Sam at Work

Sam watched Jackson at work. It was not the work of handing out condolences and exchanging pleasantries that he had been assigned, but the work of chatting up Maggie Holbryth which he was so often engaged in.

Sam simply sipped his white wine from the corner of the room best suited to growing wallflowers, deploring both the cheap taste and the actions of his friend and fellow funerary serviceman. He knew Jacksonwas currently hardly sparing thoughts for Ms. Walters, who lay in a cushy coffin about twenty feet away. Likely he only paid her a few terse words and false pretenses.

Sam supposed he understood. They saw this sort of thing every week, and despite feeling relatively acquainted in some way with all of Moorcove’s 700 or so residents, showing one out the mortal coil was conducted with a relatively unceremonious level of ceremony on the part of himself and his three colleagues.

The thing he didn’t understand, was how Paul and Jackson could say almost all of the same things, but Paul always did it better. Paul had a pincushion heart though, one that when it came up against pain or hardship it often responded with a soft spoken joke rather than a cry, tailored to making others laugh though he hardly laughed himself. Jackson, on the other hand, was not a considerate animal. He represented the dead-end-ness of the four of them the most, hardly attempting to hide his extended disappointment for his life underneath a mire of hedonism.

Sam knew most didn’t see this, and understood that he likely did because he’d known the man for years, saw him every day, had cut their losses garnered in early adulthood and moved out to a nothing coastal town together, and now negotiated the treatment and removal of corpses with him.

Maggie Holbryth probably saw it though, Sam mused. What else would explain that pained but polite expression she now wore as she listened to Jackson try and pull the big city card again, though he’d lived in Moorcove for years now.

When she tacitly excused herself, Sam watched Jackson raise his glass to her as she went before he turned and strode into Sam’s corner.

“I need a wing man,” he said. “I’m upbeat, and sometimes catchy, but you’ve got the eloquence. The things I say about myself hardly seem to matter to other people until you are saying them. Come on, I’ll help you pick out something for yourself.” Though Sam made no move to initiate the action, Jackson forcefully clinked the rims of their glasses together before he downed his remaining bottom third.

“You’re turning her into some kind of forbidden fruit,” said Sam. “And she sees that. This town is smallJackson. Did you think you could pick up at funerals, sleeping your way through every young woman, and not have at least one of them notice your stunning lack of commitment?” His irises slid to the edge of their lids to look at his friend, “also, there are no gay people in Moorcove.”

“What’s commitment got to do with it?” Jackson slammed his glass down on a well dressed table and turned back to Sam with a smirk. “And have you ever really tried!? Maggie will come around, you’ll see.” He slapped a hand onto Sam’s shoulder, leaving it there to help punctuate his next request, “Angler tonight?”

How Sam hated The Angler. The same cursed bar with the same cursed people every week for the last two years.

“Sure,” he sighed, hiding his face in his wine glass.

Jackson’s smile broadened, and he gave Sam’s shoulder one more gingerly tap before striding away, hands in suit pockets.

The other thing Sam didn’t understand was why he was so jealous of Jackson. They’d basically deemed themselves failures, and had come out here when Paul presented an opportunity to run the family business together, realizing at thirty that they’d apparently lost out big enough on any dreams they’d had that they wanted to run to the edges of the earth and quietly mourn for themselves and others. That meant there shouldn’t have been any risk, nothing left to prove, and Jackson internalized that.

But Sam still felt like he was dressing himself up for no one.

He turned and watched Paul standing over Ms. Walters. The man had a bit of ginger hair even on his knuckles, Sam noted as he watched his friend brush his hand over the woman’s head. Perhaps there was some small error there left from the embalming process, or perhaps the motion was part of an even more private ritual that Paul conducted for himself and this woman he’d last seen over tea and scones when they were discussing the logistics of her  sister’s passing six months prior.

Paul had been strangely made for this. It was as if he’d punched his card when emerging from the womb, and reported to the reaper’s office for promotion several times throughout his life. He was their king, and he touched sorrow and turned what bits he could into gold. Sam wondered what the pain of such a person was shaped like, and if he’d ever truly gotten a holiday away from it. The rest of them had been willing to move out to Moorcove at thirty. Paul was ready any time.

And standing there, fingers growing clammy around the stem of his glass, Sam realized yet another thing that made him different from the others. They’d moved out here to get away from something. But Sam, his gaze on the tears in Paul’s sea foam eyes, Sam knew he’d always been a follower.

Survivor of a Bygone Time

Sunlight beamed gracefully through the glass door, highlighting confused dust motes as it came to land on the aged wooden table in the centre of the room. It was mostly jars and dust, jars that contained any number of preservatives that pushed the room into smelling like acrid spice, and left a tinge of sweetness on the tongue when it touched the air.

Many of these jars were chipped or cracked, survivors from a bygone time. Much of the room, and the house, was like that. To the left was a yellowed fridge with photos pinned to it with kitschy magnets shaped like roosters or with the name of the local farmer’s market on them. It sat atop a vain grey grid of tiled floor, and a counter ran to meet the back corner before proceeding along the wall to the edge of the kitchen. Dishes piled high in the sink, forgotten, and to the right of this mountain sat an old looking radio that would be easier to imagine working because a little man stood talking inside it than because of any kind of science.

The paint on the cupboards seemed faded and sun bleached, and served only to complete the remorseful air that the place carried. This made the glass sliding door which helped to illuminate the table, which looked like someone had misplaced a chunk of tree, all the more peculiar. It was held in a pristine white frame, and the glass seemed relatively clean, the whole thing looking crisp and modern, but inevitably out of place. It looked like a last-ditch attempt by a place to save itself before resigning to old ways.

Cloaked to the Last

Despite the stories, I headed out onto the rickety dock that night.

I held my lamp high to light my way, but it seemed after about ten feet the swamp consumed everything. I could smell it: that distinct putrefaction of damp and natural mush. It wasn’t necessarily bad.

I got to the end of the wooden walk, and I hung my lamp from a little hook extending from a curved pole to my left. And then, I sat, the boards creaking beneath as I lowered myself.

How could uncle Roberts live in a place like this? In a shack with nothing but these dark pools, cold trunks, and sorrowful bird calls. I could tell my parents wanted to leave as quickly as possible, get the funerary arrangements sorted out swiftly.

They thought of expediency, while I thought of the stories Uncle Roberts used to tell me. Stories of bird men, tree people, swamp creatures that had somehow escaped from time. He spoke of spirits returning to this place when they died.

But how could my uncle return to this place? He hadn’t come from this green place.

I told him he should write these stories down, and I think he did, but only occasionally. I did see some drawings though, the goings of tree people arranged into panels. I had no idea Uncle Roberts had an interest in comics.

Off in the distance, breaking through the mist and the dark, a flame.

I gasp, and scold myself for the thought that has leapt to mind: Uncle?

I’ve heard of the phenomena of the will-o-wisps, though I have never seen it.

The flame is dull, hardly illuminating the dank woods around it. It does not look particularly, soul-like, I think. It clearly emanates from the water, a strange ignition, a curious happenstance.

But the feeling that tugged in my gut when I saw it made me wonder. I hadn’t known Uncle very well, but I’d known him. I’d known him just enough to have this feeling I carried now: not overwhelming sorrow, but a regret of not having known him better. The gently lapping water, the shadows between the branches, were not helping. Cloaked to the last.

I hear a splash, far off to the left.

I grip my legs tighter to myself and look.

There is nothing, and then, there is something.

Barely visible in the light of the flame is a man’s broad back facing me, though it looks bulky and gnarled, nearly indistinguishable from the bark and brambles around him. The water sloshes a little as he walks along the opposite shore. Once he clears some overhang, he steps out into a pool up to his knees. His skin is dark and, for a moment I think, lumpy and rough like bark. I cannot see eyes, and his face juts out near it’s centre in a triangular fashion. Without another movement, wings with bones of branch and feathered leaves unfurl from his back. There is a splash that makes me start as he takes to the air, silhouetted by the moon for but a moment before he disappears behind the trees.

I sat there, still in shock and riding out the last echoes of the splash. I wondered if I had just learned something about my Uncle, and what exactly it was.

Noodles I Know

“Erde-DAMNIT!” yelled the noodle shop proprietor yet again.

“What is it this time Blake?” called one of the regular customers from the front bar. “Is it the Trice again?”

“They’re all outta sorts, Mac,” said Blake scratching his pudge and his head at the same time as he looked at the sight. “They keep petrif’n one another. I dunno what’s gotten into them.”

“Maybe it’s rats,” said Mac’s friend Jim. “Though, they say if you have Trice you can’t have rats. Maybe they’re getting spooked because… they THINK there’s rats?”

Blake turned back toward the front, looking at Mac and Jim’s faces, and the foot traffic that proceeded along the damp street behind them. His face warped into one of disbelief, and he held up his arms in exasperation before shaking his head and heading back to the pots.

He quickly spooned out two bowls, noodles and broth sloshing into wide brimmed bowls. He realized he’d gotten a few drops on his irredeemable shirt as he slapped the bowls down in front of his two customers. He threw two sets of chopsticks into the bowls as if they were miniature javelins and then leaned against the bar with both hands.

“Now Jim,” Blake said. “Try and tell me that don’t sound like some of the dumbest shit you’ve ever heard. Cockatrice THINKIN there are rats when there aint. Hell.”

“You don’t know!” cried Jim. “You think people enjoy this slop you make… but they don’t!”

Mac’s eyes widened and he picked up his bowl and turned away from his friend, holding his bowl in his hands close to his face as if he wanted to slurp his ramen in private.

“Now Jim,” said Blake. “You know that aint true. YOU love this slop. Best in the district, maybe the whole city. I’ll freely admit what I don’t know. But I know I know these noodles, and you two have been comin here long enough that I’m pretty sure I can say I know you two too.”

Jim shrugged his shoulders and chopsticked noodles into his mouth, relenting. “Okay okay. You’re right Blake. I dunno. It’s just, this city… things are so messed up, I feel like I can’t be sure what I know and what I don’t anymore.”

Blake gave the young man a hearty bearded grin. “Eat up Jim.”

He was loath to do it, but he turned away from the cool, rain-touched air he felt near the front of the shop and back into the heavy steam of the kitchen. He looked near the back where he kept his Cockatrice, and saw one of them in a panic, looking down and lifting its feet as if something were scurrying around down there.

“Hrm…”

The Performer

She breathed deeply after her song was over, sweat running down her brow in rivulets. The applause were awkwardly staggered throughout the ballroom as she finished. Probably some of them were hesitant to commend a human performer from the lower districts, but it seemed others couldn’t resist. Come on, she thought with a smirk. Admit it.

Regardless, she crouched down to retrieve a handkerchief from her handbag, and dabbed at the sweat on her brow before it could tarnish her makeup too much. She stood again and gave a quick thank you into the mic before walking off stage, putting a hefty amount of concentration into walking down the stairs in her heels.

It wasn’t like her performances along the Strip, where, if she had just walked down into the crowd like this, people would have been crowding her, asking her for autographs, thanking her for making their lives better for the length of a few tracks. Here, at this formal event where chandelier’s sparkled and the points of elven ears hovered like knife points, no one said a thing to her. She wondered why they’d even asked her to come.

She grabbed a flute of champagne off the nearest tray as a waiter strode by, trying to avert his eyes from her, though she saw his gaze flicker to her now and again. She paid him a smile she had been told could kill.

Whatever the reason, she’d had to come. She knew it was naïve, and would never say as such to anyone, never so overtly. But a large amount of her music was devoted to an idea of change, and so this event for the King’s court and corporate big wigs seemed like an opportunity. Maybe it could be a start. If her music touched at least one of these people, maybe it could slowly shift the cycle of hatred that had grown between the races and peoples of the districts.

She stood off to the side, delicately sipping, letting the bubbles run along her tongue.

After a while, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

When she turned she saw an elven woman with striking red hair, wearing a resplendent dress of shimmering white, lined with what looked almost like gold scale male.

“Hello,” she said. “I just wanted to say: I’m a massive fan of your work, and thought that tonight was no exception. Well done.”

The performer turned to face the woman head on. She had a strange aura about her, one that she found slightly intimidating. Which was strange, for her.

“My pleasure,” said the performer. “It’s not every day that one gets to perform for such a crowd.”

“Mm,” said the red-haired woman. She turned and looked out over the elves seated at the various tables, conversing in their formal wear. Her smile lilted just a little, and the performer could then see why she was struck by this woman so. Perhaps it was her acting experience that let her have this window in, but she could tell. This woman was hiding something, and it lay placed just below the surface.

The woman turned back to the performer, “might we be able to talk in private?”

More

He stepped over the bodies of his fallen warriors, warriors who had run into this dark wood at his command.

Despite the blood, the house mantles and tartans tarnished, he did not draw his sword. In fact, he hardly looked at those who had died. There was little warmth in his gaze as he looked ahead, eyes only for what had killed them.

“You’re not like the others,” he said.

The thing’s carapace undulated as it turned. Its wings knocked against branches, cracking and breaking them. Its entire face was like the eye of a reptile, and every time it blinked, its mask was different.

Right now, it was plastered with an expression of sickly joy.

“That’s right,” it said, its voice sharp yet rounded, like chimes at the bottom of a well.

“What are you?” asked the Prince. In a way, he was glad none of his comrades were alive to hear the way he said it. He felt his fascination making him sick, but he pressed on.

The creature seemed to cock its happy head, before making itself more comfortable. It rested its chin atop its folded front talons and looked almost longingly at the Prince with its quirked face.

“Shall I tell you a story?”

The Prince felt sweat dripping down his face. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He grit his teeth instead, and nodded.

The creature’s face disappeared, only to re-emerge as one with a more tepid, closed mouth smile.

“Once there were a brother and sister, both who loved to make things. The sister’s works were made in passionate swaths, brushwork worthy of memory, emotion worthy of visitation. The brother saw the things his sister made, and tried to do the same. And though his creations contained great detail, they felt hollow. His sister tried to help, filling in the things he’d missed, but when she did this they were no longer his creations. He studied her art carefully, rigorously, endlessly. Finally, one day, he made something truly his own. His creations were something more lofty, higher than his sister’s works, which seemed base in comparison. He was so proud of what he’d done, he had to show her. It didn’t take long for the sister to fly into a jealous rage. She didn’t understand: to her eyes her brother’s creations still seemed empty. But somehow, their emptiness drove them onward, pushed them to search out beauty, to strive, to die upon a path. She would never admit their beauty, and wished to see them ended. She made her own new creations, riven from threads of her blind rage. The brother, not understanding why his beloved sister was acting this way, panicked. He spawned again, only this time his works bore a terrible curse: their husk-like nature drove them forward, but they could never fill themselves. Always searching, lusting.”

The being’s face switched to one where the mouth was now small, neutral. “The rest is history,” it said.

It raised its head, gingerly, a query in its vacant eyes.

“Do you too know this feeling?”

The Prince still did not look down at his fallen soldiers, though tears now flowed from his eyes. He thought of how he’d sent them all to their deaths, hoping it would make him feel something in the shape of remorse. Instead, he was left with tears given from an empty space where that shape should go.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”

The creature’s face was now a coy one, and it moved ever closer to the Prince. “Shall I tell you a secret?” It whispered, its voice seeping into his ear.

The prince’s eyes were wide, and he was frozen. It seemed not to matter: it seemed the creature could hear him without speaking.

“Death is the key. You are on the right track. For, if this were all gone, what would come to fill its place?”

It craned its neck low, so that the Prince could look at the two voids in its head. “You may start with me. Kill me, and you will see the word to a new world. A word to forgiveness, happiness. Wholeness.”

The prince took his shaking hand and moved it to his sword handle, and he jerked the blade from its scabbard.

When the deed was done, he saw what the creature had called the word. Though, it didn’t seem like a word. Maybe a thought, but even that seemed too generous. He couldn’t pinpoint its meaning; it seemed amorphous, deformed. When he tried to give it a sentiment, the closest he could come up with was…

More.

Spacies

I sauntered into the gym, and the boys seemed hesitant.

Tomorrow was the match against Boswell, who’d 3-O’d us last year, and Tommy Kitchener was out with serious chi depletion. He was our anchor, the last line of defense, and now I kept seeing that Freshman from Ryerson tomahawk grabbing him into the ground when I went to sleep at night.

I threw my duffel in the corner and walked to where the team stood, all of them in a circle at the center of the gym.

Coach kept looking between all of their downtrodden faces like he couldn’t believe it. “Come on boys. This isn’t that big a set back. We need to learn not to rely on Tommy anyway. This’ll help our starters hold the line.”

They all looked at each other frailly.

I adjusted my long blonde hair under my red baseball cap. I tied it back and stuffed it through the hole between the hat and its strap. I looked at all of them, knowing that coach was right. It was true Tommy often carried us. There was only one way to fix that.

“Let’s train,” I said.

I saw some of my brothers take deep breaths, others gave little nods of agreement.

Coach smiled. “Alright, let’s warm up with some singles. Carver, Stanhope, you’re up.”

I stepped into the circle as Stanhope did, both of us staring each other down with smirks on our faces.

Me and Stanhope always had interesting matches: he was more of a zoner, while I liked to get in there and lay on the pressure. I doubted it was a coincidence that coach matched us with contrasting styles.

I took off my Letterman jacket and he did the same, both of us tossing them aside. I arched my back low and raised my two fists in front of me, bouncing back and forth on the balls of my feet. Stanhope swung his arm gracefully in a wide circle, ending the movement balancing on his right foot.

“Three…” said Coach. “Two… One… Fight!”

Stanhope slammed his left foot down and thrust his raised hand forward, a blue fireball rocketing from his palm. I dodged left and felt the heat of the projectile on my cheek as it flew by.

I stayed nimble, moving back and forth as Stanhope pumped his arms, launching more projectiles. I crept closer and closer, refusing to let him control the space between us. But Stanhope was good at it, and he knew this was what it was all about. Make the opponent play your game, make them predictable and get those reads.

I played into his hand, relying too much on the same movements to dodge, and he did two rapid jabs that made it impossible for me to dodge both projectiles. I had no choice but to take the hit, raising my hand so that my forearm shielded my face. The blue fire impacted with my arm, it’s damage more concussive than flammable, and sent me skidding back several inches. The squeak of my chucks against the slick gym floor echoed out.

I knew most people thought we were just meatheads. Just a bunch of guys like the guys on any other sports team, except worse, because we didn’t pretend we weren’t looking for a fight. But they didn’t realize what went on in the space I was in right now, how not only were you expected to have a high level of technical skill in this sort of thing, you also needed the tactics. No one really thought about how once you made it here, once you had do deal with “spacies,” it essentially became a chess game where you had fractions within fractions of seconds to make a move.

It made me smile from under the brim of my cap. I didn’t need them to get it. I got it, Stanhope got it, all these guys and Coach got it. They understood that there was a mixture here, a game that encouraged us to be well rounded people, and encouraged us to be a family. We all understood that this was the thing that made us feel alive.

I lowered my arm and charged forward. Stanhope reacted exactly the way I was hoping and went high with one projectile and aimed the other toward my feet in case I went low.

Baited.

I held my arm up as I had before, this time expending a bit of chi to completely absorb the hit and maintain momentum. I lept over the second fireball as it collided with the ground, sending out a blue shockwave. I was airborn, and Stanhope had committed hard to those attacks, so he was still in a position where he couldn’t recover.

I came down hard on his shoulder with an aerial axe kick which send him plumetting to the gym floor. He bounced up as I landed and I got in an uppercut to his gut, followed by  a discharge of orange energy that I swept up from the ground to keep the bounce going, before spinning and elbowing him out of the arena.

He went sailing, and eventually skidded to a halt along the pristine gym floor, coming to a stop under the basketball hoop.

I turned and yelled, pumping both fists and screaming to the ceiling. “Woo!”

I saw Carver in the corner of my eye getting up and dusting himself off. He managed his energy well, as we all did, so what I’d done to him wasn’t enough to be life threatening. But it was enough for me to win.

“Damn Carver,” he said, sounding genuinely impressed. “This man’s a monster!”

The other guys started laughing in response, but I was on fire.

I flashed a grin at all of them, took off my cap and tossed it into the air as if I’d just graduated from fight club.