ushered him through, prodding at him with her wand as though he were cattle.
Outside, the darkness was absolute. He couldn’t see or hear anything, exactly, but he could sense things shifting in the blackness, watching him with hungry, sightless eyes. He whimpered, some primitive part of his mind awakening with the danger, just the way early man might have reacted to a saber-toothed tiger. He knew he had to get to shelter, and fast, or something would snap out from the void and gobble him up.
The only light left was what streamed from the front door of his home, and from the woman’s wand and rosary. Those she used as a shield, shooing him back like a pest as she pulled the door closed behind her. Then, the crone’s tools were the only thing left that he could see. David hovered by them as a moth to a flame, drawn to them though he knew if he came too close, if he touched them, that he would be destroyed.
“Please,” he begged, “just tell me what’s going on?”
The old woman only looked at him sadly. David looked around fearfully, begging, “You have to say something! You can’t just bring me out here without any explanation! Please, I’m so afraid!”
“I’m sorry, David,” the crone said at last, “but you died.”
David opened his mouth to argue, to tell her she was crazy, but the moment she said it he knew it was the truth. Instead, he huddled in close. The light of the old woman’s tools hurt, but instinct told him the things that stalked the void didn’t want to be near them either.
“When did it happen?” he asked.
“Years ago,” she answered, inclining her head toward the house, “Took me awhile after she called to look you up, but the obituaries said it was peaceful. You had a lot of alcohol in your system, and a heart defect.
“Congenital,” she added, “It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known. You weren’t an alcoholic or anything. Records said you were in okay shape, and fairly young. It was just a bad combination. Just one of those things, you know?”
“Just one of those things,” David repeated. He felt a giggle bubbling up, but kept his jaw clenched against it. He knew if he started the mad laughter, he’d never be able to stop and the void things would have him for sure. Instead, he swallowed it back and asked, “Who is she? What’s her name? What’s yours?”
The old woman shook her head at once and tsked, “No way. Names have power, David, and you were a big enough pain to exorcise as it was.”
“Exorcise,” he repeated dumbly, and looked down at his hands. They looked real, seemed solid, but he knew it was the truth.
The crone nodded, “Pretty dug in, you were. More so than most. I’d feel terrible for that poor girl if I gave you anything you could use to latch on again, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want you trying to sneak into my house. No, thank you!
“Alright,” David said, his panic drowned in sudden sorrow, “then what do I do now? What comes next?”
The old woman spread her hands, “Heck if I know! I never died before. Go toward the light, I guess.”
“What light?” he asked, “Where do I-“
The words died on his lips. The crone stopped looking at him, muttered a blessing he half-understood, and slipped her tools into a small purse. The moment she did it, the old woman vanished, and with her, all the light in David’s world.
All was darkness. The void was absolute. David tried to find his house, but when he waved his arms and took a few hesitant steps, nothing was there. Then, he felt the things in the darkness move. They were stalking, drawing slowly closer, feeling for him just as he was feeling for something to help himself.
Go toward the light, she’d said. David looked all around, peering in every direction; nothingness. Utterly lost, he whimpered before he fled, the void things drawing ever nearer, “But there isn’t any…”
by Chris Rathburn
The old woman smiled as the doctor described her cancer. She let him hold her hand while he did it, let him feel secure that, for now, he was the messenger of death and not the recipient he would one day be. If not a malignancy of his own, then something else would drag him to his grave. As smart as he might be, he was not strong enough for anything else. The doctor was nothing like the old woman.
Metastasized. She liked the sound of the word. She realized there were no more words coming. The doctor had stopped talking. She couldn’t remember his name. She had known too many doctors.
The old woman blinked and made her eyes focus on his face, silently cursing the effort it took to straighten up in her chair, “I’m sorry, young man. I must have drifted away for a moment there. Please, go on.”
“That’s alright,” he told her, and she could see that he meant it. She also saw the darting, furtive glances he kept sending toward his wristwatch. The doctor had pronounced what he believed was her death sentence and he had many miles to go before he slept, dozens of other people on his schedule who needed to be told whether they would live, or else, how they would die.
The old woman didn’t mind the doctor’s eagerness to be on his way. She didn’t need him or anyone like him to tell her any such thing. Their meeting was strictly for appearances. On such matters, the old woman kept her own counsel.
“I was just about finished,” the doctor went on as he let his hand fall away from hers and tucked away his electronic device into a satchel slung over the back of his chair. She searched her memory for its name, a tablet, and then he asked her, “Do you have any questions for me before I go?”
The old woman smiled in a way that left the man feeling unusually disquieted. He was accustomed to death and dying, to sickness and the elderly. There was nothing out of the ordinary happening, just another geriatric getting ready to pass away, yet something about her made him want to get away as quickly as he could manage it.
As her lips twisted her smile into a question mark, he satisfied the urge by leaning back as much as he could without moving his chair, “Just one and then you can be on your way.”
The doctor rubbed his palm against his pant leg, unconsciously trying to get rid of the feel of the old woman’s thin wrist with its papery skin as she asked him, “Forgive me if you’ve already said it, but I’d like to know how long you’d guess I have left?”
He nodded, keeping his hands still by clasping them in his lap, “There’s no way to know for certain, of course…”
“Of course,” agreed the crone. She was mirthful, like she was repeating the punchline of a joke. The doctor felt he must scream, but only cleared his throat and went on.
“…but I would estimate no more than six months,” he finished, then looked at her as though she might strike him for saying it. The old woman didn’t move an inch, but only smiled at him again as she nodded in understanding. The doctor was angry at himself for feeling afraid of such a frail little lady. There couldn’t have been much more than a hundred pounds left of her, probably less, but in his heart, she was a tiger poised to pounce.
“That’s what I thought you’d said,” she replied, then nodded once and waved a bony claw of a hand toward the door, “You may go. I’m sure you have people that need your services waiting. No sense wasting your talents on an old biddy like me.”
She laughed at that, but there was no warmth to it. It was more like she was mimicking something she’d heard before. It reminded the doctor of a bird call, of hunters masquerading as kin to their quarry, drawing their prey close with sounds that had no place in their mouths but to deceive.
The doctor joined in, his laughter as false as his patient’s as he put his hands on his knees and pushed himself to his feet. He slung his satchel onto his shoulder as he stepped behind his chair. With the bit of furniture between them, he felt safer. Feeling crazy for thinking it, he considered that if he had to, he could always hit her with it.
“I’ll be back later this month,” he said, “I’ll probably want to draw some blood and see how things are looking.”
The old woman sat back in her chair so she could look up at him. It had been built to last, the upholstery worn shiny smooth with decades of use. It came from a time that made more sense to her, a time when people didn’t throw things out when they could be repaired. She wondered how long she’d had it, but like her own age, it was impossible to say anything more than it was ancient in a way that seemed as though it should have broken apart long ago.
She stroked a finger over the smooth wood of its armrest, stripped of its lacquer by countless such caresses until the natural sheen was all that remained. Staring up at the doctor as though he wasn’t there at all, she decided after everything was said and done she would hire someone to refinish it. It was only a chair, one among countless others, but she’d grown accustomed to how it held her.
Besides, the thing was older than anyone she knew and to her that counted for something. More than any, she knew it took something special to hang on for so long. Without attention, it would never keep up with her in the years to come.
Faced with her silence, the doctor opened his mouth to speak. The old woman presumed he meant to politely dismiss himself and she nodded to him before he could make a sound, “That sounds just fine, doctor. I will see you then.”
The doctor faltered, then took the few quick steps he needed to get his hand on the doorknob. There was something about his patient that he didn’t understand, but he was so close to his escape that he simply told himself there was nothing unusual in that. He believed there was a universe of experiences inside of everyone, and that it was impossible for one person to ever truly, fully know another.
He reminded himself that in a moment he would close the door between them and move on to his next patient. Then, when he’d finished with them, he’d do it again and again until the day was ended. There was no solace in those thoughts. As fleeting as their last moments together were, the fear remained firmly in place. It told him, insisted, he needed to move, and that he needed to do it soon, before she gobbled him up.
Slipping across the threshold from the crone’s apartment into the wide hallways of The Manor, the familiar scents of residential nursing care eased his nerves at last. There were the smells of latex and disinfectant, of meals cooking and the ubiquitous cups of coffee that were synonymous with healthcare providers anywhere he’d ever worked. Beneath it all, there was the musty smell of the elderly.
It was the same, vaguely greasy odor he associated with his own grandparents. As a boy, he’d practically lived at their house every summer. He remembered his mother surreptitiously sniffing his laundry when he came home. He did it himself when he thought no one was looking. Like his mother, the scent of their age reminded him of being loved in that special way that could only come from years and years of practice and dedication to the art of it.
When he’d entered medical school, it became the smell of money. His average patients were old enough to tease him relentlessly for his youth. As he’d slowly sagged into the middle of his life, they’d only aged with him. No matter how old he got, he was like a child in their eyes, and most made a point of telling him as much. He didn’t mind it; the older he got, the larger the numbers describing his accounts and investments became.
“Have a good day,” he said, pulling the door closed behind him. The woman had already forgotten him, turning her back to rummage through a weathered chest of drawers. Realization struck him as he let go of the doorknob. The old woman didn’t have that smell.
Instantly, his mind spun out rationalizations, but he knew it couldn’t be from some zealous dedication to hygiene. Everyone got the scent of old age sooner or later no matter what they tried; everyone but her. The doctor gulped down the musty air like a drowning man finally breaking through the surface of the waters. Worn memories rose up in his mind, images of his long-dead grandmother’s faded, kind eyes and warm, wrinkled hands. He clutched them close in his mind’s eye, holding them in the grip of his thoughts like a talisman against some unknowable evil.
Then, before someone could ask him if he was alright, the doctor leaned forward until he had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other, or else fall. By the time he knocked on the next door down the hall, his hands had stopped shaking. Smiling and interspersing small talk with his diagnostic questions with the next patient on his list, his professional façade made up the difference as he waited for his peace of mind to return. He promised himself an extra glass of bourbon at the end of the day if it didn’t.
* * *
Dismissing the nurses after they’d helped her into her wheelchair, the old woman pawed patiently through decades of old jewelry as she hunted for the collar. Some of it was hers. Most of it she’d stolen from the other residents.
She smiled at the glittering gold, the lustrous silver, the shining gems sitting tightly in their facets. Useless sentiment aside, the old prunes gathered here to die had no use for such things. For her, they leant a sense of security. When it came to fresh starts, no one asked many questions, so long as all the answers involved such little treasures.
There it was. Her fingers knew the touch of it instantly. Ignoring a loose ring and a gold tooth as they fell from the box onto the white carpet worn beige with use, the old woman held up the collar.
It didn’t seem like much, just an old strip of engraved leather with a clasp, sized for a house cat. No one snooping would give it a second look, not with all those bijoux heaped on top of it to distract them. She smiled at the irony, imagining ignorant thieves filling their pockets with so much gleaming metal and cut stones, the greatest treasure of all laying all the while within their reach.
None but the crone alone knew its value. Many times, she’d done what had been necessary to ensure that. Three can keep a secret, she thought, running a reverent finger over the symbols etched into the smooth leather, if two of them are dead.
Tucking the treasure beneath her thigh, the old woman wheeled her way over to the old phone on her nightstand. She’d never owned a cell phone, or even a cordless landline. The weathered rotary phone had served her since the 1960’s and she had no interest in giving it up. At least, not until she was ready to move on.
Beside it lay a thick telephone book. She was aware of the internet, but again, new things were bothersome. The world had become full of glowing screens that made her old eyes squint. The weight of a tome on her lap, the feel of many pages beneath her fingertips, was a pleasure.
Patiently turning the thin sheets of paper, she soon found what she needed. Carefully, she turned the phone’s clear plastic rotor clockwise until her finger pushed up against the little groove of metal that let her know where to stop. Each time she let it go, she listened as the rotor turned back to its starting position with a series of low clicks.
Then, she waited until the ringing in her ear culminated with the sound of someone picking up. It was a woman, her voice sounding loudly in the quiet of the crone’s assisted living apartment. The crone winced and pulled the phone away slightly to dampen the raucous din of it.
“Humane Society,” said the voice. The old woman could hear the clatter of a workplace. Alongside the clamor, there was the sound of dogs and cats, all of them waiting for the chance at being placed in a good home. She had just the one the old woman needed.
“Yes,” said the crone, “I was hoping to purchase a young cat, if you have any.”
“Absolutely!” the woman answered, her voice becoming warm, even cheerful, at the prospect of freeing up valuable space, “We’re open until eight if you want to come down and have a look?”
The old woman smirked. She had seen the commercials on the television, a beautiful voice singing a poignant song as one adorable, furry face after another paraded across the screen. Places like this did their best to avoid killing their wards, but to succeed in that they relied on the good will and open doors of strangers. That meant they had to be flexible.
“Oh,” said the crone, “I’m afraid I can’t get there on my own. I live in a nursing home, you see, and these days it’s difficult for me to get around.”
“I see,” said the shelter woman. Patiently, the old woman waited while the other decided how to go on tactfully. Then, the voice said carefully, “You know, a new kitty is a big responsibility…”
“Absolutely!” agreed the old woman, “But it’s not for me, you see. The cat is actually meant to be a surprise for my great-granddaughter. I was just hoping you could bring a few of them by.”
“That’s not how we usually do things…” said the woman uncomfortably.
The crone went for sympathy the way a wolf lunges for an exposed throat, “Please, dear? I’m afraid I found out today I don’t have much time left. Cancer.”
“Oh no! That’s awful!” said the shelter woman, her resolve and reluctance dissolving in the face of a sap story.
“Yes,” replied the crone, the smile on her lips incongruent with her sad words, “and I just want my little Nicky to have something to remember her old Memaw by. Something to remember me by to ease the hurt when I’ve passed on, you understand?”
The shelter woman hesitated, but Memaw knew her resistance was finished; just another victim to the crudely effective ploy of a dying request, “I’d have to talk to my manager…”
“Oh, would you?!” the crone said at once, her words ringing with hope, but edged with sadness and worry, “Even one would be enough, if you could manage it. Just bring the paperwork with you.”
Memaw could all but hear the other woman’s frown as she asked, “When were you hoping to have someone drop by?”
“Today,” she answered firmly, then softened her tone, “I’m sorry, dear, but when you get to be my age, you don’t make any plans for tomorrow, and I’m happy to compensate you for your trouble.”
Any lingering reluctance ebbed from the shelter woman’s voice at the prospect of a bribe. In her experience, the crone had found money to be an excellent solvent of integrity, or even just plain stubbornness. Most of the time, it didn’t even take much of it. People typically thought they couldn’t be bought, but it was always a delight to find out how cheaply they could be turned in her favor.
“You know,” said the woman thoughtfully, “it’s been pretty slow around here and lately we’ve gotten more fur babies than we know what to do with.”
The crone winced at the words, but did not interrupt. Fur babies, she thought, detesting the odd, modern turn of phrase, people these days can’t tell children from animals. She pushed the thought aside as the shelter woman went on, “I’ll talk to the boss, but I think we can work something out.”
She could hear the smile in the woman’s voice as she added, “I think I’ve got a little fuzzy guy your granddaughter will absolutely love!”
“Great-granddaughter,” the crone said absently, then added before the woman could say anything more, “How soon can you get here?”
Gen’s Other Life
The soldier and the disciple looked over the battlements, watching the dusk gather while they waited for death. It was cold this far up in the Devil’s Teeth, the last tolerably cool nights of autumn falling well below lofty Fort Ouster. Though the sky was still blue, the great peaks to the west left them in deep shadows.
“It’s almost like an eclipse,” the soldier remarked.
“It is, at that,” said the disciple, squinting skyward as he pulled his red robes close about himself.
The soldier smiled, watching the man tug his skullcap as far down over the pointed tips of his ears as he could manage, then said, “It’s hard to get used to, this high up. The air’s so thin. I go up some stairs and I feel like I ran a race.”
“Does it make it hard to fight?” asked the disciple, turning to face him. Both had the protruding canines, porcine noses, and fine covering of hair that signaled their orcish ancestry. Captain Bihgs, with his bulkier, powerfully muscled frame, was decidedly more orc than human.
“Sometimes,” Bihgs admitted, “but it won’t matter. Not with her.”
“You really think the dream walker is coming?” asked the disciple, his voice mild, his smile slight.
“Well, why wouldn’t she?” said the captain, “It’s not as if Gilead can just ignore it when they stop hearing from Fort Elion. They need to eat, same as us, and they don’t have many trading options left. That port is a spoon we’ve taken from the mouths of their children.”
“You pity them?” asked the disciple, fiddling absently with a turquoise pin at his collar, eyes flicking repeatedly toward the south.
Bihgs chuffed out a laugh and fished a packet of jerky from a pouch at his waist, opposite his sword. The soldier wore the imperial military standard; plated chain mail with a long sword, and a circular wooden shield over his back. Beneath that, his repeater was slung with its barrel hanging nearly to his knee. A lime green glow eked out faintly into the gathering gloom, telltale of the aurikalt that powered the weapon. His gear was uniformly dark gray, picked out with red accents. The seal of the Empire of Shail marked his nasal helmet and shield; a sable ruler and drafting compass crossed over a red field.
“Not at all,” said the soldier, “I just know what I would do if I was her and that’s come looking. She’s no stranger to war, not anymore. It’s nothing for her to scout here at Fort Ouster before she heads that way. From there, it’s no great stretch to guess that we’re the port’s only source of reinforcement. When she finds out we’re operating under little more than a skeleton crew, then that’s it for us. It would be stupid for her to leave us at her back. After she’s cleared the bay, we’d still be left blocking one of the major passes to reach it. Gilead’s Queen will want boots on the ground both here and there after their devil is done with us to ensure her people are nourished.”
He offered the packet to the disciple before taking a piece for himself. As much like a piece of salty leather as it was, the disciple rolled his eyes in delight as the flavor of it gradually leached into his mouth. As last meals go, he thought, there’s much to be desired. Still, it’s something from home.
Following the disciple’s thoughts, Bihgs said, “The beef out here doesn’t taste right. I don’t know what they feed their cattle, but it’s not from a proper prairie.”
The other man nodded. In his mind’s eye, he could see the endless plains that comprised the heartland of Shail. Even here, at the last, his heart ached for it. Swallowing a softened lump of meaty salt, he said, “It’s mutton, mostly. They eat sheep out here, and goats.”
The soldier grunted thoughtfully in acknowledgement and the disciple added, “And you shouldn’t call her that.”
The captain asked, “What? Devil?”
Tucking away the packet, Bihgs swept his hand across the mountainscape, “Aren’t these the Devil’s Teeth, Nged? Where else would we find one?”
“She’s not a devil,” Nged insisted gently, “She’s…”
“What?” Bihgs interrupted, “You’re going to say she’s just a person? That’s a bunch of shit and you know it. In the last ten years, she’s been killed on plenty of engagements. I know your people keep track of that kind of thing. Humanizing the dream walker is just propaganda to keep the troops from shitting themselves and running when they see her. Makes more of them think they have a chance.”
Nged spread his hands, “The Path of Andomeclese favors its disciples with the knowledge of creation. It is up to us to walk the Path ourselves, and to do that we must keep our eyes open.”
Bihgs swallowed his jerky and spat over the wall, “So, you mean to tell me you really think the Path can tell us how to kill a god?”
“There are no gods,” said the disciple, tsking, his faith affronted, ”Not in the way you mean. The Path has shown us long ago the truth of that.”
“And what is it I mean?” asked the soldier, retrieving his packet to offer again. Nged still had half of his first piece, but wasn’t about to turn down a second. He plucked out a chunk of jerky and unobtrusively tucked it into a pocket hidden within his robes.
“You think that because of her power, that she is immortal,” said the disciple, “But the truth is there is nothing permanent. All things are changing. That is the way of it. All things begin and then they end, leaving only time behind them.”
“And little before us,” Bihgs said stoically, “If the dream walker can be killed, as you say, it won’t be here and we won’t be the ones to do it.”
“How do you mean?” asked the disciple, his hand unconsciously returning to his collar to roll the smooth stone pinned there between his fingers.
“It’s not just that we’re undermanned,” said the captain, “We just don’t have any weapons that will make a difference, not in the long run. If I didn’t know better, I would think the Empire has left us here like this on purpose.”
The disciple looked at the other man pointedly, but said nothing in a way that begged the soldier to say more. Dropping to a low, conspiratorial tone, Bihgs said, “Look, it’s not too far-fetched if you think about it. This battalion occupying Ouster now took the worst of it at Fort Elion. Once the bleeding was done, the Empire saw fit to reinforce them with everything they needed, yet we were left on our own with little more than a promise for aid that’s weeks old now.”
Nged shrugged and swallowed the last of his first bit of jerky, “What good is it to the Empire to lose fortresses and good men with them?”
The captain shook his head, “I just feel like a worm on a hook. She’s going to come for us and everything she finds here is going to spur her on to Fort Elion.”
The disciple tsked again, “We still have the Count of Elion as our hostage. If Gilead moves on us, dream walker or not, his life will be forfeit.”
The soldier shrugged, unconvinced. The disciple didn’t pursue the point further. Both knew no message had been sent to Gilead for the ransom of Count Mahsy Byrhon.
“Besides,” said the disciple, “To what end? To accomplish what? What is the advantage to deliberately losing two major targets to the dream walker?”
Bihgs smiled knowingly, “I think you disciples have figured something out about the dream walker. I think Elion is a trap.”
Nged beamed at that, “You think we’ve solved the dream walker!? Bihgs, I am glad to see your faith gives you confidence that the Path will lead us where we need to be. So it has been since the time of Andomeclese himself, has it not?”
“Yes, well…” said the soldier, standing awkwardly as the other man heartily clapped him on the back. Then, alarm bells sounded in the distance and he put all else aside. Following the other’s gaze, Nged peered into the darkness. Quiet at first, the screams of dying men soon threatened to drown out the brassy sound of the watchtower’s alert.
“Shit!” said the captain, “You know…”
“I know exactly where I need to be,” interrupted Nged, “I was charged with the responsibility of our hostage by the Holy Father himself. I will see myself there. Good luck to you, captain.”
Putting the disciple behind him, Bihgs rushed across the wall toward the shouts of anger and pain. As he neared, he heard the sounds of steel on steel and the crack of breaking shields. He soon joined up with a hastily assembled contingent of his infantry, but before they could enter the corner tower to make their way around, the dream walker was among them.
The first of them died instantly, the man’s armor and flesh crushed into a gory mass as she landed on top of him in a kneeling crouch. Bihgs glanced up, trying to figure out where she’d come from before it dawned on him. Shit! She really can fly?!
Like most, he’d never actually seen the dream walker before. The reality of her being actually in front of him was breathtaking. His mind struggled to make sense of her; the best approximation it had was an old memory of falling into a stream during one of his first campaigns.
It was winter, bitterly cold, and he could remember how he fought against the pull of the current and the icy drag of the water on his body as it saturated his gear. He had been certain then that he was going to die and was astonished when he hadn’t. Now, death had come again and as uncertain as that was, he knew he’d have to fight this force of nature to live.
The dream walker was decidedly female, tall and hardy, with wide hips and thick, powerful looking legs. She was covered from head to toe in scaled chainmail, the workmanship of it somehow more than perfect. She carried a rapier and buckler, the rim of the little shield buried in the helmet and skull of the dead soldier where she’d landed. Drawing it back with a wet, sucking sound, the blood and brains dripped in a steady patter as she rose smoothly. Bihgs was struck by her face as it came into view, the brown skin smooth and unlined. She’s so young! he thought, Hardly older than my own daughter.
“’Sup, bitches?!” the dream walker exclaimed, and then kicked the man closest to her in the groin. The movement was unbelievably fast. No one could have reacted quickly enough. Unable to do anything but stare in astonishment, Bihgs watched as the blow threw the soldier high into the air, blood gushing from his crotch in arterial spurts.
“Guys,” called the dream walker, extending her first two fingers from the hilt of her sword to point at her own eyes, “I’m down here.”
At that, some of the men met her gaze. She smiled cheerily at them, then drove the tip of her narrow blade into the throat of a gawking soldier, thrusting until it pierced out the back of his skull and helm and into the eye of the man behind him. With a sound like metal scraping on metal scraping on bone, she drew back her arm and casually beheaded another soldier standing behind her.
Gathering his wits, Captain Bihgs shouted, “Charge her, you fools! Charge!”
Her stance wide, rapier and buckler at her waist, the dream walker leaned forward and bellowed, “Suck my ass, motherfuckers!”
The imperial soldiers charged bravely, shouting as one as they bore down on Gilead’s champion. She cut through the nearest of them effortlessly, turning seasoned warriors into dismembered corpses with flicks of her sword too fast for the eye to follow. Ignoring his longsword, Bihgs unslung his repeater.
“Repeaters up!” he shouted, “Fire at will!”
Some of the men hesitated and Bihgs didn’t blame them. With their positioning, they were as likely to hit one of their own as the dream walker. It didn’t take long for the dullest of them to realize it didn’t matter. A lucky shot was the most likely way for any of them to come out alive, and the more shots there were, the luckier. The captain shouted in wordless rage layered over boundless terror as he pulled his trigger, filling the air with metal slugs and the green sparks of discharging aurikalt from his weapon’s battery pack.