I’ve been expanding the list of podcasts I listen to, branching out into more science-based programs. I love myths, stories, and legends, but lately the factual information side of my info-tainment has been lacking. Thus, I ended up listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast (Star Talk Radio) where they mentioned an idea I can’t stop thinking about.
The guests suggested each listener should ‘time-tithe’ each week. They focused on science, but I couldn’t help but think how well this would work for writing. Now, depending on your religious life, you might not be familiar with the Biblical concept of a tithe. The idea is to give 10% of your income, as both an obligation and as an offering of thanks. Many of my friends grew up tithing 10% of their babysitting earnings. But the podcast was talking not about writing a check, but about setting aside 10% of their time time where you work to make things better.
For at least the last five years, I’ve judged a writing contest each spring. This year was a bit of a trial with lost packages and some hard to score entries. I found myself considering if this should be my last year. My writing time is scarce these days and my word counts show it. The hardest connection for any writer is the one between their butt and the chair, and I often imagine that lightening my commitments will make me write more. The contest felt like a simple thing to take off my plate, something I could give up and not miss.
But it’s not that simple. Most importantly, judging is one of the few ways I have to give back to the writing community. I benefit from the many blogs, tutorials, and general help other writers offer. I was blessed to be briefly mentored by an amazing scifi author. I’ve gotten advice from other members of SFWA, and help from writers near and far. Giving back, helping the next writer down the line, is the right thing to do.
Selfishly though, judging improves my own writing, helping me decide what I do and don’t like in a story. This year’s entries taught me that I can tolerate violent speech and woman-hating behavior if there’s a good reason for it. If a ‘hero’ uses violent or sexist language because he was raised in a drug-running biker gang, and grows past that, I don’t mind. If he’s rich enough that he doesn’t have a 9-5 job, had a loving family to raise him, and still generally hates my gender? We’re done. That’s probably something I should have realized before, but it took judging to make me really look at how I feel about casual misogyny.
My time-tithe paid me back. It taught me something about the kind of writing I want to do. It got me thinking about the way I should develop the characters that I write. If there’s something hateful in them, then I need to make their reasons clear. If they’re the ‘hero’, then I need to give them a way to move past their prejudices and bad behavior.
That’s why going forward, I’ll be looking for more chances to volunteer and offering to beta read other authors work. It might be time for me to be more active in writing groups, or work with a critique partner. I haven’t worked out the details yet, so if you hear of something, drop me a note.
The first time I swam I was three. My pudgy fingers reached forward in a stroke I barely knew, wrapped in salt water, happier than I had ever been. My parents pulled me from the water hours later but I never really left. Most teenagers slept in, but I went back to the water every day at four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Swim team captain, champion swimmer, the water is my home. It makes the doctor’s words hard to take.
“No swimming until we take out the tubes.”
Thanks to the ear infections I’ve spent weeks listening to muffled, unclear speech. His words boom into me. I put my hands over my ears, trying to block the sound. “So loud.”
“A side effect of the tubes, everything is two decibels louder. You’ll get used to it.”
I start to hear the whispers in math class. They follow me to history, scratches of sound, like someone talking behind you or in the hall. I haven’t gotten used to the tubes. Chewing blocks out every sound. Running makes my breath as loud as a rock concert. But when I’m not doing that, when I’m sitting or reading the whispers come back. Frustrated, I say what I’d been saying for almost two months.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.” Every time I say it, people speak louder and slower, a look of pity on their face for the seventeen year old who acts like an old man. The whispers stop. A bliss of relative quiet falls over me. I hear the noise of my teeth rubbing together, the sound of locks clicking open on lockers, and a thousand conversations in the hall but I can’t hear any whispers.
They come back. This time I understood them.
You’re useless. Nothing. Nobody.
“No, I’m not.” My response startles my lab partner, who raises an eyebrow before going back to the experiment.
Then who are you? What can you do?
“I’m a swimmer.”
“Yeah, sure you are, dude.” My lab partner smiles. “Best in the state in the 50 meter. Everyone knows that.”
But the whispers say “A swimmer who can’t swim. You’re nothing.”
They’re wrong. It stings anyway. They keep it up all day. I’m nothing, useless, I’ll never get in the water again. They’re wrong and I don’t believe them, but the more I hear, the more I think about it. If I’m not a swimmer, if this thing with my ears doesn’t get better, who am I? When I couldn’t hear the gun, I started from the block just a second after the other swimmers. Not enough to hurt me in meets but enough that I couldn’t get my best time. I haven’t set any records, haven’t seen any improvements since the infection started.
And you’ll never set any records again.
I know the whispers lie, but it’s hard to hear them, over and over again, and not start to wonder if they’re right.
On the third day I can’t take it anymore. Every hallway, every classroom, every where I go in the school I hear them. Over and over again, repeating the same terrible lies. (I’m sure they’re lies. Really. Except what if they’re not?) The whispers have me half convinced. I break my word to my parents and head for the deserted pool. There, with ear plugs and water between us, I don’t hear them. But I can’t swim forever. Two hours in my arms burn. I’ll get caught for cutting class soon. Does it matter? If the whispers are right, nothing matters. I swim another few laps before I get out. The whispers start again in the locker room.
I’m not going crazy and the weekend proves it. Two days away from school, and I don’t hear them. I hear the water in my mouth and the rustle of the newspaper when I fold it. It should be a gift but the only thing I’m grateful for is getting away from the whispers. On Monday-
“Doesn’t matter if you hear us. It’s still the truth. You might as well kill yourself.”
For a second, just a split second, I think about taking that advice. How I might do it, how it would make people feel. Instead I add lying to cutting class and call the doctor’s office. I pretend to be my Dad. The whispers tell me I’ll never be as good as he was, never have it together the way he does. I talk over them, asking the receptionist to change my appointment. She gets me in that afternoon, and when I check in I lie some more about why he isn’t with me. I’m shocked it works. I remember what the whispers said.
There’s a loud pop when the tubes come out, a bright pain that radiates down my jaw. Pop and the world goes quiet.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The doctor smiles.
“It was wonderful.”
He tells me a lot of things, but I’m focused on how I can’t hear the air coming through the vent anymore. There’s only one class left in the afternoon, and I might as well miss it, but I go back anyway. The whispers are gone. I walk the halls, check the locker room. Nothing. I’m in the auditorium back stage when the drama club starts to file in. I can hear them but nothing else, no lies, no threats.
Are they there, still trying? Still talking to me? Just in case I tell them, “Doesn’t matter if you’re there. I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”
A movement behind me makes me jump. I would’ve heard it a few hours ago, but now the girl surprises me. Pale, tired, she looks half dead with dark circles under her eyes. “You hear them? The whispers?”
The worst nightmares were memories and the worst dreams were a little bit true. She dreamed of living a life away from her family, just her and her cat. She dreamed of sun beams and Charlie, stroking his fur and never feeling afraid. The nightmare-memories came from every time her father hit her, except in them she was denied the mercy of blacking out. She was five.
Charlie went missing on Thursday, and her world nearly ended. Without him, the screaming and the tears, were so much worse. She tried hard to be good, but it was easier to avoid doing something wrong when you could come home from school and hide in your room with a white cat. Charlie’s body wasn’t really big enough to hide her, but he was big, and she imagined he could. With Charlie in front of her father wouldn’t see what she did wrong. He wouldn’t get angry, and she wouldn’t have a new nightmare-memory.
Except that Charlie wasn’t found until Sunday morning. His soft fur hadn’t changed, but his body was cold and stiff. Her mother was dressing for church, too busy to offer an explanation. Father only said “It’s dead.” with a shrug. She knew what dead meant, gone forever, but Charlie couldn’t be gone forever. She needed him too much. She thought she knew how much she could cry, how much she could hurt. Holding him in her arms without the hum of his purr, she felt a new depth of pain. It tore out of her, and something came with it, grief or maturity, or maybe something else.
She wouldn’t let Charlie go. Father slapped hard against her head but she wouldn’t let him go. Finally her mother intervened and supplied a box. They would bury Charlie in the churchyard and one day he would rise again with Jesus and live forever. But when her mother said it, her eyes looked the same way they did when she said your father isn’t angry anymore, he’s sorry he hit you.
She knew the people of the church loved her. Sometimes she dreamed that she and Charlie left to live with them. The family with three teenage boys who held her up to the basketball hoop so she could slam dunk. The old woman who always had candy in her purse. A hundred of them, maybe more, she couldn’t count so high, that all loved her and never hit her, and still they didn’t add up to one Charlie. Every time she peeked under the box lid he hadn’t moved. She cried, but after a hard look from Father she did it silently.
After church there was a potluck supper, but the thought of food made her sick. How could she eat when Charlie never would? Father insisted she get a plate. Her fingers couldn’t quite hold it though, and it splattered on the ground, splashing macaroni and cheese on top of green bean casserole. Father shouted, grabbing her arm. She broke away, peeling from his grasp for the first time, her mind fixed not on the inevitable but on Charlie. Two steps later she realized her mistake, and knowing the beating would be worse because of it, cowered on the floor.
The beating didn’t come. When she opened her eyes in tiny slits, everyone, all the people who loved her, were watching. They looked from her to Father, and his face changed from red rage to embarrassment. It would go worse for her later, but now she felt their love. She scrambled from the floor and ran to her chair. She took Charlie’s box on her lap, and while she basked in that love, she felt the box move.
Under the lid Charlie stayed stiff, but his back paw jumped. Was it the love? Was it that other thing, the thing that felt hard in the back of her throat, the thing that welled up inside her when she thought about Charlie never playing with a feather or curling up beside her. Maybe it was both, love and the other thing, and she reached into the box to pet her only friend.
Father grabbed her hand but she peeled away again, turning her wrist. The box lid fell to the floor and her fingers rested on soft fur. A second passed, and then another, Father’s eyes going wide with fear. In the box, Charlie purred.
The little girl would die with her face stuffed into a pillow. Or she would grow up to be a school teacher. Or a scientist. Or there would be a car accident when she was twenty. Cassie shook her head, trying to clear the images and come back to the here and now.
It was no good. There were too many of them. The futures, the possibilities, and the things she could see. Path over path interlaced with the reality in front of her. The little girl was three, then she was eight with two missing teeth. She was dead on a pink blanket, no she was ten winning an award at school. Bits of cotton stuck out of her teeth, no, no, she won a science fair project.
Dead or some other future, they kept coming up in pairs. Dead or a good life, dead or this, dead or that. Like rolling a pair of dice and always getting a six on one of them. Cassie felt the pressure behind her eyes. There would be flashes of light next, starbursts, and then the pain. She had to do something about this future.
Her knee ran into a park bench. She focused on that while she sat down, taking deep breathes of air. People were starting to stare at her. She had to get it together, to stop the pain from coming. Stop the future and you stop the pain, her mantra spooled out in her head.
Steadying herself, she focused on the futures. They ran through her mind like someone flipping through channels on the television. Flickering images of one life, then another. With concentration she could slow the flickering, and look for details in the background. The pink coverlet was a mess, balled up in a big hand. The scene shifted, the little girl as a grown up with a microscope. Cassie waited, it went back to the murder. The little girl wore a blue dress. Cassie squinted, sunlight making her head throb. In front of her, in the real world, the little girl wore the blue dress. It would happen soon.
“Ma’am? Is there a problem?” The police officer wore a concerned expression. Cassie nodded, then looked back at the little girl. He’d broken her concentration and the images became a jumble again. A spike of pain lanced through the right side of her head. That hand reaching for the pillow, taking it out from behind the girl. It wore a heavy silver ring. Cassie fought to stay in that future, the one that came just hours from now. “You hurt your knee?”
Tears of frustration began to form in her eyes and she felt her nose start to run.. If she told him and he didn’t believe, the little girl would die tonight. She needed him to believe. This couldn’t be like the other times. All those futures no one believed in. She gritted her teeth.
“I hit my knee on the bench.” She slid back, letting her shoulders rest on the warm metal, keeping her eyes on the little girl.
“Let me take a look.” He dropped to examine her knee, and over his head she saw the flash of the ring in the sunlight. The heavy silver ring, on the hand attached to the hairy arm. The one the little girl would see just as the man smothered her. Without thinking she let a cry slip out, the future hurt. The cop misunderstood. “Yeah, you smacked the bench pretty good.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Cassie leaned forward, putting her mouth close to his ear. “The man with the cotton candy, to your left, do you see him?”
The cop turned to the left slowly, as if he guessed her strange behavior was somehow important. He nodded in a gesture no one else would see.
“He’s going to kill her.” She could see it, the whole scene now, staggering forward with each pound of her head. “He’s going to murder that little girl tonight.” She steadied herself with a hand on the cop’s shoulder. They must have looked so intimate. But really, all she saw was the room, with the pony dolls by the bed, and the little girl’s fingers in the shaft as sunlight as she reached for air. “Before sunset. He’ll smother her in her bed. You have to stop him.”
Cassie pulled back, memorizing everything about the soon-to-be murderer, the thick black hair, the expressionless eyes. Wetness hit her lip, tears or from her nose. She scrubbed at it with a hand, not caring because it was stopping. The cop got up from his kneeling position, walked over to the man, hand on his gun. Cassie watched at the way his head tilted to the left, talking into the box on his shoulder, calling for more men.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The murderer dropped the cotton candy.
“Uncle Mike?” The little girl’s asked.
And just like that her headache evaporated. Cassie indulged herself in the scene for a few more seconds, watching not the people in front of her but the images in her head. The girl and science, the girl getting married, the girl teaching children, the girl winning awards, the girl struggling to pass classes. So many futures, she let herself smile for a minute, there would be death eventually, but not today.
Cassandra hurried away before anyone had a chance to ask any questions.
He adjusted the gravity suit, playing with the knobs that kept out temperature and forces of physics while he waited for his turn to come. She was there again, working, the way he always saw her. Thick black braces covered each wrist, synthetic material coating steel, all wrapped tight with velcro. He wondered how her wrists would look without it. Would they be thin and delicate or permanently lined, thick with work?
“Morning, shifty.” She smiled at him, eyes lighting up in her moon shaped face. She was pretty, not exactly beautiful, but each time he climbed down off the great machine he though she was the best looking girl he’d ever seen. Her hair wasn’t just shaved off or pulled back, but set into elaborate braids all around her scalp, dips and swirls of them that sometimes drew pictures and sometimes spelled words. Today it was a star, probably for Founder’s day. He’d ask her to the picnic when he got down, if he got down.
“Morning, climber.” She watched his smile for a while. Normally all she had to watch was monitors and cursors, lines upon lines of code telling her the great machine needed a shift or would need one soon. Then she’d start the program to determine how much, what kind, where. Math. She did math and ran math programs all day. She thought big thoughts, and talked about concepts even bigger than that: planetary alliances, orbital patterns, the need to keep the universes spinning in just the right direction, how a small shift could cause a big reaction. This guy – she gave him a glance up and down – with his meaty arms and squat stature, he didn’t know big thoughts. Just climb the machine, fix the problem, climb down. Maybe because if he thought too much he’d think about the number of climbers who fell each year, or the numbers that caught in the gears each day. “Ready to get started?”
“Sure.” He knew lots of climbers that didn’t have an arm or a hand, a few that were in tongue-operated wheel chairs, lots of lucky ones that were just plain dead. “Do you understand how it works?”
The question was a break in protocol, but his shifter, she didn’t blink. “Aliens left it for us, so not really, but I think the gears you work on move because of heat down in the planets core.”
“You’d think the aliens would make it perfect then, self-lubricating, never get stuck.”
A lot of shifters thought so, but she only laughed. “It’s the 9th gate again. Stuck open. I’ll try to hold the shift, but once you pop it in place things will move pretty quickly.”
“They always do.” Maybe this time he’d be too slow, spring out of the way a second too late. His suit would stop him from hitting the ground too hard. It would seal the pressure down around the wound. Lots of guys made a living one handed. Losing the arm would be worse, but not impossible. He just needed to fall right. He latched the suit on to the heavy wire line that ran up the side of the great machine, a wedge of metal seven stories high and stuck into the earth’s crust. The machine hung at the bottom of the world, upside down when you looked at the globe, but streaking into the sky above him. Now he hung with it. “Well if we want to see winter I’d better get going. See-ya, Shifty.”
“Hey wait.” She looked at him and he half turned back, one leg already moving against gravity as he went up the side of the machine. “The Founder’s Day parade. You up for it?”
“Sure. It’ll give me something to look forward to.” She watched his grin while he climbed. It faded away after thirty feet and she gave her attention back to the monitors. After all, someone had to make sure the Earth moved.
My uncle’s hair sticks out of his head like wiry cotton balls over his workbench. The top is littered with tools I remember from countless Christmas presents. In our family, you might want coloring sets or toy cars, but you got book binding supplies: supple brushes, powdery glue waiting to be mixed, even sharp exacto blades no matter how young you were.
“We start young,” Uncle Gus reminds me. He is really Gustav, not Gus, because all of us are named after long dead relatives with old fashioned names. “We start young and we remember the rules.”
He expects me to repeat them, and so I do. “Never more than then a few pages, never sooner than a month, and never, ever, work on your own diary.”
“Good.” He nods, talking to himself more than to me. “So it should be good. I wouldn’t leave you like this but it’s a government job and they never take no for an answer. It’s an emergency really, no one else can do it. Besides, I’ll be back in a few days.”
The lock on the bookstore door fights me, but once I get inside the scent embraces me. It’s vanilla, old pipe smoke, paper, glue, and ink. The smell of my childhood summers, spent here in Seaside, the smell of my life before I went off to college. The shop is small but orderly, used books in three rows, well aired and tenderly loved antiques in another. Our money doesn’t come from those. It comes from the square sign in the window ‘Expert Diary Repair’. I’ve never actually done it, not on a real diary, not alone. I’ve practiced with newsprint books, I can smear the cheap soy based ink with the flick of my wrist, but words written in a spidery crawl worry me.
Then again, in the end, it’s just a book, no matter how much family treats it otherwise.
My first customer comes in wearing a stylish coat in a size too large. Fine wool, monogrammed, and the letters match his name, so a wealthy man and maybe he’s lost weight. There’s not too much you can judge just by looking at him. Only that his perfectly bald head shines under the shop lights.
“I was looking for Gus.”
“He’s away on a job.”
He doesn’t trust me, doesn’t reply.
“He’ll be back in a week, maybe two.”
He fingers the pages of his book, red leather, the initials stamped on the front. He’s counting the pages, flipping them slowly while his head barely nods. Every diary in Seaside is the same, a new day always starts on the right hand side, the date in top right corner. The pages are never numbered.
“I don’t know about two weeks, a week maybe…” His eyes turn up to me. “I need more.”
He thrusts the diary out for me. Someone made this well, with space along the spine for additions and the leather cover slotted in snuggly. No pages will fall out of this book. I think I recognize Gus’ hand in it, but it’s only a guess.
“How many pages?”
“A hundred, no two. At least two.” It’s a big decision for him, but not for me. At the work bench I put the pages in with no trouble, then flip through the rest. I’m not reading, just… looking. We never read. It’s a third unspoken rule. We keep secrets, and we only have one of our own. My father tried to tell me once, what it meant to do what we do, but he was dying by then and the words didn’t make it out. I’ve always been too ashamed to tell anyone, so I finger these pages, trying to see why some pages were glued together, others not.
The man returns, anxious for his diary back but then no one comes in all day. I search the internet for the dates, there’s a car accident, an obituary, and nothing. My family’s secret stays hidden.
The girl comes in three days later. Her hair falls past her shoulders in a cascade of deep brown color. She’s the same age as the girls at college with me, but with a ring in her nose and a look that tells me she wouldn’t share their views. She’s not local but she knows Gus.
“He and I talked about music. I’m a bit of a musician. I work in the music shop down the way. Do you like music?” Her hands are moving, picking at the skin around her finger nails. One of them starts to bleed and she puts it in her mouth for a second.
“Doesn’t everyone like music?”
The finger leaves her mouth, a smile. “Leslie.” She starts to hold out her hand, but then draws it back. I take it anyway, a quick shake just to touch her palm.
“It’s a family thing.” I try to make light, not to let her know how odd it is to be a family that coverts only books and gives only book tools as presents. I think of my mother surrounded by printed words and how Leslie would cringe at the stacks and stacks of books.
“Gustav told me.” She smiles, bright and sweet like the sun in the spring. “He and I were talking about something, and I’ve decided but he’s not here. Can you help?”
“I’d like to but you haven’t said what you need.”
“Oh.” A blush climbs into her cheeks, it’s adorable but I can see her nerves. “There’s a song, I heard it about a month ago. It’s stuck with me, like a broken record. The notes ascend, and then they blend and go down.” She sings for me, not words, just tones, then catches herself, maybe a little embarrassed. “When I try to write my own music, I end up writing that. Every time.”
I’m not sure I can help with that. I know about music on the radio, about the classical concerts everyone goes to in grammar school, but I’ve never written a note.
“I thought… you glue the pages together right?”
Her unsure voice changes my world. We glue the pages together. An obituary. A car accident. Blur the words and glue the pages together, make it a secret.
I nod, wondering if that’s what my father meant to tell me. “What’s the name of the song?”
“King and Queens, by Samantha Jett.” She pulls the book out of her bag. Moleskin, mass produced, the cover stamped with musical notes on a plum background. Nothing custom made, nothing showy. She’s too young for that, but not so new to Seaside that the dates and days don’t line up as they should. “I heard it on the fourth.”
Her finger marks the page and she tells me she’ll be back tomorrow morning. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her out, to learn more about her, but now isn’t the time. When she leaves I lock the shop and head to the workbench. Her fourth of March is in front of me. She went grocery shopping, and heard the song in a store, called her mother, thought about buying clothes but worried over her budget.
My hands shake, letting the glue powder plume into the air, then I mix it too thick. I’ve done this with newspaper pages, blank pages, with practice books, but I never knew what I was practicing for. The brush quills are white, tipped with gray. They soak up the glue like they’re eager. The first words I blur are the date, dragging the brush from the left to the right, eventually covering the whole page in a thin film.
There’s guilt when I take away the call with her mother. Was there something important there? But she’s asked me for this. It’s not a choice I made on my own. I realize the power as I do, and know I will never make that choice on my own. To do it once would be to open a cell and let the monster out.
She’s back the next afternoon, all her anxiety gone. “Sorry I’m late. I’ve been fiddling with a new song on the guitar. I sorta forget everything else.”
“Oh?” I try to keep the thrill out of my voice. “What’s it like?”
“Chords, notes, you know.” She pays me while she thinks about it, her eyes moving off to the side. “What’s any song like?”
I pause to consider my next words, to wonder if I’m about to undo all my good work. “You know that song, what’s it called? Kings and Queens? By Samantha somebody? I can’t remember the last name.”
“Sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” Her eyes remain free of recognition.
“Well, don’t it’s not that good of a song.” Her book goes into her pocket. The secret is glued together forever, the words blurred until they don’t exist. And if there’s no entry in your diary, no record that a thing happened, did it happen? “Have you eaten lunch?”
“No, I… when I’m working on something, I forget.”
“Let me take you out.” I push open the shop door, leading her to the café. I’ll write about her in my own diary tonight, page after page. Enough that no one can ever glue them together.
“Hey!” I picked up the soccer ball after it hit the house for a third time. “I’m your new neighbor! They didn’t tell me the yard was the local soccer pitch.” I smiled and held the ball out, a gang of eight or nine kids looked at me in terror. “I don’t mind, just don’t hit the house so much. I don’t want it to fall down.”
“We do. That’s why we made it the goal.” The oldest of them spoke with an angry certainty.
“Why would you want it fall down?”
“It’s Mary Alice’s house,” he said, as if that explained everything.
“Well it’s mine now and I’d prefer if-”
“What are you kids doing?” The child’s guardian came over, obviously upset. “You get away from that house now. Play in the yard but not up on the porch. You know better.”
As the kids scattered away from his gruff tone, I introduced myself. “I’m the new owner.”
“You looking for another place yet?”
“I haven’t even unpacked.”
“Don’t bother. Just start looking now.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Mary Alice, of course.”
“I’m sorry? I don’t know who she is.”
His eyes popped out against his skin, going wide with surprise. “They let you buy it and they didn’t tell you?” He shook his head at the elusive ‘they’. Who were ‘they’ I wondered? My real estate agent had told me everything about the house, 1930s construction, built to last but not updated since the 70s. A gem that needed work for less than a quarter of the price of the rest of the neighborhood, cheap because of some local legend, which I suspected I was about to learn. “Let’s move away from here, out to the yard.”
We walked across lush grass to the detached garage. I’d been told the door was stuck shut, but the local kids hadn’t noticed. They used it to store soccer balls, bases for a baseball game, and at least one football. Apparently I’d bought not just a house but custodianship of the local park.
“Mary Alice was born too late you see.” My neighbor balanced on a cane with a crooked handle. An older gentlemen with distinguished gray hair, I suspected this wasn’t the first time he’d told the story. “Her parents were older, today we’d get it checked out, know if it was Down’s or Asperger’s or what have you. But then, all we knew was she seemed to have a connection to the other side. She’d go up to someone and hug them and love on them, crying the whole time, then the next day they’d be dead in a car accident. It was like she knew.
“The other kids tried to ignore it at first. Her papa was so proud of her he threw the best parties. You wanted to be Mary Alice’s friend, to play with her toys and eat her fine ice cream. But eventually none of the girls could take the way she was, just not right, not normal. She’d look up in the middle of a game and say, now you get home, get home right now, and then you’d get home and your mother would say she was just wishing you were there. It was eerie.”
I almost interrupted to ask if he’d been there, tasted that ice cream, but he didn’t give me the time.
“Her mother, Mrs. Ginther, started making these dolls, hundreds of them, replacement friends for Mary Alice, friends who wouldn’t call her spooky or run away.”
“They’re still there.” I’d found them this morning, in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s bedroom probably. The house was half museum, when the old couple died nothing changed. There were patterns for horrible 1960s knitting and 70s macramé, along with a collection of dolls all lined up. “I’m getting the collection appraised, the antique dealer comes tomorrow.”
“Don’t you move those dolls!” He barked at me. “She loses those friends, she’ll go looking for others!”
“She never had another friend?” I felt sorry for her, the picked on little girl. She’d have known she was different, and wished more than anything that she could be the same.
“Oh no, there was one… the devil. Ruthie.” He shook his head and spit on my lawn, a caricature of an old man. “Ruthie had the devil in her. When she saw that Mary Alice was different, she wanted to know how she could use it. Ruthie was the worst thing in the world for Mary Alice. Whatever her gifts were, Ruthie turned them into terror. She told kids your Mama’s gonna die tonight or if you don’t give me that toy I’ll make Mary Alice hurt you. Ruthie used that girl like a whip to make the world bend to her will. It killed her but it was her own fault.”
“Killed her?” I prompted. He’d gotten to the meat of his story but now he seemed reluctant to tell it. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“My father was working in the kitchen that day, fixing the old stove. The girls were upstairs playing, he heard them every once in a while, but let Mrs. Ginther deal with them. He didn’t hate Mary Alice, not like us kids did but he steered clear of Ruthie. But when he heard Mrs. Ginther screaming, he ran up those stairs.
“He said he didn’t notice the quiet when it happened, just afterwards, when the police asked about it. He got up there and Ruthie was stuck to the couch. Have you seen it yet, a big red velvet couch?”
I shook my head.
“Mary Alice would pile her dolls on it. Ruthie got uppity about it, and said she wanted to sit there. She shoved the dolls on the floor and sat down. Only she couldn’t get up. She said the couch was squeezing her, and begged my father to get her up. He grabbed her hand and he pulled but even though there was nothing around her she stuck fast. He was giving it all his strength when he saw the dolls there in a heap. He said it was like a hundred eyes staring into his soul. He could just tell they knew every mean thing he’d done and they were going to get payment for it. He wrapped his hand around Ruthie’s arm and he closed his eyes tight to stop them from looking at him.
“He pulled and he pulled, but when he opened his eyes, Ruthie was gone.”
“She slipped out of his hand?”
“No.” He spoke very slowly. “She disappeared.”
I raised my eye brow at him, the way I did in the classroom to let a kid know I didn’t believe them.
“Mrs. Ginther was looking at Mary Alice. Mary Alice was crying. But even with that Ruthie couldn’t have slipped away. They’d have seen her.”
“But your Dad had a hold on her hand?”
“Her arm. He was pulling and pulling but something swallowed her up.”
“And nothing. If you don’t want to be swallowed up you’ll sell that house, or at least stay the hell away from those dolls and that couch.” He shook his head at me, angry again. This was the part where the kids got scared and swore they’d never go near Mary Alice’s house. But it was my house now and I wasn’t scared.
“Thanks for the warning. Let the kids know not to hit the house with the soccer ball, okay?” I gave him a good-natured smile but he returned it with an angry jut of his chin.
Inside I marveled at the complexity of the story and how he saw it from one side. I kept thinking of Mary Alice, with all her dolls and just one friend. A friend she probably didn’t like much, who was mean and sassy. I took switch plate off the wall, the floral wall paper needed to come down, tropical flowers the size of my head hadn’t been in style for years. The wall needed to be prepped but…
But I found myself in the upstairs bedroom, Mary Alice’s room, talking to the air. “I’m sorry you didn’t have a good teacher to stop the bullying. It’d be different today, in my classroom.” The dolls were still there, store bought and handmade arranged side-by-side, dust on their eyelashes and coating their hair. They were arranged on a hope chest, watching out the window for Mary Alice to come home. She’d probably died a few decades after Ruthie’s disappearing trick, years before I was born. I lifted up some of the dolls and found it, the tiny red velvet bench. Maybe it was modeled after the one from that day, only small, so small only four of the best loved dolls could stand on it, skirts brushing up against each other. I put the ladies aside delicately for a closer look.
I ran my hands along the edges, thinking about the Ruthie’s trick. Had she slipped into the cushions and then run away when no one was looking? The story made the kids seem like they were eight or nine, but if they were really teenagers, in the 70s, well Ruthie might’ve been ready to run away and practice her manipulation elsewhere. My fingernail felt a crack, and I pulled it up. The bench had a storage space, just over a foot long and less than a foot wide. It held only one thing. Dusty and old, a single doll arm sat in the center of the space. I started at it from the top, not at the molded porcelain shape, the chubby arm itself wasn’t threatening. No the problem were the fingerprints, greasy like a man who’d been working on a stove, and shrunk down, like he left them on the arm when it was life size.
If your mother made dolls for you, it wouldn’t be odd to have a spare arm lying around but why would you put it away? And where would it get those fingerprints? I looked up at the doll collection. Had the yellow-haired one moved? I thought she’d been to the left of Bo Peep, but now she was on the right. Dolls don’t rearrange themselves, except that a feeling in the pit of my stomach told me they had. The glass eyes stared at me, questioning me, demanding to know what I would do next. I put the four dolls back in place, making a point of remembering which one went where so I didn’t trick myself into thinking they’d moved again. Then I walked out of the room, deliberately ignoring the noise, like the clicking of porcelain as it moved.
He missed chocolate the most – the rich velvety smoothness across his tongue, missed the warmth of hot chocolate in the morning sitting by his bed in its chocolate service. In the beginning of his fall from grace, those first painful years without any food and barely any drink, it was easy to avoid his longing. There were so many other things to miss, a good steak or warm bread thick with butter. Later he realized above all else he missed chocolate. Just after the Germans became Huns but before they were Nazis, there came a new torment, chocolate mixed with nuts and raisins. A new taste he could never enjoy. By the end of World War II chocolate taunted him whenever he entered a corner market, from every restaurant menu, and at any hotel.
Chocolate had been rare when he was alive. It was the drink of the rich, more expensive then wine. Today it littered the streets. People tried to give chocolate away for free. On any day he passed 5 or 6 delicious torments, luxuries he could not enjoy. Chocolates on his pillow at night, chocolate mixed with coffee for breakfast. That the offers were so off-handed, so casual, made it all the worse. To love a thing and see it treated as valueless when he could not enjoy it was to be cut in some small way. While he did not bleed, it still hurt. Once, his grief had come through and a street vendor said ‘What, it’s just chocolate?’ He left the man intact, shaking his head thinking ‘he jests at scars that never felt the wound’.
He missed women too. Missed the desire a man could have for a woman and the way it felt to fulfill that most basic human need. He failed to understand the modern need to make sex something vulgar, something so wrong. He had watched pornography race from sensual enjoyment to extremes of degradation. He felt pity for any youth that could not be aroused by the hint of a breast or the curve of a thigh, who found pleasure instead in the most base of acts in domination or the destruction of feigned innocence. He wished he could understand this need for more and more brutal erotica but, he was dead. In the end, the dead never truly understand the living.
He floated, it seemed, between the world he had once inhabited, a bustling city filled with men in suits and women in gloves, and the current world. Sometimes when he walked down a street he could remember so clearly the theater goers in their revelries and the homeless that were the ghosts. He had met others of his kind; ones who had not fared so well, who saw only the ghosts, never the real people. He did not want to join them, yet when he passed the window of a chocolate shop, filled with golden boxes he could never again open and enjoy, he envied them.
He had seen her then, standing in front of that window with its bright lettering spelling out the name of a long dead noble. Would a modern woman know the story behind name of Godiva? Would she care? A warm pool of chocolate sat inside a baptismal font, ripe strawberries fresh from prayers lined up by the side. Opposite them, coolly bathed in the grace of God and chocolate were lined their predecessors. The scene brought him to such rapture he nearly devoured the woman. Watching the reflection of her eyes in the glass, in that last moment before the thing inside him made him more beast then man, he saw himself. Her desire was as deep and as unfulfilled as his own. He felt a single emotion, a sudden clear drop of charity. It rushed through his soul and cleansed him of any need to eat. He turned to her.
“Which would you eat first? The strawberry or the orange?” He left his voice human, tried to be light.
“Both, neither, I don’t know.” Her words came out in a rush while she shook her head. “I can’t afford any of them, and I don’t need the calories anyway. Thank God window shopping is free!” She began to walk away. Salvation slipping through his fingers.
“Wait! I can afford it, but I can’t eat any of it. Let an old man buy you some chocolate.” She hesitated, skittish. He reached out his hand, suddenly sorry he wore gloves. “Please, it would really be my pleasure.” With the last, he let a touch of himself shine through his voice. She smiled and put her hand in his.
“You can’t be that old of a man.” She turned her face up to him, searching for a sign of his age.
“Oh?” His voice held an amused lilt “I think you’d be surprised.” They stepped out of the swirling snow into the bright warmth of the chocolate shop.
Her name was Maggie. She was young, but old in her soul, a tenth of his age merely 28. She had spent too much time doing without, helping someone else. They sat in a corner booth of a slightly battered diner. Between her and the wall where no one could steal them was a heap of golden boxes; too many for such a small woman to carry, not enough to soothe the desires of an old man.
They met week after week as the Christmas decorations lost their newness and the crowds became less kind despite the season. Maggie wore the same shabby coat turned gray from overuse. He bought boxes, gift towers, custom pounds and any other thing her eye rested on. He spoiled her only in this, only in chocolate. He never offered her money or even a meal. He only sat across from her in the diner as she opened the gold foil to slip a piece, furtive and delighted at once.
He learned she lived alone. Her Mother, who had forbidden chocolate in their home, had recently died. She learned he spoke 7 languages, though some not very well. She watched him watch her eat but never asked why he didn’t or why he felt the need to shower her with chocolate. Perhaps he thought she suspected the answer and didn’t want to ruin the chocolate.
Vampires had always been there. He remembered stories of them when he was young. Terrible hideous monsters who could not stand sunlight or the touch of the faithful. He wasn’t that kind. These were more open times, people wanted to meet vampires. People read vampire novels, dressed in vampire clothes, and danced at dark night clubs drinking wine they pretended was blood. He went to the clubs, he tried to understand them, but in the end he was still dead and they were all still living.
People in New York, people all over the world acknowledged that vampires existed. Some of them would say ‘you mean people who think they’re vampires’ and others would say ‘they’ve been here all along’. For the first time in centuries he could tell someone what he was, tell them his real birthday or his whole name and not expect to be branded insane. Like most of the vampires, he didn’t like it. He would have rather lived in the shadows, rather lived a half life filled with lies and loneliness then to be loved but misunderstood. And to be misunderstood so badly! How many times could he hear the same phrases? Listen to the same mindless patter of “I know you think you feel but” or “I know you think you know everything but” as if someone else could crawl inside his mind and see what it really was to be him.
Still, other vampires had made the decision. They had come out, made themselves something more than a horror movie staple, asked for a life when truly they had no right to one. He wondered what they thought to gain. Wondered what the few that had slipped into the spotlight really wanted. Perhaps they were young and hopeful, new to his world. Perhaps they were old and tired of the chase, running out of shadows big enough to hide them.
There were only a handful of them after all. Two or three celebrity vampires, sitting on talk shows debating the correctness of the latest horror novel. He didn’t pay enough attention to the interviews to know if they lied. Did they ever claim to be able to turn into bats? He would like to see one of them try. He would like to see one of them proven completely and horribly wrong. That way he could go back to hiding, seeking out the others like himself for quiet company when the loneliness got to long. Of all the decades in his long un-life, he preferred the ones without public acknowledgment the best.
But Maggie. She might know, she might watch the television and lust after a demon lover. She might dream of a dark prince to save her from life. There was too the chance that she might know and be repulsed. Not find his fine yellow hair or his bright blue eyes enough to bare his cold touch. So for now he left this secret unsaid between them. All they had was chocolate but that was all he needed.
He had a routine. It worked for him. At least, he grinned to himself, it had worked the last seven times. Two women, a pair of senior citizens, and four men – mostly truckers – it had worked for all of them. The pair of senior citizens were only a month ago, a loving older couple. Different from the singletons, he couldn’t take the passenger seat and sink his knife in his victim’s side, taking the wheel as they looked at him, shocked and suddenly dying. He’d had to slice the wife’s throat and the husband jerked the wheel. So much blood, the windshield got coated with it, like it was raining red inside the car.
His worst kill, but his favorite so far. Definitely not routine.
He walked along the side of the highway, his breath starting to come out in white smoky puffs. He’d have to stop for the winter soon. After Christmas it got too cold and there was no more charity left in anyone’s heart, no more softening at the sight of a hitchhiker. This would be the last time he followed the routine this year. The thought left him sad, and excited.
A car slowed, a station wagon, a family car. His breath caught in his throat. Maybe that would be how he could survive the coming winter. Take three now, stock up. A giggle escaped his throat. He’d stock up for winter.
“Going far?” Dad asked.
“As far as you’ll take me. Headed to Denver.”
“Oh that’s far,” Mom agreed. They were forty, maybe a little older. “Squeeze in with Johnny.”
“Little Johnny,” Dad corrected. “I’m big John.”
“Oh neat.” It was a stupid thing to say, but little Johnny worried him. He’d been hoping for a car full of teens. Hoping for a bunch of girls. Now a six year old with chubby cheeks looked up at him. Dad locked the car door almost before it shut. Locked the predator inside, he smiled. The little boy wouldn’t be a problem.
Except, with his fingers on his knife, ready to strike out (always do it before they got up to speed, grabbing the wheel at 45 was a much different thing than having to grab it at 70) little Johnny’s face stopped him.
Perfectly cute, perfectly normal, but waxy. Too still. Little Johnny didn’t look normal.
“You guys waited to have kids, huh?”
“Thought we couldn’t.” Dad nodded. It was a personal question, Dad should’ve been upset or scared. The Predator hadn’t even thanked them for the ride yet.
“So when Johnny came, we knew he was a gift from God below.” Mom smiled as she said it.
“Above,” the Predator corrected, nervously licking his lips.
“Oh no. God Below.”
He turned toward the unnaturally still child, and studied it. Little Johnny did not blink. Sweat popped out on the Predator’s forehead, the hands that gripped the big knife felt clammy. He pulled it out, as Johnny watched, unblinking.
His slid his knife into the child’s side, like going into butter instead of flesh. Didn’t hit anything hard, didn’t see the bright red blood. This was wrong. All wrong.
“We’re lucky you came along. Our little boy needed his dinner,” Dad said. The father’s eyes never left the road, the Predator’s eyes couldn’t tear themselves from the knife, stuck so far into the boy’s side that he couldn’t get it out, couldn’t go for Mom’s throat or slash at Dad. Couldn’t protect himself.
The boy sprang forward, biting. As the child’s sharp teeth pierced his throat, he could only think that this wasn’t part of the routine.
Timmy isn’t a bad boy. This is very clear in his mind. Momma asks him, now you don’t want to be a bad boy do you? And he knows the answer is no. Really he doesn’t though. He wants to be good. But he can’t sleep. It isn’t summer but the sheets keep sticking to his skin. It’s just too hot. He thinks about the brook behind the house, and how much cooler he would be if he went swimming. He starts thinking about it after dark, well after dark, when Momma and Daddy have turned off the radio for the night. By the time they’re quiet all he can think of is the cool water.
So he climbs out of bed, quietly. His plan is complete: a swim, a cooling dip, then back in bed. He has pictured every step with the clarity of any six year old. He will do this and no one will ever know. No one will call him a bad boy.
Outside the world is not hot and Timmy’s plans explode like the poof of his breath in the air. How could the house be so hot and the outside so cold? He doesn’t understand but he hops from one foot to the other, not making sense of it but still headed toward the brook. He has a vague notion of March and that maybe the wood stove made the house too hot. His mind is suddenly fuzzy, the clear plans of a second ago seem distant.
He takes another step toward the brook and then he sees the light. A circle of bright yellow light coming toward him from just over the bank, a train he realizes. It pulls up to the other side of the brook as if there were train tracks there, perfectly silent. His mind springs to life, memorizing rivets and gears, watching the moonlight paint the black engine. Light splashes over passenger cars, people seated in fancy dress and plain clothes, all of them looking forward. Old men, young men, women and babies in another car, looking forward as if the train always ran through his backyard when he’s never seen it here before, but then, he knows in a way that even a six year old must know, that there isn’t another train like this, not anywhere.
The engine comes to a halt with a shrill hiss of steam. He’s never imagined anything so fascinating, anything as magical and scary. A conductor leans out, a man in a fine black suit, formal with a brass watch fob looped over his modest belly.
“Good evening, Timmy. Fancy a ride on the night train?” The man has no accent, no hint of malice in his voice, and though Timmy knows he should be wary, the train beckons to him.
“How long?” His squeaks out the question, sounding small and unsure.
“Well now, some people they ride for a long time, years and years and years. But a young man like yourself, I suspect you’d ride just a little while. Just step into the brook, and I’ll get your hand from this side.” His hand comes out, clean with trimmed finger nails, it’s a trustworthy hand on a trustworthy man, but oddly Timmy doesn’t trust him.
“I’d come back right here? To Momma and Daddy?”
The faces in the windows turn to him, the heads moving in perfect unison, mouths dropping open. Their empty jaws seem too wide and somehow toothless. He’s asked the right question, but somehow they think wrong of him. He can feel the disapproval coming out of their black eyes.
“Hmmm, can’t say I know if you’d come back right here. Maybe near here.”
“And Momma and Daddy?”
“Oh we’d get you a pair. The train’s real good about that.” He chuckles at the end, like he’s just told a joke, but Timmy doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think any of this funny at all. He wants a ride, oh yes, but he doesn’t trust this fancy man and his opened mouth passengers.
“Train’s got to go.” The conductor checks his regulator, a fine watch. Timmy can see the image on the outside, a train over shadowed by an hourglass. “Come on then, step into the brook Timmy and climb aboard. It’s the ride of a life time.”
“You sure, son? Might be awhile before we get back to pick you up.”
“No.” Timmy sweats now, his feet still cold on the ground. He wonders if a fever has come over him, he must get back inside to Momma. She’ll know what to do. And yet, the train, the pretty train he so wants to ride. He feels himself take a step to the brook, the frozen grass sharp on his bare feet. The pain brings him back to his senses, and he shakes his head, then turns and runs into the house, tears streaming down his face. He does not look back, does not see the conductor smile in a way that should be kindly, does not see the passengers turn to face forward again. The night train moves on, souls to collect, stops to make.
There isn’t much call for steam engine operators in the world, theme parks, national parks, a handful of zoos. He’s lucky to have landed here, in Florida, where the cold doesn’t seep into his old bones the way it did that frosty March morning before he got so sick. The fever dream has never left him, the one where that big black locomotive came out of the darkness and he was so tempted to take a ride.
Only here he is, in Florida, on a night that’s hotter than most of the summer days of his youth, and something woke him. Something he can’t quite place. He slides open the glass door to the patio, letting the humidity roll into the house. Shuts it, thinking of his wife and how uneasily she sleeps these days. The change is on her, and he worries about that. But still, it wasn’t what woke him. Something else, something familiar but not.
Then he hears it again, the low whistle of an engine. All smoke and fire, a full head of steam. He knows the sound at once. Not an engine, but that engine. And there it is, in his backyard, despite the fence, without any tracks. A gleaming black piece of machinery steams to stop just ahead of him, leaving the place where the conductor stands just a few feet away.
“Soul train needs an engineer, Timmy.” The same old man leans out, the same shirt and suit, aged and faded but impossibly not any more aged or faded.
His mouth gapes. He doesn’t know how to respond to this horrific tempting offer.
“You’ve done well for yourself. Don’t you think it’s time you took on a real train?”
The engine purrs at him, like a seductive cat. He wants to run his hands over it but he knows they’ll burn. He’s had enough of those burns to remember the sting, but then how many trains run without tracks, in his backyard, after midnight, in Florida? It’s all impossible so he reaches out to stroke the metal. There is no burn, no pain, heat yes, agony no.
“She likes you.” The conductor grins, a mouth with too many teeth but friendly just the same. “You should feel honored.”
Then all at once he does. He remembers trains upon trains, drawing them with waxy crayons and polishing models. Every train he every drove, pushing the engines to their limits. None of them were ever this good, this enticing, and he’s proud that she likes him. His hand wraps around the metal bar, hangs on for a minute one foot on the yard, one on that first polished step.
For a second he thinks of his wife, the grandchildren. Idly his mind turns to work and the things he meant to do tomorrow. Then his foot reaches off the ground, touching that next step. His pajamas change into engineer’s coveralls, heavy denim without the grease streaks and stains he expects. A pressed shirt, striped in white and light blue, comes over him and around his head a cap presses his hair down. Everything else is forgotten.
“Welcome to the night train.” The conductor smiles.