Friendly Crotch Squid

 

 

“Hi there!  Name’s Louis Fulbright.  You must be the new hire.  Welcome to the Crow’s Nest.  Great to meet you!  Great to see you, really.  I wasn’t sure when corporate would send you out here.  Flight go okay?  Sleep well enough?  Good.  Good.  Welcome to the observation deck.  You’ll be spending the majority of your time up here.  Has a hell of a view, doesn’t it?  That star up there to the left started going supernova about two months ago.  Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?  It’s all purple and exploding…

 

“Crow’s nest?  Oh, right!  That’s what I’ve taken to calling the observation deck.  Like on ships way back when humans still lived on Earth?  Ships that sailed on the oceans had a little kind of bucket at the top of the sails that a poor slob would sit in and keep watch for things.  But we’re in space now, so it’s a little different, don’t you think?

 

“Come.  Take a seat.  I’m sure you have lots of questions.  But, before we go any further, I’ll just go ahead and answer the question you have on your mind.  Yes, fourteen-hour rotations on an observation deck are boring as all hell, but the pay is good.  Technically, my job is to keep watch for wayward asteroids and make sure none of the old mining barges make any unscheduled collisions.  But, honestly, these old war relics could smash headlong into one another and the drivers (if they had drivers) would only float away with a case of whiplash.  They are nearly indestr…hnnnng!

 

“Pardon my outburst.  The Squid just made a pass at my prostate.  Little bugger must be hungry.

 

“What was I saying?  Oh, right.  The old frigates were appropriated by our employer and retrofitted with long-haul mining equipment and A.I. operators.  This far into the heart of the galaxy there are precious ores aplenty–a lot of the really heavy stuff.  Unfortunately, the binary supermassive black holes draw in crap from light years away.  It’s kind of like digging for gold underneath a waterfall.  A waterfall filled with chunks of iron and ice the size of an elephant.  But like I said earlier, the pay is good.  And the view is g…great!  Woah!  Wow.  Little guy is persistent.   

 

“I guess I can’t keep him waiting any longer.   I’ll just flop the little guy out and give him a few good strokes.  There we go.

 

“So, you were saying you had a few questions about daily life up here?   I’d be happy to answer whatever…  Why are you staring at me like that?  Is it something I said?

 

“Oh…  Oh! The Squid, right.  Don’t worry about that.  I promise we won’t make a mess or anything.  Sanitation is one of our top priorities up here!  It says so on a lot of the posters we have to keep up.

 

“But, you still look confused.  Did they not tell you about the Squids when you were hired?  Oh, lady, you are in for a treat!  Genetically engineered symbiotes.  Little guy lives over my bum and crotch.  He feeds on excrement and other bodily fluids.   Makes it so I never have to worry about leaving post to use the bathroom, and the regular orgasms keep a steady stream of dopamine pumping through my brain.  Little guy regulates other bodily functions as well.  It’s a win-win situation.  

 

“Corporate gives them out to us long-shifters when we are isolated from regular human contact out here.  They aren’t much for conversation, but how many people really are?  They do develop a taste for ejaculate, though.  That’s why I’m helping the little guy get his fix.  

 

“Um… Could you stop staring at him like that?  You’ll make him uncomfortable, and he might get a sour stomach.  You wouldn’t stare at a lady breastfeeding her baby, would you?  

 

“Terrifying?  He’s just hungry.  Really hungry today it seems… Woah!  That’s a tentacle down my urethra!  Haha!  Erm… So I guess it is kinda weird, huh?  

 

“I’ll admit it took some of getting used to.  I was put off by the idea at first, but the doc was insistent that I would grow to like the little guy.  The first few hours of it wiggling around inside me were… alarming to say the least.  And the first time it latched onto the head of my penis and proceeded to pound my prostate from the other side I nearly fainted.  The first week was a real trip, let me tell ya.

 

“After that, the months droned on.  I really wasn’t prepared for the kind of loneliness that hits you out here.  You get delivered broadcasts and recordings with news and other junk on it from elsewhere in the galaxy, but even with the FTL transports coming and going, the news is always a few weeks old.  And you just…you just really start to miss seeing other people, you know?  

 

“The Squid helps.  And so do the chems it helps your body release.  It might be lonely out here, but there is really nothing like staring at the crucible of the galaxy while your invertebrate life partner unrelentingly pumps at your insides drawing out orgasm after orgasm.  Want to head down to Medical and get yours?

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Unnamed

I stared at the empty water glasses in front of my computer screen while I waited for my brother to respond.

 

“You turned off your antivirus?” he asked from the other side of the phone-repeating what I told him.

 

“The download scan throttles my bandwidth,” I said.  “If I leave it on, downloads take forever.”

 

“You just went waltzing around the web without any kind of protection. Have I got that right?” He said angrily.

 

“It was only once,” I said sheepishly.

 

“And how many times does it take to get knocked up?”

 

“Once,” I was trying not to cry.

 

“This is on your shoulders, Matt,” he said after a pause.  “Just… I don’t know.  How long did it take you to find it?”

 

“About three hours.  I think.” I lied again.

 

“Three hours?!  Jesus, Matt.  Some of those AI clusters only need like two hours to attain… Did you at least cut the power to your computer?”

 

“Yes,” I lied.  My lower lip was trembling.

 

“Good.  But hell, man.  You’re going to have to take that computer of yours into a shop tomorrow and get rid of it.”

 

“I can’t kill it!” I shouted while giving the phone a look of disbelief.

 

“Don’t use words like ‘kill’,” he said.  “That just makes it sound like you’re doing something wrong and we don’t even know if it’s attained consciousness yet.”

 

“Should I tell mom?”

 

“No you shouldn’t tell mom!” he shouted.  “She would freak out and tell you that you have to keep it.  You don’t make anywhere near enough money to supply the hardware a brand new AI host machine would require.  No.  You have to get rid of it tomorrow.”

 

“But…”

 

“No arguing,” he said.  “Look, I’ll message you the place of a guy I know that does this kind of thing off the books.  It’ll be like it never happened.”

 

“You know a guy?” I began, but he cut me off again.

 

“End of discussion,” he said. Then the line went silent.

 

I didn’t do anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t even take the phone away from my ear.  I just sat there and watched my computer screen.  An activity monitor was showing me that an unnamed application was rapidly demanding more and more of my computer’s RAM.

 

I lied when I told my brother that I had found the AI and shut my computer off about three hours after it was implanted.  In truth, my computer had been running all night, and as far as I could tell, the AI had been growing the entire time.  It was already trying to communicate with me through emojis in my email.  In a few more hours it would require more RAM than my computer had to give.  It would starve and die.  I would be responsible for its death.  All because of a onetime fling without protection.

 

Larkspur

Larkspur

By Gustav Kollmeyer

 

There’s no wind.  Even a little gust would free me from the relentless mosquitos.  The horse I ride continues to trod west through the Kansas Territory grasslands.  The horse given to me by Kurtz follows behind with its infernal package.

 

It’s early October but sweat is pooling in my boots.  The unnatural heat and daily rain storms have turned these plains into swampland.  An dense fog persists in the tall grasses around me.  Despite the heat, the mists never burn away.  I haven’t slept more than a few minutes at a time in four, maybe five days.  I keep catching myself slipping into unconsciousness and sliding out of the saddle.  I should have packed coffee instead of whiskey.

 

Things around me start to get blurry.  My own thoughts begin to trail off and the world turns sideways before everything goes black.  When I come around, I’m face down on the ground and feel like I’ve got a knife buried in my head.  The headache is bad enough that everything around me looks dark and blurry still.  I paw at my head and realize that it isn’t the headache that’s making everything look like the other side of a whiskey glass.  There’s blood in my eyes from a gash on my forehead.  I must have actually passed out and fallen off my horse.  Where is my horse?  I turn over and see it standing above me.  I also see my foot still strung up in a stirrup iron.  I pull, but the foot won’t come loose so I pull it out of my boot. My leg hits the ground with a thud.  I sit up and rub my eyes waiting for things to come into focus.

 

It’s night time.  No rain for the moment, and no bugs either.  I would enjoy it if it weren’t for the headache still ringing in my ears.  A full moon tonight has cast everything around me in a pale blue glow.  Looks like I fell off the path the horse was following into a large brush of long grass.  A wall of grass, blue in the moonlight, towers all around me.  I move to get on my feet before realizing that the leg that was held up in the stirrup is completely numb.  I fall back on my ass and decide the hell with it.  This is the first night since the trip started that hasn’t been uncomfortably hot.  It’s even a bit cool under the moon.  Chancing the knot on my head, I decide to get some sleep.

 

The man who owns the stomach I just shoved my bayonet into is gripping the forestock and barrel of my rifle like it’s going to save his life.  I can hear the cracking and scraping of his teeth pressed hard together.  He is clenching his jaw so tight those teeth are about to start popping out of his head. I unload my gun into his belly and the force pushes him back.  He trips over the rubble that used to be the roof of this clay building and falls to the ground, dead.  My heart feels like it’s kicked up all the way into my throat and sweat is sliding down my brow into my eyes.  I don’t hear a lot of gunfire any more, but that could be due to temporary deafness from firing my gun in an enclosed space.  I wipe my face off with the stained sleeve of my uniform, and walk towards the dead man on the floor.  I make a mistake.  The man on the floor isn’t dead yet.  He pulls himself into a half-sitting position and has a gun pointed at my face.  He starts howling like a coyote.

 

My head jerks around and I sit up panting and sweating in the cool night air.  I’m back in the grass of the Kansas Territory three thousand miles away from Cerro Gordo, Mexico.  All that distance and ten years away from a bunch of dead Mexicans.  I’m used to those dreams, but they had never been so vivid before.  I can still see the bright red blood on that man’s green uniform.  Still smell the gunpowder and bricks before I shake off the dream and try to get a grip on my situation.  Head still hurts, but the bleeding has stopped.  Leg feels fine now.  I stand up and can hear real coyotes howling in the distance.  Horses are spooked, but they’re tied together so I figure they couldn’t agree on a direction to run off in.  Lucky me.  They aren’t far.  I make a clicking noise with my tongue and say a few words to try and calm my horse down.  He is still a bit jumpy when I approach him, but I get a hand on his head and another on his mane and he starts to calm down once the coyotes shut up.

 

The moon is putting off a lot of light, but I have trouble seeing much more than a few feet.  I spot the other horse and to my surprise it isn’t panicked at all.  It’s just laying on the ground with its head tucked back by his legs.  Doesn’t seem to care about the coyotes.  Strange horse Mr. Kurtz gave me.  I check to see if the package I’m supposed to be transporting is still attached to Kurtz’s horse.  It is.  Can’t decide if I’m relieved it’s still there or irritated that I have to keep pressing west towards the Rockies.  Five hundred dollars at the end of the trip is a lot, and I’m in no real worse shape than I was before this trip started.  Only a day or two more to Larkspur.

 

I decide to press on through the night, but the morning comes late.  My watch tells me it is near ten o’clock before I see the sun.  The fog that lingered before in the long grass has now reached high enough that I can’t see the sky.  The sun is no more like a dim candle sometimes, and completely unseen other times.  A tailwind has taken away all the mosquitoes but brought with it a terrible stench.  It smells of a corpse long forgotten in a flooded cellar.  

 

I reach for some hardtack from my saddle hoping that something in my stomach will ease its pains.  It is then that I hear it for the first time.

 

I don’t have words to rightly describe the sound.  It is something vile that digs its way into my thoughts through my ears.  It is long and deep.  An animal.  Nothing human.  My mind tears through memories trying to understand.  My body, on the other hand, reacts instinctively.  All of the sudden I feel a great pressure on my chest.  Adrenaline hits my heart and blood goes thumping through my veins.  My entire body seizes up and once again I’ve fallen off my horse.  The sound wrecks any proper thoughts I try to form like being hit over the head repeatedly.  There is only fear.  

 

I start convulsing on the ground.  An unknown fear has risen up inside of me.  I can think of nothing other than trying to get away.  My arms and legs flail uselessly.  My stomach starts to churn and the world around me appears to swell and shrink in a sickening manner.  All this time the howl is still rattling around in my brain.  I vomit behind clenched teeth and begin to choke on my own sick.  Then, just as suddenly as it began, the sound stops.  It does not fade out, and there is no echo.  It just stops.  All that is left is the sound of me coughing up bile as my body has finally come back under my control.

 

In the eerie fog everything becomes quiet.  There is a ringing in my ears drowning out even the sounds of my own coughing.  But that too becomes silent.  Then there is nothing.  There is no sound of tearing grass as I rip some from the ground.  My boots make no thud when I bang the heel on the ground.  I can feel the vibration in my throat when I speak, but there is no sound.  I touch my ears and they are as cold as my fingers.  I continue to try and produce some kind of sound from my mouth but nothing comes.  Only dull vibrations in my throat.  

 

A small measure of panic takes root in me.  Why can’t I hear anything?  What happened?  Then I remember.  I remember that only a minute ago I was convulsing on the ground under the punishment of that sound.  That sound.  What was it?  It is as if not being able to hear has wiped the memory of it out of my mind.  I try to remember but each time I do my mind feels like it’s trying to do too many things at once.  That small measure of panic begins to grow.  Out there in this Godless fog is some creature that has rendered me deaf with just a scream.

 

I quickly pick myself up off the ground and look for the horses.  They are still tied together, though my horse is terrified and desperately trying to pull itself away from the other.  Kurtz’s horse is unnaturally stoic.  Its head moves this way and that as it is yanked around, and makes no visible attempt to resist.  The rest of its body simply remains motionless like it were made of stone.  

 

My horse wants to run.  I second the idea, and move to the beast to try and calm it down.  Not a lot of good that does.  My hands are shaking and I can’t tell if what I’m saying has any reassuring sound to it.  I grab the bridle tightly and pull the horse’s head down.  This catches it off guard and for a moment it forgets what it was so afraid of.  I get up in the saddle while it’s calm for a moment.  I take my knife and cut the rope connecting the two horses.  I couldn’t care less about Kurtz’s horse and package.  Larkspur is closer now than any other place on my map and hopefully far enough away from whatever is lurking in the fog.

 

I’m not sure how long and how far I push the horse.  It is nearly impossible to tell night from day in this damned fog, but eventually the animal collapses.  I beat it long enough to realize that my throat hurts from cursing at the thing.  It doesn’t move.  It just breathes heavy laying on the ground.  Saliva and mucus cover its nose and mouth.  His eyes are wide but not focused on anything.  I imagine it is making an awful sound there on the ground, panting and wheezing.  Silence and stench surround me.  

 

My hands are no longer trembling, but that is only because of my exhaustion.  My entire body aches, but I’m afraid that if I rest, I risk falling asleep and letting that thing catch up to me.  I don’t even know if it gave chase, though.  I can’t see more than ten feet in any one direction, the same putrid rotten smell makes it impossible to catch anything on the wind, and I still can’t hear a damned thing.  

 

Another frightening thought reaches me.  How do I know that I’ve managed to go the right direction in my panic?  There is a good chance I am lost somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  But before this thought sets in, my stomach starts tying itself into knots again.  My legs turn to jelly and my vision goes blurry.  Fear.  That overpowering fear from before takes hold in my mind once again.  I puke up bile this time, but my body isn’t convulsing any more.  I manage to make it to my feet while my head’s still spinning.  I move to my horse, brain barely able to function.  I fall over my own feet, and crash into the side of the animal.  I manage to retrieve my shotgun from the saddle holster.  I muster what little power of will I have left and force myself to get back up and start moving.  I can’t hear the howl, but my body knows it’s happening.  I pick the direction my horse fell in and hope that it’s west.

 

I run until my legs are numb and my lungs are on fire.  I slow down and walk until the spit in my mouth tastes like nails.  A small break in the fog reveals mountains up in the distance where I’m headed.  I’ve got no real way of knowing if that thing is close behind or back where I left either horses to die.  I haven’t puked or collapsed in a while, so I hope that is a good sign.  Strange that I can’t hear anything but my body still reacted the same way both times.  Or, hell, maybe I’m just sick or crazy now.  Never heard of anything short of the devil that can let out a howl with those kinds of results.  

 

Different ideas continue to rattle around in my skull until I notice the fog retreating.  I’ve managed to walk into what looks like a quarry.  Outside the fog I can see that it is late in the afternoon.  The sun is setting behind the mountains in the direction I’ve been traveling.  One small break in the insanity I’ve been running from.  To the north of me is a cliff wall that has been dug into the side of a tall hill.  Boulders as tall as me are littered here and there.  No other signs of quarry work being done though.  No picks, no scaffolding, and no people.  All the cleared ground looks to make a square about three hundred feet from one side to the other.  I walk over to the wall of stone, making a winding path through the boulders.  I find a spot to sit down and put my back against the earth behind me.  I can see all the way to the other side of the quarry and anything that might be coming my way.  One other small miracle:  I’ve got a canteen of water still hanging around my neck.  

 

Sitting under the cliff, exhaustion wins out over fear and paranoia.  I struggle but eventually my breathing slows and my eyes start to droop.  Thoughts start to drift in and out of my mind.  I’m choking on the fog under long grass that stretches all the way to the sky.  I see myself distorted in the reflection of my horse’s unblinking eye.  I’m as still as it.  I dream of Kurtz.  He emerges from the cellar underneath his crooked white house.  He’s got the package wrapped in worn and stained leather in his right hand.  His left hand is a fake.  He secures the package in his horse’s saddle bag, then he walks over to me.  His left side shakes a bit as he walks.  Something is choking me again, holding me up in the air above Kurtz.  My boots don’t reach the ground, and something fat and scaley is around my neck.  Squeezing.  Coiling.  Kurtz and I are speaking in his study.  We sit.  All the walls are filled with books, and Kurtz has one sitting in his lap.  It’s black.  As black as oil.  He hands it to me.  I take it but he doesn’t let go.  I tug.  His arm is yanked about.  I pull more.  The horse’s neck gives no resistance as I thrash his head around trying to get it to move.  I let go and the head falls all the way to the ground, neck completely limp.  It makes a dull thud.  I walk away, but the horse walks behind me, head dragging on the ground between its legs.  

 

I wake coughing and gasping like I’ve had my head held under water.  I struggle for air in silence.  Still exhausted, I look around and see that the fog has closed in on this place, and the sky is again dull and grey.  I look through my pockets for my watch while trying not to gag on the horrendous stench that has returned with the fog.  My hand finds it in my back pocket and I frown.  I take it out and small pieces of glass fall to the ground.  The face is shattered and the hour hand is missing.  I throw it aside.  The bags under my eyes are heavy.  They pull down on my eyes as I scan the quarry.  There is a taste of salt in my mouth and I can feel my eyes moving in their sockets.  I reach for my canteen and take a long drink.  

 

Some of the water goes down the wrong hole when I spot a dark figure about thirty feet away from me in the fog.  My heart begins to pound as my fingers search for my shotgun.  My boots scrape across the rocky ground as my legs try to push my back up the wall behind me.  I manage to get to my feet and start shouting incoherently.  The figure begins to slowly sway to the left and right.  It starts walking towards me.  I fire a shot into whatever horrible mass of flesh might be there in the fog. The recoil in my hands is surprising without the sound to go along.  The horror takes the impact of the buckshot but keeps walking forward.  I lift the gun to my shoulder to get a better shot when some of the fog clears and I see the beast for what it is.

 

At first I see the body of a horse without a head.  I can feel heart pounding in my throat.  The monster moves closer and I try to shout but feel the words get caught in my throat.  My fingers have gone numb as well.  Then I see that it’s not missing its head.  The head is at the bottom of the horse’s limp neck.  It drags along the ground between its front legs as it approaches me.  And I see a pack on its back.  Leather and red.  Kurtz’s package still kept on his horse.  Am I still dreaming?  My throat loosens and I feel myself begin to scream.  I scream and shrink back down against the wall as the horse keeps moving closer.  I scream until I can barely breathe.  My head is turned to the side and my eyes are clenched shut.  I cannot see or hear the beast, but some deep and afraid part of me knows that it’s still coming.  The smell in the air changes.  It is cold and… empty.  Like something long buried.  It is not putrid or vile like the winds all the days before.  The smell feels like the end.  Like a pit is forming in my stomach and being filled by a great and heavy weight.  

 

The animal in me finally overwhelms my broken rational mind and I scramble to my feet.  I run.  The canteen.  The shotgun.  Any mortal means of survival are left behind as I flee once again into the fog.

 

Though it did little for my mind, the rest I got against that wall has given new life to my legs.  Fear and instinct fly me away from the quarry.  The fog is still thick, and the light still dim, but my feet find well-worn road eventually.  The thinking part of my brain clicks back on at the faintest glimmer of hope.  A road means people.  Am I so close to the mountains?  How far and how fast have I run?  I stop.  Control of my body is once again given over to the man in me.  I begin to pant.  My chest heaves, and I look up at a single candle.  It is set in a lantern atop a sign painted to say: “Welcome to Larkspur.”  

 

I actually smile, and an inaudible laugh escapes my mouth.  It’s over.  The fog is thinner here, and I cannot smell anything wretched or cold.  Though starved and nearly broken, I have arrived in Larkspur.  I walk slowly to the candle burning in its glass cage.  The flicker of the flame is inviting.  As I get close the wind behind me picks up.  The flame is snuffed out, and a familiar bile stench encircles me.  I reach out for the lantern on the sign.  I grasp the lantern and shake it furiously.  The glass cracks in my hands and I throw the thing at the sign with “Larkspur” painted on it.  The sign crumbles as if it were made of sawdust.  My jaw clenches and my teeth grind on each other.  My gums start to bleed right before, once again, my vision blurs.  My stomach ties itself in knots.  My legs give out.  And my thoughts turn to swill.

 

From somewhere far away the sound of the beast stabs at me again.  Another sound comes with it, though.  It is faint at first, and like the wailing horror it builds and builds in my mind.  A man’s voice.  Screaming.  It is not the sound of a frightened animal, nor even of a madman.  It is a scream simply trying to get out.  I hear it this time.  I can’t hear anything else, but I can hear again.  A rush of other senses brings me back to a wakeful state.  I gasp for breath but my lungs are exhausted.  All of me is exhausted.  I get a handle on what I can see and find myself curled up on my side on a moldy wooden floor.  There are large gaps between some of the boards as they are twisted and warped.  I reach out but retract my hand at once when I feel one of the boards.  It is swollen and wet.  All around me carries the smell of wet wood.

 

I sit up and am both relieved and concerned by the sound of the boards creaking underneath my weight.  I can hear again, but all of what I’ve heard so far is more cause for worry.  I have no idea where I am, or how I got here.  I only remember collapsing in front of the sign that said “Larkspur.”  Am I there?  What of that thing back in the quarry?  My mind starts to buzz and I toss the thought out.

 

The room I am in is dark save for the faint light coming in through an open window.  The light is pale and gives the floor it falls on a sickly green glow.  I try to stand, but my legs suggest that I have been drinking.  I keep one hand on the wall and manage to get up and walk slowly to the window.  I get a look outside and hope that wherever I am isn’t where I’m supposed to be.  

 

There are seven or eight buildings lining a central throughway.  I am on the second floor of a building at one end of the street.  Everything in front of me is lit by the same pale glow giving the entire town a sickly green and blue color.  Like the days before when I was riding through the fog, it is difficult to tell the time of day.  There is a light in the sky, but it is too bright to be the moon and too dull to be the sun.  It casts shadows all the same, though.  All of the buildings are in a sorry state.  Many have large holes casting pale light into bare rooms much like the one I’m in.  There are hitching posts and wagons here and there but neither look to have been attached to a horse in a hundred years.  Everything made of wood is swollen and twisted.  Those few things made of metal are all rusted nearly beyond recognition.  Everything is completely still.  There are no signs of people anywhere save for a single line of footprints leading to my building.  A smell of salt water is carried on the wind.

 

I hear from behind me: “It’s not much to look at, but it is a kind of home at least,” followed by the striking of a match.  

 

I almost let out a cry as I spin around.  “Who… who’s there?”  I stammer out the words.  I see the profile of a human figure outlined by a light coming from its other side.  The flame flares for a moment throwing shadows this way and that across the room.  It settles down and the figure turns to face me.  The person is a small and very old looking man dressed in a robe that is long enough it drags across the floor.  The robe is crimson and stained with dirt.  His hair is white and his face sags.  He has a stern look on his face and features that remind me of someone.  A glimpse of a fevered dream flashes through my mind: me suspended over Kurtz.  The old man brings his face close to mine and holds the lamp up between us.  His eyes, faded and milky, run over my features.

 

“Yes,” he says.  “You are the one my brother said you would be.”  His voice is ragged and it sounds like he uses too much air when he talks. He continues to stand uncomfortably close to me with the lamp throwing light in both of our faces.

 

I try my best to shrink back against the wall.  “Kurtz?” I ask.

 

“One of them,” he says.  

 

“So you two are brothers?”

 

“Good job,” he says with a slightly higher pitched voice.  “I only had to tell you that for you to figure it out.”

 

“What am I doing here?” I ask.  “How did I get here?  Where even is here?”  My heart is starting to beat a little bit faster.

 

“Lark-” he begins to say but twitches.  The lamp shakes a bit and the man bites at nothing in the air beside his face.  I can see the muscles in his jaw pull tight as he clenches trying to regain his composure.  “Larkspur,” he says finally.  “I’m sure you saw the sign.  That’s where I found you, after all.”  He is motionless once again.

 

“I remember the sign,” I say.  “And I remember being chased by…” my voice trails off.  I remember that dead horse approaching me in the quarry.  I remember running like a madman into the fog until I reached the sign with a candle on it.  I remember the sensation of falling.  And I remember something chasing me.  Something terrible and able to make a sound that took my hearing away.  

 

“What is that thing?!” I burst out.  “Who are you, and what the hell is going on?”  My heart is beating a hundred times a minute now.  Everything from the past few days is starting to resurface in my memory and almost none of it makes sense.  “What the hell am I doing here?”

 

“You were the one my brother decided would deliver a book to me.”

 

“A book?” I interrupt him but he doesn’t notice.

 

“I didn’t think you would make it, but then again I never put a lot of faith in your kind.”

 

“What book?  Do you mean that package Kurtz gave me?  Listen I didn’t open it if that’s what you’re getting at.”

 

“Proper transporters are becoming more and more difficult to find.”

 

“What?” I ask.  My voice is shaking now and I slide down the wall back onto the floor.  “What is going on?”

 

The old man continues to look at the wall where I was for a moment before shifting his gaze slowly down to where I’ve retreated to.  “You heard it, right?” he asks me.  “Well you must have to get here.”  

 

I know all too well the terrible nightmare he is talking about but I can no longer find any words.

 

“I haven’t heard the bays of that creature in so long.  What a thing.”  He sets the lamp down on the floor.  “But I’ve been a bit rude.  I should at least tell you what is happening.  Or at least what has happened.”

 

“You were given a package intended for me.  You were told to ride to the small town of Larkspur on the edge of the Rocky Mountains.  You have arrived in Larkspur, but not the one you thought you would reach.  To get here,” he pauses, “you had to take a slight detour.”  He kneels down bringing his face close to mine again.  “That sound.  Do you remember it?  It helps men get to where they shouldn’t be.”

 

I can only stare back at him before finally asking, “Am I dead?”

 

“No, no,” he says.  His face shows no emotion.  No concern.  No malice.  When he speaks it is like he is looking through me.  “You are not dead.  But like death, there are many places you can go to and never come back from.  Larkspur is one of them.”  He stands back up as he continues to speak.  “You did your job well enough by bringing me my book.  Or at least well enough that the horse was able to follow you here.  Horses,” he says with a bit more enthusiasm.  “Now there is an animal you can count on.”  The man stretches and straightens out his back.  His shoulders roll underneath his robe, and the lamp light flickers throwing distorted shadows across his features.  He grabs the wrist of his left hand with his right, and with a yank a small popping noise comes from beneath his robe.  His left hand falls to the ground.  Fake and made of wood, it makes a dull thump on the ground.  I manage only to whimper as something unnatural starts to writhe under the man’s robe.


“Unfortunately,” he says, “you are now a broken man.  Useless.  Even if you were to leave here you could no less return home as you could stop the sun in the sky.  What is more likely is that the beast would finally catch up to you.  But we can’t have that.  Must keep it hungry.”  

 

At these words, what looks like the body of an enormous snake falls out of the old man’s robes where his left arm used to be.  It looks to be as big around as he is and much longer.  A good length of it is spilling out and coiling around itself onto the floor.  No head of a snake ever falls out though.  Instead the thing looks like it runs all the way up and merges with the man’s shoulder.  To Kurtz’s shoulder.  With an unnaturally quick movement, the appendage snaps out towards the left.  It straightens itself before the length collides with the wall and deals substantial damage to the wood.

 

I flinch but am unable to bring myself to move.

 

The serpentine arm relaxes a bit before Kurtz brings it around my shoulders.  Every part of me wants to run, to scream, to do anything, but I am still.  

 

Slowly, yet irresistibly, the thing makes its way around my neck and begins to tighten.  Kurtz lifts me up as the fat mass of scales and muscle gets tighter and tighter around my neck.  I am choking as I look down on Kurtz.  My feet sway gently as my vision starts to fade.  

 

Blackness seems to carry me away.  There is no memory, no waking vision to speak of.  The sound of the beast echoes in my mind.  This fear in me carries from deeper than anywhere my waking or dreaming mind can go.  Farther than any vestige of some kind of soul.  There is only fear: spinning around and eating itself.  Whirling.  Whirling in the blackness of Larkspur.

Pulling Back

Pulling Back

Pulling Back

Erwin watched as his grandparent’s house slowly rebuilt itself. Red Earth retreated from the stone foundations of the generations-old house. Rain seeped out of the cracks, coalesced, then fell back into the sky. Cracked and soiled stone sat empty under the hot afternoon sun.

Erwin shifted his posture from one side to the other as he sat on the bench across the street from the empty lot. The wrinkled skin under his still, baby-blue eyes tightened as he watched.

Large square support beams picked themselves up and stood at the corners of the foundation. Cross-beams lept up to their perches; their nails began to fasten into place once again. Construction workers pulled up in a large truck, pilled out, and began prying old boards back onto walls. The gray and rotted walls left streaks of sunlight on the concrete floors. The construction workers put up patches of burnt siding and drywall at seemingly random places around the outside of the house. They left just as the form of a house was taking shape.

An old stranger and his dog wandered back into the shell of a house. The dog’s fur was as gray and patchy as the stranger’s beard. He had himself wrapped in an old army surplus coat – much too hot for the weather. A fire was started in a metal drum at the back of the house. More strangers began visiting. They brought empty whiskey bottles and syringes with them. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they were gone again. A small fire flickered to life on the floor of the house.

Ewrin watched as the blaze picked up strength and peeled back from the walls and ceilings of the house. They left a complete, unburnt structure in their wake. Red siding, white-trimmed windows and doors. Mahogany colored shingles now sat under the evening sun.

Patiently, Erwin waited.  With the sunset, light shown from inside the house. Erwin stood and stretched his old back.  He walked over to the house, opened the only window on the street-facing side, and retrieved a lit cigarette.  He put it to his lips then returned to his bench.  A woman dressed in a navy suit came out of the front door of the house and locked it behind her.  

A while later, the sun rose, and an ambulance brought Erwin’s grandfather into the house on a stretcher. He was clutching at his chest and having trouble breathing. Sometime later he reemerged from the house wearing his best black suit. Tears were in his eyes as he got in his car and drove off to a church. He returned later, this time in another ambulance, but he was beside his wife and she was being carried into the house. His breathing was panicked. She lay still.

A young couple–Erwin’s parents–arrived and brought a baby boy with bright blue eyes into the house. The baby’s mother had large ears like her father.  Music was heard from inside, toasts were being given. The red siding on the house began to shed some of its dirt and age. A wedding took place in the house’s back yard. Erwin’s parents were being married. His grandfather, younger now, walked his daughter down the aisle. The wedding decorations came down, and for a long time the house was still.

A small girl emerged from the house and began playing in the back yard. She carried a precious teddy bear with her. She and the bear pretended to walk on the moon, and explore the greats forest around the single tree in the yard. She noticed Ewrin sitting on the bench and waved to him.  She ran over to him.  Her eyes were hazel and the freckles on her face stretched from one big round ear to the other.  She handed Erwin the teddy bear.   A mother’s voice called the child back into the house. Some time later Erwin’s grandparents rushed out of the house. His grandmother was  very pregnant, and carried a look of worry in her eyes. Her husband spoke words of reassurance to her.

Sometime later the couple returned. The boy was fresh out of college, the girl was just beginning. They looked at the bright red house sitting on the well kept grass with love and dreams in their eyes. The “For Sale” sign swayed gently in the afternoon breeze.

Sparrows

The hour is not late enough to write such things.  But there are only twenty four of them.

Sparrows

Whisper.  Just a whisper.  Anything louder could be snatched out of the air.  Taken.  Caged.  But a whisper will make you reach.  You have to stretch, strain, spill forth from yourself.  You will reach across the chasm, and the softly spoken words will gently brush your fingertips.  A breeze so faint you would miss it if not for the calm morning air.  

 

She whispers an exhausted “good night” as the sun pokes her head above the horizon.  You return the wish, but she is gone now.  Close enough to feel a heartbeat but away from you now, outside of space and time.  And for the first time, you are here.  More present than ever before in your life.  All of the rest of the world around you pours through you and is regarded with measure.

 

But then a pulse.  A regularly beating heart and soft breath.  The warm sleeping human being next to you erupts in your conscious mind and she is too much.  You will burst.  Overflow.  An infinite cosmos of possibility  lies sleeping next to you.  Something so volatile you are afraid to move.  But there is peace here.  Peace so calm and serene that it would last for a lifetime if you would let it.  A single peaceful moment.  Not stretched out, but explored.  Lived in and through.  A moment filled, like your mind, with the infinite soul of the only other person.  


Infinity.  Infinity is a strange thing to encounter.  It has no beginning, no edges to define its regions and there is no vantage point from which you can gaze at it.  But it is there.  Behind a face that, like you, draws breath.  Resting on a pillow.  Blooming thoughts from depths and heights unimaginable.  And she gave you a whisper.  A call.  An invitation to caress the face of God.  A gift suspended in an infinite moment.  So short.  But it is all the time that we have together.

Courage

Courage was just a boy.  But that was to his advantage.  A boy still believes.  He believes in a difference between good and bad.  He believes in honor and chasing after adventure.  He believes in nightmares and dreams, danger and exploration.  But most importantly – a boy still believes in becoming a man.  Courage was just a boy.

He lived with his father, his sister, and his aunt.  Courage had never known his mother, but his aunt loved and cared for him like he was her own.  Courage spent his seasons like most other boys his age.  He went to school with his sister in the cold and rainy months. He played outside during the warmer days and nights.  His father was away from home often.  Courage had been told that his father fought for the United States Army in faraway countries.  Courage had never heard of most of these places, but he thought his father was very brave for traveling so far away from home.

Some days in the summer, Courage and his sister would combat against unnamed enemies as they pretended to be like their father.  They would fight with fervor and grit.  They would die with honor and passion.  They would do battle across the countless battlefields over and over again, until the end of time… Or at least until their aunt would call them in for dinner.  It was on one of these blood and mud soaked evenings that Courage’s father came home unexpectedly.

It was long into the night when his father arrived.  Courage had been dreaming that he was a bear sleeping through a long winter when the sound of rushing wind and breaking glass woke him.  The sounds of a commotion and hushed voices were coming from the bedroom down the hall.  Courage could hear a man saying something, and then he could hear the voice of his father calling for his aunt.  As he saw his aunt run by his bedroom door, courage began to worry.  Why had his father come home without telling anyone?  What was going on down the hall?  And why did his aunt have such a frightened look on her face?  Courage left his bed and snuck down the hall to where the door to the other bedroom had been left ajar.  He listened.

Courage’s aunt was asking his father why he was home early.  She was asking him about things that Courage didn’t understand.  Something about tunnels and shrinking worms.  Then he heard his aunt gasp.  Her voice trembled as she spoke, “Why is that here, Leo?!”

Courage’s father answered.  “There aren’t many safe places left for it any more.  We were overwhelmed at the bastion orbiting Thuban.  When we knew the bastion was lost, those of us that were left scattered through what must have been more than a thousand different Gate combinations, and left a very large mass singulizer behind us.  In about three hundred years I doubt you’ll be able to see Thuban from here any more.”

Now, Courage’s aunt sounded angry.  “But why is it here?!”

“Because I hope no one will look for it here. Earth is still essentially uninhabited, and you’ve still got one of the old suppressors buried under the house, don’t you?”

“I’m not even certain that old tech still works.  Do you have any idea what kind of danger you have put everyone on this planet in?  I swear you never think before you act.  This is why your wife can’t be seen with you any more.  One of the last legitimate daughters of the Old Lineage couldn’t keep hanging around the flying disaster that is your life.”

“Sister.  Dear sister.  Please stop bringing up my troubled love life and take this damned thing down to the basement.  I really think it would be a good idea to get it under a suppression field before someone takes notice.”

“You are unbelievable!”  Courage’s aunt grabbed what looked like a small box from his father and stormed out of the room.  She didn’t even notice Courage standing just outside the door.

When she had gone, courage looked back for his father in the bedroom.  He saw what looked like a window made of water open up in front of his father.  Leo had begun to step into the water window when Courage finally spoke.  “Where are you going again, dad?”

Courage’s father had just enough time to spin his head around with a look of bewilderment and concern on his face before being drawn completely into the water.  Courage looked, but couldn’t find where his father should have passed through to the other side.  He started to wonder where the water window took his dad.  Then he saw that the water window was getting smaller.  Courage made up his mind.  He held his breath and lept into the water.

Courage was just a boy when he decided to chase after his father into parts unknown.  

The Between Time

Grandpa, what happens when you die?

Who taught you about death, child?

My friend Billy said that his big brother died before he was born and that his body is buried in the ground somewhere.  Is that what happens to us when we die?  We get put in the ground?

Yes, some people are put into the ground.  Others have their bodies burnt to ashes.

Oh…   Is that all that happens?

What do you mean?

I mean, do we just go in the ground and nothing else?

No, not exactly.

Then what else happens?

“What else happens” is a secret.

Oh, come on grandpa!  Tell me, please…

Alright.  I’ll tell you what happens when you die.  But you have to promise not to tell your dad.  Okay?

Okay.

When you die, your body returns to the earth.  But another part of you, a very special part, separates from your body and moves on to another place.  This happens to everyone.  Every man woman and child goes to the same place – called the between time.  Everyone who has ever lived and died now resides in the between time.  Everyone who lives in the between time lives and plays, but they also work.  Most importantly, they work.  Everyone’s job in the between time is to contribute their memories, their ideas, their experiences and their lives to the construction of the next Earth that we are all going to live on some day.  All of your birthday parties, your scrapped knees and your adventures in the back yard get put in there.  All the times you laughed, and all the times you cried also go into the new Earth.  Every nice thing you’ll ever say and every mean thing that you might one day regret get remembered and placed accordingly into the new world.  This has happened many many times, and will continue to happen long into the future.

Oh. So… So I get to help make the next world after I die?

Yes, you get to help make the next earth along with everyone else.

And this has happened many times already?

Yes.

Then why… Why did I break my arm last summer?  Couldn’t I have stopped from falling out of Uncle Gary’s tree?

No.  In the between time when people are building the new world, all they have to build with are their memories from their previous life.  People leave behind their imaginations and their choices when they die.  Some things, like accidents keep happening forever.

But you said I could build the new world.

You can.  But you have to build it while you are still alive.  Many things will happen to you during your life.  A lot of those things will be out of your control.  What you can control is how you react to those things and events.  Here, while we are alive, we can make choices about what to say to other people and what to do with our hands.  We consciously make memories every day, and with those memories we will eventually help to remake the Earth after the last person dies.  It’s up to us to make good memories.

Like the time we went out on your boat?

Yes, that was a good memory.

Heh.  I see.  You’re strange, Grandpa.

Maybe.

Grandpa?

Yes?

Why can’t I tell dad about this?

He is too old to learn about the between time.  Sometimes when adults learn this secret, they feel bad about the things they have done in their lives.  Sometimes they did things or said things that they regret and know that they will have to repeat those things in the next life.

Oh.  Have you made a lot of good memories, Grandpa?