Ben Halder struggled to turn the wheel on the submarine-style hatch overhead. It just wouldn't go. He grunted and muttered, "Goldangbrackfrakkinwhimwham!"
From below him on the ladder, a voice like a kiddie cartoon character piped up with, "Daddy, that's not a for-real bad word. I know that's just a made-up one like frizzlefrazzle."
Kylie. She didn't miss much. Hell, she didn't miss anything. That was #17 on Ben's list of Things That Get On Your Nerves During Lockdown In A Pandemic. He loved the little bugger, but goddamn, he couldn't even get some alone time crammed up a vertical tube, trying to open the portal back to the world.
"You're not supposed to be up here, kiddo. I thought you were napping," he said, looking down between his feet planted firmly on a ladder rung and seeing a tousle of tawny-colored hair and the sweet smile that always hit him right in the feels and made him give her whatever she wanted.
"Not when shit is happening, Daddy," she replied, with an enormous dollop of fake innocence and sincerity.
"Whassa matter? That's what mommy just said. Well, sort of. She said, 'Omagod, shit is gettin' real now.' Mommy's not bad, right Daddy?"
Ben sighed a deep and very familiar sigh. His dad was right. Never try to win a war of words with a five-year-old who's smarter than you are.
"Do you have your mask?" he asked her.
"All right, then. But don't come all the way up until I tell you to."
"Roger that, Cap'n."
Ben smiled and shook his head. Kylie drove him crazy at times, but she kept life...lively. Even twenty feet below the surface, in this bunker that cost most of their savings and, from the inside, looked like a giant aluminum can lying on its side.
Now here he was, in a narrower, vertical version of that metal tube, preparing to find out what may have happened long term, after a worldwide sickness nicknamed Beezy brought society to a screeching halt.
From the beginning of their confinement, with phones down, TV and internet non-existent, Grandpa Harden's old ham radio had kept them connected. But the voices out there eventually became unhinged (babbling, sobbing, occasionally laughing hysterically), the conspiracy theories more and more insane, and as time went on, turned less and less frequent until finally only static remained.
"Come on, dude, we gotta know," Ben muttered to himself as he gripped the wheel and put all of his strength into it. At last there was a rusty hinge-like screech and the metal wheel spun all the way. He shoved upward with his forearm as he stepped up onto the next rung, and finally the hatch tilted over, disappearing from view.
Above him was a circle of beautiful azure sky, so bright it made him squint. Ben couldn't take his eyes off of it. It couldn't have looked more perfect, more enticing after a year and a half of confinement. Yet he hesitated to raise his head through the opening, to see more. His wife Mara was right. It was suddenly all so real.
"Daddy, Daddy, I want to see! Your butt's in the way." There was a snicker, then a whispered, "Your big bubble butt." More snickering.
"Kiley, I told you to wait," Ben said. "And my butt's half the size it used to be, wiseguy."
Outright giggling now.
But his little daughter had broken the spell of stress and dread. Ben climbed three more rungs and stuck his head out of the opening.
The look in his slate-grey eyes was one of disbelief. His heart hammered in his chest, his mouth suddenly went dry, his mind couldn't form a cohesive sentence. He eased back down and rested his plexi-glass face shield against a ladder rung. Before ascending, he hadn't allowed himself to think about what he might feel at this moment. Utter confusion probably wouldn't have even been on that list.
The sound of Kylie's humming found its way into his consciousness. He listened for a moment, then thought, Right. It's not about me.
He went all the way up the ladder this time, and climbed out of the opening.
They were pink. Oh-so-pink.
From the brilliance of fuscia to the softness of ballet slipper pink, and all shades in between. They stretched on for miles, in all directions. There wasn't the tiniest space between them; flowers growing upon flowers, layered upon more flowers. Here and there, large rectangular shapes covered by thousands of brightly colored petals were, of course, buildings. Behind Ben, completely covered, was his family's one-story home.
"Mara," he whispered. She'd love the beauty of this, but she was stretched to the breaking point, as were their two preteen boys who were so much like her. Tentative and hopeful early on; despondent and withdrawn now. They all needed some level of normalcy.
This was not that.
Ben forced himself to stop staring and get on with things.
"Kiley...come on out," he said, leaning over the opening.
Tiny, delicate fingers with purple glitter nail polish and a unicorn bandage on one little pinky appeared along the edge of the hatch, and Ben reached down and helped his daughter the rest of the way.
Once standing on a blanket of soft petals, she said, "There's flowers, Daddy."
"Yes," he said. "Yes, there are, baby."
Flowers. Kylie's favorite thing in the world. In every direction. And pink, pink, pink, her favorite color.
Ben pulled at his mask's straps, sliding the uncomfortable contraption over his head. He took a deep breath, and tears filled his eyes.
"Sweet ambrosia," he said, softly.
"I want some," Kylie replied, with a dimpled grin. She quickly slipped out of her mask and tossed it aside. She leaned down and held two handfuls of flowers to her nose. "Mmmmmmm." She wanted even more sensations. Standing straight, she stretched out her arms and twirled 'round and 'round. When she stopped, her legs wobbled, and she hid a laugh behind those glittery fingers.
After so much time spent in their subterranean safe space, the brightness of the sun was wonderful yet overwhelming, and she closed her eyes, savoring its warmth on her cheeks and her outstretched palms. I love you, Mrs. Sun. I can't wait to meet Mr. Moon, she thought. In her short life, she'd never felt such contentment.
Opening her eyes, she pointed at the flowery lines that ran up the telephone poles and out along the wires.
"Flowers in the air," she said, delighted, "In the air."
She was three and a half when the family went down below; barely five years old now. She had no memory of where the few buildings near their property might be, but guessed they were probably those big, big squares, completely overgrown.
Her father ignored his own property. He was staring off into the distance, at the skyline of the city where he'd worked before all this began. He pulled small binoculars from his belt, and focused on the urban world that had been such an integral part of his life.
Pink. That's all he saw. Blocks wide. A hundred stories tall. Pink.
"The flowers, Daddy," Kylie whispered, then bellowed, "They're everywhere!"
"Yes, sweetie," Ben said, squatting down to finger the silky petals, drinking in the scent.
Ignoring her mother's voice coming from downstairs, fourteen-year-old Mir knelt on the dusty floor of the bedroom, sitting back on the heels of boots that looked every bit as goth as the rest of her outfit.
Her face was scrunched up in the way it often was when she focused deeply on something—eyes squinting, lips pursed.
A few feet away, a dark object towered over her. In her mind, it was as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the black monolith in the movie, 2001. In reality, it was an eight-foot-tall mirror, its ebony frame covered with carved images from most people's nightmares: spiders, bats, snarling wolves, laughing demons, and the tortured, screaming faces of lost souls.
The smoky-grey glass itself was grimy, and reflected very little; she could barely see a dim version of herself in the lower portion of it (although the bright purple streaks in her jet-black hair did stand out). Sagging maroon drapes behind her were open only a foot or so, letting in a bit of weak light. Turbulent rain clouds had blocked out the sun for most of the day.
Mir's eyes widened when the glass suddenly flashed bright red for a second or two. The dirty film was gone. Her reflection stared back at her with total clarity.
"Sooooo...magical Windex?" she muttered, and leaned forward to run a finger across the glass. It was smooth and dry, with a touch of warmth. She pressed her palm against it and felt faint, pulsating heat.
It flashed red again, and the room's reflection disappeared from the glass surface. In its place were swirls of grey-black smoke twisting and gusting, then parting to reveal a shimmery scene—jagged, rocky ground that appeared to be far below, in another world, showing depth that couldn't really be there. Yet it was.
Click, click, click.
Mir tapped her scarlet fingernails on the aluminum water bottle hanging from her belt, as she assessed the situation. She felt no fear, only a sharp thrill that made her heart pound.
She opened her phone and immediately texted the intriguing stranger who'd recently begun sending messages that captivated her and expanded her knowledge of the dark arts, but most importantly, promised that something—a very real, very impressive gift—stood tall and dark and daunting, waiting for her. How they knew, mattered little to Mir. They knew, and that was enough.
u were rt, she typed.
told u, was the response.
Their back-and-forth felt familiar, yet edgy, dangerous. She wanted to make it clear that she understood.
its not just a thing its a world
a place of power
i see that i feel that
There's so much more when ur ready
im ready now
Mir accepted this without argument. Behavior that would have stunned her mother, who had to battle with her over every little thing.
Another text arrived.
I knew it wld reveal itself 2 u
Power to power
Then a second text: and u look the part rt?
Mir laughed, though softly, lest her family hear. Somewhere up here on the second floor, older brother Ben and four-year-old Henry were exploring this cobwebby, white elephant of a building that only The Munsters could love, meant to be inspiration for the next novel of their horror writer stepfather, Braden Andros. His second book had reached the number three spot on the New York Times bestseller list and was now descending. His obsession with making it to the top of the list ("That's how careers are made, sweetie.") had put them here, in this huge, dilapidated Victorian mansion.
Andros had toured it the first time by himself, at night. Its "haunted house" design and location at the top of a hill with a woods in the background, gave it the perfect atmosphere. He didn't want to be impressed, he wanted to be intimidated.
It didn't take long.
The library was located in a rear corner of the first floor, and entering it was like stepping through a time portal. Shelves of old, musty books lined the walls up to the ceiling, with a ladder on wheels to reach the higher volumes. There were brass lamps beside each of four threadbare, upholstered chairs that were no doubt considered quite elegant back in the day. In his mind's eye, Braden Andros could see a harrumphing, entitled white gentleman with a starched collar, a pocket watch chain, and a round monocle, seated on luxurious plushness while reading a thick book, briar pipe in hand. Yet, looking up frequently, feeling watched. The room had that vibe, as if a plethora of unsatisfied, lonely souls looked over your shoulder. To the point where Andros actually turned to glance behind him, then chuckled, embarrassed. Oh, Ando, you are never going to be able to relax and read a book in this room, he told himself. But you will definitely write some seriously freaky shit in here.
He moved on to the second floor, where the darkness inside open doorways was deep and impenetrable, several spots in the floorboards seemed to creak all on their own, and there was a hollow drip, drip, drip sound coming from a faucet somewhere.
Then, finally, the attic, where a dull ceiling bulb revealed multiple hulking, tarp-covered shapes behind which a fairly traditional machete-wielding serial killer might hide, or a less typical, fangy, blood-sucking ghoul. The air was thick with dust and filthy particulates that hung there in the feeble light and challenged you to breathe them in without coughing up a lung.
As Andros stood on the ladder that folded down from the second floor ceiling, with only his head and shoulders through the attic floor's trap door, he nodded his head, knowing that somewhere in his novel, a terrifying scene would take place in a room exactly like this one.
In the end, he paid far less for the building than it was worth to a novelist whose one-quarter-finished-but-utterly-stalled third novel desperately needed a kick in the pants—supernatural or otherwise—to get it in gear.
Mir was just as drawn to this building as her stepfather, but her inspiration had come from a different source. Within minutes of seeing the real estate agent's photo of the exterior of the place (and picturing Vincent Price greeting them at the door), she received a text from the stranger who later became mentor. His initial text included an illustration of an impressive horned demon, along with the message: i know you. i know your soul.
Leery, but intrigued, she texted back simply, and?
And it began.
Unlike other teens, Mir was not only not obsessed with taking selfies, she in fact had never posted a photo of herself anywhere online. Her mother had stopped sharing blog photos of her once she started first grade. Yet this stranger described her in detail, down to the dozen rings on her fingers. The text that followed said, simply, magnificent.
Within days, with texts flying back and forth at a furious pace, Mir learned of their shared fascination with the dark arts, and death, and all things grotesque and unsettling to normies.
In a family of creatives, her unconventional style was taken in stride, but for the first time, Mir felt truly understood and accepted. The idea of moving from West Coast to East Coast with her family was still disturbing, but this new acquaintence helped ameliorate her feelings of dread with promises of dark things to come, and more than that, they shared precise descriptions of the house itself and the unique gift that awaited her arrival. It would change everything, the texter told her.
She had no doubt about that now.
Her thumbs sped across the keys.
i can feel it
it reaches out caresses me, sends chills thru my soul
i am there with u
i feel that
Mir ignored her mother's voice calling her again, and continued texting.
im not alone were not alone, she typed.
we'll never be alone the darkest corners of this ancient world will be ours, along with its inhabitants
Seconds went by, then another message.
they are majestic their eyes are red as fire their souls black as night we will release them into this world & they will wrap their wings around us their power will fill us, then we'll use that power & this world will quake before us
"Whoa," Mir whispered, in awe. This was more than she'd expected, or even hoped.
One more message from her dark mentor.
go. be what they expect. whine ur ass off.
She replied with a wink emoji.
Minutes later, her heavy boots kicked up clouds of dust behind her as she clomped down the wide, curved main staircase and announced to her family in her best snarky teenager voice, "I'll live here in this butt-ugly, decrepit, so-called mansion, on one condition: that bedroom in the back, at the end of the hall? It's mine!"
The moving van pulled away after the final load. Dwarfed by stacks of cardboard boxes all around him, little Henry sucked on a Twizzler almost the same color as his head of unruly, curly hair, and waved at the vehicle from one of the living room windows. Other boxes of various sizes were distributed throughout the house, with pertinent details written in black Sharpie: kitchen stuff! master bedroom! lamps! fragile! the good china's in here!
A cleaning crew had rid the rooms, hallways, and closets of cobwebby corners and inches of dust, and buffed everything that was capable of rediscovering its original shininess. The attic and the library were off-limits. Braden Andros wanted them to remain in all their spooky glory.
Miranda's mother, Tabby, had been ambivalent about the move, but that melted away once she saw the large greenhouse out back, where she'd have unlimited sunlight to paint and sculpt to her heart's content. For now, she was working on restoring their lives to some sort of normal routine. Carrying a laundry basket of her daughter's neatly folded clothes—every item, black, of course—she stopped at the open doorway and her eyes shot daggers at the mirror.
"Christ, Mir, that is some creepy crapola. How will you even sleep with that thing in the room? Ugh. Here, put your own laundry away. And lunch is in fifteen minutes."
Mir imagined the towering mirror scowling back at her mother, in its own way. She stifled a grin and responded, "Whatever."
Later, as she headed downstairs and passed Ben on the way up, he shoved his brand new learner's permit in her face and said, "Save your allowance, Svengoolie-girl, 'cause once I'm driving, you'll have to pay cold hard cash if you want me to take you anywhere."
"The odds of you passing the written test are soooo slim," she answered, continuing down the stairs.
He frowned and said, "Weirdo."
"Loser," she said over her shoulder.
The sibling relationship was back to its normal routine, at least.
It was 9:45 p.m. The night was dark and still. But not quiet. As it turned out, the woods behind the house came with a particularly vocal owl, which the family named Tommy. Their grandparents were aging hippies, so Mir and her siblings got the Pinball Wizard reference. Every Who! call coming from the trees made their mother smile.
At the moment, Tabby was downstairs watching quasi-celebs dancing on TV. Henry was in bed. Braden Andros had been holed up in his writer's room for hours. Ben was in his bedroom, studying the Motorist Handbook he saw as the gateway to freedom.
In her dark bedroom, Mir sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the mirror, trading texts, nodding, her fingers reaching out to connect with a glass surface that felt alive.
She had much to learn.
Sunday was Hammerson, Maine's Founder's Day, and Tabby Andros thought the town's pancake brunch would be the perfect time to introduce her family to their neighbors.
Both Ben and Mir were fairly horrified at the thought of mingling with strangers and faking civility. Neither of them expected the oohs and ahs that came from townsfolk upon learning they had an author in their midst, one whose books they'd actually read.
Braden Andros charmed every person who approached him. Writing wasn't his only gift. There were selfies and autographs, and tales told to him of local myths and monsters, after which Andros would smile and stroke his goatee, which, together with a man bun and dreamy, thoughtful eyes, announced to the world, Yes I am indeed a creative. At his side, Tabby played the doting wife. By the end of the afternoon, it was clear that they'd moved beyond the "outsiders" label, to "local celebrity family."
Sure, there were still a few soccer moms who took one look at Mir and pulled their little tots closer, and boomers who said (with more humor than sarcasm), "Halloween's not for a while, you know." But no one ran away screaming. If asked, Mir would have confessed to being at least a little disappointed.
But she did put away two stacks of the best pancakes she'd ever eaten, enjoying the hell out of them even as her eyes followed her stepfather, watching him glad-hand these people, and wondering how they could allow themselves to be so easily captivated by him.
At one point, her gaze connected with his, and he read the "I'll never fall for your bullshit" look in her eyes. She saw the "Does it appear that I need your adoration?" look in his.
Tommy the chatty owl was serenading again. Tabby was in the kitchen, fixing the garbage disposal. She had a knack for such things. Henry was building a giant Lego bridge in the livingroom. Mir and her stepfather were in her bedroom. She'd asked him for help in moving the heavy mirror a few feet closer to her bed.
"Damn, this thing is humongous." Braden Andros was six-foot-two. The mirror was almost two feet taller than he was, and not quite five feet wide. Mir watched as he ran his fingers over the images carved into the frame. "And so freakin' cool," he said. "I should have had it put in my writing room. Impressive as hell."
"So take it," she said. "You already took everything else that's mine."
"I'm not—" Andros sighed. "I didn't mean now. I meant before you ever saw it. Look...why do we have to be enemies? We're a lot alike, you know."
She stared back at him, with no response.
He tried again.
"It'll get better once school starts. You'll make new friends. And you and Azza and the other girls can still text and Skype, right? Moving wasn't the end of the world. I mean, look, you got something really cool out of it, right?" He rapped his knuckles on the mirror frame.
Mir's eyes were neutral, but her mind was flashing scenes of the trio of friends she'd finally made after three years of lonely misery in junior high, always the youngest after skipping two grades in elementary school. Her friends' resemblance to her felt like a sisterhood, their entire look dominated by the color black. They nuked popcorn and watched classic monster movies on Saturday nights, then danced around campfires on the beach at dawn, after making straw dolls of the high schoolers who taunted them and tossing those effigies into the flames.
"You think that's enough?" she said to her stepfather.
"No," he said. "But it's all I've got."
He put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
"I was born there. In that house. Mom went into labor in the middle of a bad-ass storm, all alone, thunder booming, lightning crashing. My real dad died there."
"He made it home through all that, yet barely got through the door before his heart gave out."
Andros just stood there, silently. What was there to say?
"I was born into that. Connected to it. And now it's gone."
She ran her hand along the intricate carvings on the mirror frame.
"You took it away because of your super-important book. The novel that's going to propel you into that exclusive stratosphere of the top authors, right? You'll sell a bazillion copies. Netflix will make a movie out of it. You'll appear on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, and share amusing anecdotes. But first you have to finish writing it. You have to be 'inspired.' Right? Well, I want to help. Seriously."
Her stepfather looked both curious and suspicious.
With an enigmatic smile that only made him more wary, Mir continued, "They say, 'Write what you know,' don't they?"
Andros took a deep breath, having no idea what she had in mind.
"Write what you know," she repeated. Then she shouted, "So get to know Hell!" and pushed him with all her strength, just as the mirror opened up to a horrifying scene, a Hadean world of fire and hideous creatures and a feeling of foreboding so strong that it felt as if it could reach into your chest and rip out your heart.
Andros' head swiveled toward her, as long, demon arms reached out of the glass and bony hands clamped on to him, pulling him partway into the mirror. In desperation, he grabbed the frame, but he was no match for the things that wanted him, needed him. As his fingers lost their grip, the look of terror and betrayal on his face was the reward Mir had sought all along.
Braden Andros was pulled down into the world within the mirror, his mouth a tortured grimace, emitting a groan that grew louder and more pained, then became a screech of agony and horror that was suddenly cut off in mid-note.
For a few seconds there was complete silence. Then, the sound of flames crackling and hot wind blowing the smell of wet ashes into the bedroom.
"I always knew I'd win," Mir whispered.
Her phone bleeped at her.
i just fed it
what do you mean, no?
She was barely aware of the sound of her little brother's Big Wheel tricycle rolling over hardwood flooring beyond the bedroom door ("Aw, come on, Tab—a little boy riding a Big Wheel through the halls of a huge, spooky mansion? It's iconic!" Braden Andros had said with a laugh when he brought it home), or her mother's chirpy laugh rising up from the first floor.
Inside the mirror, grey-black smoke whirled and danced. Tendrils stretched out, beckoning like skeletal fingers.
it took him 4 you
why wasnt he enough?
i thought u meant like chicken tenders
u mean b/c he loves puppies & stuff?
he wasn't enough
it cant have henry or my mom, and Bens not home.
it doesn't want them
Seconds ticked by.
so it has a conscience?
i dont get it
i know ffs i know
Mir searched her mind for an answer, asking herself, What does it want? What, dammit?! I'm seriously brilliant. I'm smarter than a portal to Hell, or a freakin' stranger who's playing games with me!
Is this a test?
Her dark partner's sudden change made her think maybe it wasn't a change at all. Had this been below the surface all along? Mir had an exceptional memory, and now she ran through as many texts as she could picture in her head, looking for subtle clues she'd missed.
She didn't hear the click of the doorknob.
Another text arrived.
i cant go out & find people 2 feed 2 it.
im not strong enough 2 force some1 & i cant entice any1 people find me spooky, the blk makeup, the clothes, my eyes my eyes creep people out. i cld never convince any1
what the hell does it want?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
braden andros is calling out to you
hes not my dad
he thinks he is
hes not! he also thinks hes the next stephen king & hes not that either
look at him, suffering, begging your forgiveness
Miranda's eyes searched the swirling clouds within the mirror's surface. She caught a quick glimpse of aquamarine, and splashes of pink, in the distance in that world. Her stepfather's hippie-dippy shirt, as her mom called it.
i dont want him 2 come bk
he begs you
i dont care! i won!
Mir slammed her hand against the mirror frame.
he ruined my life he dragged us out here 2 freakin maine & made me leave my whole life behind but i still beat his ass
yeah no shit
The smoke swirled, then parted, and she saw Andros' face down below, almost buried in red, reptilian arms pulling him farther downward, deeper and deeper into the world beyond the mirror, his lips forming a silent scream.
The corners of Mir's mouth twitched upward. Her eyes gleamed.
The sound of her phone pulled her away. The texts came quickly, one after another.
it needs a dark soul
Mir heard a familiar giggle from inches away, behind her.
The shove was surprisingly strong, and caught her off-balance. As she fell sideways toward the mirror and blood-red arms reached out to embrace her, pulling her in almost lovingly, she turned and saw little Henry's impish grin as he hopped backward, avoiding her hands as she reached for him.
"But...no! I won!" she screamed, as gravity lost its hold on her. She floated into grey-black smoke. Bony fingers with knuckles the size of walnuts covered her mouth.
"Nopey, nopey," Henry said, unable to hide his innocent glee. "I winned it!"
He skipped lightly across the room, like a gamboling lamb, and once in the hallway, dropped his narrow little behind onto the bike seat and pedaled away, down the hall to a dark room where glowing red eyes greeted him, and an ancient voice whispered, "Good boy."
She was small even for a four-year-old, swallowed up by the orange and yellow, tie-dyed t-shirt she'd found in the attic and insisted on wearing. The purple peace symbol on the front was chipped and faded from many laundry days and the march of time, since it had been purchased way back during the hippie era, before this little cutie was even born, or her mother, for that matter. Yes, this was her granny's t-shirt, from back when Gran-Gran was maybe seventeen, when summer days were spent joyriding and swigging from a bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill wine, her long, blonde hair flowing behind her while Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young melodically advocated teaching your children well, and her high school sweetheart with a ponytail hanging halfway down his back sang along as he drove. The shirt was no doubt a brilliant, neon orange back then. Maybe the peace sign even glowed under the black lights at those parties she used to sneak out her bedroom window to attend, after which she'd come home reeking of marijuana smoke. No doubt, Gran-Gran would say, "Ah, those were the good ol' days," if she hadn't passed away a couple months ago, stroking out behind the wheel of her Prius in an Arby's parking lot, and coasting into one of the low walls. Not hard enough to do more than dent the fender and activate the airbag, but it didn't matter to ol' Gran. She was gone before the store manager even made it outside to see what the hell was going on. Everybody said her tiny granddaughter was her to a "T" in so many ways, and wouldn't her parents have a time of it trying to keep her from running wild once she hit her teens? Had they paid closer attention, they'd have realized she was way ahead of Granny. She might be only four, but in her own little way, she was hell on wheels. Hiking up the t-shirt, which was too long even for a gown on the little girl, the floppy straw hat she also wore slid down past her big blue eyes and over her nose. "Oh, nosh posh!" she muttered. She was surprisingly articulate when she chose to be — generally when she wanted something, like a cookie or a new toy — but when she was alone and prattling on to herself, or when she conversed with one of her stuffed animals, she had a language all her own. She pushed the hat up so she could see. A few feet away, the man in the swirling hole-in-the-air (which was three feet off the ground, maybe four feet in diameter, and sucking powerfully inward like the most spectacular vacuum cleaner in the entire Universe) was clinging to the edges by his fingertips. Wind and leaves and mulch and an occasional Popsicle stick or unfortunate grasshopper got pulled in and disappeared behind him. He was only visible from the chest up, clad in a grey suit, his tie askew, his eyes wide with terror. He didn't make a sound. He couldn't, you could tell. Whether that was because the force drawing him in was also pulling the air from his lungs, or if it was the effort required just to hang on, or the overwhelming fear, the knowledge that doom was most probably less than a minute away, was impossible to determine. "Poof! Poofy poof poof!" the little girl exclaimed, as she tapped his fingers one by one and each lost its grip on the edge of ... well, the edge of this world, it seemed. And that quickly, his wide eyes grew even wider, as did his mouth, in what would surely have been a scream of, “Nooooooo!” if he'd been capable of it. But he wasn't, and the look on his face turned from fear to acceptance and a sort of heartache, as if the knowledge of all those things he would now miss out on, his entire future, sharing the lives of those he loved, was too painful even for tears. And that quickly he was gone, swept away, gulped down like a dragonfly snatched by a frog's tongue. Poof, indeed. “All gone!” the little girl announced, to no one. Or everyone. Or the squirrel on the branch above her, who'd eyed the whole situation warily and had no intention of coming down. What was gone — besides poor Mr. What's-his-name — was that strange, silent, gaping maw in the air. It had closed up, as if satiated. This was not surprising to the little girl. She'd been feeding it all morning. The gadget from whence it emanated was a glassy blob that resembled nothing more than a foot-long, semitransparent jellybean containing a few thick, curly, red wires that, whenever they revolved and glowed, created the powerful portal to elsewhere (or to absolute nothingness). It sat unobtrusively in her toy baby stroller, with a pink blanket tucked in around it. She'd been happily, giddily, pushing it along, wandering up and down pleasant streets with perfectly mowed lawns and lovely trees and an occasional newly-delivered newspaper, a curious fluffy dog, a skateboard, a mailbox, an entire swing set that folded in on itself without a sound, becoming nothing but a collection of metal poles ... all went whoosh! And left this world for another. Or just left. Somehow, no one noticed her. A tiny little thing meandering the streets alone. A side-effect of the strange, blobby gizmo, or a sign that the days of Leave It To Beaver are long gone and no one gives a damn about anyone else anymore? Or just too many people out and about with their eyes glued to a smartphone? It didn't occur to her to wonder, any more than she'd wondered where those strange lights had come from last night, in the sky over the field out back of her house, or what they meant, or whether they were meant for her. She just knew that there was a flash down to the ground, the lights zoomed away, and she just had to see what they'd left behind. Within minutes, she'd quietly slipped out the back screen door and headed out toward the farthest end of the meadow. Soon she was surrounded by grass taller than she was, and utter darkness, and she should have been afraid. But fear was for babies. Or so she'd been told, by older siblings who did their best to terrify her on a regular basis. Eventually, she felt it, a soft hum or buzz, tickly on her skin, a calm, almost comforting feeling, and there on a pile of crushed and slightly steaming grass sat the glassy ovoid, alternately glowing and flashing, as if trying to speak to her. Scrunching her face with concentration, she circled the object slowly, reached out to slide her tiny hand along its smooth surface, and smiled. “Are you Humptetty Dumpy?” she whispered, snickering at the thought, but knowing it was really something else entirely. And she ran back to the house for her plastic Dora the Explorer wagon, which had many uses, but Dora's creators and the wagon's designers had probably not counted transporting possible extraterrestrial gizmos among them. In her bedroom overnight, the ovoid occupied the big dollhouse over by the window, sitting upright in a snug little nest formed by the pink blanket. She had long ago stopped hiding her special, secret possessions in the dollhouse, since her brothers, 8-year-old Kraig and 10-year-old Bryson — her teasers, tormentors, and all-around enemies — would throw it open and grab her stash, laughing as they stuffed it down the toilet and flushed, or stuck it in the cat's litter box, or just stomped on it. She needn't worry about that anymore. Just after bedtime, the boys had whispered and chuckled as they sneaked into her room, creeping up to her bed on all fours, planning to reach up and grab her feet while growling like werewolves. But she wasn't in bed. She was hiding behind the dollhouse. When they heard the dollhouse creak open, Kraig whispered, “Get her!” and they charged toward it. Without the slightest sound, the ovoid glowed, and both boys took a one-way trip into a swirling gap-between-two-worlds or corridor-to-oblivion or whatever it was that opened above it. "Bye, bye, gone, gone," their little sister whispered, as they tumbled in head-first, one after the other. And off to bed she went, confident she would have a peaceful night's sleep for a change. Morning came, and she made her way to the kitchen, ignoring her daddy ignoring her, as usual, yakking away on his cell phone to clients in some distant corner of the world. She knew the routine: Don't bother Daddy, he's EARNING. When her mother asked where her brothers were, she just shrugged and tried to get her stuffed panda to drink from a juice box. She knew that routine, too: Act four years old and no one asks you the important stuff. Once dear old mom was out of the room, she was out the front door in a flash, and the stroller stroll began. Which eventually led her here, where a tall, neatly-dressed stranger who may have been an insurance agent, or a realtor, or possibly a Jehovah's Witness, had just gone bye-bye, and she grew almost instantly bored. Tossing her platinum-blonde hair with a nonchalance that mimicked her granny decades ago, she had one thought: Big. That quickly, the ovoid responded, glowing warmly, pulsating like a heartbeat, and she felt it, embraced it. Yes. Big.
She had no sense of direction, or knowledge of specific locations; she simply began walking in the direction of the sun. She liked the feel of it on her face, the comforting warmth, the sense that it was inviting her to follow it. More than an hour went by, avenues and intersections and buildings were passed, yet her little legs never tired. Deep down, she felt an anticipation she didn't understand, but could easily define. Christmas morning. It felt like Christmas morning.
Upstairs in bed, waiting, waiting, waiting for the sun to come up (Mommy's rule!), knowing there were piles of pretty boxes everywhere downstairs that she could tear into; the paper making that sweet ripping sound, ribbons flapping, bows flying everywhere. And joy. Joy so big her heart always felt like it would burst. And here, now? Something equally warm and wonderful was coming. Something ... awesome. Her brother Bryson's favorite word finally clicked for her now. Yes, awesome was coming. Back home, there was chaos. Police cars, search parties, her mother's tears and dread. This possibility didn't even cross the little girl's mind, but if it had, she'd have simply shrugged her shoulders, lost in her own thoughts and wants and urges. For the little girl, each step she took brought her closer to awesome. And then she arrived. She knew it, because here was one of her favorite things, something exciting, something ... big. Choo-choo tracks. She loved choo-choos. She loved the chugga-chugga-chugga sound of their wheels, and she felt sad for them whenever she heard them howl at night. They sounded so lonely. But she also had respect for their power. From a ways away, they looked nice, friendly, choo-chooing their way along. But up close ... A few weeks ago, she'd almost experienced their power the hard way. When her mommy, tired of waiting for the train that didn't seem to ever be coming, said, “Screw it!” and ignored the Ding! Ding! Ding! warning, driving around the red-and-white striped gate. As the back end of the car crossed the tracks — yes, the back, where the child seat was — the train suddenly appeared, its horn blowing loudly, its brakes screeching, as it closed in on the car unbelievably fast. The little girl silently stared up at the man driving the train, and he stared back with a worried look on his face, and she thought, Wouldn't he be a nice grandpa to have? And then the car cleared the tracks, with plenty of room to spare. Okay, maybe not plenty, but some. And her mommy laughed, said a bad word, and waved her finger. Yep, just the one. And now here they were again, choo-choo tracks. And the little girl remembered how she'd felt that day. Nothing could have stopped that train, she knew that. Knew it then, knew it now. There was a relentlessness about it, even if she didn't know the word for it. They were so big, and so heavy, and when they were going fast, nothing could stop them. Wouldn't it be, well, awesome, to watch one zoom through the magical hole-in-the-sky? Off in the distance, a choo-choo horn plaintively called. She could picture it chugging its way along, closer and closer. Or maybe it was one of the really fast ones, full of people looking out the windows, and she would wave at them as they zipped by. She rolled the stroller onto the tracks, facing it to her right, toward the sound of the approaching train. Then she backed away a good ten feet, the perfect spot to be a witness to awesomeness. With a hiss that was familiar to her, a hole formed and grew, in the air above the stroller. Grew larger, by far, than previously, as if it were compensating for the size of the object barreling down the tracks toward it. A diameter of six feet became eight feet, which became fifteen, and the little girl backed up, her eyes sparkling with excitement. This was going to be more than big, this was going to be superpendous! With a sharp pop that hurt her ears, the hole/portal/thingamajig spewed forth a writhing, pale amber stream that might have been a liquid, could have been a gas, but proved to be neither, as it shot along the rail closest to the little girl and solidified as it gained in height. Well, this was a first. She was mesmerized. It was translucent, and as it raced toward the train it became higher than the speeding vehicle, a wall, and from this side, the sound of the train's horn and screeching brakes sounded muffled, closed-in. The wall was moving so fast it was impossible for her eyes to keep up with it, and although it was now behind some buildings several football field lengths away, it was so tall that she could still see its progress. In seconds, it was a mile away. Two. Four. And now the train, wheels locked in place but still rushing forward at breakneck speed, rose from the tracks as if up an invisible slope, roaring through the opening above the stroller with a blast of air that washed over the little girl, right through the strange wall, carrying with it odors that were unfamiliar; organic smells, animal scents, and other indescribable things, that both stunned and elated her. She stared in awe of the people at the windows, who were going somewhere so exciting, so new, so awesome. Why were they silently screaming, crying, banging on the windows, holding their babies, their big boys and girls, each other, so tightly? But that quickly they were gone; the last train car had entered the opening, and she realized she would never know exactly where they went or what adventures they would have. Well, noshbotty posh, she thought. Crappity crap on a cracker. At the split second that the very last bit of metal passed through, there was another hiss, and with a splush! the same peculiar material shot out from the back side of the hole and headed down the tracks in the opposite direction, already moving at a speed that put it miles away in no more than seconds. The little girl was once again excited, and she danced around on one foot, then the other, waving her hands in the air and laughing uncontrollably. By the time the strange material had traced the perimeter of almost the entire town — a mid-sized town with several thousand people, with schools and libraries and roller rinks and ethnic restaurants and trees and antique shops and much, much more; things that made it the kind of place city folks wished they could raise their kids — the little girl's laughter had given her the hiccups, and she stopped hopping, out of breath. At that moment, the two walls of bizarre material rushed toward each other on the far side of town, faster and faster. Had she been there to see it, the little girl would have expected a spectacular, wonderful ka-boom! But instead, a peaceful melding together, as if this was as it should be, this had always been their purpose. And then ... a soft, pleasant sound, like a soap bubble popping. And the wall that seemed like it could be water became just that, 40 feet high or so, miles and miles of it, dropping down and splashing everywhere, soaking everything within 50 feet or more. This did not include the little girl. Or the stroller. The liquid avoided her, streamed by each side of her, not even spraying mist. And the stroller sat by itself, also dry. But the stroller was no longer on the tracks, for there were no tracks. Nor were there any trees. And not a single building in sight. In fact, for as far as the eye could see, there was dirt. From any satellites in space that were peeking down, it would seem as if an irregular-shaped area which had only seconds before been a town, was now a brownish, blank space, miles in diameter. Not even and flat. No, there were many holes, some very deep. Buildings had had basements, trees had deep roots, there were in-ground pools. And all were gone. Everything was gone. There were many flat areas, previously covered with asphalt or concrete. From high above, they made it clear where the streets had been. Not that those streets would serve any purpose now. The little girl finally caught her breath, the hiccups gone, and her excitement along with them. Well, piddle. She looked around. And sighed. That was fun, yep, gobs of fun, but now ... look at all that boring dirt. Her globby glob thing had been right — it sure had been big. But now she needed something else, she needed something more, something ... Bigger. She looked off into the distance. On the horizon was the place Mommy took her sometimes, always in a hurry and rushing along, jabbering into a cell phone. The place with the skyscrapers that made her dizzy when she stood below them and looked up, the place where there were cars everywhere, that honked at you if you did the littlest thing wrong (and Mommy would wave at them with her favorite finger, and they would yell, and she would yell back). The place with metal carts that smelled so good, hot dogs cooking kind of good, that Mommy always hurried her past, saying, "You don't want that crap." But she did, she wanted that crap really bad. The ovoid glowed, then pulsed, then flashed almost frantically. And the little girl smiled. Yes. Bigger. Way bigger. And she began pushing the stroller again, softly singing the “Muffin Man” song as she headed for the big city.
Sometimes I think of them as neighbors. Friends. When I need it, family. They have no idea I'm here, that I watch them and feel a strange kinship.
Quite honestly, I'm lonely. For reasons I'd rather not go into, I stay isolated. Okay, to be more accurate, I'm on the run. But I'm a good guy, really. I'd never hurt you. If you believe the press, I'm a monster. But it wasn't me. It wasn't. A horrible thing happened...no, no, a horrible thing was done... and people took one look at me and screamed, pointing with trembling fingers, their mouths open in a Donald Sutherland "O" as if I were one of those awful clones in Bodysnatchers. But I'm not. I'm a good guy. Just...wrong place, wrong time.
So I ran. And that alone looks like an admission of guilt, right?
Police cars with sirens wailing. News reports with warnings and vivid descriptions of me. Cops and search dogs sniffing through the woods. Helicopters whirring overhead. I've stayed a step or two ahead of them. I keep track of the news on a little radio I stole early on. It's staticky. Reception is kind of iffy up here in the mountains. But it'll do.
I wonder, how long can I keep this up? I'm cold. I'm hungry. I want to go home.
But I dare not.
It's been a few weeks now. In a civilized society, the horror of those barbaric acts, those mutilated, hapless victims, would be all that mattered, and would replay in people's minds, in reporters' stories, resulting in police searches for months and months to come.
But in not much more than a week, another horrendous thing happened. Not related. Domestic incident, they called it. More blood, more death. And then, mere days after that, a drunk driver, a sidewalk full of people, more blood, more mayhem.
So, as fall turned into winter, and I withdrew even deeper into the woods, the searches came less often, the number of cops and dogs and choppers dwindled, and I was at last able to catch my breath and make plans.
I can't risk being seen by anyone. They'd know me on sight and the screaming would begin all over again. There's the police sketch, of course, but worse, if they got a closer look at me, they'd realize who I really am. I'm kind of a celebrity. I mean, I was, before all this began. Famous, in an era where everyone seems to want to be famous. I can't say I ever minded, until now. But I never craved fame, never sought it out. Sometimes it just happens. Something about you that you find utterly ordinary catches the public's fancy, and they become obsessed. From that moment on, you can't even take a leisurely stroll.
I miss those days, where fame was my only problem.
Now I have nothing, I have no one, and those same people who spoke of me with awe in their voices would run, terrified. Or call the police. Or shoot me dead.
So, I'm alone.
I manage to steal enough food to survive, from cars parked at roadside greasy spoons and gas stations and whatever else. Sometimes I'm desperate enough to raid trash bins at fast food places. Occasionally, I'm lucky and find a door left unlocked in an empty summer home, and there are a few food items. Always the crap they didn't much care about, but I'm not picky these days.
There are other houses, though, that become occupied for short periods. Family skiing trips, or just people getting away to their winter cabin. One was a writer who was working on, I assume, the great American novel. Peeking through a window, I watched him frozen in place hour after hour, day after day, surrounded by empty coffee cups, staring at an old-style typewriter. Bright pink Post-It notes were stuck everywhere.
Some cabins belong to hunters. I steer clear of those. Wouldn't you? Big guns, lots of beer, and a target those guys can freely kill without fear of being arrested. I am, after all, a fugitive.
But those other visitors...
Happy couples toting skis, kids romping in the snow and building snowmen, entire families watching a gorgeous sunset.
I watch. And I listen. And sometimes I pretend I belong with them.
I can't help it. It's so lonely here. Part of me longs to go up to them with open arms and beg to be included, if only for a little while. To hope they'll believe that I'm harmless, I'm normal, I'm a good guy.
I know. It's pointless. To believe that they'll discount all they've heard about me. To hope they won't scream my name in terror:
It was a silent war, from the outside. Sound doesn't travel through space. But the noise was deafening if you were inside a direct hit. The sharp-edged vreeeeeet! as beams sliced through metal like a rusty knife with a dull blade; the explosive hiss, as life-sustaining air was blown outward; and, worst of all, the screams.
I've lost track of the sunsets. A dozen? A hundred? All mesmerizingly similar; orange and pink streaks across the sky, surrounding two huge, glowing gold or red balls sinking into an ocean horizon.
This sunset is much the same, although there is a splotch of teardrop-shaped, brilliant yellow just above the lower sun. I probably shouldn't stare directly at it, but I suspect it's my basic nature to zig when most people would zag.
I say "suspect" because, quite honestly, I can't be certain.
What do I actually know about myself? Nothing. I woke up on this so-goddamn-beautiful-it-makes-your-heart-hurt-just-to-look-at-it beach a day or a week or a millennium ago. Strange as it sounds, I can't be more specific than that. I can say that the beach, the sun, the stars absorbed my pain, healed me, and made me feel whole again. What else do I need to know?
The cliché question when awakening in such circumstances would be, Where am I?
The answer is merely, Right where I want to be.
Another basic question: Who am I?
I awoke to no sense of identity. None. Not even gender-wise. How the hell could that be? I was a slate wiped clean. But there was a simple solution. Feeling oddly embarrassed, I took a quick grope down the front of my shorts to at least check out which type of body I was in. Male. Definitely male. Oh yeah. Damn. Seriously, there was all kinds of impressive awesomeness down there. My first thought was, throw a saddle on me and point me toward the finish line! That instant flash of male ego told me my psyche matched my physical shell. There was a huge, smug grin on my face.
I gave myself a minute or so to savor it, then moved on.
What about my age? I felt young-ISH. Not young enough to feel fresh and new to everything, but not old enough to have grown tired and jaded. Technically, though, these discoveries weren't who I was so much as what I was.
So, the question.
Who am I?
As those first moments ticked by and the sun held me in its embrace, the sound of the sea soothed me, hell, the salty air even cleared up my stuffy sinuses, I realized the answer was: Who the hell cares?
I suspect (there's that caveat again) I could figure it all out if I really wanted to. Not long after discovering Giganticus in my shorts (oh, come on, I had to name it), I realized that lurking at the edge of my consciousness was a faded memory, a vague sense of self. It's still there. I don't shoo it away, but I don't invite it in, either. Why would I? I'm happy. What more do I need to know? Matter of fact, if I had companions here, I'd tell them they could call me that from now on. Happy. It's a perfectly good name. Wasn't that one of the dwarves in the ancient mythic tale?
Who wouldn't be happy here? Or Happy here, heh heh.
The visual aspect alone takes my breath away.
The waves that rush onto the beach are an amazingly beautiful turquoise, and the deeper water farther out is an eye-popping cerulean with cream-color caps. When the sun is directly overhead, it actually glows. It's as if Nature knew it had an audience of one, and decided to show off.
The sand is a pleasing but slightly peculiar golden-pink, which can look one color or the other depending on how the sun hits it. Each granule is flat and smooth, and clings to my wet skin. It peels off in clumps, and I swear as it lets go I can hear a smoochy mwah! This beach loves me, what can I say?
The air? If I could bottle it and sell it somewhere, I'd make a fortune. My lungs savor each breath. I get the impression they remember only stale, canned air from my former life. Here on the beach, air feels like a living thing, there to nourish your body and give you energy. I can taste the sea breeze on my lips and feel refreshing coolness as gusts waft across my body, which has yet to dry.
Have I moved from this spot today? This week? Ever? I don't remember. Seriously. I don't remember.
There's not a soul on the entire beach. Perhaps not even my own. Do I even have one? Do any of us? See, you can ponder such profundities when every second of every minute is peaceful and undisturbed.
The one thing I know for sure is that I needed this, craved it, with every fiber of my being. The world before this one was terror, pain, heartache, desperation. I know that. Without seeing images in my head, without knowing the whys and whos and wheres, I know that.
I was there.
Somewhere far from here.
I suppose I could wonder what would happen if I called out to that place, or if my mind's eye locked on to that something/someone lurking there like a shadow, at the edge of my conscious mind, and I embraced it. Would I remember everything? Would some sort of psychic SOS be sent out to the heavens?
I don't know.
I don't care.
I belong here.
The reddish orb winks its final goodbye and disappears beneath the sea. The golden orb above and to its left has followed it almost to the waterline. It'll be gone in a few minutes. The palm trees and thick jungle behind me will sound more and more alive, the darker the night becomes. Chirps and clicks and nightbird trills. And farther in, strange, gutteral growls; an occasional roar.
I don't mind. Whatever lovely, toothy creatures they might be, they don't come for me.
Not yet, at least.
There. At last. Both suns are gone, and the stars have emerged. Thousands of them; hundreds of thousands. As each day nears its end, and the suns sink below the waves, I both long for and dread them. Those damn stars. So beautiful. Cosmic artwork. They make me feel connected to the Universe, and at the same time, completely insignificant.
But that's not the problem.
They draw me.
As if I know I can reach out and touch them. As if they're waiting for me to join them.
And they are.
I know they are.
The breeze has become a wind, as it always does after sunset. I feel a chill. As I always do. I'm wet, still. You'd think I would have dried by now, after hours in the sun. Yet I never seem to.
The surf licks at my toes. I love the silky sound, the soft whoosh! as the water rolls in and out. But I'm cold now and it's not as pleasant a feeling as it is in the sunlight, when the almost-clear shallow water washes the sand from my toes as it recedes, then pushes more onto them when it returns. That tickly feeling warms my heart as I sit in the blazing heat, but here in the darkness it chills my feet, my legs, and I begin to shiver, as I have every night, for however many nights that has been.
The stars call to me.
Lying beneath them, I listen to the rhythm of the water. It lulls me toward sleep. My eyelids start to give in, my breathing slows.
I'm jolted awake. Again. I hear this voice every night at this time. I recognize it. Don't I? It doesn't matter. I just want it to go away. There is peace where I am now. Solitude. Acceptance.
"Wrap the light cord around his leg. Quick! He's bleeding out!"
I'm wet. But it's not water. It's not the lovely, briny sea that is soaking my body, my hair, my...uniform?
Damn. That sound. So blaring. So disturbing. Clanging. It warns. Make it stop.
But it won't.
It never does.
Here on the beach, the surf teases. Gently, it tugs at me. Come with me. Come with me and be free, it begs.
But the voice persists.
"Help me get the undamaged suit on! There. Close it up on your side, Tiah. Bram, get his helmet on."
There is worry all around me. Hurrying hands. Expert movements.
"Plug that damn hole with something, Kharl. You don't need— Just stick strips of xi-duct tape across the wall, then. And turn off that damn alarm!"
The comfort is leaving me now, sucked away as if through a hole in a hull, out into the deep void of space.
"Wait...Where's the other glove?!"
I feel hands on me. Well, not on me, exactly. On something covering me. Familiar hands. Strong yet gentle. Quick and expert. And now I'm floating, being led toward...what? Where? More importantly, why? I'm happy here. I'm Happy. Or I was. Where is my ocean? The surf is no longer lapping at my feet. The waves have pulled back, far back, out of reach, almost out of sight.
In a flash, those warm and comforting sensations that have sustained me for what felt like an eternity are gone. I'm in my body, in it, and my body is here.
I don't know where "here" is, and frankly, I don't want to know. It's not soft. It's not soothing. It's not caressing. I've lost everything. The Universe, in a drop of water. My immersion in ancient starlight.
"Wait, stop! His stats are dropping! It's not-- Oh dammit, the threads didn't catch. Here, let me lock the damn helmet on right!"
A few seconds of silence. They're waiting. For what? Oh. There's air now. I'm no longer gasping.
They let out breaths in unison. They seem relieved.
But I'm so cold.
"There. His O₂ levels are better already. Come on, let's get him back to the Nova."
I see her now, a hazy image in a bulky spacesuit, outlined in the bright orange of the emergency lights. Like everything else around me, she seems vaguely familiar. I don't care. I long to dip my fingers in the surf, to lie back on the sand with my eyes closed, and breathe it all in as if it were the entire Universe. Because it is. It truly is.
"I've got him. You take his feet. Hurry!"
"What? Come on!"
"What? No. I saw his breath on the face plate."
"Last breath, probably."
"No. I— No, dammit!"
"He must've bled out. I mean, look at all these blobs of blood floating around, and who knows how much is inside his flight suit."
For a moment, for them, the war outside faded away—the damaged ships motionless in space, the powerful beams slicing into others and tearing the troops inside to pieces.
This was Trey.
He was their center. His inspirational speeches gave them hope when all seemed lost. His silly imitation of the Emperor lifted their spirits when they desperately needed it. Downright made a few piss their pants laughing, in fact.
If only they'd gotten to him sooner. It broke their hearts to think of him painfully wounded, with no one to help him. Out in the cold emptiness of space, dying.
“I know. You know. Everybody knows. It's not my job to write what everybody already knows.”
You might think writing an obit about someone semi-famous would be an easy thing, but guess again. Tanquan was big and scary and loud (so loud), which are qualities much admired in my world. But, Christ, the choices he made sometimes. Writing something to soothe his elderly relatives (the only family he had left) but also give him a little bit of a legacy...that was not going to be easy. No way was he going to be a legend, but I didn't want him remembered as a fool, either.
“Holy shit, Remm, you're not gonna make him out to be a warrior or something, are you?” My pal (but obviously not Tanquan's) Landis was not going to let this go.
“So you're saying he ate bowls of puppies slathered in French dressing?"
“Of course not!” Landis said, smirking. “French dressing. Seriously? I mean, he was weird, yes. He had taste for shit. He dressed like he was going golfing with that other asshole. You know the one. But he wasn't a sicko.”
We both laughed.
“Well, I'm glad it's your job and not mine,” he said. “I gotta go. Gotta pick up Ellena and round up the kidlings. They're probably in the backyard torturing something with wings. They've got a thing about wings this week. Kids.” He chuckled, and his forked, Gene Simmons-length tongue shot out and flickered in the air for a few seconds, then disappeared behind those enormous fangs he kept sharpened to pinpoints. He swung his tail around and started toward the door. “I'll meet you at the Feast. Our table's down by the Narrow Chasm fire pit. My little Benn loves the smell of charred humans in the morning, what can I say? Haha!”
I smiled, knowing that his little demon son was the baddest-ass youngster I'd ever seen, and now that he was walking, would in all likelihood kill every one of his siblings before his second birthday, and maybe his lovely, nurturing mama not long after that. A chip off the ol' block. What more could you ask for in an offspring?
Now that my friend had left, it was time for me to buckle down and get this thing written before the deadline, or I was going to miss the Pre-Apocalypse Sinners Feast. I did so love sinners. Unlike sweet-tasting saintly humans, who'd done only one horrendously bad thing in their lives that qualified them to end up down here for a roast, sinners had been screwing over other humans and doing all sorts of bad shit their whole lives, which built up a sort of...tangy...flavor. No wonder the line was always so long for politician-kebabs and Wall Street wieners.
As my fingers started flying across the keyboard, my grumbling stomach was all the incentive I needed.
DEMON DIMENSION DAILY GAZETTE
TANQUAN THE FIREKEEPER 8,284 years old
by Remm the Ripper
What can one say about the passing of such a giant as Tanquan the Firekeeper? What would life be like in our world without the heat that warms our soulless selves, the smell of scorched flesh, the roar of the flames?
True, Tanquan's marriages never lasted long enough to produce offspring, because he kept, well, dining on his brides. And, granted, he wasn't much of a warrior. To be honest, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” reruns scared the undead shit out of him. Maybe he did occasionally lop off a limb of someone's human prey without asking first. We all know he loved to snack. And maybe he didn't always get down on one knee and bow his head when the Great Dark One passed by. But let's face it--he wasn't exactly sleek and agile. Those huge horns alone weighed a ton, and his knees were not in great shape, so it wouldn't hurt to cut him a little slack.
He came from a long line of Firekeepers, which is a noble profession. And of course, back in the day, he was a true hero. I remember when I was young and he saved those two little kidlings from falling into that miles-deep pit, down by the lava flow. Okay, so one of the little ones bit his finger and Tanquan ate him, but his heart was in the right place.
Anyway, the next time you walk or fly or slither past those explosive flames, or doze off in bed while listening to the heartwarming sound of humans begging not to be thrown in, remember Tanquan, and curse his name. He'd like that.
Only yards away from the young, helmetless astronaut, the creature's maw opened, and both hot, moist air and a disturbing screech blasted outward. The mouth was as wide as that of a whale shark back on Earth, but this was no shark. They were on land, not immersed in a sea, since the only water to be found on this planet trickled from shiny black rock formations, or oozed up from the sand.
The creature was wriggling its way up a rocky slope toward the human. It's skin was a scaly, mottled, grey-green; the eyes were the size of baseballs and were on stalks extending from the sides of its head; its body was long and horizontal and so far beyond chubby that it made Jabba the Hutt look downright anorexic.
The screech became a roar, and the astronaut's caramel-colored hair blew straight back as he pressed his lips together and squinted his eyes, standing his ground. The creature rose up. Its mouth, full of dozens of scimitar-like teeth, was now a mere ten feet above him.
The astronaut wiped gooey creature-spit off of his brow.
“Goddamn, Boo, your breath stinks. What the hell have you been eating, Beta-slug soldiers?”
Alien creatures' burps can be tricky things. Some are quiet, and hard to differentiate from a growl. Others involve projectile vomiting, or a belch literally loud enough to pop your eardrums (or implode your whole damn skull). This one sounded pretty much like an ordinary human belch. But this was Ceylus Alpha IV. Nothing was ordinary here.
A transparent bubble emerged from the creature's mouth. It was big enough that the astronaut could have fit in it if he scrunched up a bit. It wasn't typical saliva-bubble strength, or it would have popped the second it slid across one of those scalpel-sharp teeth.
The bubble cleared the creature's mouth and floated outward and upward, headed toward the top of the rocky mesa behind the astronaut.
“Well, that answers that question,” the astronaut said with a smirk.
In the bottom of the bubble sat a silver, blood-streaked, slightly dented helmet. It was big; at least five times the size of a human's. Perfect fit for a beta-slug, though.
The creature's mouth widened even further in what looked very much like an endearing pit bull puppy smile. One stalked eye winked as it said, “Ohhhh, Earffffling...”
It's jelly-belly convulsed, holding in a booming laugh it knew would knock over its human friend if let loose.
“No can re-zisss dem bay-duzzz. Dey tayyyyste jusss like chikkken!”