Ever After, Anyway

In the land of make-believe:

Gabe’s hair gleams golden in the sunlight, and his eyes just seem to snag the light and spin it until you’re dizzy and blinded and stumbling. Goddamned goody-two-shoes. Though, of course, he’s rather more godblessed and, being an angel and all, I don’t think he wears shoes. Wings are always like that, though. Even Pegasus has a stick up his ass. Figuratively speaking again, of course. They get flying and feathers and suddenly they think they’re above you. That one literally too, I guess, since they are. I haven’t even seen Gabe for maybe a century, but I know that he’s friends with Rose. She talks about him every once in a while, and now of course they’re getting on great.

I don’t, of course, know why she even hangs out with him. He’s bloody boring from what I can tell, bland as the healthiest of foods. Good, of course, just uninteresting. Rose has a thing for the perfect ones though – that’s why she even fell for the prince in the first place, naturally. Chiseled jaw and a sword, skin scratched by the thorns and breathing heavy. It took her a while to figure out the rest of it – not that I’m complaining. Being perfect suits me when I have the inclination to be charming. To be Charming, that is.

Gabe is still talking to Rose, and she’s listening all aglow. She is awfully beautiful. Hence the nickname, though nowadays she doesn’t need a whole lot of sleep. She gets by on five, six hours a night. I figure she got it all out of her system at once and now she’s impatient just dreaming. The wing’s telling her something about Red and the wolf boy, or at least that’s what it seems. He just said, “No, now they’re back together.” Rose is all agape, making those concerned clucking noises that need to accompany love conversations.

“But I thought they were done for good,” she says. Gabe shakes his head, shrugging. “Oh well,” says Rose. “I guess they’re well suited. But honestly, she should either give up the business with her grandmother or give him up. I mean, if she keeps nagging him about it they’re only going to do the same thing over and over again.”

“Well,” Gabe says, “that’s what they’ve been doing so far. They’ve broken up, I think, sixty-three times now? Someone’s counting and that’s the tally I heard. In my opinion that’s why they even work together at all.”

Rose frowns, skin creasing in a familiar scowl. “You think? Red always seems so innocent to me. Like Cindy, really. They both seem to think that everything’s going to be just fine all the time, no problems anywhere. Nothing ever goes wrong for them, and when it does they forgive. Look at Cindy’s godawful family, and how Red keeps taking the wolf back. They want it all to end up okay.”

The angel bursts out into laughter, golden peals of it chiming and drifting through the summer air. “You tales and your happily ever after. Of course they think it’ll all be okay. So it is written, no?”

Rose is glaring now. She’s touchy on the storybook stuff. I tune out again, threading my fingers through her hair and tangling my hand in the ringlets. They’re only going to have the same argument again. I swear, it’s like listening to the mice squeak all indignantly about the farmer’s wife. They can’t get over the grievances that happened hundreds of years ago. I try to avoid such things.

Anyway, I have other stuff to do this afternoon. I’m still supposed to show up at Cindy’s tonight, and apparently Baba Yaga’s cooking again. That, and the gingerbread witch is bringing dessert, and I do love Gretel-flavored cookies. Okay, so that’s a bad joke, but it always gets a laugh anyway. I think if it weren’t for her baking nobody would even talk to the old hag. At least there will be some good people, though. The Minotaur will be bumbling about, crashing into things – he has trouble finding his way anywhere, mostly. And Br’er and Loki always make for an entertaining time.

Maybe Rose just spends time with Gabe for the gossip. I stand up, my hand still cupped around her head. It does help to have an omniscient pal in the sky, I suppose. There’s something funny outside the window, and I walk over to look. The light’s all blue and shadowy, though it’s still early. Look at that, Thumbelina’s sitting right on my windowsill. Tom’s with her, not sure why – they broke up forever ago. Something about size not mattering. She’s beckoning though, so I lean my head down to hear her squeaky little voice.

“Hey,” she calls. “You’d better come help. Rip’s asleep in Sher’s house, she’s telling stories, and that moron giant is angry at Jack again. Nothing too serious, maybe, but it’s sort of chaos there. Want to come sort it out?”

Finally, I think, something useful to do with my day. I grab my bag of tricks – I borrowed it from Jack and “forgot” to give it back – and kiss Rose goodbye, startling her out of an impassioned speech about something or other. I wave to Gabe and dash out. I do love a good thorny problem to hack through, every once in a while. Just like old days.

Advertisements

Audience

Nina was watching the play. Tim was watching her.

The voices from the stage were blaring now, crashing and sweeping. Her eyes were wide, the lashes standing out and the tears glistening, ready to tumble and spill over. She was always quick to cry. Now her lips parted, and she nearly gasped. Tim sat back, and folded his arms over his chest. The action must have caught her eye, and she sank too against the cushion of her seat. Her mouth clenched closed.

Onstage, the actors had quieted, and their far-off voices were earnest now. Nina seemed unable to stop herself – she leaned forward, and her mouth dropped open. Her hands rose to curl beneath her chin, and she pulled her shoulders up around her ears. He could almost feel her shaking, she was listening so intently. He bent to her, and put a hand on her sleeve. She flicked an impatient hand at him, brushing against his arm, and he retreated.

Her eyebrows jumped and lowered with the rise and fall of the voices. Her eyes danced, bobbed and dipped over the stage, and she curled into half a smile. Tim settled back again in his seat, his jaw tight.

Her face moved and her eyes flared wide and then the applause burst over them like a clattering cascade and she was caught up in it, standing and clapping so hard he thought her hands might have blurred. He stayed sitting, watching her, and the spotlights caught and glared into his eyes until tears flooded into his eyes.

They left and he tucked her hand into his arm, pulled her close. He said, “I liked that.” She nodded. Her eyes were still fixed, faraway and dreamy, and she stared into the distance in the darkness all the way home.

Post-Apocalyptic Loss

Thin smoke was drifting in a grey cloudy curl up from the meager fire, which was burning away the last green-tinged branch in the center of the room. A half-empty box of matches lay beside it, on top of a crumple of clothing. The doors were blocked by desks and tables nailed in place, and there was a bookcase tipped across the window.

The room was dark, but for the pitiful glow of the flames as they sputtered, and the two occupants were huddled in the corners. One was rifling frantically through something as the other gazed with dead eyes on the ruin and decay that surrounded them. From time to time, there was a dull pounding outside, but they barely flinched when it began and let out a scant puff of air in relief when it ended.

The sounds outside had stopped for the moment, and the two men inside sagged in a release of the tension that plagued them. One of them coughed dryly for a moment, choking on the smoke that drifted in the heavy air. There was a long silence, broken by the occasional cough and the small shifting sounds of the other’s search in a drawer. It was mercifully free of the dread pounding from outside. Suddenly a weary, plaintive cry split the air.

“Drat, where have all the biscuits got to?” called Oscar. “I know we had some, and I could have sworn the cabinet was simply chock-full of unopened boxes. We can’t possibly have gone through all the biscuits in the past week.”

The person at the other end of the room, hunched and miserable, unbent himself slowly. When he stood, he towered nearly a foot over Oscar, who was short and plump. He said, “Bloody hell, I don’t know. The tea’s all there.”

Just the mention made Oscar recoil, his arms clasping the tins closer to his breast. “Yes, Maurice, I know where the tea is, I’m holding it. We can’t properly have tea without biscuits though, now can we?”

Maurice shook his head in unthinking assent and shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we’d better look though. Whatever shall we do if there aren’t any in the room though?”

Oscar’s eyes widened – he had clearly never thought such a thing could happen. “Oh dear, I don’t know. Let’s not think of it. They must be here somewhere.”

The two men shuffled through the contents of the cupboards and drawers. After several minutes, the banging outside started again and they both winced. They bent their heads as it continued, bringing their shoulders up as if the tension in their muscles would keep the sound away. Oscar shambled to the fire in the middle of the room and thrust the dented teakettle over it, dropping it so neatly on the flames that the fire nearly went out altogether. He cursed and knelt, huffing at the fire and flapping his hands at it. It was soon burning away doggedly again, and he crumpled a piece of paper to shove under the kettle that inspired a burst of brightness that flared and then sank again when the paper was ash.

The pounding from without sounded louder for a moment, and Oscar shrank with fear where he was crouched by the flames. He scuttled over to Maurice, and clung to a sleeve as the other pushed boxes aside on a shelf. They stood there, together and silent, until Maurice spoke.

He said, “I honestly don’t see anything, Oscar. It might be that there are none left.”

Oscar’s face was a mask of horror. “No biscuits? That just can’t be.”

“Well,” said Maurice, pragmatically. “What can you do about it, right?”

Oscar’s eyes narrowed in sudden calculation. “I suppose,” he began, his tone suddenly speculative. He eyed the doorway, where the pounding was beating on steadily. “There aren’t too many out there right now, are there? I bet -”

“No,” Maurice cut him off. “Don’t be so utterly ridiculous. Goodness, Oscar, we don’t even know what there is out there really, but you remember Alice when she came inside. All bloodied up and out of her mind, and then she -” Both men shuddered. Maurice continued firmly, “No, Oscar, you certainly can’t go out there.”

Oscar sighed and leaned back, his eyes still fixed longingly on the blocked door. He seemed to be weighing almost-certain death against almost-certain biscuits for a minute longer, and then he resumed the search.

It really was very lucky for them that they found two boxes of biscuits, faded and dusty in the back of the closet, later that night. They had a quiet evening with hot tea, stale biscuits, and a surprising lack of banging and pounding from the bloodthirsty hordes outside, and their voices were tinged with relief as they talked and joked. The biscuits in those box might last them another week or two, certainly.

Being Surprised by Grief

Anna was hurrying home, because she thought she was going to cry. Probably nobody would notice anyway, since in this dark she could barely see her feet moving over the sidewalk. Even so, she felt she’d be much more comfortable dissolving in tears on her own bed, rather than sniffling awkwardly as she walked down the street.

Her phone buzzed against her side, and with a wriggle she pulled it from her pocket. A message scrolled across the top: PATRICK hi sweetie you ok? how about you come have dinner with us tomorrow at 7 let me know. She shoved the phone back, clicking it off, and tucked her head to her chest. When she got to the stairway at the end of the block, she clamped a hand on the railing as if it were all that was holding her upright.

She felt she was sliding down the stairs and if she leaned a little too far she would just fold forward and crumple, bend, her knees collapsing until she sunk into a heap gently slipping downwards. To keep that from happening, Anna narrowed her eyes and concentrated on getting down the stairs. A moment later she was surprised to find herself at the bottom, no stairs left, and her knees still locked and straight.

When Anna arrived at the door to her apartment she was surprised again, fumbling for the key and then realizing what she was doing. It was lucky, she observed to herself, that her body knew what to do without her having to think about it at all. She was done unlocking the door by the time she finished thinking this, and floated into the room wondering at herself.

Before she even formed the thought Anna was in her bedroom, the lights flicked on and her bag draped over the chair. She sat heavily on her bed and leaned her head into her arms. She sat like that for a long time, thinking about crying, waiting for the tears to come. She was surprised again when they didn’t, and she was doing nothing more than sitting on her bed, eyes dry and burning, with her arms wrapped around her head and her heart aching.

Because of Emily Dickinson

A man is sitting at a barstool, leaning forward and staring dully at the glass clasped between his hands. He is thinking, vaguely and hopelessly, that there is very little in his life. This is a good reason to straighten and gulp down a swig of scotch.

After a while, and another glass filled and emptied, the door to the bar swings and slams. Somebody settles into place on the stool beside him, but he barely notices. His glance hardly flickers to the side. He concentrates only on the shards of light piercing the glass before him.

Another long while passes, and eventually it occurs to him to look at his companion, drinking quietly next to him. He turns and scans and sees nothing remarkable, and returns to his comfortable slump. In a minute, though, as he raises the glass to his lips, it occurs he can’t remember what the person next to him looks like. The thought tickles at his mind, drawing his attention to – something. Something that did not hold his attention at all, and it bothers him. He saw only a face, and it left no imprint on his mind. He doesn’t think he’s quite that drunk yet.

After a sip he turns again, sliding a glance from half-lidded eyes, and nods. A normal face, nothing outstanding. But when he turns forward again, the face slips from his mind. He has no recollection of the person two feet from him, no sense of what he – or she? – looks like. He shrugs, and his hands settle before him once more. He sits and chats with the bartender, empty small words, and after a few minutes he has mostly forgotten that anyone is there at all. The barstool is a familiar sort of uncomfortable under him, and his head swims pleasantly.

Time passes until a flicker of movement at his side catches his attention, and he realizes that the barstool next to him is still occupied. He peeks over, another sidelong glance at someone wholly unremarkable. The plain stranger is watching him steadily. So he sits up straight, and turns completely, and looks back. The man and the stranger stare at each other, the stranger unperturbed and the man bewildered. He waits for a long moment of peering at the stranger’s vacant eyes, blank but for something – searching. Something that prods him with a question, but he cannot hear it and does not know the answer.

He shifts, fidgets, and a shiver brushes his spine. His hand finds the glass on the bar and he looks at it, keeping his gaze there. He speaks, his voice rasping and thin, and says to the stranger, “Who are you?”

The stranger’s voice is flat. “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

The man is confounded. Surprised, too, that he is less confused than he should be. He nods at the question as if it makes sense, and then wonders at his own quick acceptance. And a voice comes from his lips as he realizes too late what he is saying, “I don’t know. Nobody. I guess I could be.”

The stranger smiles and nods, but he cannot see. He sinks back into himself, crumpling onto the barstool and forward toward the glass and the drop of scotch left traced around its edge. In a bit he notices that he is the only one sitting there, that the bar is empty. And when he shakes his heavy head he feels the wisp of something drifting from his mind, like a dream hidden in the shroud of sleep. He leaves the bar very late that night, alone, and watches his own shoes step forward on the pavement until he can rest.

***

That man wanders now. He goes to many places and talks to people who don’t understand what’s happening, but he stops that quickly because he cannot bear their confusion. They hold so much of substance in their minds that he cannot fit. So he goes from place to place and watches people, hoping someday to find a person with nothing on his mind and little to live for. In the meantime he sits on trains, stands in line for coffee, steps through sidewalks with a crowd of people who cannot remember his face.

Ghost Town

Harry found a ghost town, after all this time searching. We’ve never been anyplace so completely inclusive before, somewhere we don’t have to face scowls or confused crinkled brows, running or screaming or terror at all, really. At first it was really wonderful. This is the best place we’ve ever been, I told him. He had to lean close to hear, as always, and I stared right through his head as I said it again in his ear.

There was practically a welcoming committee when we get there. A lovely woman named Nancy greeted us, and even motioned to take my arm and give me a tour – as if she could really grasp my elbow. We walked around and look at the kitchens, the beds, the windows. There was sun streaming in broad bright swatches through the dusty air, and – “For the more morbidly inclined,” Nancy said – there was a walk-in closet brimming with spiders and draped in cobwebs.

We stayed in the ghost town for a week. Almost two, to be honest, but that was as long as we could. From the beds where we couldn’t sleep to the kitchens where we couldn’t cook, everything was perfectly set up for living, breathing humans.

It was excruciating to lie next to Harry and feel like I should feel the heat coming off his body – and, of course, he doesn’t have a body anymore. We’ve been done with that worldly nonsense for a while. And it was wrenching to sit with Nancy in the kitchen while someone bustled about the stove, knowing that we had already accepted that we’d never again taste pie or eggs or anything.

We’ve been dead together for twenty years, and we’ve never been anyplace so completely depressing before. I told Harry – loudly, once we were gone and I could say it to the open sky – that I never wanted anything more to do with ghost towns. Haunting suits me just fine.

An Alien Anthropologist

Erts’as-to was reading the entry again. This was the sort of thing that made him reconsider his study of the world cultures concentration. On the one hand, world cultures were so fascinating, but on the other four they were alternately disturbing, horrifying, upsetting, and incomprehensible. For instance, halfway through the article –

“The predominant life-form on this planet appears to be a relatively small organism with several appendages that lives a parasitic existence. There are numerous variations in race or species of this organism, many involving wings. They are prey to several other species, and several of the hosts use appendages to forcibly beat the organisms until dead.”

That was certainly horrifying, though in a twisted way Erts’as-to could understand it. Even worse, though, was this:

“This planet is covered with the excretions and creations of another species, of an average size relative to all other species on the planet. They, like the flying population, have a separate entry in this encyclopedia to more fully describe some of their more idiosyncratic customs and behaviors, several of which include meshing plant fibers to wrap around their bodies, applying gelatinous animal matter to their outer organs, using planetary matter to build structures from which they sometimes jump and which they often use mechanisms to deconstruct, and spending large quantities of time holding, touching, and looking at small earth-matter items that change colors and create designs. This species, like most others, appears to be sentient, but according to the researcher nur’Emtome ‘This species populating the planet has adopted a particularly twisted strain of consciousness. Their manner of thinking – and despite appearances, it is thinking – is both complex and contradictory.” More of nur’Emtome’s work can be read in the essay “The Species that Invented the iPod,” available in several popular galaxies.”

The study of such things fascinated Erts’as-to but were also bewildering. Try as Erts’as-to might, it still seemed impossible to properly imagine such a race. They were simply too strange, too different, and Erts’as-to was left with too many questions.

Why did they use so many types of matter for so many things? What was the meaning of the sounds they made, especially the ones scratched onto planet-matter and used over and over? What was the importance of the plant and animal matter attached to their bodies? Why did some of them appear to feed and house other species, from the flying ones to larger flying ones in cages to things with four foot-appendages who made a lot of noise? What the ertamel was an iPod?