by Rose Guildenstern
(Honorable Mention in Free Expressions Short Story Contest)
The sun flickered out on my twenty-third birthday.
I was backpacking on Thompson Peak with Zach and Aaron when it happened. About half-way to the summit, amidst the aspens and purple wildflowers, Aaron paused to take a photo of the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. It looked like the work of an artist rather than mother nature, as though it was filled with turquoise paint instead of water, with the slightest tinge of emerald shading the bottom left corner.
Unnamed lakes are everywhere in the Sawtooth Mountains. This part of Idaho teems with hidden glacial lakes like this little gem.
That’s when we saw the silent flare spread across the horizon, as though a giant photographed the earth with an old-fashioned flash-lamp. A struggle between sunlight and otherlight ensued for the briefest moment, until the sun vanished behind an alien black cloud that greedily claimed the entire skyline.
The sight mystified Aaron and me, but Zach knew exactly what it was the moment he saw it.
He’s the conspiracy theorist of our little group.
“There goes Boise.”
I couldn’t move, could barely breathe. With all the heated debates the three of us had in college about this very possibility, with all Zach’s survivalist training and Aaron’s visions of sustainable living, I don’t think any of us really thought it would come to this.
I reached for Aaron’s hand, but it remained slack at his side.
Zach started counting out loud, “One one-thousand, two one-thousand…”
At twenty-nine one-thousand, we felt as well as heard it: a jarring boom chased by an ominous soft rumble, like distant thunder invading.
The animals and insects hushed as though they knew, too.
I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look on Aaron’s face until the day I die, like a fish right before you jam the hook in its gaping mouth.
We’d planned to camp on the mountain with four days’ provisions packed in our backpacks. Half a day’s hike from our car parked at the Redfish Trailhead, it was six miles further to the nearest town with a population of less than a hundred. I had no idea what to do.
But Zach did. “We need to get underground as fast as possible.” He took out his hiking map and started walking. “Find shelter for at least the next seventy-two hours.” He bolted ahead at a pace so fast my shorter legs could barely keep up. “Underground. The lower the better.”
Aaron took up the rear and whispered the f-word, “Fallout.”
About twenty minutes later, we found an abandoned mine framed by rotting support boards. Idaho’s littered with ghost towns and deserted mines from the gold rush era.
We’ve set up camp in the very back, about thirty feet into the mountain. It can drop down to the 30s at night, thank god for our sleeping bags and canister stove. I’m already wearing my black down jacket, an early birthday gift from my parents especially for this trip.
My parents. Are they okay? Did they even make it? I remember reading that Seattle would be one of the first places leveled if Russia actually attacked.
We don’t even know if this was Russia. It could be North Korea—or god forbid, China. They all have reasons to hate us.
No one’s said a word since we set up our makeshift camp. Aaron’s in shock, and Zach is formulating—equal parts disturbed and just a tad too pleased with himself.
I’m writing this in my journal, the pathetic scribbler who hopes that someday someone will want to read my little words and maybe understand me.
I wish we had cell phone reception up here. Or that we had a radio other than the one in our car at the bottom of the mountain.
That’s my fault. I wanted my birthday to be media-free, just the three of us. Time away from the world that’s begun to consume so much of us since graduation.
I guess I got my wish.
Happy birthday to me.
This mine is cold and damp, but Zach thinks we’re protected from the fallout.
At least for now.
There’s something wrong with Aaron. He’s mute, only nods or shakes his head. The way he sits and stares into the empty space in front of him without moving frightens me.
He’s always been the sensitive one.
It occurred to me this morning at breakfast that I only have five days’ worth of my prescription in my backpack and another five in our car at the trailhead.
I think I can skip a few doses, but I’m going to need to find a pharmacy soon.
Zach says this is the least of our worries.
He says we need to stay put in this cave for the next two days, and then we’ve got to get to our car and find out what happened. Apparently, he has a “dosimeter” in his car that can measure the level of radiation we’re being exposed to.
Of course he does.
Before yesterday, I always thought Zack—as much as I would defend him to anyone else—was a bit of a nutjob.
Now I’m realizing he might have been the sanest of us all.
I’m putting this journal aside to see if I can get Aaron talking.
Or eating. He wouldn’t touch our powdered eggs this morning.
I slept abysmally, dreaming of what will never be.
Not knowing is the worst. As much as I hate this cave-blind purgatory, I keep thinking I should savor every moment of it, as this may be my last.
Aaron’s almost non-responsive, and Zach’s losing patience with what he calls Aaron’s “selfishness.”
Aaron and I went out for nearly two years, and he’s about the least selfish person on the planet. Even now that we’re just friends, he makes me feel more loved and accepted for who I am than anyone else. We’d still be dating if he hadn’t decided he preferred women.
Zach’s about as straight as you can get, but Aaron’s tried dating both men and women since high school. When I started to take the meds to transition, I told Zach first because I couldn’t face telling Aaron. I figured if Zach couldn’t handle it then it would probably kill Aaron.
Zack treats me the same as always.
But Aaron, well…Aaron and I are complicated. He knows I’m the same person inside, but he misses his girlfriend. I think the hardest thing he’s ever done was being honest enough to admit that although he loves and supports me, he’s no longer attracted to me. He told me it’s like the woman he loved died, and he needed time to grieve so that he could appreciate that his best friend was still here.
It took him a long time to get over the death of his girlfriend; it took even longer for me to get over the death of us.
I didn’t know that the last time he kissed me would be the last time.
Just like I had no idea my birthday was the last day I’d see the sun, and possibly the last birthday I’d ever see.
We finished breakfast and are about to leave the cave. I’m writing to prepare myself.
I don’t know when or if I’ll be able to write again.
Aaron scarcely speaks but is less zombie-like. We’ve planned out our next steps as much as we can.
We’ll wrap fabric around our noses and mouths. We won’t touch anything except the ground beneath our feet until we can use Zach’s dosimeter.
I will have five more days of meds to take once we reach the car, but what then?
Zach has warned us that the EMP from the bomb’s blast may have knocked out the car’s electronics, but there’s a crank radio that is also a flashlight and cell phone charger in his trunk, so we should be able to get the radio on and find out what’s happened.
That’s if there’s local infrastructure left to support radio communication. The satellites will still be in place, but we won’t know how widespread the damage is, possibly for a long time if all the major cities were affected. Since Boise was hit, and it’s hardly a first target, logic suggests this is a largescale nuclear event. Last evening Zach laid out the possibilities: a nuclear “winter” if hundreds of bombs were detonated. Sky darkened by ash and dust, dropping temperatures, plant die-off followed by mass starvation. A nuclear “autumn” if the bombing was limited in scope and land-based, with lowered temperatures and lower crop yields leading to widespread famine, weather patterns much more volatile than simple climate change, and eventually water wars.
As I step out of the dark cave and into the light, I don’t care about my meds or last times anymore.
Because the sun is back, and for today—what is, is enough.
Excerpt from Numb
novel-in-progress by Rose Guildenstern
Many of you have asked me about Numb, the novel I’ve worked on since November’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so I thought I’d share a wee excerpt from the mind of one of the novel’s main characters, Chris. The first draft of this novel isn’t yet finished, so what I’m sharing will surely go through myriad permutations before it reaches its final draft form. Consider this a peek into one writer’s process rather than a finished product :
I went into the Waste to die. I didn’t know that until the Waste, I’d never lived.
I didn’t really think about feelings too much when I was younger, I was too busy figuring out how things worked. What was above me, what was below me—whom I needed to regard, and who was regardless. I didn’t worry too much about ordinary feelings, as feelings are distracting/frivolous excuses for the losers to justify their failures. I was too busy worrying about getting what I wanted/lacked than to concern myself with insignificant feelings. My dad was so far out of my reach I could barely touch him, and my mom—well, she was like the kitchen table: Steady. Making my meals, helping me with my homework, cleaning the house, telling me she loved me, always there….
Until she wasn’t.
My dad said I was the strong one, which is really ironic in the worst kind of way. My so-called “strength” was really a sheltered curation of what I wanted to be true about myself and my brittle world that had been constructed upon a succession of insubstantial successes/lies.
I suppose it all started/ended when mom vanished. I was just beginning to experiment with hating my father. General, war hero turned reluctant politician, a god-fearing man who somehow lived a humble life in the limelight of the too-remarkable/not-nearly-remarkable enough.
Of course, I knew he loved me/loves me, but it was still his fault. All of it. Was she assassinated? Did she leave him/us? It really didn’t matter—either way, it all came back to him.
Until this last year, my life was never about me—how could it be? I was small/inconsequential. For most of my life, it was mom/me on one side and dad on the other, carrying the concerns of the whole country on his shoulders while we quietly carried ourselves alone. We were his moons/satellites, spinning around his cycles of eminence as though we couldn’t exist without him.
In the second grade, I got my one and only failing mark on a school project because of my dad and the stories/myths he told me. I was supposed to make a creative visual model of our nation and toiled for hours fashioning a symbolic 3D paper mâché representation of our solar system. Each of the eight planets represented a different state, and they all rotated about the sun, which I plastered with a huge picture of my father, General Benjamin Wilson, smeared with golden/shattered glitter.
My teacher and my father didn’t appreciate the project for completely different reasons. My teacher chastised that, although it was admirable to honor my father and the many “sacrifices he’d made for our nation,” only the one true God could be rightfully represented by the sun, and even that might be considered a graven image. My father, on the other hand, pulled me out of the school firstly/lastly because he felt the assignment itself was flawed and indicative of a larger problem: that of how to raise a child to be extraordinary when surrounded by the quotidian.
My mother praised my project and proudly displayed it on her mantelpiece. Both of us knew the truth, even if everyone else was still in denial: that all of us—our country’s citizens/she/I—were simply wandering stars to the General’s mighty sun.
And as much as we might sometimes resent him for his blinding light, he/his God were the reason for…well, everything. We probably wouldn’t even exist without him/Him. Daily, with God my father made the critical choices that succeeded in making our country more secure, rich, and powerful in a progressively more and more unstable/unhinged world.
To this day, I have no idea how he does it.
My mom is an even greater mystery/void in my life. A folktale I told myself that loved me/comforted me once upon a time. She disappeared the day after my sixteenth birthday.
The day I became a man in our society. I suspect she stayed until she’d definitively lost me, to reclaim herself.
Of course, my dad insisted that she was kidnapped/probably killed. We have/he has many enemies, so critical/jealous of our nation’s prosperity, but I always suspected—deep down in the silent parts of me that have never had a proper conversation with my father—that she left the only two men in her life who could decide her own fate for her.
I miss her/us.
Obviously, Numb is quite different than my first novel, Iago’s Penumbra. My aim is to complete the first draft of Numb by the end of this year as I work on two other contracted writing projects. I’ll be sure to share more tantalizing tidbits with you in the future as I complete this next novel…so stay tuned.
Tarot Reading Excerpt from Iago’s Penumbra
by Rose Guildenstern
Madame shuffled the cards, fanning them across the middle of the table. “Choose a card for each person you wish to know more about, speaking that person’s name aloud as you turn the card over.”
Tentative, Julie chose her first card from the center of the line.
“Val.” She said without hesitation.
Turning the card over, an intriguing image made entirely of gold on a black background presented itself: A man with an alarming head reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, wearing a lopsided crown, sat enthroned with a goblet in one hand and a fish in the other. Words were printed at the bottom of the card; she supposed it was the card’s title.
Iago couldn’t believe its luck. It would know that fish-faced follower of Dagon anywhere.
“The King of Cups. This is the man you love.” Madame said matter-of-factly.
Julie’s cat eyes opened wide, then narrowed. She examined first the card, then Madame, closely, not knowing quite what to think.
“Choose the next card, please.”
This time, Julie took over a minute to make her selection. This card was to signify herself, and she didn’t want to make any mistakes. At last, she reached a bit off-center, choosing a card and saying, “Me.”
This card pictured a young angel on a mountain top, clouds behind her, holding up a medieval sword. She liked this card.
Iago choked down a derisive snort.
“The Princess of Swords—no surprise there,” said Madame, “Next, please.”
Three full minutes passed as Julie studied the back of every single card, until at last she chose one card from the far left, and turned it over.
It displayed a demonic queen, awful in her beauty, sitting on a throne and grasping a wooden staff in one hand with a skull superimposed upon a flower in the other.
Iago couldn’t contain its jubilation, triggering an inappropriate smirk to cross Julie’s face in response—it had finally found its mark.
Julie stared at the abhorrent figure.
“And this is…?”
“I…I don’t know her name.” Julie admitted, ashamed.
Madame sighed. “Well, she is the Queen of Wands. Any more to choose, or shall we continue with the tarot reading?”
Tarot. Julie had heard the word before, of course, but had never actually seen a tarot deck. Peter would be against it, she was sure. Val would have shared her curiosity.
Peter! She had completely forgotten him.
“There’s one more.” Haphazard, she took a card from the right. “Peter,” she said as she turned the card over, “my best friend.”
A bald man sat astride a dark horse, holding up a golden disc. Madame picked up the card, intent in her evaluation. “The Prince of Pentacles,” she said under her breath. “Poor fool.”
Madame commenced with picking up the unused fanned cards and reshuffled them. She cut the pile three times, then laid three additional cards on each of the original four Julie had picked.
With a renewed diligence, Julie and Iago read the foreign phrases at the bottom of each new card.
On the King of Cups, Madame put the Four of Wands, Ace of Cups, and Three of Wands.
To Julie’s card, she added the Five of Pentacles, Seven of Swords, and Three of Swords.
With the Queen of Wands, she joined the Two of Cups, Four of Swords, and Ten of Cups.
The lone Prince received the Seven of Pentacles, Two of Pentacles, and Three of Cups.
Without emotion, Madame pronounced her verdict. “Your beloved has fallen for another. There are complications. You have come here to win him back. Your friend is in love with you.”
Julie, now a genuine convert, hung upon Madame’s every word. Iago respected that, the medium’s eccentricities aside, this was the real deal. It had to tread carefully now, giving Julie just the right amount of truth in a form that could be coaxed toward its own aims.
“This is all what you know,” Madame said, picking up the idle stack of cards and handing them to Julie. “Now, let us find out what you do not know. Please shuffle the remaining cards, choose ten at random, and hand the ones you choose to me.”
–This tarot reading is continued in my soon-to-be-released novel, Iago’s Penumbra by Rose Guildenstern. Sign up for my email list for new excerpts and happenings as we approach the publication date!
**CLICK HERE to read the first chapter of Iago’s Penumbra**
Tarot in Fiction
–by Rose Guildenstern–
Tomorrow I depart for my next writing intensive and will be offline for a time. As I pack and prepare for this deep-dive experience, I find myself ruminating about one of my niche interests — the crossroads where Tarot meets Fiction. In my first novel, Iago’s Penumbra, Tarot is featured quite prominently (more on this to come), but I’ve read a lot of weird fiction written by others that utilizes the Tarot as everything from a major plot device to the story’s very foundation or metaphor. Here’s my personal list of favorite books that feature Tarot for your reading pleasure:
Nine Princes of Amber series by Roger Zelazny: Tarot cards are used to communicate across distances or travel from the a priori universe of Amber to various shadow universes (our own Earth being one such shadow among many).
God of Tarot series by Piers Anthony: Readers either love or loathe this fantasy/sci-fi world called “Tarot” where various Tarot cards manifest in creative ways and “religions are wielded like swords.” Anthony himself considered this his most important work, but many find this series offensive.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke: Mr. Norrell’s assistant, Childermass, uses a powerful deck of tarot cards in this alternative history of a magical England during the Napoleonic wars where gentlemen magicians seek the lost Raven King.
Infinity’s Web by Sheila Finch: Tarot cards used to alter the multiverse in this most unusual tale.
The Last Sun series by K.D. Edwards: Post-apocalyptic Earth where an Atlantean society of magician-arcana are organized by tarot and trumps.
Last Call by Tim Powers: A mixture of playing cards and tarot cards will determine the next Fisher King.
The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams: An ancient tarot deck turns out to be the only “true” tarot deck in the world, capable of actually summoning the forces of the universe.
The Game of Triumphs by Laura Powell: YA novel that imagines tarot as a game that, if played, determines your life—like a more sophisticated (and scary) Jumanji, based on tarot instead of a board game.
The Tarot of Perfection by Rachel Pollack: 8 short stories that are modern variations on fairy tales, each tied explicitly to the tarot and fortune-telling.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino: Imagine the Canterbury Tales told by an Italian through the eyes of fifteenth-century tarot cards and their archetypical images.
The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack: The story of a manuscript about a priceless tarot deck and the attempt to protect its terrible 2000-year-old secret.
The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater: Blue Sargent comes from a family of psychic tarot readers who foresee that if Blue kisses her true love, he will die.
All Our Hidden Gifts by Carolyn O’Donoghue: Maeve’s strangely astute tarot readings make her the talk of the school until a classmate draws a chilling and unfamiliar card—and then disappears. **Special Note: The audiobook of this novel is much better than reading it yourself, in my opinion.
The Wizard’s Cat
–by Rose Guildenstern–
It was Papa who named me “Justcat,” which irks Nana to no end.
He said that when he found me, I was fat and dark and mewling like a kitten–although decidedly human, I snuggled close for warmth against the dead witch’s familiar, a black cat.
He says I looked “just” like a little black “cat.”
I never knew who my real mother was. Papa says that the dead witch, although known for eating children, never had any of her own.
When Papa inquired about me in the village surrounding the old witch’s hut, the villagers, though relieved at news of her demise, were just as baffled by my existence as he. Not more than a few months old, I seemed to appear out of nowhere. So, Papa jokes that the witch’s cat, whom he named “Ferocious” because of how she spat and clawed at Papa when he first bent down to pick me up, must be my true mother.
Ferocious insisted on accompanying us the day that Papa brought me home, and she has slept by my side, protected me, and petted me like one of her own ever since.
Papa is known around these parts as The White Wizard—and they always say it like that, capitalizing “The” in a sort of hushed, awe-filled whisper—which has nothing to do with being good or evil, but refers to his attainment of the highest level of wizardry, the Order of the White Orb. His magic, which he calls his “art,” comes from his Intellect, the Divine Words, and the Stars.
Considered the greatest wizard in the land, all manner of adventurers and kings and other famous-type persons seem to always be traversing vast distances to accost Papa for advice and assistance of one sort or another.
My Papa’s housekeeper, crotchety old Nana, offers me the closest thing to a mother I’ve ever known. Wizards never marry, but Papa knew that I would need a woman’s influence about the house, as he often travels for months at a time and is apt to lock himself in his study and lose track of the outside world for weeks.
It’s difficult to grow up the only non-magical person in a decidedly magical household. Nana is what the locals call a kitchen witch, for her magic—which she calls her “craft”—comes from her intuition, herb lore, and the earth.
She’s the town midwife, druggist, and conscience.
Even Ferocious is a familiar, adept at vanishing at will, predicting the weather, and materializing any manner of small rodent or lame bird at mealtimes, although Nana insists that these are the skills of any cat “worth its whiskers.”
Frankly, I think it all stinks. I live in a house of arts and crafts, but I am painfully ordinary. And chubby. And short. Nana says I spend far too much time staring in our looking-glass and bemoaning my appearance, but she doesn’t understand me. I keep hoping I’ll wake up pretty, to make up for my complete lack of specialty.
This morning I notice two new pimples. One on my nose and another in a place that is none of your business.
The gods must hate me.
Then something strange happens, which is really saying something in this household. As I stand in the basement, scrutinizing my unsatisfactory image in the only looking-glass we own, a small bearded man wearing a tall, pointy red hat appears on the ground to my left.
He is riding a particularly large cockroach, with miniature saddle and reigns to boot.
“Be thou the Lady Justcat?” he asks in a surprisingly deep voice.
I’ve found that, when you don’t know what else to do, you just go with it. “Um…yes. That’s what I’m called.”
“Dog and I have searched long and wide for you, my lady. We hail from the kingdom of the gnomes. I am Mud, second child of King Dirt the Eighth.”
Gnomes! Of course. I’ve heard of them, but I thought they were myths. I look around for his travel companion, even more confused. “Dog? I see no dog.”
The gnome points to his insectoid mount. “Dog be the name of my trusty steed. The most resilient and noblest of creatures.”
Hey, it takes all types. Who am I to judge? “It’s nice to meet you…both. You say you’ve been looking for me?”
The cockroach speaks to me in a surprisingly cultured voice, sort of like what a butler would sound like if he were a bug. “We need your help most urgently, my lady.” Dog’s blattodea face stares at me in this tiny scrunched-up creepy-crawly way that will probably give me nightmares for weeks.
It takes me a moment to respond. First of all, I didn’t know that cockroaches could talk. I also can’t imagine why anyone, no matter how down on their luck, would journey anywhere for my help.
“I think you may have the wrong person. Don’t you want the counsel of The White Wizard? He’s my father, and he’s upstairs. At least, I think he is. He actually hasn’t come out of his study in four days.”
Mud dismounts, standing remarkably tall for such a diminutive fellow, and says, “It is because of The White Wizard that we seek your guidance. He has gone missing.”
How can Papa be missing? I saw him just four days ago eating cheese on toast at breakfast. Besides, Nana would have known if he’d gone missing, for sure.
“He’s not missing, he’s here. I’ll take you to him.” I motion for them to follow, and trudge up the stairs to find Nana in the kitchen.
Nana’s kitchen has so many odors in it that the nose goes numb and runs in mortal terror. This morning she seems to be boiling another pot of what she calls “med’cine,” but which Papa contends is simply a highly-spiced version of chicken noodle soup. Nana believes that “erbs” are the secret to longevity and touching your toes at ninety, so it seems that everything she cooks has a least a hundred of them in it. Papa told me that one of those religious guru-types who prided himself on being able to taste three hundred distinct flavors in a cup of tea, once sampled a bowl of Nana’s med’cine and quit in disgust after 3,007. Mind you, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was like sipping a glass of wine or hot coffee, with all those hoity-toity berry, chocolate, and oak flavors and all, but Nana’s med’cine generally has nasty aftertastes like eye of newt and pellet of squirrel.
The only thing missing from Nana’s kitchen today is Nana herself.
That’s odd. Nana would never leave a pot boiling unattended without ordering someone to watch it. It’s her own peculiar brand of torture, if you ask me, since the more you watch her pot, the less it boils.
I turn off the stovetop so Nana’s med’cine doesn’t boil over.
Ferocious, at least, lies dozing in a patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor. “Where’s Nana?” I ask Ferocious, leaning down to scratch her behind the ears.
The cat opens one amber eye in disdain, ready to chastise me for disturbing her majesty’s nap time, when she spies the gnome and cockroach just behind me.
She jumps up with the most terrific caterwaul, and pounces, only to claw at empty air.
Mud and Dog have vanished.
Ferocious seems beside herself. Her head darts in every direction until, when it dawns on her I have been observing her feline failure the entire time, she relaxes into a definitively disinterested stance and casually mews at me as though to say, “Oh, so you’re here, are you?”
Since I have no idea where Mud and Dog—or Nana for that matter—have gone, I decide to climb the winding staircase to Papa’s study in the attic, then knock on the door.
Even though I’ve been instructed never to do so, I turn the knob and walk in, fully expecting a spell of freezing to stop me in my tracks.
Papa’s study is empty.
And I mean totally empty. It’s not just Papa who’s missing, but his entire library, all his magical tools, and even his desk. Only his second-best wand lies discarded in the middle of the hardwood floor.
Ferocious strolls in and sniffs the abandoned wand.
Now, you may well wonder why I’m not freaking out. I mean, if your parents were suddenly gone, you’d probably get help from another adult or at least break down and have a good cry. But you see, Nana and I are used to not being able to find Papa, who often forgets to tell us he’s going to be busy for a few days saving the world again.
It’s actually Nana’s absence that has me the most concerned. She sometimes travels to local towns for witchy gatherings or to deliver babies and such, but she and Papa have never left me alone at the same time before.
Well, I am thirteen. Maybe they’ve decided I’m finally old enough to take care of myself.
“Do you know where Papa is, Ferocious?”
Ferocious growls and brings me the wand in her mouth. Okay, maybe I’m not entirely alone. I mean, they’ve left Ferocious to make sure I don’t get into too much trouble.
As I take the wand from Ferocious, I hear Mud’s bass voice say, “This must be the White Wizard’s laboratory.”
I look down to see Mud and Dog gazing up at me, eager expressions on their little faces.
“How did you know he was gone?”
“He was speaking to my mother via crystal ball when he instructed her to send me to find you if he disappeared, and then he disappeared.”
Sounds a bit fishy, if you ask me. Something Papa might do for one of those unorthodox lessons he’s always trying to teach me. “So, your mother, the queen of the gnomes, sent you to find me?”
“Yes, Queen Water.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “So…Dirt and Water made Mud?”
He didn’t smile. If anything, Mud’s eyes went a bit shale. He must have heard that one before.
He cleared this throat and counted to ten. Literally, out loud. Then he answered, “I will forgive your insult. You obviously have no knowledge of my people and our ways.”
Come to think of it, I don’t know anything about gnomes. Which is surprising, since I thought I’d received the best education in the world from Papa.
“If you don’t mind me asking, can all gnomes disappear and reappear at will, or is that your own particular gift?”
“The kingdom of the gnomes is everywhere. Earth belongs to every species, despite humanity’s bigheaded belief that land should be divvied up into small plots and ‘owned.’ Over time, big people convinced themselves that gnomes don’t exist, rather than admit gnomes share equal right to what they consider their land. Therefore, my people pass among the big people all the time unnoticed.”
“O-o-o-ka-a-ay, I acknowledge your world view. But Ferocious and I saw you, and then we didn’t. How do you explain that?”
“I manipulated the facts using your own biases.”
My mind reeled. “What? How can you manipulate a cat’s biases?”
“Cat’s are perhaps the easiest to manipulate, because of their predatory nature.”
“But I knew you were there.”
Mud rolled his eyes as though speaking to a rather slow toddler. “I used your false belief that your ‘Nana’ was not in the kitchen to hide myself.”
“You hid behind my false belief?”
Mud thrusts out his chest as he raises his chin high. “The more lies a person believes, the easier it is to conceal oneself from that person.”
Wrinkling my snub nose, I ask, “Is this some fancy kind of magic I’ve never heard of before?”
“If you define ‘magic’ as something that someone else can do that you can’t explain or reproduce yourself—then yes.”
“So, by your definition, we only call what The White Wizard does ‘magic’ because we all don’t know how he does it and cannot do it ourselves?”
That’s when I realize that Mud called my belief that Nana was not in the kitchen “false.”
“Are you saying that Nana is still in the kitchen?”
With a gleam in his eye, Mud answers, “You’re actually quite smart—for a big person.”
I pick up Ferocious despite yowls of protest and hurry the cat with Papa’s second-best wand back down his winding staircase to the kitchen.
It’s exactly as I left it, except the pot of med’cine has cooled down.
I look closely around the room, but no Nana. “So, you’re saying that Nana is somewhere in this kitchen.”
Mud rides Dog straight up the side of Nana’s kitchen counter to stop just to the left of Nana’s med’cine pot. “It probably seems to you that my mighty charger’s ability to climb this vertical surface is like magic, but each cockroach actually has six sharp claws that it inserts into the exterior irregularities—like a rock climber with six axes. He can even appear to float across your ceiling, effortlessly hanging upside down, using the same technique. It is only your incorrect belief that climbing a vertical wall is impossible and your own inability to walk across the ceiling that makes Dog’s climb seem magical.”
I’ll never look at a cockroach quite the same way again.
In fact, I may never sleep again for fear of a random cockroach waving six petite axes as it falls into my snoring wide-open mouth.
Ferocious seems bored as she leaps out of my arms and lazily makes a show of circling around and around until settling herself back down in the largest patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor.
Holding only Papa’s wand in my right hand, I don’t know what to think. I can’t find Papa or Nana, but Ferocious doesn’t seem anxious about either one of them, which is completely out of character if one of them is in any danger.
Now I am sure that Papa has concocted this entire set-up.
“It makes no sense,” I say aloud more to myself than to anyone else, “where are Nana and Papa?”
“You’re not asking the correct question, my dear Justcat,” Dog says in his cordial insect voice. “The problem is not where, but why?”
“Why are they missing?”
“No, why can’t you find them?”
Mud looks at Dog with a knowing grin as he says, “Well said, my friend.”
Very well, why can’t I find them? I’m only thirteen, for starters. With a remarkably good education, but no magic. Hmm. This lesson must be pretty important if Papa talked Nana into joining in his shenanigans.
So, what would Papa and Nana both want me to learn?
Maybe I have magic and just don’t know it yet? Excited, I hold out Papa’s second-best wand and wave it at the cold pot of med’cine.
Oh, well, a girl can wish.
Then I notice something rather strange about the wand in my hand: It’s warm. Too warm for a piece of wood. Warm as a human being, actually. I look more closely at the fine woodgrain on its surface, and make out two arms, two legs, and a bearded face in its pattern.
Topped by a wizard’s hat.
Sighing, I lay the wand on the floor and speak to it: “I know you’ve transformed yourself into a wand, Papa. You may as well show yourself.”
With a great poof of sparkles and smoke that sets Mud and me coughing, the wand transforms into Papa, dressed in his second-best robe. “Well done, Justcat, well done. You’ve seen through my magic. Now can you see through Nana’s?”
I look around the room. If Papa was a wand, what would Nana disguise herself as?
“Nana, I know you’re the pot of med’cine.”
Without Papa’s pomp and flourish (and no smoke, thank goodness), the pot of med’cine morphs into my cantankerous old Nana, sitting on the cold stovetop and wearing her characteristic scowl.
I wonder how she was able to stand it when the heat was on?
Nana looks directly at Papa as she hops off the stovetop, her scowl growing larger by the second. “She’s a clever one, but she doesn’t know what she knows. I told you your cockamamie idea wouldn’t work.”
Five sets of eyes—two very small, two human-sized, and one cat-sized—round on me in expectation.
Ferocious chirrups at me the way a mother cat tells her kitten to pay attention.
Wait a minute—mother cat?
If Papa became a wand and Nana became a pot, could I become something, too?
What was it Mud said about lies and biases? Could my own beliefs about myself be concealing the truth of myself from myself?
I look down at my hands, my apparently human hands, and at last see beyond their façade.
They begin to change before my newly feline eyes. They grow black hair, fingernails recede into retractable points, and fingers shorten as plush pads rise from my palms. I feel myself shrinking as it seems more natural to place them on the floor with my back legs for stability.
At last, I grow a long black tail.
Mud claps his hands in delight.
Ferocious starts purring.
I shift back into my chubby human-girl form, standing upright and momentarily uncomfortable not by the alteration, but with the weight of this larger body of lies.
Papa puts his arm around my shoulders and says, “Welcome to the family, Justcat the Shapeshifter. Yours is the rarest of gifts.”
Nana harrumphs. “Rarest of gifts, bah! Shapeshifting ain’t that rare. Now, her willingness to listen to what she knows in her gut despite what others have decided and what she’s decided herself, that’s what’s rare.”
Rare. I’m gifted and rare.
I have two pimples, and I may not know my mother, but I know who I am.
I’m my own familiar.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
Taking the first step out the door is always hardest.
The empty blue of the sky, the hopeless green of the lawn.
A simple trip to the grocery store initiates his private Day of the Living Dread. Seven blocks to slog across ruthless gray sidewalks and suppressive black asphalt.
The glass sliding door malevolent in its refraction.
The produce section peddling its own brand of torture.
The violent purple of the eggplants, the bleeding red of the tomatoes.
Right foot for 3.1 million children who starve to death each year. Left foot for 124 cracks to cross on the way to sensory Armageddon.
Right hand for the millions upon millions of distinct frequencies visible in Clarence’s rainbow. Left hand for the seven colors that everyone else blissfully enforces.
Sunglasses muddle but never quite mitigate the googolplex of visible-light photons radiating judgment every second from the miasma of incandescent plasma called “the sun” by the unaware.
“What’cha buying today, fruitcake?” Ms. Cecilia, the checkout clerk, never fails to allude to when the police hauled Clarence away to the hospital because of the Christmas fruitcakes in fifty-seven wicked hues.
She takes a languid sip from a paper cup of sugar-laden latte, which he knows to be the color of dregs.
Her dreary brown eyes pity Clarence’s food choices as she scans his steel-cut oats and distilled water.
Ms. Cecilia, of course, blessed with faulty cone cells in her atypical colorblind eyes, loves the world and everyone in it.
Connection is easy when you don’t see.
Clarence accepts the sad beige plastic bag from Ms. Cecilia, and begins the agonizing trek home.
Right foot for the average human eye with three color receptors that can see about a million colors. Left foot for some rare folks who have four types of cones—scientists call them tetrachromats—and see a hundred million.
Clarence has over fifteen color receptors, like a bluebottle butterfly.
There’s a reason an adult butterfly only lives about one month, unless it migrates away from its cold, dead inception.
Light does not simply shine on Clarence, it flits about him. It plays and pounces.
The Evil Ultraviolet stalks the living, but the living do not comprehend it.
Darkness offers even more shades to haunt him than the light.
Right hand for the colors that most people don’t realize are alive. The three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time are extended, but the fifth dimension is curled up and hidden within the colors of the first four. They are otherworldly entities, the gods of our physical universe.
Left hand for every decision a person thinks he or she makes, oblivious that it is the colors who really choose.
The colors of one make another fall in love.
The hated are inundated with despised tints.
Clarence passes the intersection of Mine and Thine. The sunny day provokes the colors to rage with divine right, altering the actions of their weaker-willed pets.
Clarence slides not one, but three pairs of sunglasses over his eyes, squinting as the white light begins its mischief.
Radio waves of beyond-red destruction reach out to influence and poison minds, as two teens honk loudly and gesticulate at a slow-moving car in front of them.
Meandering microwaves infiltrate cells, plumping them to bursting as a balding woman creeps before him, bloating with cancer stains.
Infrared rays greenhouse the eyes and atmosphere, as a tall man dials his cell phone and incandescent bulbs light up the town.
X-rays mutate and irradiate as electrons collide with the metal infrastructure of civilization.
Gamma rays from the local power plant and Fukushima continue their quest to liberate life from living.
Clarence glances behind himself to see his footprints glow florescent green and blue on the murky pavement.
Counting 124, he makes it to his own unpainted front door.
Clarence steps over the threshold, locks the door, and sits in his favorite easy chair.
He closes his eyes.
Only then does he allow himself to drift into the space between the colors.
The colors have taken sides, declaring war on certain preferences. Normal people don’t realize it yet: they call it “climate change” or the “race wars” or blame it on the president.
Their eyes cannot encompass the vast separation blighting the entire spectrum.
They only see seven intervals in their many-colored coats of tone.
Clarence listens to the evening news on television with eyes shut, perceiving the wavelengths through his ears and nose, preferring this resonant assault to his visual agony.
The newscaster drones on and on, both intense and bored at the same time.
Clarence can’t stand the color wars any longer.
Knowing his home by blind touch, he reaches his right hand to pull open the drawer on his end table. He removes a 9mm.
With his mental health history, he’s not allowed to own it. But when did that ever stop anyone?
He opens his eyes one last time to see the disgusted black gun, loads one solitary golden bullet, places the muzzle in his mouth, and pulls the trigger with his left hand.
The colors steal his exhale as the bullet rips through his mind: the red of his blood, the pink of his brain, the white of his bones. His colors all mix together now.
As the colors pass away, Clarence becomes the lighting behind his spectrum.
And it is so very, very beautiful.
The separation is gone.
Clarence is gone.
Ms. Cecilia gossips about the tragedy in stage-whispered poor-dear tones to her customers the next day, saying to this one, “Suicide…” and to that one, “Touched in the head…” and to everyone, “Such a shame….” She clicks her pink tongue as she takes another languid sip of hot brown liquid contained in a white throw-away cup.
Thank god for sugar-laden lattes.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
When Dante wrote Satan at the center of his Inferno, frozen from the waist down in the ninth circle of Hell, he neglected to mention that the reason the hideous guy is still stuck there is because he remembers being a “creature eminent in beauty once” and is desperately trying to take a good selfie of each of his three faces.
Which we all know is impossible.
The first selfie I ever attempted was a hellish experience. That deceptively benign click of my camera phone produced a photo that made me look like something the griffin dragged in. Through sand. After hacking up a hideous pellet of fat and bones enclosed in poo.
I looked more harpy than human. Jowls swallowed my chin and dark circles gnawed at my eyes. My hair appeared matted with dirty feathers, and my arms jiggled at me—impudently. My first selfie betrayed me far worse than Judas betrayed Jesus or Brutus and Cassius betrayed Caesar. It was my camera phone that Satan should have been chewing for eternity in the depths of Hell.
My friends on social media made it seem so effortless. They chronicled their lives in impromptu snapshots of themselves performing mundane tasks that looked so fabulous in their selfies, like drinking coffee or standing up. Heck, one acquaintance took a selfie that made sitting on a toilet look sexy.
Haunted by the spirit of my first disastrous attempt, I asked my friends how they did it. How did they master the art of the selfie? And why bother? Was there a hidden gun to their head? Did their husbands threaten to leave them if they failed to produce the perfect selfie? Were they trying to connect with their selfie-obsessed kids?
One friend told me that selfies are the new necessary evil. Another admitted that her selfies represented the life she wished she lived. After sifting through all their comments (and lamentations), I gathered a list of selfie tips, along with the consistent directive to download and begin using an app of apparently supernatural powers: The Selfie Filter.
So, I followed their advice. I took the selfie outside during the recommended sunlight that wouldn’t make me look like a dying raccoon. I held the camera above my head just-so and wore long sleeves to avoid resembling the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I chanted the requisite divine prayer: “Pretty please.” I processed it through the Selfie Filter, which erased every wrinkle, eradicated ten pounds, and transformed the background from a spurting water fountain to lavish Lake Erie.
The result was…tolerable.
The perfect way to freeze forever the memory of what ought not to be.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
Ten minutes late.
Sam, of course, arrived early and then waited, foot-tapping nervously as he watched the hands on the warped clock face flip him off with every irksome tick and tock. When the clock, at last, shrieked four times, a man who looked more like an imp than his role as administrative assistant led Sam through a crooked door saying, “Please take a seat,” with a mumbled apology that, “Mr. Norton may be a few minutes late, sir.”
Sam despised tardiness. He believed there should be a special place reserved in hell for the chronically delayed. He’d in fact spent the last three minutes mentally designing all sorts of horrific tortures for just such a person.
The interview room was monotonous, walls empty of adornment except for yet another faulty clock, this one with the numbers in the wrong order: 1 12 3 5 6 7 9 10 4 11 8 2. According to this clock, it was 5:15, which was one hour off, of course.
Sam checked his own Rolex to verify and upped the ante on the level of gore in his cerebral torments.
The crooked door opened, and in came a man with blue skin and kinky crimson hair. He arbitrarily flipped through a manila folder of papers that had someone else’s name clearly printed on the cover in Bookman Old Style font—one “Barnard Hutchinson”—consulted the clock in the room, frowned slightly, and said, “You’re over an hour late, you know.”
Sam’s nostrils flared as he began a slow and systematic grinding away of his silver teeth.
The man smiled that offensive sort of fakery that makes one want to toss him in front of a moving semi.
Sam only just stopped himself.
Understanding dawned on the blue man’s face. “Ah, you’re not Barnard Hutchinson, are you? So sorry, mix up in the paperwork. Be right back.”
He vanished, leaving only the manila folder belonging to Barnard Hutchinson laying haphazardly on the floor.
Sam stared at the mess. He waited over five full minutes—the clock read 5:22—before giving in to curiosity. Snapping his fingers, the papers appeared in his own hands. Opening “Barnard Hutchinson’s” file, he read the following words neatly scrawled on a single piece of paper:
Are you Barnard Hutchinson? No. So mind your own fucking business.
The rest of the papers were blank.
Sam placed the folder neatly on the table in front of him, then smashed the table into a jumbled heap with his golden fist.
Standing, he strode toward the crooked door, grabbed the doorknob with his hands, and found it was locked. With a mighty roar, he threw himself into the door, cracking it in two.
The impish assistant crouched trembling on the other side. He squeaked, “I’m sorry, s-sir, but if you wish to be considered, you must wait like everyone else.”
“But I’m not like everyone else, and you know it.”
Someone tapped Sam on the shoulder, and he whirled around, fists at the ready, to discover the blue man beaming back at him. “We’ve found your paperwork, thank you for your patience. If you’ll please return to your seat, we can begin now.”
Sam took a deep breath. Then another. He crossed the room and sat in the same damned chair in front of the demolished table. “I’d apologize about the table, but you’re lucky that’s all that happened.”
The blue man whistled and sat opposite him. “Collateral damage, completely understandable.” He paused, flipping through a new folder with the name “Samael” embossed in Times New Roman. “Your work experience is impressive, if I do say so myself. Angel of Death, Venom of God, Commander of two million angels. I’m surprised you want a transfer. Anything in particular prompt this change?”
“Irreconcilable differences with my colleagues.”
“Oh, I see.” The blue man squinted at the paperwork. “Yes…it says here that Michael and you have had a few, uh…disagreements.”
“They’re all a bunch of pansy-ass boys afraid to do God’s true work.”
The blue man cleared his throat. “The ‘true work’ of taking men’s souls?”
Sam just stared at him.
“So, you want to stop being an archangel and join the demonic legions?”
“I’ve been misplaced in my current position. My IDP supports this adjustment.”
“And your immediate supervisor has approved this?”
It was Sam’s turn to clear his throat. “Not…exactly.”
“Meaning He disapproves.”
“Did He offer an explanation?”
Sam’s hands began to sweat. “He says I’m too pretty.”
The blue man looked him up and down. “Well, there is that.”
“That shouldn’t matter! I can’t help how He made me.”
“There, there. It’s all part of His plan.” The blue man closed the folder and placed it in his lap. He steepled his fingers. “I’m sorry, but I can’t consider this transfer without your superior’s approval.”
Desperation clawed at Sam. He couldn’t work another day in such a hostile work environment. He pleaded, “Is there no way? None at all?”
The blue man took pity on the poor wretch. He leaned over and whispered in a diamond ear, “You didn’t hear this from me, but the only way to change work hubs is if your boss casts you out.”
Sam’s starlight eyes twinkled.
Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of that?
—by Rose Guildenstern–
In the suburbs of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, lived two reluctant neighbors, Larry Bolton and Chad Weaver.
Every morning at dawn, Larry walked out front in his plaid pajamas, terry bathrobe, and bedroom slippers to collect his newspaper. He took a long breath of the morning air as he sipped his hot cup of black coffee and watched the rosy sunrise over the Schuylkill River. Saying a prayer of thanks out loud for the blessing to live one more day, the old man turned around, shuffled back into his home, and shut the door, locking it behind him.
That’s when Chad always saw Larry peeking through his window shutters, spying on Chad like clockwork.
Mornings in the Weaver household tended toward chaos over clockwork. With two kids in school and two working parents, it was all he and Kayla could do some days just to get the girls fed and out the door before they were already late. Moving across the country from Los Angeles three years ago for Chad’s promotion proved far more difficult a change than they’d expected, and only now were they beginning to acclimate to the culture shock of Eastern Pennsylvania, where people said “hello” and meant it…until they didn’t.
Larry hadn’t meant a hello in over two years.
The trouble started during the Weaver’s second week in their newly purchased home on Lightwood Drive. Chad and his eldest, Mia, were having a grand time raking the leaves scattered all over their front yard: A novel adventure for both as former Californians used to perennial sunshine and palm trees. As Mia chased a particularly spirited maple leaf, Larry bridged the distance between their two homes to introduce himself.
“Welcome! I’m Larry Bolton, your next-door neighbor.”
Chad stopped, thankful for the reprieve from what he was quickly realizing was far more work than he expected. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Chad Weaver, and this is my daughter Mia. Say hi, Mia!”
Mia ran toward them, grasping the maple leaf to her chest like a trophy, and sing-songed, “Hello, hello, hello, hello! We are glad to meet you, we are glad to greet you. Hello, hello, hello, hello!” She gave Larry a quick hug and darted back to pick out another treasure to play with from among the leaves.
“Friendly little gal you’ve got there.” Larry said, smiling. “A real sweetheart.”
“So, I hear you’ve come to us from L.A. That’s quite a change.”
“To say the least. But as you can see, we’re all enchanted with the prospect of a real autumn. And the girls can’t wait to have their first white Christmas.”
That’s when Kayla came out to call the two in for lunch, and Larry realized that Chad’s wife was black.
His reaction wasn’t uncommon, even in California.
First, he squinted in confusion as he stiffened, followed by a swift glance from Chad to Kayla to Mia and back to Chad as recognition dawned. Then a contrived neutrality masked his expression as he forced a wider grin and an exaggerated wave to Kayla in the doorway.
Inwardly, Chad cringed. After all these years in an interracial marriage, he still wasn’t accustomed to the response. As Mia followed her mother inside, Chad prepared himself for the worst.
“That’s nice…your uh…wife… seems real…nice.”
“It’s been wonderful to meet you, Larry. People weren’t quite so neighborly in California.”
Larry rallied. “My wife, Martha, and I are retired, so we’re home all day. If you ever need anything, let us know.” He paused a moment, slipping both hands deep into his pants pockets. “I’m glad to see you raking your leaves. With the strong winds here, it’s important to keep on top of them or they’ll end up on someone else’s property. The last owners of your house were down right negligent.”
“Thanks for the tip—I’ll be sure to stay ahead of it. Well, I’d better go in now—the family’s waiting for me.”
Larry nodded his head, turned his back, crossed the property line, and that was that.
Or so Chad thought.
The complaints began soon after. Despite Chad’s best efforts, when he was away on business a storm blew all his leaves onto Larry’s pristine lawn. As the first snow came in December and Chad used his new snowblower, the snow from Chad’s driveway ended up all over the side of Larry’s house. When Kayla hosted a Christmas party with her work colleagues, Larry showed up pounding on their door at 10:30 pm, protesting the noise.
And that was only the beginning.
In no time, Chad began to lose his patience with Larry as well. One of the geezer’s dogs scared Chad’s youngest, Shelby, so she fell and broke her hand. The family found themselves keeping their curtains closed, even on a lovely day, to avoid being creeped out by Larry’s prying eyes. During a particularly nasty thunderstorm, one of Larry’s huge trees fell over and took out Chad’s window.
That man was home all day long with all the time he wanted to do whatever he liked, yet what it seemed he liked to do most was judge Chad—who worked sixty-plus hours a week and often traveled for business—as remiss in a neighbor’s obligations.
After a little over a year of these passive-aggressive disputes, Larry hired a company to build a fence between their properties (and only between their properties, not on any of the other sides of his land). He served Chad with a bill to pay for half of it—afterward.
Chad was livid. He appealed to the home owner’s association, but they refused to take sides. He had his lawyer draft and send a letter refusing to pay, and in response Larry sued him.
In the last year, the two had only exchanged perfunctory “hellos” eight times.
Chad kept count.
The final straw came when Chad was traveling in New York City the day of the ISIS attack, and Kayla was beside herself with worry, not knowing if her husband was living or dead. Larry’s words of “comfort” when they ran into each other at the post office were, “That’s what you get for voting for a fake candidate.”
Larry knew that Chad voted Independent.
Chad returned home safe, alive but rattled from his proximity to the attack and furious at Larry for what the man had said to Kayla. He stayed up late after his kids were safely tucked in bed with dreams of sugar plums in their heads—it was Christmas Eve—and drafted a letter that expressed in no uncertain terms just where the codger could stick his “neighborly” ways. He even gift-wrapped the letter and placed an enormous red bow on it. When Chad turned off the light on his bed stand just after midnight, he fell into the deepest sleep he’d slept in the three years since he’d been shackled to Larry Bolton.
The next morning, his children were gone.
Surprised they hadn’t been awakened to rush downstairs and open presents, Chad and Kayla found their daughters’ beds empty.
They were nowhere to be found in the house. The doors were still locked from the inside, and the alarm system was still on.
It was as though Mia and Shelby had vanished.
Kayla called 911 while Chad charged outside to look for them.
Lightwood Drive was deserted, eerily so.
Even Larry’s shutters were shut.
Kayla ran out the front door to Chad, tears streaming down her face. “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
Panicked, Chad took his wife in his arms. “What do you mean?”
“They told me they’ve disappeared—everywhere. All of them. It’s on the news.”
The sound of Chad’s heartbeat pummeled his ears. His jaw clenched so hard his teeth hurt.
They clung to each other, alone, on the hollow street in front of their hollow home.
Throughout the rest of that fateful Christmas day and into the following week, the people of Earth remained glued to their televisions and computers and radios everywhere. All the children of the world who had not yet begun the onset of puberty vanished at 2 am Eastern Time—from their beds, from schools, from churches, from cars, from play yards. Even from their parent’s arms. Developing fetuses evaporated, leaving expectant mothers no longer pregnant. One doctor reported holding a newborn in the delivery room before a blinding flash of multi-colored light and a shrill trumpeting sound seemed to cause the baby to fade from her arms like an insubstantial ghost.
Larry’s grandchildren were taken, too.
On New Year’s Day, the empty graves were discovered.
Far and wide, cemeteries and funeral homes were despoiled, as though the corpses had risen from the dead and abandoned the living.
Soon the religious began calling it the Rapture. God had taken the elect back home to Him before the coming Tribulation. They quoted the Bible on every news station, either to support or refute the idea, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
But the adults remained unchanged.
For three weeks, nothing new happened. Not a child was found, and whenever someone died, the body simply disintegrated into nothingness.
Larry lost Martha to a heart attack.
Chad returned to work, because he didn’t know what else to do.
Kayla never left the house, attached to the always-on TV set like an altar.
On the morning of January 25th, something changed in the sky. The normal blue of the distant heavens mutated to a mottled iron gray, immediately followed by an official message, at last. Broadcasted on all media, in every language, the news filled screens large and small:
“People of the Third Planet, you have infected existence. We have measured all possible simulations, and they either end with you destroying your own world or contaminating others. We have saved your children from you, purged your ability to conceive more, and begun the process of cleansing your diseased planet of your brokenness. However, we are merciful, unlike your own species. You will be allowed to live out your short lifespans. Once the last of your twisted generations are dead, we will begin the restoration of your world and return your children to live upon it, cured of your influence. This is the only communication you will receive from us, as our judgment is final. An impenetrable fence now surrounds your world to keep you separated from the rest of us.”
For the first time in a month, Kayla clicked off the television.
Tender, she kissed Chad on the cheek, walked upstairs, and killed herself.
There were many suicides that day.
Everything that mattered was gone. The future was gone. All hope was gone.
Chad stayed home from work on January 26th, sitting on his expensive three-year-old sofa and staring at nothing.
That’s when he heard it. A loud pounding, a terrific cracking, interspersed with low moans and heaving sobs.
Chad Weaver forced himself to get up, plod toward his front door, and open it, stepping into the changed sunlight.
His mouth fell open.
Larry Bolton stood, bawling like a baby, surrounded by a demolished fence.