Have another of those “deniable horror” stories like I did last year

I’m not afraid of the dark.

I just want to make that clear. It’s not the dark that frightens me. Not all dark, anyway.

I mean, sure, when I was a child I was afraid of the dark. But then I learned that some dark is friendly. The warm dark, at night, when you’re under the covers, safe in your bed. That’s the first kind I discovered, the protective, sheltering dark that gently surrounds.

In middle school I was the very first kid picked up by the school bus. It was then that I became familiar with the cold dark, which is no more of a threat than the warm. The cold dark is the crisp, cloudless, star-filled sky at five in the morning, the little fingers of cold that work their way into your coat through sleeves, collar, pockets, to remind you that you are awake and alive. Once I even saw an aurora, a frozen ripple of purple and blue far, far off in the northern sky.

The warm dark was the first kind to which I gave a name. The cold dark was third. In between, when I was six or seven, I discovered that not all dark was safe. There’s another kind, a kind that lurks and pools. The kind that streetlights don’t illuminate so much as punctuate, that feels like a physical substance pushing against the little circle of light, just waiting to snuff them out. The kind that is solid, tangible, and right behind you. It lived in my basement, the lurking dark, waiting at the foot of the stairs. I learned what bravery was the day I first went down there alone, and found nothing. I learned that it was all in my head.

But it still follows. Walking along the street at three in the morning, I feel it, throbbing and alive two inches behind my left ear. There’s nothing there when I turn to look, of course, because it’s all in my head.

Six doors down from my apartment is a narrow room containing recycling bins and the trash chute. The lurking dark lives there, one of many places. You can drive it off with a little dial next to the door. Twist it, and it slowly works its way back, ticking. The dark is patient. It listens, and when its minute is up, back it comes. The skin on my neck crawls as I shove my trash bags into the chute, listening to the ticking. I do not want to be there when the dark comes back.

I know. It’s all in my head.

Where does the dark go when we turn on the light? In the deep, deep caverns and the bottom of the sea, where no light has ever been, does it gather? Warm, cold, lurking, do they all return to the deep dark to nurse? I know it’s there. I see it in my head. The deep dark, the mother of all the others, their home.

And the other kind, too. The kind that’s never come out, that still waits to be discovered. The kind the lurking dark might take me to, if I wasn’t careful. The howling dark. The anger and loneliness for which this world of light and life is just an eggshell, thin and fragile.

But I’ve never seen it. It’s all in my head.

So why do I know that it howls? Why can I hear its screaming? Distantly, like a memory, but never ceasing.

All in my head, all in my head, all in my head. Why do people say that as if it’s supposed to be comforting? It’s all in my head! How can I run from something that’s in my head? No matter where I go, it arrives at the same moment I do!

And of course it’s in my head. There’s never been any light in there either. The inside of a skull is as dark as the bottom of any ocean trench, any ancient cavern. No light has entered there since the day you were born; even your eyes reflect it all back.

Where does the darkness go when you turn on the lights? It goes into your head, to feed. Its mother is right there, the deep dark, all in your head, my head. And waiting inside that, the howling. Of course I know what it sounds like, of course I can hear it, it’s in my head!

Although… There is one way to let in some light.

Fiction Friday: Select Instances in the History of Human-Elga Interactions

No human has ever interacted with an Elg.

The first recorded encounter between an Elgan Ambassador and humans took place in 2304, when a team responding to a distress signal from the derelict freighter Salutator were stalked and had eggs planted in their stomachs by a horrible black armored seven-foot monster. Unfortunately they’d never seen that movie, so ultimately the survivors just blasted it to pieces, at which point they realized it was a robot. Later they learned there was no freighter called Salutator registered anywhere in the region.

The second Ambassador took the form of essentially an ambulatory turd with big, expressive eyes and a telescoping neck. It successfully befriended a small, lonely boy in a community halfway between urban and rural, but he maintained the secret too well, and no government agents ever captured the Ambassador to experiment on it. After nearly 40 years of continuous operation, it broke down and was passed down in the family as an unusual piece of artwork.

For most of the 24th century and into the 25th, a series of Ambassadors visited human planets in the form of extremely stealthy spaceships crewed by little gray humanoids with massive black eyes. Their approach was to abduct humans from farms or isolated roadways, poke and prod them while enigmatic statements readable as either hopeful or menacing, and then partially wipe their memories. This resulted in everyone visited by the Elga being dismissed as attention-seeking or mentally ill.

The final, ultimately successful attempt by the Elga was to have one of those Ambassador ships appear in full view in a highly populous system, warn humanity of a terrible alien empire bent on galactic conquest, and invite them to join a cooperative alliance of many cultures spanning a wide swath of the galaxy, for trade, cultural interchange, and mutual defense.

That worked.

(Of course, then the Elga discovered that for some reason the humans now expected there to actually be an inter-species cooperative union threatened by an encroaching evil empire, but the story of how the Elga trolled the P’a’a, and the ensuing eight wars and counting over the past century and a half, lie outside the scope of this document.)

Today the Elga are regarded as close allies by the majority of human worlds, respected as the founders and senior members of the Cooperative United Federal Alliance of Worlds and Sentiences. Their robotic Ambassadors trade information and broker negotiations on hundreds of worlds, while their automated fleets help defend against pirates, raiders, Dwiro, and both the Ri’it P’a’a and the P’a’a Krii.

And to this day, no human has ever seen or interacted with an Elg. Even the rare visitors to what the Ambassadors insist is their homeworld see nothing but their robot servitors in a barren, admittedly beautiful, wasteland of massive crystal formations, beneath an eternally thundering sky that never rains.

Some people think they’re dead, the Ambassadors all that’s left. Others think the Ambassadors made them up, and they’re actually just a machine race with a weird sense of humor. Still others think the Elga live hidden on their homeworld, beneath the rocks or in the clouds.

They’re all wrong.

Fiction Friday: Untitled

The Princess sat by the tower’s one window, chin in hand. Today was the day, it seemed–today she came of age. Which meant that today was the day her three years of imprisonment in the tower ended, to be replaced by something even worse: marriage.

It was not that the Princess was inherently opposed to marriage. She was sure it probably worked out quite well for some people, if they were suited to it and to each other. It was just that she was quite sure it was not for her, and definitely not with the Regent, who had locked her in the tower in the first place, precisely to ensure that he could wait until this day, then marry her and be crowned king.

After which, well, she wouldn’t expect much in the way of life expectancy, to judge from history. Which the Princess could, better than most, because although she was locked in the tower, she was permitted books, and over the course of three years she’d read every single one the quite extensive castle library had to offer.

The door opened. She stood, brushed down her dress, and faced the Regent. If nothing else, she had her dignity.

“Well, Princess,” said the Regent, smiling the same way he did everything, smarmily. He was, the Princess had come rather quickly to realize, more or less made of smarm. To wit: He didn’t so much walk across the small chamber toward her as ooze. “I trust you are excited for this day as much as I?”

She gave a small smile and inclined her head. “Indeed, my lord.”

He looked surprised. “Really? Well, that is good news. I’m glad you’ve come around and realized marrying me is the best thing for our nation.”

She laughed, a bright, crystal sound echoing in the dingy room. “No,” she said.

“What?”

“No. I will not be marrying you today. Instead, I will be removing you from power, eliminating the cronies and mercenaries with which you have imposed your cruel reign on the kingdom’s people, and either banishing you or having you executed, I haven’t decided yet.”

It was the Regent’s turn to laugh, though if anything, his made the room even dingier. “Oh?” he said. “You and what army?”

The princess turned and looked out the window. He stepped forward to stand beside her, creating a study in contrast: him tall, thin, and pallid as a dead fish; her short and dark. Three years of imprisonment with effectively no opportunity to exercise and little to do besides eating and reading had left her quite fat, but it had also carried her past the gangly, clumsy, spotty phase of late adolescence and left her with clear, smooth black skin and a body that fit precisely, while all that study had done wonders for an already keen and curious intellect. She had matured, quite simply, into the most beautiful and wisest princess in the land, and she knew the Regent quite hated her for it. Not as much as he was about to hate her for what came next, though.

He followed her gaze, past the city spreading out below the castle, past the high walls and shining gates that girded it, to the wide and fruitful plains beyond. And there they were, filling those fields, stretching out into the distance until they faded to the horizon.

“How?” he asked.

“I escaped,” she said. “Every day. Multiple times, some days. And I went out, and I made friends, and I asked them to come help me on this day.”

“Escaped..?” he said weakly, paling from merely dead fish to vampire victim fish. “But… it’s impossible! There is no escape from this tower!”

“I had everything I needed right here,” she said, picking up a book. “Over and over again, I escaped into these stories, so full of wonderful people.” She gestured out the window. “And in some of those stories I found other books, and tales, and narrative forms you have never dreamt of, and I went to all of them I could, shared in their lives, and gave them of myself to make them live. And now, they are here at last.”

The two of them looked out the window at them all, brave knights and noble rebels, rogues with hearts of gold and friendly witches, people armed with sword and spear and whip and hammer, gun and blaster and disruptor, angry revolutionaries and disappointed idealists, elves and fairies and dwarves and trolls and goblins and aliens and ghosts and vampires and humans and werewolves, rockbiters and Gorons, all the serried ranks of the armies of Fantastica and Emelan and Terabithia and the Republic of Heaven, martial artists and martial artists with power over the elements and martial artists with magic and martial artists with alchemy and ninjas and samurai and princesses! Princesses with bows and magic bows and crossbows, princesses with wands and glowing staves and magical lacrosse sticks, a small young red-haired princess leading an army of wild animals and Fair Folk, and a tall dark-haired one leading an army of elves and dragons.

“But,” the Regent protested, “they’re only stories! They’re not real, they can’t come here!”

A skinny redheaded teenager incanted something and blew a massive hole in the city wall. The army came charging through, while from the skies above–well, they were as full as the sky, full of schoolchildren on brooms and angels with fiery swords and efreeti with fiery everything and fighter planes and bombers and starships and starfighters and battlestars and starfuries…

“You poor, pathetic, silly man,” the Princess said, the contempt in her voice tempered with just a trace of pity. “You’re an evil Regent who kept a wise and beautiful Princess locked in a tower for years so that you could marry her and cement your tyrannical rule over a once-peaceful and prosperous kingdom. This is a story. We’re no realer than they are, so if I can go to them, of course they can come to me! So you see, I rather think the answer to your original question is, well, this one.”

And then the army of everyone who never existed swept over the city, and in less time than it takes to read this sentence, it was done, because of course this is the kind of battle that moves faster for faster readers.

The regent was exiled, of course, the Princess having wisely decided that starting a new, better realm with a murder was probably not the best precedent. His exile was her first decree as Queen, and her second was to abolish the kingdom and establish an interim government to oversee the reconstruction and ease the transition into a less authoritarian form of government, and so there would never be a third decree because she wasn’t Queen anymore, and of course having been a Queen she couldn’t go back to being a Princess.

After that, as she mused to the new chairman of the interim council, “I suppose there’s not much left for me to do here. It’s time I was moving on for good.”

“Really?” he asked. “But we only just got you back!”

“Well, yes,” she said, “but there’s in infinity of stories out there and only all of eternity to see them all. I really must be getting started.” She paused. “I rather think I won’t need the books anymore–I’ve had a lot of practice, and I believe I’ve developed a knack for it. Farewell!”

And then, with a wheezing, groaning sound, the woman without a title stepped out of this story and into another.

Fiction Friday: Four Stories, Roughly Two and a Half of Them True

Happy Halloween! Here’s some scary stories. All of them are true, especially the parts that aren’t.

And check out My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 for some coverage of bronies being scary! Purchase links on the Books page!

This is the story of why I don’t believe in ghosts. Because I don’t; not anymore.

As a child I believed in basically everything. Not religion, obviously; that sort of nonsense was fine for Christians but not sensible and level-headed Jews like us. But I understood the language of television well enough at six, seven, eight years old to understand that cartoons and live action shows like Alien Nation or Dallas were just stories, while things like the news and documentaries were true. And since they used the televisual language of documentaries and news magazines, I naturally believed shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings were true, too. So I believed in aliens, psychic powers, Atlantis, and so on the same way that I believed in Congress or California or distant stars–without fervor, matter-of-factly.

My room became mine when I was six. My youngest sister was big enough to no longer sleep in the same room as my parents, so she moved into the room I had shared with my other sister; I therefore moved into spare room, which my mother had used as a study. I can still see the wallpaper in that room, a swirl of purple waves and pale-blue clouds interpenetrating in chaotic whirls. At the seams, it had yellowed a bit, turning those blues and purples into sickly greens, but other than that it was, I suppose, fairly pretty wallpaper. I was content; it made a good backdrop for whatever games my Lego spaceships– because no matter what the Kit was suppose to be, it became a spaceship in my hands–and I engaged in. 

Months passed, circled back, passed again. Six became seven became eight. Until one night I woke up and couldn’t move. 
It was dark. Impossibly dark, as pitch black as I had ever seen anything. There was a window directly behind my head, just above my pillows, but not a scrap of light came through it. 
And I couldn’t move. I had succeeded in opening heavy eyes, I could look around the room, but I couldn’t turn my head, couldn’t speak, couldn’t make my limbs move or even twitch a finger. A heavy weight lay across me, like a thick quilt but without the heat. It was heaviest on my chest, and I struggled to breathe as my eyes flicked around the barely visible room. Something was wrong. Besides being unable to move, besides the darkness, besides the pressure on my chest–there was another fear, beyond all of that, something instinctive and inchoate. I wanted to scream, and couldn’t.

Then the green began to glow. Thin lines of green along the seams of the wallpaper detached themselves into sickly glowing globs, drifting slowly toward my bed. I strained desperately in panic. If I could just open my mouth, just scream for my parents–but I couldn’t do anything as the light assembled itself into the vague form of a human, head too big, limbs too long, body too small, and made of independent smears of sickly yellow-green light, but still recognizably a person, watching me, bending over my bed. Considering me with great dark eyes, reaching one long hideous finger toward my face, closer and closer, until my eyes crossed trying to follow it and it blurred. Any second it could touch me, and this entire time the only sound was my rough panicked breathing, and I still couldn’t move, couldn’t struggle, couldn’t fight the weight pinning down my chest and my arms and my legs, couldn’t get my mouth open to scream.

Maybe there were clouds and they parted. Maybe it was timing and the moon happened to rise over the house across the street just then. I don’t know. All I know is that suddenly a shaft of silver light stabbed in through the window and struck the green, and it scattered. Dozens of little motes of light flowed away from it and back into the walls.

I found I could move one finger. Twitching it back and forth shook my arm free, and then suddenly I could move, and I screamed and screamed until my parents woke.

I refused to sleep in that room until they took down the wallpaper. I slept on the sofa in the living room for perhaps a week while they painted the room a nice blue with white trim and no green anywhere, and then I consented to sleep there again. In the years since I have, from time to time, woken in the night in terror, unable to move, but I read up on it. It’s just sleep paralysis, and sometimes it causes hallucinations.

So I don’t believe in ghosts, or alien visitors, or fairies, or anything else that comes in the night to steal children away. Because if I believed what I saw… well, then I’d be crazy, wouldn’t I?

***

In my second semester of college, I became a copy editor on the student newspaper. The next year, I moved up to copy chief. One of the new reporters that year, K, was small and energetic and cosplayed a quite accurate Yui Ikari, and I was definitely interested. Plus her friend kept hinting rather heavily that if I were to make a move, K would reciprocate. This was not a circumstance with which I had much experience, and I was rather at a loss regarding what to do about it.

Come October of that year, an assignment came down the pipe: a group of students were planning an overnight Halloween camping trip at Point Lookout State Park, which claims to be the most haunted park in America.

The park lies at the point where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and is mostly woods, with a little bit of beach where it meets the bay. It was the site of a minor battle in the War of 1812 between a small local militia and an overwhelming British force, and in the Civil War it housed a POW camp and military hospital. They say that the dead of both camp and hospital were buried by the sea, but the sea has eaten away at the land, so most of the graves are now under the waters of the bay.

There’s a small house on the parkland where the rangers live. They say they’ve had objects go missing only to be found stacked in pyramids in the bathroom. They say that people who spend the night there often feel someone tugging at their toes, that that’s how the doctors in the field hospital used to check if their patients had died in the night.

They say a lot of things, and I was happy to go along and witness none of them happening, because I’d always wanted to get to debunk something. I’m not sure why K decided she wanted to go. Whatever her reasons, we were handed a camera–this was 2002, when trusting a digital camera to a student was a pretty big deal–and told to go along, talk to the others, write about anything unusual that happened, and take lots of spooky pictures.

We arrived in the early afternoon, were told a bunch of stories about the history of the park by a ranger, and then free to explore. I remember emerging from the woods into the sudden shock of bright sunlight off the bay, a few hundred feet from a decaying old shack on the water’s edge. When we looked inside, there was nothing there but a tall, narrow table set into the floor, like a kitchen island. A large carving knife stuck blade-first into the table, next to a pile of dead fish. As we watched, one of the fish slowly, deliberately bent upwards, staring at us out of one black, round eye.

We fled back into the woods, laughing. Obviously, I told her when I had my breath, it was recently caught and flopping randomly as it gasped for air. That we were the only people along the entire beach, that they were no boats to be seen, that the smell and bugs suggested those fish had been there quite a while–well, neither of us elected to comment on any of that.

We explored the woods further as it started to get dark. We found another broken down old shack and tried to take pictures. The shack was empty and very dark inside, but when we checked the pictures there was a ball of light hovering in the middle of the room. A bit creepy, but just some trick of the flash and the window glass, right?

We returned to the campsite and laid out our sleeping bags a little ways away from the rest of the group. It was a clear, crisp night, unusually warm for Halloween. We chatted for a little while about nothing consequential.

“What’s that?” asked K suddenly.

“What’s what?” I asked.

“You don’t hear that?”

We were quiet a moment. I strained but could hear nothing. It was too late in the year for crickets, and there was no wind to speak of. “No,” I said. “What did you hear?”

“A voice,” she answered. “But it stopped.” She sounded scared. I wasn’t, of course. Everything that had happened that day had a perfectly rational explanation and there was nothing to fear at all.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” I suggested.

We did. Her hand was ice-cold, but it was still nice. We lay there in quiet for a while, looking up at the stars, or at least I was.

“I’m cold,” K said after a while. She scooted closer to me in her bag, and I let go of her hand and put an arm around her.

“You are!” I said in surprise. Her whole body was nearly as cold as her hand. But then, like I said, she was pretty small, so it made sense she’d get cold easily.

I held her, and we cuddled, which eventually led to other things, and we forgot about any strangeness until morning, by which time we were a couple. K talked to some of the other campers, none of whom noticed anything particularly strange, and most of whom were also in pairs. We returned to school and wrote the story, which was dutifully published in the next issue’s Features section.

The next few weeks were among the most intense of my life. K was, it turned out, an incredibly passionate woman, not just in the usual sense but in everything. No matter what we did, she flung herself into it with abandon, relishing every experience, from the taste of food to the textures of fabrics. There was little talking with K, and a great deal of doing, touching, tasting.

And she was always, always cold. I liked that; I hate being too hot, and she was always deliciously cool to the touch. Late nights at the newspaper, when everyone was a little punch-drunk and we just wanted to wrap up whatever the crisis of the day was and put the damn thing to bed, I would sit on the floor with my arms around her, cool and soft while we waited for whichever editor was holding things up to get their fixes done so I could check them.

It was an intense time, and like most intense experiences, it is longer in my memory than it was to live it. After a few weeks at most, things began to change. She became suspicious–not jealous, but concerned whether people were who they said they were, whether I was really me and she was really she. She would scream sometimes, a short sharp yelp for no reason she could explain afterwards–and the one time I pushed about it was our first real fight.

By the end of the year, it was over. She accused me of being a spy, of trying to make her crazy so that she wouldn’t realize what I was up to, of being in league with the forces arrayed against her. She was both furious and terrified in that last fight, pale and bug-eyed as she shouted that she wasn’t going to let them get to her, wasn’t going to fall for my tricks.

And then she was gone, from my life, from the newspaper–I think she even dropped out of school.

She had some kind of a breakdown, I guess. Stress of school, or some other issue, who knows? I wish I’d understood better at the time, been able to help, but who knows what if anything I could have done? Anyway it was a long time ago.

And like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts, or curses, or anything silly like that. Everything has a rational explanation, even if we don’t always know what it is–and everything here is explained by known issues with the human brain.

Except the way her hair would sometimes smell like the sea. That’s a bit odd, I guess.

***

Even though I was the oldest, I was the last of my mom’s kids to move out. Once I finally went off to college, she sold the place we’d lived when I was in high school. She lived in an apartment for a little while, but eventually bought a little house with her wife, M. When I came home from school, I lived there for a while, in a bedroom that had once been the attic.

The stairs up were by the kitchen, long and narrow. At the top you emerged at the front left corner of the little room, which sloped down from there in both directions. There was a wall to the left, where the original house ended, and a sort of cross between a skylight and a window, since by that point the ceiling was practically a wall. The back right corner was the lowest point of the ceiling, maybe two feet off the floor, while the back left corner was closer to three feet. 

The odd thing about that corner was the door. It was a perfectly ordinary door in miniature, about a foot high and painted white, with a little doorknob and a deadbolt. Beyond its size, the strangest thing about the door was that it was there at all; the attic ended at that wall, since the extension was only on the ground floor, so there couldn’t have been more than a few inches of space between the door and the exterior wall.

But hey, compared to the sorts of people I had as my first couple of college roommates, a weird door barely registered. I assure you it is entirely a coincidence that my bed was in the farthest possible corner of the room from the door.

Door or no, I liked that little room, with its oddly shaped corners and low ceilings and bookshelves filling every available bit of wall except the one with the door. I particularly liked it on stormy nights, which are pretty common in Maryland summer; I would lay in my bed and watch the rain drumming against the skylight, an endless ratatat that could lull me to sleep easily.

One night, I was lying there, watching a particularly energetic storm, when I heard something odd. It was quiet, but it sounded like a quiet scratching noise. Scritchscritchscritch pause, it went, scritchscritchscritch pause. But it was quiet, and the rain was drumming away, so I assumed I’d imagined it.

But then it came again. Scritchscritchscritch pause. Louder and a little faster, scritchscritchscritch pause. Now I was quite sure I could hear it, and as it became more insistent (scritchscritchscritchpause scritchscritchscritchpause) I was able to pinpoint where it was coming from: the little door, of course.

The scratching grew louder, and began to be accompanied by something else, a sound I couldn’t quite pin down. Scritchscritchscritch scritchscritchscritch, faster and louder. The other sound was getting louder too, but I still couldn’t quite make it out over the drumming of the rain and the scratching at the tiny little door in the corner.

The scratching was non-stop now, a furious and desperate scrabbling, and as the other sound grew louder with it I recognized it, wordless, panicked sobbing. I realized something else at that moment, too, there in the dim room in the wee hours of the morning: the deadbolt was on this side of the door, meaning the keyhole was on the other. That door wasn’t made to lock me out.

It was made to lock something else in.

At that moment there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, almost simultaneous with each other, and the sobbing rose to a shriek. After that… silence. Nothing but the drumming of the rain.

I never heard anything from behind that door again. Eventually, I graduated from school, got a place of my own, stopped spending my summers there. Not long after that, mom and M sold the house and moved away. I never quite got around to opening that door.

***

Elise was frightened. Maybe that’s why she had the dream; maybe that alone was enough.

She’d come to the hospital that morning for a standard check-up, here at the start of what in her mind she capitalized as Pregnancy Week 48. Chuck was with her this time. No particular reason; he’d come to some of her regular check-ups and not others, as work allowed, more at the beginning and recently, less in the middle.

She was glad he was there; he’d known to hold her hand the moment the doctor had trouble finding the heartbeat.

That was one reason she was afraid: scared for the child she might never get to meet.

They decided to keep her overnight for observation. They’d try again in the morning, the doctor assured her, and maybe it would be different.

She didn’t believe him, because she was pretty sure he didn’t believe himself. That led to a second reason she was afraid: scared because of things she’d read about that might go wrong if there was no heartbeat, what had to be done if those things went wrong, and the very real possibility that St. Mary’s Hospital was not a place which permitted doing it.

So there was more than enough fear to explain the dream, because of course it had to be a dream:

Elise woke in the middle of the night. The room was incredibly dark; the only light a very dim green glow from the monitors that illuminated approximately nothing, and a thin yellow-white sliver through the slightly open door of the room, a slice of brightness that angled across her lap and off into the corner of the room.

Something was wrong, very very wrong, but she was groggy enough that it took a moment for her to realize what. The blankets were tangled and shoved to the side, and beneath them the flimsy paper hospital gown made it extremely obvious: her belly was flat, completely flat, as if she’d never been pregnant at all.

Worse, there was an extra tube, beside the one coming out of her arm: long and gray, wrinkled and glistening, it extended out from under her gown, between her legs, and off the end of the bed. She could just make it out in the gloom, extending out through the gap in the door, into the hallway.

The door creaked and opened slightly. There was a very small shadow pushing its way through the door, right down at the floor. It was hunched, crawling, stubby-limbed and large-headed. It lifted its head to look at her, and she saw bright red lips in a pale, round face. Her brown eyes met big, bright green ones.

And then it was morning, and she was heavily pregnant, and the covers were where they belonged. No strange gray tubes stretched across the floor, and the door was wide open as the nurse gently woke her.

The doctor found the heartbeat without difficulty, and it was healthy and strong and everything checked out perfectly normal for thirty-eight weeks, and she could go home with Chuck. Everything was right with the world, and not even the screams and sobs from the couple whose son had been in the room next to hers could damp her relief.

A couple of months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and everything was fine, continued to be fine, would always be fine.

Still and all, for the rest of her life, she was very, very glad he had not been born with green eyes.

Autobiographical Story About Time Travel and Fairies

I put up the first part of this story quite a long time ago. I have made minor edits to that, and written the rest of the story, so this post is the full text.

I put aside the soldering iron and sat back to survey my work. It wasn’t the neatest job I’d ever seen, but then, I’d never been much of a modder. Oh, just like everyone else I’d modded a PlayStation to play import games, but that was almost twenty years ago now, and I hadn’t exactly done the neatest job back then, either.

The point was, it was finished and would probably work. If, of course, the website I’d ordered the mod chip from wasn’t a hoax. I’d been burned before with seemingly legitimate websites that turned out to be much shadier than they looked, most recently picking up an HDMI to VGA adapter which turned out to be (a) illegal and (b) almost completely non-functional.

I was pretty certain the mod chip I’d just installed in my new camera wasn’t illegal, because the tech was too new to be banned yet. I worried anyway, though I could no longer tell how much of that was due to legitimate concern and how much due to the inevitable jitters engendered by three days of high caffeine and low sleep.

Regardless, I put the back of the camera back on and screwed it into place. It was time. I turned the camera on. For a moment my heart froze in my throat, where it had decided to take up new residence, as the camera’s screen stayed black a little longer than I expected, but then it booted up normally. I selected the little icon of the clock in a crosshairs and carefully picked my date and location. Then I pointed the camera and took a deep breath.

“Are you really sure you want to do that?” asked a high-pitched voice like the tinkling of tiny bells.

I looked up and around. A soft pink ball of light was hovering outside my window, where the sound had come from. As I stared, it tapped against the window pane with a gentle tink.

I blinked a few times. It was still there. Tink!

I walked slowly over to the window and bent down to examine the pink thing more closely. As near as I could tell, it was just a fuzzy pink ball of light. Tink! Tink!

“Will you let me in?” the ball demanded. “It’s cold out here, and I think it’s starting to snow!”

For lack of any better ideas, I opened the window and the thing darted inside. It darted about the room a few times, then zipped up into the air in the middle of the room. I got the sense it was trying to orient itself.

Then: “Aha!” went the bells, and it floated over to my desk, where it settled down next to the camera. The light began to fade, to reveal a slender woman about five inches tall, with mauve skin, a triangular face, and a large (for her size) shock of pink hair. A pair of antennae protruded from high on her forehead, and four iridescent dragonfly-like wings from her back. She could not be anything but a fairy.

“Great, I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” she answered, “but that’s not why I’m here. The Hallucination Fairy is a completely different division. I’m the Continuity Fairy.”

“…the what?” I might as well play along. It’s not like you can make hallucinations go away by ignoring them.

“The Continuity Fairy. Well, a Continuity Fairy, anyway.” She pulled a tiny little index card out of–well, out of nowhere I could see, actually–and read from it. “We have detected a probability nexus resulting in retrotemporal distortion originating from this location in approximately twenty minutes, most likely resulting from abuse of a ThioTime ™ brand future-sensitive camera. As the Continuity Fairy, it is my responsibility to ensure that such distortions do not occur.” She smiled brightly and put the card away wherever it had come from. “So: don’t do it, okay?”

“Um,” I answered.

“Something the matter?” she asked.

“If you’re the Continuity Fairy, how come you needed to read that off a card? Haven’t you been doing this for millennia or something?”

She pouted. “If you must know, I’m on interoffice loan. I’m normally a Parking Fairy.”

“A what?”

“You know, I cause open spaces in crowded lots, that sort of thing.”

I pondered this a moment. “You must not be very good at your job.”

She put her fists on her hips and leaned forward. “It’s not my fault!” she tried to yell, though it came out as more of a squeak. “We’ve always been understaffed, and now with you, you… you mortals running around inventing Time Cameras and Time Tunnels and Time Machines,  half of us have had to move over to assisting the Continuity Fairy! Poor thing is so overworked her antennae are drooping!”

I held up my hands to ward her off. “Sorry, sorry!” I sat back in my chair and studied her a moment.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well what?”

“Well, will you promise not to go back in time and muck up all our paperwork?”

I sighed. “Sorry,” I said. “I have to.”

“But why?” she pouted.

I sighed and looked at my workbench, meaning of course my living room, i.e. only, table, and at the camera sitting on it. “Things to fix.”

She groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Of course,” she said. “Look, try to understand this from our perspective, okay? These Time Cameras already have us overworked, what with you lot suddenly starting to photograph the past, forcing us to fix glitches you never would have noticed before. No, that’s not enough, you have to start figuring out how to break the safeties and photograph the future, too! Yeah, to you it’s just lottery numbers and TV spoilers, but to us it’s total continuity violation, glitches everywhere, you have no idea how hard it is to fix!” Her wings vibrated angrily. “But the worst, the absolute worst, are you people turning them into time machines and gallivanting into the past to–wait, how did you even know how to do this? I thought we got that site shut down!”

I shrugged. “Wayback Machine. Didn’t keep the diagrams, but it took maybe five minutes to find them on Pirate Bay.”

“Dammit,” said the fairy. “Look, what are you even trying to fix? It can’t be that bad.”

“My father died when I was thirteen,” I said, flatly factual. Perhaps I should have been dramatic, angry or sad or bitter, but it’s hard to get that worked up about something that’s been true for two thirds of your life.

“Oh,” she said. “Some kind of accident, or violence, and you think you can–“

“Cancer,” I said.

“Cancer,” she said back. “You’re going to go back in time and cure cancer? Are you even a doctor?”

I shrugged. “No. But it was lung cancer. He was a smoker. I figure if I go back far enough, convince him to quit–“

The fairy sighed and folded her wings. Her antennae drooped a bit. “You never tried as a kid?”

“Well, yeah, but–“

“So you think some random stranger he doesn’t recognize will do better? You think there’s any chance he’ll believe you if you claim to be his son?” She spoke softly, but there was an edge to the words. Her folded wings weren’t vibrating, but the air around her seemed to be.

“I have to try!” I snapped.

The fairy made a sweeping gesture with her arm, as if to gather in my apartment, its tiny spaces, the mess, the shelves packed to overflowing with books, the tiny inflatable mattress on the floor. “Why? Because you blame his death for this?” Her voice rose. Despite its high pitch, there was no longer anything cute or small about it. “Because you think if you go back and make him not dead, you won’t be alone? Won’t be stuck? Won’t live in a dump? You think you’re the first person who thinks they know where there lives went wrong?”

“No!” I shouted back. My anger was the opposite of hers. As always, when I got angry, my voice got squeaky and my eyes stung. Anger made me feel as it always did, small, and vulnerable, and tired, and that just made me angrier. “Because he was my dad, and I loved him, and he was terrible! Because he was the gentlest, kindest, most loving man in the world on his meds but he never loved us enough to stay on them! Because I was terrified of him when he was off, and just as scared when he was on because he might go off! Because we were living in poverty and filth when he died and his insurance money was the only reason we got out!”

The fairy looked up at me curiously, her head tilted to the side, one antenna raised. “I don’t understand,” she said, soft again.

I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, trying to steady myself. “Dad did more for me by dying than he ever did alive. I could never have gone to college, I’d never have my career, if he had lived.” I couldn’t hold it, the squeak and volume rose again, a physical pressure in my throat and behind my eyes. “What kind of son is better off without his dad? All this crap,” I waved my own hand around the room, “is the best of all possible worlds, and that’s wrong.” I forcibly plopped back down in my chair at the workbench and reached for the camera.

“Wait!” she cried, flying over to me and hovering in my face, wings beating invisibly fast, like a hummingbird. “Listen! Don’t you think this is what he wanted? For you to have a better life if something happened to him? Does having a good father make you a bad son?”

I shook my head. “You don’t get it,” I said. “He wasn’t a good father. He was a well-meaning father who sucked at it for reasons outside his control, and knowing that is what makes me a bad son. I have to put things right.”

“Please,” she said. “Think about this. If he were here, would he want this? If you’re doing this for him, think about him! And then, if you can honestly say to me that this is the right thing to do by him, the right way to honor him, then…” She sighed and settled down on the table. “Then I won’t stop you. You can go ahead and change history and my sisters and I will just have to deal with the cleanup.” She stepped aside and gestured to the camera. “So, can you? Can you truthfully say this is what he’d want?”

I picked up the camera and thought about my dad.

At least, that’s what I’d like to say. But that’d be a lie.

The truth is, I picked up my camera and thought about thinking about my dad. I thought about missing my dad, and hating him, and being scared of him. I thought about the person I was and the person I became and the long, ugly road in between. I thought about what I owed him. I thought about how much worse my life would be if he were still around, and how much I loved him, and how much I hated thinking this way.

I thought about the things that live in us, wear our skins and smile with our faces, speak with our voices and think with our thoughts.

But I don’t think I ever, in that long moment that stretched out between me and the camera and the small purple insectomammaloid, actually thought about my dad.

But I put down the camera. “I can’t,” I said.

The next day I visited dad’s grave for the time since. He wasn’t any less there than anywhere else, but the symbolism felt right.

I have had this story, its concept, its beginning and ending, in my head for the better part of a decade. In that time, I have written its beginning many times. This is the first time I have made it to the end.

Memory

“Memory. That lying scumbucket.”

The woman had green hair and a large, shapeless brown jacket. She sat on the sidewalk, hugging her knees.

“I’m sorry?” I asked. I don’t know why. I normally push past homeless people, since I don’t carry cash and can’t give them anything. It’s embarrassing to have to say, because I think they’ll think I’m lying.

“Can’t trust a memory. You can only remember what you saw, for starters.” Maybe it was the hair. You don’t often see a homeless person with dyed hair.

“That’s… true, I guess?” I said.

“Even then, can’t trust it. Full of holes, and half of what is there is made up anyway.”

“I don’t have any money to give you,” I said.

She ignored me, staring fixedly at a point two feet to my left and who knows how far in the past. “All made up. But it’s what makes now.” She looked up at me, straight into my eyes. “So now’s made up too, you see?” I have only ever once seen a face like that before, on an eight-year-old at her father’s funeral.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

You’re sorry?” she demanded, and then laughed. “How do you think I feel? They’re my memories!”

I stood there for a while in silence, while she stared. She didn’t say anything more.

I don’t even know for sure what this is part of, if anything…

I leap from rooftop to rooftop, my skirt fluttering in the wind and my twintails streaming behind me. The city beneath is quiet, at least here in the touristy parts of town. The moonlight bathes everything in eerie, fantastic silver, punctuated here and there with the almost-warm yellow glow of a streetlamp or the cycling colors of a traffic light. Buoyed by magic, I bound across the city’s rooftops almost effortlessly, scanning with preternaturally sharp eyes and ears–and other, stranger senses–for the tell-tale signs of an infarction.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I’m Shannan, a fourteen-year-old freshman at Benjamin Banneker High, a good student at a good school. I like mythology and mint ice cream and cheerleading, though I didn’t quite make the squad. I guess I can be a bit of a klutz sometimes, and I’m kind of shy, but I do all right.

Oh, and at night I transform into Magical Pretty Girl Annan and battle the forces of the Dark Between to keep them from penetrating into this world. So there’s that.

It’s hard sometimes, and scary, and lonely, especially now that Shea and I are the only ones left. But there are advantages. Even untransformed, I heal ridiculous fast, and I’m faster and stronger. Then when I use the magic to transform, I change completely. I come out looking more like a twenty-year-old model or an actress than a random teen, all big blue eyes and five-foot-long strawberry-blonde tails and cream-colored legs and Jake Henderson would probably drool all over me if he saw it. Plus I get even stronger and even faster, so I can easily jump fifty or sixty feet straight up, I’ve got all kinds of neat magical powers for fighting infarctions–it’s a pretty great deal Shea gave me!

I leap down near the corner of 9th and F. During the day this is right on the edge between downtown offices and tourist shopping, but at this hour it’s completely deserted. I transform back and check my watch.

Not enough time to get to Metro before it closes; looks like I’m either calling a cab or walking home. Of course I don’t have my purse–I’ve learned the hard way you don’t want to bring that with you when you transform, it tends to get lost. So a cab isn’t really an option. Fortunately there’s no particularly bad neighborhoods between here and home, but still, I try to do everything the way my long-ago self-defense instructor suggested. Walk confidently, briskly but not quickly enough to look scared. Don’t get squirrely and start looking around. Stay calm, and don’t act like prey.

My self-defense instructor was basically full of shit, but at least I can pretend I’m doing something. Luckily, the closest I get to encountering another person is someone zipping past on a bicycle on the other side of the street. If you’re going to walk around the city alone at night, one o’clock on a Monday morning at the tail-end of winter isn’t a bad time to do it.

And of course, I could always just transform if I got in trouble, but I don’t like doing that if I can help it.

Regardless, after a little over half an hour of walking I’m at the door to my apartment. I open it, flick on the light, nod to the cockroaches desperately scurrying under the fridge. I’d do something about them, but I heard they eat bedbugs, so instead I occasionally make a crumb-trail from the fridge to the couch in the hopes they’ll get the hint. They haven’t yet.

“Home sweet shitpile,” I say, and flop down on the couch. I’ve learned from experience that if I let them bite me now and here, they won’t do it as much when I go to bed. I should probably eat something, but I have to get up for work in five hours. Maybe I should try to sleep instead.

Oh! I should probably introduce myself again. I’m still Shannan, thirty-four-year-old SAS application developer for a government agency (I would tell you which one, but then I’d have to be embarrassed about that not actually being grounds for killing you or even a secret at all, really). I’m also chair of our office’s branches of both BIG and FEW. I still like mythology and mint ice cream, but I never did make that squad, so for cheerleading substitute softball. And I still have that shy streak, too, but I’m not klutzy now that I’m not growing three inches in one year.

Twenty years ago I made a deal, and gained the power to become Annan. Twenty years of growing up, definitely older and hopefully wiser. College, jobs, dates here and there, a couple of boyfriends, the normal stuff, except for the whole slipping out at night to do battle as the only defender of humanity for hundreds of miles.

And in all that time, Annan hasn’t aged a day.