Tag Archives: time travel

A July Story, K.L. Owens

Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

The sky grew orange, pinkish blue, then muted violet and freckled with stars while Kitten enjoyed being outside. His nose was numb, his eyes watered small icicles whipped up by the wind, and his stomach gurgled, but Kitten kept his back to the house just as the house kept its back to the sea. How long had it been this time? Was there a town nearby? Would they have good things to eat?

Kitten dug a socked hand beneath his scarf, shoving at the coarse licks of hair that itched his neck. He’d yet to see a mirror. He removed one sock and blew on his fingers to keep them warm, dug under the scarf again, yanked. The hair could just be seen in the fading light. Gray now, perhaps even white, but still black near the tip. The wind snatched the hair from his fingers. Kitten didn’t watch it go. There never had been, never would be, anyone to care about his hair, and besides, had nature been allowed its usual way with him, Kitten’s hair would be like spider silk, lining the bottom of a pine box.

Gray hair led to golden hair, green eyes, and Kitten found himself thinking about Angelica Wilson, the young schoolteacher he’d fancied in his youth. Angelica was kind to Kitten on his fifteenth birthday, his last day in the world. She’d lent him the few coins he needed to purchase the bestiary he’d been eyeing on the bookseller’s cart, and she’d given his baby sister, Mousie, a sweet. The bestiary was like the scarf: one of the few items the house has let him keep. Kitten suspected it had something to do with them being gifts.

Kitten glanced back at the house. Angelica Wilson would be dead now. Like Mousie. Like Mum and Father and the mates who, on the afternoon of his fifteenth birthday, dared him to go inside the strange red house. For the first few decades, Kitten liked to imagine that Angelica had married one of his mates, that Mousie found herself an upstanding young man and borne children of her own. He would pretend a child he passed in a July street was his nephew or niece. But these stories grew cold as a century turned and time marched on without him. Everyone Kitten once loved was dead. He should be, too.

july01Facing the sea once more, he spoke aloud. “My name is Kitten Blankenship.” The wind would hear his usual prayer. “My parents were Margaret Hudson and Roger Blankenship, and I had a sister, Marcella. I was born in Yorkshire in 1853. And I would like to be free of the house now, please.”

The bazaar of murres rose as one body at the echo of his voice and made bleating for a rock formation that rose from the sea. Their departure drew Kitten’s eye to distant electric lights. From their sparseness and height, he picked out the perimeter of a small town. Kitten smiled, but remained sitting on the cobblestone beach. A waning half-moon sagged low on the horizon, and he’d found a hollow in the rock face, its entrance swollen with small bones and matted fur. He didn’t like to venture into the towns on his first night out of the house. Better to marvel at the natural world in a new place, enjoying his discoveries and regretting all he’d never been allowed to learn. The bones and fur, for instance. Kitten couldn’t even say what they probably were; he didn’t know where he was or what lived there, what sorts of animals nested in rock hollows on stony beaches. The bestiary might tell him, but probably not. Kitten was sixteen or seventeen when he learned to tell stories to himself.

Hunger drove him back to the house. Some Julys, he slept outside. Even if no better shelter were available and he had to huddle against the house’s oxide-colored walls, he’d never forsaken the mercy of a July. Not this time, though. This new place too cold, its wind too harsh and its town too far , so Kitten grudgingly pulled open the door that scraped loud on dry grass and reentered his prison.

On the table: a loaf of sweet bread, its crust steaming in the chill, an apple with reddening green skin, a smallish hunk of orangish cheese, a pot of hot water with lemon, and none of it there when he’d stepped outside. A July news bill told him the year was 1912 before Kitten stopped trying to catch the house in the act of providing his food. And 1946, a radio said, before he accepted the house was smarter than him. Food simply appeared, three squares, when he had his back turned. The fare was never complex, but what Kitten appreciated more was the secret of its appearance that the house kept from him. He didn’t want to see a hallway extend from a wall gone soft as clay, couldn’t stomach the thought of the house reaching into other empty spaces to steal for him.

More often than not, Kitten dreamed of meat. A roast Cornish hen dripping in juice, sizzling belly of pork, a fat slice of ham. In his meat dreams, there was tea, too, and butter and jam for the bread, tall tin tumblers of fresh milk, lemony crumpets with a bit of clotted cream, peppermint sticks. Tonight’s humble meal, he pretended was a fast for July Eve. Tomorrow, he would go into the town. He would learn the year, see what new marvels the passage of time had wrought, and find the good food. He would gorge himself on it, carry it in baskets wherever he went, and never share a morsel of it with the house.

The socks limited his dexterity, and Kitten’s hands grew numb while he ate. Finished, he rose and stood before the lone small cabinet by the window. Shivering, with his hands tucked in his armpits, he said, “Gloves,” then counted to ten, and opened the cabinet. Only the sewing kit there on the shelf. Only ever the sewing kit, full of needles and thimbles, but lacking thread. The expectant smile he’d worn since the house touched down, the front door opened, and he knew it was July faded from Kitten’s face. He could feel the knot in his throat. It made him sound like he was whimpering when he said, “Please? I’m cold.”

The door to the second room, the hated room, the one that could expand and contract, reach through space and push beyond time, creaked open, swung itself shut again. In the cabinet, the sewing kit skittered.

“No,” Kitten moaned. “It’s July. Please?”

The eldritch door opened and slammed, opened and slammed while Kitten squeezed shut his eyes and wrapped his arms about his head. Sometimes the house got angry with him, and it would tilt on its unnatural axis, befriending gravity to send him sprawling through the door. There, in the house’s warped second room, roamed all of Kitten’s lost time. All the months and years he should have aged but didn’t, so long as he spent them wandering through the house’s unmeasurable, self-contained maze. It was July, though, and Kitten had been let outside. The door shut itself once more, made a sound like the clicking of a lock, and when Kitten opened his eyes, a blanket rested on the back of the table’s only chair, and the wood-burning stove crackled to life.

Kitten sniffled and wormed the socks back over his hands, readjusted his head scarf, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and settled down with his bestiary in front of the stove. Hours later, when the moon’s light grayed the barren front room, a muffled sound drew Kitten back from the edges of sleep. He squinted at the new shadow beside the door. When he made it out, he sighed.

“Bicycle,” he said. “Thank you.”

Tucked into the basket on the bicycle: fleece-lined gloves, a wad of ten-dollar bills. The house provides. Its reach extends beyond closed doors and down long hallways, into empty rooms, abandoned atriums, and untrod stairwells. It connects to all forgotten and vacant places, into sealed-up voids and architectural blanks. The second room with its closed door is in perpetual communion with all the world’s closed doors so that its pets may never escape. Kitten, like others before him and more sure to come, attempted, in his younger Julys, to leave the house behind. To run, hitchhike, beg clemency, seek asylum in a new city, a new building somewhere far from where the house touched down. All of them, the house’s pets, hundreds of miles and weeks away, thinking themselves free, have once opened a closed door, crossed the threshold, and found themselves back inside the house.

july02Call it a cuckoo building. A spat-up space. Its learning curve is slow, recursive. It knows not what it does, only what it needs. A damned, demanding thing. Like a child. It killed its first pet, not out of malice, but for lack of knowing when its pet needed feeding. First a starving pet, moaning low, then a rotting pet, full of stink. So the house chose to return to its first pet’s home, to use its hidden geometries to slip the bones through unoccupied walls. It put its pet back where it found him. Like a child.

Learning to mistrust doors, other pets have run away, not to other places, but to other sides, determining death preferable to the house’s love. The house hurts, but does not know how it came to hurt. It knows that it is broken, that some part of it is torn, ripped from its moorings and made sick inside. It cannot form ideas; its communication is nonverbal, crudely symbolic, like a child’s. It shakes the sewing kit at its pets, but they don’t know what to do.

The pets rail and leave, come back and leave again, come back and kill themselves. The house hurts. It keeps them alive well past their times, its brokenness wronging them, too, from the inside out. It waits for one to come who can mend the tear, who knows the proper use of needle and thread.

Kitten stays. He is the oldest. He no longer tries to leave. He pales when the sewing kit appears, screams at the walls and weeps. I don’t know what you want me to do, he says. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. The house hears him, wishes it knew. Kitten would do it, the house knows, if he could. He would mend the tear, sew them both up, house and pet, seal them up safe and together forever, the house and its Kitten.

Highway 101 graced the coastal Oregon town for two and a half miles before hair-pinning back along a picturesque but desolate shore. The people there prided themselves on their cows, and Kitten had his fill of cheese and burgers, ice cream and taffy and smoked jerky. He fished pale shells and marbleized rocks from the waves, explored junk shops, rented a kite from a beach shack and spent an afternoon flying it, huddled in the town’s small library, filling his mind and his eyes with history he’d never lived, learned that the century had turned again. Not just a century, but a millennium this time, and Kitten thought that this must make him unique among men, but there was no one to tell, none who would believe.

Sometime in the town’s past, a train ran through it. When the train stopped running, the town planted a caboose at the dead line-switch. The day Kitten discovered he was experiencing a new millennium, he took to pacing the rusting tracks until, five paces from the caboose, he saw a tie catch the light, and he knelt to look. Keys, a few dozen of them, from tiny gold ones meant for padlocks to thick silver ones made for deadbolts, were nailed to that tie and that tie only, and Kitten crouched low, finally sitting on the ground to run his fingers over the keys and wonder a new wonder.

“You know what they’re there for?”

Kitten looked up into the face of a young girl. She had long, black hair, like Mousie’s. Kitten had seen her more often than anyone else in the town; he suspected she was the daughter of one of the waitresses at the town’s breakfast diner.

“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” he asked.

The little girl shrugged. “Maybe. You want to know about those keys, though?”

Kitten nodded. The girl smiled, plopped down beside him in the dirt, put both small hands on the tie as though she could touch all of the keys at once if she tried hard enough.

“I think they’re very beautiful,” she said. “All the colors and shapes and the different ways people nail them.” She looked up to see if Kitten shared her feelings on this matter and, apparently not finding what she sought in his expression, lifted one skinny shoulder. “Anyway,” she went on, “my mom says people treat these old train tracks like a wishing well, but opposite-like. These keys, they’re for locks that people can’t open. To places they’ve lost or can’t go back to or that aren’t there anymore. So they nail the keys here so the places won’t be forgotten.”

Kitten wished he had a key. He hadn’t taken a key to the house in Yorkshire with him that day. He’d only meant to be gone with his mates for an afternoon, meant to go home to his birthday dinner before the sun had set, and he thought how out of place his old key would look next to all of these modern ones. He exhaled, slow and shuddery, and said, “That’s pretty.”

“Pretty sad,” the girl said. “I’m Lana. And yeah, I’ve been following you. I follow all the travelers. Not much happens here except new people coming and going.” She seemed to have lost interest in the keys, having instead pulled a wad of mismatched yarn and string from her pocket, and she sat, trying to untangle the hopeless knot. She didn’t look up from this project when she asked for Kitten’s name, but when he replied, she dropped the pile of threads in her lap. “A boy named Kitten? You aren’t BSing me, are you?”

“I don’t know what BSing means.”

“It means,” —Lana leaned in close, whispering— “bullshitting.” She giggled, but Kitten still looked confused, so she rolled her eyes and said, “It means I think you’re making things up. Where are you from, anyway?”

“A long way away,” Kitten said.

“Like how far?”

“Like England,” Kitten said, surprised at himself for mimicking her speech. But she reminded him so much of Mousie, it felt like playing one of their old games.

“Oh,” Lana said, drawing out the word. “I get it. We talked about England in social studies last year. Mrs. Mullen said you still speak English there, but it’s sort of a different type of English from here.” She nodded, satisfied with her own explanation. “Where’re you staying?”

“Outside of town,” Kitten said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of where the house had come down. He didn’t like thinking about the house while talking to Lana. “On the beach.”

“In a motel, or like camping?” Lana asked.

“Like camping.”

Lana wrinkled her nose. “My mom took me camping once. I hated it. There weren’t toilets, and I couldn’t shower. Do you get to shower at your campsite? You smell like you get to shower. You’re not one of those weird people who refuse to have jobs and jump trains and camp all the time because of politics, are you, Mr. Kitten?”

“I…” Kitten cocked his head, tried to figure out what the girl meant, couldn’t. He’d have to see if the library had any books on such subjects. It was embarrassing to know less about the world than a young girl, so he gave her a mischievous grin and said, “Well, what do you think?”

She crossed her arms, looked him up and down, left and right, then shook her head. “No,” she decided. “You’re not a weirdo. Even if you are camping on the beach and your clothes are funny.”

“Funny how?” Kitten asked.

“Old funny.”

“I’m an old man.”

“How old?”

“Would you believe me if I said I’m a hundred and sixty?”

“No!” Lana laughed. “How could you be that old and not be dead?”

“Maybe I should be dead,” Kitten said, and he looked down at the keys. They caught the light, reflected it, dazzled his eyes, and before he could stop himself, he said, “Maybe I have a secret house with hidden rooms and endless hallways, and when I get lost inside it, time stops passing for me. Maybe I’m trapped there, and I only get to come out for one month every couple of years, and when I go back, the house erases my years. Maybe that’s what’s happened to me.”

The sound of Lana’s laughter broke the keys’ spell, and Kitten’s eyes got wide with the realization of what he’d said. A thing he’d never said to another, but even as Lana mocked him, he couldn’t deny that telling someone, speaking it aloud, had felt good.

“Okay, now you’re BSing me,” Lana said. “You’re funny, Mr. Kitten. I like that.”

Something very close to them made a musical, chirping sound, and Lana pulled a flat, black phone from her pocket, poked it and frowned at it, then announced she had to go. She mounted the blue bicycle she’d left leaning against the side of the caboose and rode away, pink streamers fluttering from handlebars.

Kitten remained on the tracks, feeling the cool shapes of the keys, thinking about what Lana had said about them, feeling clean and light from his confession.

Lana cropped up again, again. When Kitten least expected her, she’d slide into his booth at the Cow Belle Café and steal his fried potatoes, or flop down into the seat next to him at the library’s long table and ask what he was reading, or find him on the beach and start skipping stones if the sea was still or drawing in the sand with a stick if the waves were high. She asked him questions about himself, sometimes, but mostly she talked to him about her own life. About the boys and girls at her school and who liked who and how nobody liked her, not like that; about her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend, who drove a big, Mack truck and smelled all the time of beer and cigars; about video games and the Internet and how her mom wouldn’t let her use certain sites. She used Kitten to rehearse her arguments about why she should be allowed to wear makeup (Susie Dilligner did) or shave her legs (the swim team girls did) or have her own Facebook account (she was going to be in middle school this year, after all, and did her mom want her to be unpopular forever?).

And Kitten listened, asked questions in return, offered what little advice he had to give, and imagined that Lana was a new millennium’s Mousie. He told Lana about Mousie, about how his mum had given five babies back to God before his surviving sister was born, how her name was Marcella, but she was Mum’s Miracle, and if he was Kitten, then she was his Mousie, and when Lana asked, instead of his story about Mousie marrying one of his mates, he told Lana the truth: that he’d sent Mousie back home from the market on his fifteenth birthday and gone to meet up with his mates, and he entered the house on a dare, and he never saw Mousie or Mum or Father again. And when Lana’s phone summoned her home and Kitten went back to the iron-red house, he thought about all of the Julys he’d passed alone, wondering if he could call Lana a friend.

july03A column of names, places, and objects decorated the inside of the house’s front door. Kitten started it in the beginning of his tenure in the house, when he hadn’t an inkling of how or why he was there, what would happen to him the longer he stayed. It was his list of remembrances and desires, started with ‘Mum and Father and Mousie,’ followed by ‘Angelica Wilson’ and the names of his mates. It got vaguer from there on out, included things like ‘mutton’ and ‘my good shoes’ and ‘a real bed.’ In more practical moments, he’d included the dates from the two times the whole world had gone to war and a sort of genealogical tree he updated every time he learned about a new member of the royal family. The notation ‘John the dog’ helped him recall a shaggy, gray puppy that had followed him through a 1970s July. The hound bayed piteously when the house made its departure; Kitten wept at the decision to leave John in the world. If he hadn’t, maybe he’d still have a dog-friend, maybe he wouldn’t need the passing fancy of a little girl.

Nonetheless, one day he gave Lana two dollars and asked her to buy him a permanent black marker from the drugstore. She asked why he wouldn’t do it himself and he told her that the house wouldn’t let him keep anything that wasn’t a gift. She said she didn’t believe it, but came out with the marker tied up in a red ribbon. To the painted, carved, and penciled-in list, he used the marker to add the name ‘Lana.’

One day, Kitten didn’t go into town. He talked aloud, telling himself lies about wanting to explore the parts of the coast people didn’t inhabit, to see the animals and contemplate the black waves of the sea and its cobblestones. The truth gnawed at him. July was winding down, a week left at best, and he needed to distance himself from Lana. She occupied his thoughts when he returned to huddle by the woodstove at night. He’d recall games and jokes he’d shared with Mousie and wonder whether Lana would like them or if they were too old. He’d flip the pages of his bestiary in the slim stove light, looking for neat tidbits to share with her. And though he wasn’t ungrateful, he wondered if it had been a mistake to make a friend. One hundred and fifty years he’d missed his family, his friends, and the time made the missing fade. He hadn’t had to miss anyone new, and suspected it would hurt all over again, like he’d never missed anyone before, because already it hurt to think about how, once the house left, he wouldn’t get to see Lana again. The house hadn’t chosen the same place twice, not since Kitten had been with it, but even if it picked this part of Oregon again, another century might have passed, and Lana would be dead, the railroad tie rotten, its keys sunk into hard-packed gray earth.

Kitten didn’t go to town the next day, either. He rode his bicycle in the opposite direction instead and delighted to find the factory the people had built for their cows. He spent the day going on the guided tours, learning about the making of cheese and ice cream and watching the cattle grazing in a pen so huge, Kitten felt he’d traded seas of water for seas of beef. He tasted free samples of ten different kinds of cheese, tiny spoonfuls of 36 flavors of ice cream, sampled snippets of jerky, and watched children crank a machine that left smiling cow faces stamped into their pennies. With a bloated belly and a smile on his face, Kitten rode back to the house, where a pink bicycle streamer fluttered in the grass by the front door.

By the time he found Lana, pouting over a cup of hot cocoa in the Cow Belle Café, the cold on Kitten’s skin seemed like a side effect of the cold in his belly. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to admit to the house, not after he’d told Lana the truth about it, so he ordered a cup of coffee and sat across from her, enduring her scowls, waiting for them to turn into words. Lana’s silence continued until Kitten suggested they go sit on the boardwalk across the street. There, Lana admitted she thought Kitten had left without telling her goodbye, so she biked along the beach, looking for his camp. She demanded an explanation for his two-day absence, and when Kitten said he’d only wanted to see what was in the other direction, Lana sneered and said it was only the Tillamook factory, that she’d been on a field trip there for every year she’d been in school, and she never wanted to eat another piece of cheese in her life (a statement she undermined the next day when she helped herself to half of Kitten’s grilled cheese sandwich). She also admitted to finding the house, which had never been there before, and she wanted an explanation for its appearance. She refused to believe it wasn’t his, an edge in her voice when she recounted his tale of a moving, mysterious building capable of swallowing time and life. But Kitten couldn’t humor her. Kept seeing the pink streamer from her bike curling in the grass and getting a feeling like he was sweating inside when he thought about her pushing at the door or standing on tip-toe to peer in a window. He pointed to a jagged rock formation.

“Look, Lana,” he said. “Look at all the murres.”

Squinting at the ocean, Lana nodded. “Did you know that a group of murres is called a fragrance?” she asked. “I know you like words and information and stuff.”

“A fragrance? My bestiary says they’re called a bazaar,” he said. “A fragrance. Like the fragrance of myrrh. I like that. I think I like that one better. I’m going to miss you, Lana.”

“You are leaving, then.”

“Soon,” Kitten said.

“How soon?”

“Soon.”

“And will the house go with you?” she asked. “If I go back there, after you’re gone, that house’ll be gone, too, won’t it? You weren’t lying to me or making up stories. I felt it, when I was there. This strange feeling. The same feeling I got the first time I saw you. I didn’t go in. Just so you know.”

“Don’t,” Kitten said. “Don’t you ever go in. Promise me, Lana. Promise me you won’t ever go into a strange house by yourself.”

But Lana didn’t promise. Wouldn’t promise, talked instead until the sun slipped low in the sky. She pulled her wad of yarn and string from her pocket and picked at it while she talked about wanting to leave Rockaway, Oregon. How she thought she never would and her mom didn’t seem to care, and how Kitten had become a better friend in a few weeks than anyone she’d known in her whole life here. Kitten patted Lana’s back and stroked her black hair while she sniffled adolescent girl sniffles and despaired of her future. Told her she’d leave Rockaway one day, she just had to be patient, and she’d grow up strong and smart and beautiful, move away to a big city, live a brilliant, exciting life. But Lana only bit her lip and thanked him for trying. When her phone squawked, she got on her bicycle and rode off without saying goodbye.

The sewing kit scrabbled at the walls of the cabinet throughout the night, flung itself at the cabinet’s door, keeping Kitten awake. He got up, once, opened the cabinet, removed the kit, walked it through the crisp night air to the overhang, used all of his might to throw it into the Pacific, and waited for a splash he’d never hear above the waves. By the time he got back inside, the kit was back in the cabinet, and the cabinet dripped saltwater from its corners.

Four more days. Four more days of hot food and the sight of people, being in the world, and Lana’s company. The girl acted subdued. On the fifth day, Kitten woke to the knowledge that this was the last of July. That he’d go back to the house that night and not emerge again for decades untold, and for the first time in years, he found himself wondering if he could outwit the house. Perhaps he could live on the beach, camp like he’d told Lana he did. Find a job, save money, build a house of his own, one he wanted, one without doors. Yet even as he thought these things, he knew it was useless. Who would hire a gray-haired man with no experience in any trade, who barely understood what a computer did, who’d never once spoken on a telephone? If he’d learned anything from Lana, it was how ill-fitted he was for this new millennium, or it for him. His thoughts opposed themselves. Maybe he’d never come out of the house again. He never understood why it let him out some Julys but not others, and maybe it was to keep him human, to keep him sane, and the real way to end it would be to never come out, to fall deep, deep inside, to go mad with the house, become its soul.

Kitten took the rest of the money to town with him. He’d spent some time looking around the house for some token to give to Lana, but the only thing that seemed appropriate was the bestiary, and Kitten couldn’t bring himself to part with that. Instead, he treated Lana to a big waffle breakfast and ice cream for lunch, bought her a knapsack she coveted from a shop on Main Street. He assumed he’d return to the house once Lana’s mum called her home. He hadn’t expected it to be so early. Midafternoon when she jumped up from the railroad tie where they’d sat to contemplate the keys together one last time, and she said something about a dentist’s appointment, how she’d begged her mom not to make her go, to change the appointment to a different time or day. She hugged Kitten long and hard until his neck ached, and he hugged her back, sorry to see her go.

One last meal at the Cow Belle Café before walking his bicycle through the main street of town, saying silent goodbyes to Rockaway, Oregon. Kitten rode slow, looking at the coast but not seeing it, thinking instead of all the places he’d been, the places the house had taken him: The tip of Florida where no one would look him in the eye; a deserted Italian shore where he hardly saw another living thing; the coast of North Carolina, where he’d met John the dog; a frozen lake where the inhabitants didn’t speak any language he knew, and who gave him salted fish and a hard, flavorless bread in exchange for his coins. Only the sight of the Tillamook factory shook Kitten from his memories and, confounded, he pointed his bicycle in the other direction. He rode back and forth, seeking the house and not finding it, secretly hoping it had gone without him, suspicious of that thought from the outset. He sought the overhang and the forked rock formation instead, the one always covered in a fragrance of murres, and when he found them, he dropped his bicycle to the ground and stumbled forward, sobbing before he even knew what he saw.

Pushed-down grass marking the footprint of the house. Empty ocean shore and the sound of waves rattling the stones. A hollow in a rock full of fur and bones. A blue bicycle with pink streamers on its handlebars lying in the weeds. And nothing more.

Lana is nineteen by her own clock and twenty-eight by the world’s the first time the house lets her leave. She experiences an acute sensation whenever she remembers her initial hours in that warped and damaged place. How she opened the knapsack Kitten had bought her, the one she stuffed full of all the things her ten-year-old mind thought she’d need to hide out there and run away with Kitten. How she found the knapsack empty and was convinced she’d freeze or starve, because she hadn’t believed Kitten when he’d told her the house would provide.

She still trembles a bit when the second door opens and the floor shakes and groans and tilts sideways, giving her a glimpse of a plain, unfurnished room that unfolds, unfurls into a growing black spiral, finding depth, seeking distance, Euclidean geometry stretching itself thin before it sucks her through. It has happened so many times now she’s lost count and isn’t as terrified as the first time she got lost in the house’s secret, shifting maze.

july04The sewing kit bothered her a lot those first few years. It pounded and scraped, battered the cabinet, might as well have been battering the inside of her skull. She doesn’t remember when she fished the knot of tangled thread from her pocket, when she set the knot next to the kit and watched, tears pouring down her face and a bad feeling in her stomach, while the two objects danced. Lana only knows that this is a recent development, this sense of what she needs to do.

The July air is warm when she steps out of the house. She doesn’t know where she is, and hardly thinks it matters. Lana doesn’t wait. She walks to the nearest town as soon as she picks it out, inquires, finds a crafting store. She spends all of the money she has, save the price of a hot meal, on yarn and twine and embroidery thread, then she goes back to the house.

It is excited. It knows that she knows. Atonal, piping music plays from behind the second door. The sewing kit jigs on the table, spins in circles and hops up and down, its needles sharp and shining, ready to be used.

“Shut up,” Lana snaps. “I figured it out, no thanks to you. Have some patience.”

She finds the marker she bought for Kitten when she was ten. It still has a red ribbon tied around it, though the ribbon has faded and split, and Lana cries a little bit, thinking about it. She wonders if she’ll be able to find Kitten again, if it’s as simple as she thinks and the house will be fixed and she will be free. She tries to remember being ten and what it was she’d been thinking. She goes to the front door, runs her fingers down the list Kitten made. She’s read it so many times she can recite it by heart. Then she kneels, lowers herself to her elbows so she can reach the door’s bottom-most edge, uncaps the marker, and makes her first and only addition right beneath her own name.

Kitten, she writes.

 end_of_story

kami

K.L. Owens is a picture framer who occasionally tends bar at gallery openings. She holds a B.A. in existential philosophy, and received her MFA from the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. In 2004, Owens received the Quarante Club Prize for Women in Literature, and in 2015, she was the runner-up for the Svenson Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Riding Light Review, freeze frame fiction, and Fur-Lined Ghettos. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and three cats, and while she moves with some acumen through space, she has yet to successfully travel in time.

 

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The Mothgate, by J.R. Troughton

19th September

“This is your most important lesson.” 

It was a rifle she handed me. Long and cold, ornately decorated. It was heavier than I’d expected, heavier than the one I had practiced with. She laid the barrel on the low wall before us, and that helped.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” she had said, staring off into the trees. “Look for the butterflies. See them, and you’d best be ready to shoot what’s coming behind.”

We knelt behind the crumbling wall, rifles balanced over its brow, peeking over the moss-stained stone and into the dense trees that lay beyond. I tried as best I could to stop my teeth from chattering, but the winter night was bitterly cold. Mama Rattakin didn’t seem to notice. She was staring toward the tree line, pointing with her black and withered hand.

“Look, there.”

I peered into the gloom. Amid the tall trees I saw them, purple butterflies, flitting into view and sparkling in the moonlight. This was the first time I had seen them in the wild, though I recognized them immediately.

I tried to ignore them and slow my breathing. The forest was almost silent, other than the whisper of wind blown leaves and my own thunderous heartbeat. My skirt was soaked through, and my body ached from the hours of waiting. My fingers slid across the trigger, and I chewed at my lip. Daring to glance sideways at Mama Rattakin, it was as if she was made of stone. Perfectly still, other than the gentle sway of her grey hair.

moth-pull1How many times had she been here, I wondered? How many nights had she spent alone, keeping watch with nothing for company but her rifle and the cold stars?

How many had she killed?

A sudden burst of movement came from the trees. I raised my rifle and tracked the fast-moving thing as best I could, though if I had fired, my bullet could have gone anywhere at all.

Mama Rattakin grabbed my rifle barrel and smoothly brought it back down onto the wall. Despite her age, she was still quick as a fox. The owl that had drawn my aim flew into the night.

“There,” she whispered. “They will come from there. Be patient.”

I felt guilty. She had prepared me as best she could, but the pressure of my first guard was getting to me. Shaking my head, I returned to my sights. Mama Rattakin had been more than specific in telling me where to aim. Between the cliff face and the tree with the sheared branches. She would cover the rest of the tree line.

I heard the breaking of twigs and the sound of wet leaves underfoot. White shapes far back in the dense forest, growing closer.

“Be ready, Elsa.” I wasn’t sure if Mama Rattakin had spoken or I.

A gentle tune came floating through the woods. The words of a song that felt familiar, like they had been sung to me as a babe. Just one voice at first, then many. It was a haunting and beautiful harmony, soothing like honey and milk tea. My grip on the rifle loosened.

I felt Mama Rattakin’s hand on my shoulder and tried to focus once more. A fierce bite to my bottom lip helped. I stared into the wood and watched them come.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

Mama Rattakin’s rifle cracked. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the witikas burst in a shower of snowfall. Another crack, another explosion of white close by. I wanted to turn and help, but Mama had made me swear on my birth mother’s grave that I would only focus on the cliffside path. Her rifle was now dancing its own deadly beat.

A white figure appeared by the cliff face. She was facing away from me, dancing backwards through the mulch, spinning on her tip toes.

I took a deep breath. I aimed for her heart.

I pulled the trigger.

The gun slammed into my shoulder and knocked me to the ground. The kickback was far fiercer than the rifle I had practiced with, and it felt as if I had been kicked by a bull. Scrambling back to my knees, I placed the gun on the wall and looked for the witika. She was gone, and where she had stood was an explosion of white powder. As I scanned the trees, that haunting song continued, only interrupted by the sharp cracks of Mama’s rifle. Every couple of seconds, it sounded again, and with each crack another song died.

Another witika appeared by the cliff face and leapt forward, landing in dainty arabesque. It flicked its hair back, smiling, revealing teeth like glass needles. I aimed once more and fired. I was ready for the kickback this time and saw the bullet pierce the witika’s chest. She seemed to unravel for a moment, like a patchwork quilt coming undone, before bursting in a shower of white powder.

Mama’s rifle continued its own steady beat.

The path I watched was clear. Disobeying Mama’s instructions, I scanned the tree line ahead of us, watching for the next interloper to appear. I had settled now and my hands had stopped shaking. I spied another witika on my path, and I aimed once more. Each time a new witika danced into view, I took my time, as Mama had taught me, and firmly squeezed the trigger.

Snowfall all around.

Eventually, the dancing troop thinned, and the witikas stopped coming. I lowered my rifle and after a few moments of peace, laid it against the wall.

“Wait, Elsa. Always wait.”

Mama kept her gun trained on the forest before us. Her eyes were watering. How long since she had last blinked? Eventually, she too lowered her gun, stood up, and massaged her cramped legs.

“Well done, Elsa. You saw them all unravel?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Every single one?”

“Yes, Mama Rattakin.”

“Good girl. I knew you would. Happy birthday, my pride and joy.”

With that, she picked up her bundle of ammunition, threw it over her shoulder, and began to hobble back down the winding path towards our cabin. I snatched up my gun and chased after her.

Always to the point, Mama Rattakin.

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She took me to the Mothgate the following day. It was dull and cold that morning, the sky the color of slate. Trooping through the woods and down past that moss-covered wall, I saw the remains of the witika had vanished during the night.

“Not of our world. Not stable. Never stays long,” Mama Rattakin had muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not.

Weaving through the trees from which the witika had come, we eventually came to the gate. I had studied the pictures in Mama’s lore book and it was unmistakable. Cracked and crumbling, it was an archway of black stone, spotted with purple lichen. The trees immediately on either side were twisted and spotted, stripped of bark and leaning away from the gate, desperately trying to move from their station. Atop the archway was a great stone moth the size of a small dog.

“This is the Mothgate,” Mama whispered. “They come through here when the sun is hidden and the wild things can roam.” She picked up a branch and tossed it through the portal. It landed on decaying leaves. “The gate is of this world now, Elsa, and holds no terrors. Nightfall brings it strength. Nightfall opens the gate and then the monsters come through.”

“Have you ever seen it open, Mama? At night?” I could not imagine those ghastly ballerinas from the night before emerging through this thing. It seemed so mundane.

“Yes, my dear.” Mama Rattakin sat against a rock and pulled out her pipe, wincing as she massaged her crippled leg. Taking a long pull and blowing a finely crafted smoke ring, she watched it drift away as she continued. “Many times, when I was younger and more foolish. I would come closer to guard the gate and try to stop the witikas and the ettersops and tallemaja from coming through. I was a better shot back then.” Tapping her pipe, she raised a hand and pointed at the gate. “I would rest here, rifle ready, and see how quickly I could stop their trespassing. It’s too close though, too risky. The moss wall is a much better place. You should always watch from there.” she stared at me. “Always from the wall. You’re not skilled enough to fight so close. You would be overwhelmed.”

I ignored the insult and tried to imagine those days long ago. A younger Mama Rattakin, full of verve and courage, sitting outside the Mothgate with her rifle and her revolver, solemnly guarding the world from the Nightfall creatures of the gate. A better shot, she says! Impossible to imagine. I had never seen Mama Rattakin miss a target.

“Can we not just break it, Mama? Could we not fetch the hammer and knock out the stones?”

A wry smile crept across Mama’s lips.

“I tried once, Elsa. The gate is tougher than it looks. These stones do not break.”

I stared at the Mothgate in silence. Mama continued to smoke her pipe.

“You will learn, Elsa. The gate is what it is. We cannot move it. We cannot break it. All we can do is stop the things that live beyond it from entering our world. That is what we do. That is what we always will do.”

She raised her withered hand to the gate, pointed it like a gun, and pretended to shoot.

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Back at the cabin, Mama lit the hearth and kicked her shoes to the corner. I brewed a kettle of barley tea and served it in cracked pewter mugs. We sat in silence for a time, sipping our herb-infused drinks. Mama’s eyes were closed and her chest rattled as she breathed.

“How long since the last true Nightfall, Mama?” I asked.

“Oh, many years. Long before I was born. I’ve only read about it in the book. It was long before we found the gate and began our stewardship. Would you fetch it for me, dear?”

I placed my tea to the side and went to Mama’s study. It was a catastrophe of paper in there, each piece covered in arcane scribblings and counter scribblings. The lore book was open on her desk, on the page concerning witika. Mama must have been amending the entry.

A diagram of a witika’s face filled the middle of the page, annotated with crude sketchings. There they were, the teeth I had seen last night. Thin and long and sharp as scorpions’ tails. I shuddered as I imagined them sinking into my skin. I had not seen the eyes, black as pitch, that stared out of the picture at me.

Some years earlier I had asked Mama how old the book was, but she had simply laughed and rolled her eyes. The pages were yellowing and cracked, the spine bent. Entries on different monsters of the gate had been entered, amended, crossed out in their entirety, then added in once more with new names and new impressions. Mama’s own script was arcane, but fresh. As a young girl I had tried to find the oldest and faintest hand I could, hoping to find some forgotten lore I could impress Mama with. This never worked. Mama seemed to know everything about the land of Nightfall, and studied the book daily.

I closed it with care, picked it up with both hands, and brought it to her. It took up Mama’s entire lap.

“The witika?”

“Yes. There were more than I expected last night. The dance felt different, too. New patterns.”

I nodded.

“Do you think it means something?”

“It all means something, Elsa. Every change, every new motion, every new expression or song. We have to watch out for these things. It is only through understanding that we can stop them,” she sighed. “So, Elsa. Are you ready for your exam?”

“Mama, no! I’m tired.”

Mama clicked her tongue. “We’re all tired. I suppose you’ll say that when a fossegrimmen leaps at you from the fog, cudgel raised? Or a witika catches you in its cold palms and shears your neck with its fangs?”

I sat back down. Mama had her rituals.

The questions went on long into the night.

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19th September, again

“I don’t understand, Mama,” I cried out in anguish. “Why must you leave?”

moth-pull2“This is always the way, dear. You have done well over these past years. You have become quite the guardian. As long as you keep your calm and your sense, you can hold the gate alone now, as has always been intended. Whether it’s tallemajas or pollogrubs, or any other devil of Nightfall, you know how to stop them.”

“But why can’t you stay with me?” I wailed. “Why go through at all? It’s never worked before!”

Mama laid a hand on my shoulder and tried to soothe me with nonsense words of heroism.

“This is what we all do, Elsa. When it’s time to pass the guard on, we have to try to end things. My Mama marched through the gate, as did her Mama before her. This cannot continue forever, my dear. One of us must find a way to close the gate, and when we do, nobody else will be left with…” She waved her hand around the barren cabin. There was no need for words.

“But you’ll die, Mama.”

“Maybe I’ll set you free from this burden. We can but hope. Things might be different this time.”

I wiped a tear from my eye. It wasn’t fair. Mama was right, as always, but I didn’t want to see her leave. She had been there for me since I was a cub. She never spoke much about my youth, just that I had been left on her doorstep and she raised me as her own. I loved her for this.

The walk to the Mothgate was too short. Mama limped ahead of me, using her rifle as a walking stick. I tried to find the words. Something, anything, to express my gratitude and love for her. It all turned to ash in my mouth. None of the words I could find were suitable. Tears continued to solemnly march down my cheeks.

As we walked down the gloomy trail and towards the Mothgate, I wondered how long she might live once she crossed the threshold and entered the Nightlands. Poor Mama Rattakin. She was quick and deadly, but there was no knowing what she would find when she entered the Mothgate. The book only contained so much, after all.

We stopped at the old moss wall and prepared as normal. I had stopped shivering, having learnt to focus through the cold and through the fear. I was as steady as hard stone, no matter what my heart felt.

“Once tonight’s guard is finished, I shall leave you,” Mama said. “Trust me, Elsa. You are ready. And do not cry for me. This is what I was meant to do. I don’t have a choice. Do not follow. If I fail, and the gate remains, you too will one day have to make this journey. You’ll know when the time is right.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.

The book said we would see nokken this night, and we did. They came as expected, beautiful white horses stampeding towards us, backed by the thrill of violins played by unseen hands. I was expert now and between us the chatter of our rifles soon stilled the hoofbeats of those devilish shapechangers. I saw only one change; a nokken that reared up in front of Mama, scorpion tail erupting from its back as its front legs melted and thickened into chitinous plates. Mama’s rifle laid it to rest with a bullet to the heart. She never even blinked.

Mama Rattakin had raised me to fight the creatures of Nightfall, teaching me their weaknesses and strengths. I learnt to separate beauty from good. Not all things that come through the Mothgate are as delightful to look upon as the nokken or witika, but they are all equally dark and cannot be allowed to enter our world. She had shown me the stories in the book of the old times, where the creatures of Nightfall had come into our world and feasted upon our kind. Faeries and nymphs, beautiful as silk and silver, dripping with crimson. Beauty could not be trusted. Mama Rattakin was all scars, aged from stress, but her heart was pure as mountain snow.

We waited, rifles primed, but nothing more appeared before us. The nokken had been stopped.

“It’s time.” Mama pulled herself up and limped through the trees, stepping over the chalk dusted grass and on towards the gate. She almost seemed keen. I followed behind.

This was the first time I had seen the Mothgate at night. Through that same stone arch lay an unfamiliar place. It was a forest, still, but not the same forest in which we stood. I’m not sure how I could tell, but it was clear. Something in the color of the trees, perhaps.

Mama turned to me, her eyes sparkling.

“Elsa, you have kept me young. Thank you for your help all these years. You shall be a wonderful guardian.” She drew me close and caught me in a bear hug. “I’ll see you again, I’m sure.”

“Do you promise?”

Mama did not answer this. She simply smiled, as was her way.

With that, she stepped through the Mothgate and into the unknown land beyond. She looked from side to side, scanning the trees around her, before settling on a path and disappearing out of sight. I stared into the empty air where she should have been, and shivered.

It was with a heavy heart I turned and headed toward our cabin. Now my cabin.

I felt like an empty shell.

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19th September, once more

Four years since Mama Rattakin left me, and the gate still opened most nights. Each night I sat and waited with my rifle primed.

It was summer now and I was lying against the rock opposite the Mothgate. Mama had said to stay at the moss wall but I preferred it here, where I could watch the gate and pick off the monsters as they crossed into our world. She had said I was not skilled enough. I came here to prove a point to myself.

It had been trolldes tonight. Great and hairy and fat, they could only fit through the gate one at a time. True enough, it took more than one bullet to bring them down, but it had been a simple task. Over the years I had turned shooting into a craft. I am better at this than Mama was, I am sure.

Under the moon I sat, watching the gate, making certain that no other creature would cross through, when I saw it. I saw her.

Mama Rattakin.

It was only for a moment, but there was no mistaking that limp. She hobbled past the gate and out of view once more.

My jaw dropped.

“Mama! Mama Rattakin!” I called out, approaching the gate. Could it truly be? After all these years, that she still hunted in the Nightlands and searched for a way to break the gate?

I crept forward. What could I do? Mama had always warned me about the danger of the gate, but my mentor and teacher, the woman who raised me, was so close. What if I could bring her back? After all these years, surely she could abandon her quest and rejoin me? She could rest while I took stewardship.

My mind was fastened. I primed my rifle and stepped through the Mothgate and into the new forest. My heart raced and my stomach leapt towards my throat. Old Mama Rattakin was alive. How I had longed to hear her voice, to feel her calming hand on my shoulder just once more. Now it was possible.

The Nightfall forest. Twin moons loomed large in the sky above. It was a busy place, alive with the unfamiliar chattering of unfamiliar creatures.

It was colder, too. Much colder.

I held my rifle steady and slipped through the trees, heading in the direction Mama Rattakin had gone. My nerves were on fire, every sense heightened. I had slain thousands of unwholesome beasts from this land, but now they could be anywhere around me. This was no shooting gallery. Every snap of a twig or rustling bush set my nerves alight once more.

Stepping through the trees and up a steady slope, I heard the distant song of the witikas. Creeping over the brow of the hill, I discovered it was the lip of a basin. Pine trees grew sparsely and a deep lake glistened at the bottom.

There were witikas by the water, dancing their mad ballet, heads dipping and rising in time with one another. Peering through the sight of my rifle, I saw many more creatures I knew around the lake; fossegrimmen working their fiddles, huldras bathing in the water and basking in the moonlight. I stepped back, taking care to not make a sound. Mama Rattakin would never have been foolish enough to venture into the basin, of that I was certain.

I turned to head back out of the basin and continue my search for Mama, and froze. Before me stood a great bear, a karhu. Saliva dripped from its fangs and it stared at me hungrily with beady pink eyes. These beasts had rarely come through the Mothgate, but I knew how dangerous they could be. A rattling growl came from deep within its throat.

I raised my rifle, aiming for its head. It lunged forward as I fired, and time slowed.

First came the crack of my rifle. My aim was true and a gout of white burst from the karhu’s head as the bullet entered its skull and struck the beast dead. Second came the crack of my leg as the great bulk of the karhu fell upon me. It sent a lightning bolt of agony through my leg and up my spine as I collapsed to the ground. I howled in pain.

The monstrous corpse had rolled sideways after landing on me, tumbling down the slope before settling in thick bracken. Waves of pain pulsed through my leg and back.

I lay on the ground, tears pouring from my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I stood and put what weight I could on my leg, nearly collapsing back to the ground as it buckled under me. How could I search for Mama Rattakin now? Using my rifle to support me, I hobbled down the hill as best I could. As I moved, I could hear beautiful and harmonic song growing closer.

The witika were coming.

I hobbled down the hill as fast as I was able, whimpering to myself as I tried to remember my way back to the gate. Any thought of finding Mama had evaporated. All I could think of now was survival, and that meant finding my way home.

“Elsa.”

I froze.

At the bottom of the hill stood Mama Rattakin, revolver in her good hand. She was covered in mud and white powder, her clothes ripped. Somehow, miraculously, she didn’t seem surprised to see me. Nothing rattled Mama.

“Mama Rattakin!” I sobbed, hopping toward her as best I could. She looked down at my injured leg, looked to her own, and smiled.

“What a pair,” she said, shaking her head.

Oh, Mama. Only she could keep so calm in such difficulty.

“You’re alive, Mama! I’d always hoped, but when you never came home I didn’t know what to think.”

She nodded. “You were foolish to come through, Elsa. But what’s done is done. I’m glad to see you.” Mama started to limp away at a pace I could not hope to meet.

“Mama, wait. I cannot keep up.”

“You must.”

I stumbled after her through the undergrowth, fending off branches and thickets with numb hands, tears of pain streaming down my cheeks.

“Mama, I’m so glad to see you. But, I don’t understand. How have you eaten? How have you survived?”

“I’ve only been gone for a few days, Elsa.” Mama looked me up and down. “For me, anyway. Time is a broken thing in Nightfall. It does not run like the river, as in our world, but it thrashes and whips like a hurricane. Days are weeks and months are seconds.” She shrugged as she walked. At no point did she stop and wait for me, though she had slowed her pace. “But you must listen, Elsa. This is very important. I am taking you back to the Mothgate now and you must, no matter what happens, go through. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mama. You’re coming too, right?” My heart sank even before she answered.

“I can’t return, Elsa. My time in that world is over.”

And with that, Mama Rattakin upped her pace.

Only when the peak of the Mothgate loomed did Mama Rattakin stop. Breathing heavily and drinking in the cold air, I tried to compose myself. Mama was always so assured. It was as if ice ran through her. We had put distance between us and the witika now, who must have gone cavorting and gamboling in the wrong direction. It was quiet. Just the murmur of wind that crept through the trees and the rustle of wet leaves as I dragged my shattered leg behind. The sounds of moonlit animals hunting.

I heard a whimper.

Was it Mama?

She was shivering. It was now that I realized the rich scent of winter mulch and bracken in the air was not alone, and had been joined by smoke and charcoal.

An oddly warm breeze cut through the crisp night chill and quickly rose in temperature. Over Mama’s shoulder, floating through the trees, hanging limply in the air, was a man. Dressed in waterfalls of red cloth, chin resting against his chest and a wide brimmed hat upon his head, he drifted towards us. Blackened feet brushing through grass that died as he passed, he stopped and slowly raised his arms. Fingers of coal stretched out, spilling ash that floated on the breeze. Broken fingernails and scoured knuckles. The daemon lifted its head and revealed its face; a cracked skull with a quivering jaw that ground its teeth without pause.

I recognized this thing from Mama’s ancient book of monsters. This was one of the few creatures that I had never seen come through the gate. One of the most dangerous things that lived in the Nightlands, a brasskarl. A corpse risen by a pyromantic curse with a desire to incinerate all living things.

It stood between us and the Mothgate.

“Through the gate, Elsa.” Mama’s voice quivered. I realized with a jolt that, for the first time, she was afraid.

“But, Mama…” My voice trailed off and her eyes dulled.

“You must go home, Elsa. Do not try to help. You must get home to guard the gate and maintain the book.” Her voice cracked. She hugged me, before turning back to the monster before us.

The brasskarl floated, flames licking the air around it. It ground its teeth so hard that shards of bone started to break away.

Mama stepped towards it, raising her revolver. She fired three times, the bullets tearing into the burning monster, gouts of steam bursting from its wounds. It moved towards her, slowly, arms extended.

I shuffled sideways, dragging my hurt leg, making a curved path around Mama and the brasskarl. The gate wasn’t far. Mama fired another three times and this did not still the brasskarl. It had reached Mama and grabbed her with brimstone hands. Flames shot down its arms to engulf Mama Rattakin in fire. She screamed, much as I had screamed earlier, and thrashed in its grasp, kicking and punching with all her strength.

I could not help myself, despite Mama’s plea. I threw myself towards them and tried to drag Mama away. Yet the moment I touched her, those cursed flames lit up my hand. My skin began to blister and I let go, swearing and swinging my hand wildly in the air. The brasskarl was focused entirely on Mama, shaking her violently as she immolated. Her struggles waned.

I thought I would be sick, but the weight inside me was too heavy. Trying to ignore the end of my Mama, I hobbled through the black stone Mothgate and collapsed in a heap. I lay in the mud, staring up at the dawn sky, and waited for the monsters to follow.

They did not. Mama had been enough.

I peered through the gate, but Mama and the brasskarl were out of sight. As I stared, the forest shimmered and morphed. Soon enough, it was our own forest once more. I had returned through the Mothgate just in time. The image of Mama burning was still fierce in my mind.

Inspecting my hand, I saw it was ruined. Blistered and raw, I was sure it would never be of use again.

The sun rose and the night died away, and with great effort, I made my way back to the cabin, limping up the grassy path. Opening the old wooden door, I hauled my exhausted body inside and collapsed into Mama’s armchair. This comforted me, however slightly.

Closing my eyes, I soon fell into slumber, but sometime later a knock at the door roused me.

Dragging myself to my feet, I cautiously hobbled to the door and answered.

On the step of the cabin, wrapped in rags, lay a newborn babe. She slept quietly, her chest rising and falling. Dreaming of her mother, perhaps? I stared down the path and all around, but nobody was there. Bending down, I scooped up the child, taking the weight in my good hand, and took her inside.

moth-pull3I returned to the armchair, cuddling the well-swaddled babe close. She had a birthmark on her hand, a crescent moon stretching from the base of her thumb across the back of her hand. Just like my own.

I lifted my scorched hand to try to make it out, but the blisters had completely masked it. Carefully placing the babe down on the wooden table, I cleaned my hand and dressed it, wrapping it tightly in bandages. I needed to see a doctor, but there were none for miles around and I had no hope of reaching one, not on my own. I strapped it and splinted it, just as Mama had taught me.

I froze as I pulled the splint tight. A foolish thought crossed my mind.

The lore book was sat on Mama’s desk. I placed a palm on an open page and closed my eyes, thinking of Mama. Skimming through, I found the page concerning the brasskarl. There were not so many entries on this monster as the rest, though they were still numerous. Some faded, some new, some almost worn away completely. Upon the diagram of the creature were drawn dozens of X’s, on elbow, hip, and heart. With Mama’s pencil, I marked the six points where I had seen her shoot the brasskarl. There was a pattern. Chewing the end of the pencil, I studied the notes with care. It was methodical, like a surgeon probing.

The baby stirred. Hobbling to the table, I picked her up in my arms and cuddled her close. Exhausted as I was, it was only now I noticed the envelope tucked into her swaddling. I removed it clumsily with my good hand and tore it open.

The girl opened her mouth and I readied myself for her bawling.

“Mama,” she cooed happily.

I opened the envelope, my heartbeat racing.

‘I am sorry to ask this of you, kind stranger, but please look after our darling Elsa,’ it read. ‘She is our pride and joy. With your love and care, I am sure she will be a special person one day.”

I slumped into Mama’s chair. I looked at the calendar. It was the 19th of September. My birthday.

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19th September, 19 years on

We approached the tree line and set up camp by the moss coated wall. Elsa’s hands shook as she unpacked her bag. She glanced to the tree line over and over again, though she tried her best to hide it. It was a big day for her. All those years of practice, leading to this.

I knew she would do well. I was stronger than my own Mama, and my own dear Elsa would be stronger than me. One day, perhaps, one of us would find a way to close the gate. The brasskarl was the key.

I had often thought about telling her the truth, yet it was too heavy a burden for such a young mind. I am not sure I would have lasted the years of long and lonely nights if I had known. Not at her age. What if she had left the gate, or made a decision that changed my past, her future? Nightfall might have overtaken the world with blood and beauty. No. She would understand, just as I had.

It is different for me, as Mama. Having Elsa had given me purpose. She needed my protection. She needed a guide. How else would she have grown strong enough to guard the gate? How could she grow to become… me?

Telling her the truth was too great a gamble.

“This is your most important lesson.”

I handed her the rifle. Long and cold, ornately decorated. Passing it on was harder than I’d expected. Seeing her struggle with the weight, I took the barrel and laid it on the low wall before to us. I knew that would help.

“Watch and wait. No mistakes, Elsa. I know what is coming,” I said, staring off into the trees.

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james

 

 

James Ross Troughton is a writer of speculative fiction who lives and works in Essex, England. After graduating from the University of Leicester in 2007, he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he worked in language academies for three years before returning to the UK. He now works in Primary education. He likes cats.

 

 

Shimmer #25

You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell

I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

again-pull1As my head clears, I can feel the heat of the summer air. Sweat trickles down and drips from my chin. Sun hot like a furnace. Blacktop steaming all around me.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re gonna see Cisco.

And then Rafi is there, pushing me into the street. Sun splashing into my eyes, all I can see is the gaping chasm where his canine was knocked out two weeks previous. “Vamos!” he says, smiling wide, and we start heading downtown. In my mouth the cola stings but a cooling sensation spreads in my stomach.

When we cross into CastleTown, I see the car in the distance. My heart races. The air is hot but a breeze comes off the river, a breath of air that shuffles past us like a ghost. On the corner of Cabrini we see the red Ford in a thick film of dust. The window rolls down and Rafi reaches inside. “Oye, Francisco,” he calls. “Give us a ride!”

But Francisco looks past his shoulder and into my eyes, lowering his sunglasses. I put my hands on the hot metal, lean in. An unspoken thought passes between us, an expression I’ve seen a thousand times, but the old translations don’t fit.

I’ll be late for dinner.

Or: Keep a lookout for dad tonight.

Or: Stay out of trouble until I get back.

But there’s something new that my twelve-year-old eyes would never catch. I meet my brother’s gaze and smile. I feel the warmth of his hand as he reaches out and closes his fingers on mine, a warmth that spreads into my torso, that fills me completely. Inside there’s a love that is pure and genuine. If I could capture that love and seal it in a box, I think. If I could hold onto this moment, hold it in my hand like I hold that grimy pill bottle. If there were no bottle and no pills but only this moment now and forever.

The scene freezes like a photograph. The car’s leather interior, forgotten soda cans on vinyl floor mats. The sun igniting every surface inside and out. A total absence of sound, and far off the smell of something on fire. The look on Cisco’s face, the way his eyes shone. The message contained therein. I file away the details, even though I’ll be back. I’ll stand here again and grip the doorframe and fight and thrash and scream inside. I’ll muster every ounce of energy just to open my mouth and tell him I love him. Tell him to wait, that he doesn’t have to leave, at least to take me with him.

The picture fades and the vertigo returns. But I’ll be back.

As the scene fades, I repeat it like a mantra. I’ll be back here again. I’ll be back.

Some memories float to the surface no matter what; try as you might, that’s just where you come up. Redo’s like that sometimes.

Pale blue sky filters in through the blinds and dust motes hover in illuminated pockets of air. Parallel bars of sun fall across the misshapen couch and the surface of the coffee table, highlighting ashtrays overloading and empty pill bottles marked only with the black felt-tip outline of a clock. I push the pill bottles around with an exploratory finger. They fall soundless across the trash piles and onto the carpet. I rub the heel of my palm across my face and stretch, pull myself up off the recliner and onto uncertain legs.

In the distance, a single siren sings the tale of criminal activity, somewhere deep within the bowels of the barrio.

I move into the kitchenette, where the analog clock reads 7:43. The air is thick with the humidity of another autumn morning. The flat thwack of a basketball and the shrieks of small children rise from some unseen but nearby source.

The cisterns are full again on the makeshift balcony, and I pull them in through the window, a three-gallon bucket and two smaller plastic jugs with the tops cut off. I wash my face in the bathroom with meager handfuls of rainwater. In the mirror, familiar eyes look back at me. My hair is long and greasy and stubble clings to my cheeks and neck. I rub a hand down my chin. “This is reality, Marco. This is you.”

But I feel ancient and the face in the mirror is not that of a 24-year-old. My eyes are bloodshot, dark bags hanging beneath. This is you, Marco.

In the medicine cabinet is another bottle containing six flat disc-shaped pills. I open the door with shaking hands and count the thin pills twice to be sure.

Johnny is sitting at the counter of El Conde Steakhouse when I arrive thirty-two minutes later. He rolls his eyes when he sees me, like he was getting tired of looking at his watch.

“Café,” I tell the woman. “Solo.”

She shakes her head without looking up, points at a crumpled piece of paper tacked to the wall. NO COFFE, it reads. COKE.

I look at Johnny’s cup and he just nods. The woman puts down a saucer and cup and pours from a two-liter bottle.

“My head feels like a fucking steamroller, man,” I tell Johnny.

He pushes his cup toward the woman and she refills it. “Yea yea, I’ve heard that one before. You want some eggs?”

I shake my head. “So did you talk to Rafi?” I ask. “What does he say?”

Johnny snorts and gazes past tinted windows and into the street beyond. “Get it through your head, hombre. No one talks to Rafi.”

“But you were gonna see him, yea?”

Johnny shakes his head. “Man, forget it. Just keep doing what you do. Rafi don’t care who or what you’re looking for. He plays one game only. Speaking of…”

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a brick-sized envelope. Johnny feels the weight, takes a smaller envelope from his jacket and slides it across the counter. From the shape and size I can tell it contains three bottles. I slide it back.

“I told you I can’t,” I say.

“I heard what you said. But you said it before.” He puts a twenty on the counter, stands and unzips his jacket. “And I don’t believe you.”

I take a deep breath and put my hand on the envelope. He claps a hand on my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear. “Besides hombre, we need you. Just one last time.”

I sit there unmoving until long after he’s gone.

Just one last time.

Then I’m out on the corner again, Cabrini and 187th, smoke seeping out from between my lips and swirling around my head. Eyes on the street where it disappears in the distance, waiting for the red Ford to pull around the corner like it did for the last time twelve long years ago. I watch through three cigarettes, amped up on cola. The buildings are bombed-out castles, shattered concrete and white brick, graffiti both faded and new. Occupied now by vermin and squatters, restored only to their 1% glory in dreams and in time-bumps. I slip my hand into my pocket and close it around the envelope. Three pill bottles.

Back home, the first thing I do is pull the blinds in the living room. Sunlight pours in, warming the mildewed furniture. I strip down to boxers and sit on the sofa. On the coffee table beneath crumpled hamburger wrappers, the journal waits, its pages filled with dates and bullet points. July 12, 2002, it reads at the top of the latest page. And “the last time” and nothing else. Several more journals lie on the bookshelf, identical entries too many to count.

Next to the journal, the new pill bottles are laid out before me. Forty discs per bottle. One hundred and twenty time-bumps. I stare at them thoughtfully, calculating the time it will take to turn the bottles into stacks of fives and tens. But the math makes my head hurt and I go to the medicine cabinet for relief.

Two aspirin, check. I reach for the bottle with six pills lying inside and bring it back with me. I place it next to the full bottles and regard them for a while. Then I’m slipping a disc onto my tongue. There will be time to hit the streets later. Right now all I want is him.

I sink into the Redo. Window down, one hand on the wheel, Cisco smiles and puts his hand on mine.

We’re only eleven years old the first time we get high. As the scene resolves, I can feel the swimming sensation in my head, the slowed-down feel of time passing us by. The giggling evoked by every word, every look.

We pass the joint tentatively, Johnny and Luis and Rafi and me, up in the Cellblocks. That was Johnny’s word for the apartment complex, cinder-block walls stacked high and spread with tiny windows sporting heavy iron bars. We didn’t know then what prison would look like, nor that we’d find out soon enough. All we knew was that Rafi’s place was fair game at any time of day. His mom was always out working some job. He never mentioned a dad and we never asked.

Francisco is seventeen years old, and he knows where to find me. I haven’t aged-out, so the calls from school haven’t stopped coming yet. This is the day he picks up the phone when the call comes in. He knows instantly where I am. I was too young to realize what would happen next, too foolish. How could I know he would find us like this?

I try to push myself out of the Redo. I try to bring on another memory. I try to toss the joint, to leave the apartment. I try to warn the boys what’s coming. I try for the life of me to change the past. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s possible. I can feel that I’m close.

But there’s a pounding on the door.

And then his voice. My throat constricts.

And then he’s inside and his eyes are wide with fury. Or is it fear?

He’s speaking, yelling, but I’m not hearing the words. My head is reeling with the mortal terror of my eleven years. And then he’s slapping me. Hard. Across the face and back again. The joint flies to god-knows-where. Johnny and Luis and Rafi have vanished. Francisco has my shirt balled up in one shaking fist.

This is the first time he ever hits me. And the last.

It knocks me right out of the Redo and into the moment. When I come to, a storm is raging and the windows still open. My face is wet with rainwater.

That spring morning of ’01 was the first time we got high, but it wasn’t the last. We fell into a routine in the next two years, and by the summer of ’06 we were slinging. I was a man now at sixteen and my one and only plan for September was to not go back to school. I’d be a junior with two more years ahead and prospects uncertain thereafter. There was never a good reason before and I knew it wouldn’t present itself now.

Johnny got us started on the Redo in June of that year. The pot was no longer enough, and the drink wasn’t good for anything but getting into fights. Johnny wanted something more important. Something with significance. But I knew then it wasn’t about the time-bumps, just as the pot had never been about getting high. They weren’t in it for the exploration. They were in it for the game. They were in it for the money.

When Johnny went to prison that first time, Rafi disappeared for two long years. He never visited once. Johnny was too laid-back to care. He lifted in the yard and played poker with the inmates. Said the place was a daycare center, only the nannies were your dealers and they didn’t give a damn what you did, as long as no one got hurt. He got hurt continuously those first three months. It’s normal, he’d tell me, black eyes and fat lips during visiting hours. Did you bring me anything? But the smile he gave me said he never expected I would. Take a break, he told me then, every time. Do something fun. See the world or get a nice girl. But I didn’t want a girl and I sure didn’t find much worth seeing out there.

I was a heavy user by the time they put him away. I wouldn’t bring dope to the prison, but I did anything I could to keep myself in the discs. That was when Luis got me into my routine. They say adulthood starts when you settle into that groove. When each day carries purpose, that significance that takes you to the end of your life. You find your calling; the future comes into focus. You make a plan and you take care of business.

I focused on Redo. And I took care of business, all right. Luis brought me into sales and when Rafi came back I was a street mule. Rafi was some big-time lieutenant to the “boys upstairs.” I couldn’t even see him if I wanted. Luis dropped off the package and I took it to the streets. I sold five bottles a week back then with a ten percent cut. I turned around and poured it into one more bottle. Forty flat discs and the black felt clock on the cap.

again-pull2That was when I settled into my routine, started the journals. It was an easy life and I wasn’t feeling the side effects back then. We were young and we were reckless. Who knew what it did in the long-term, going back to those places again and again? I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was too focused on the past. July 12, 2002: that corner in CastleTown.

The last time.

Soon, one day becomes the next. The transitions smooth, today dissolves into tomorrow like a disc dissolving on the tongue.

I come up again and the sting of winter descends. Pellets of ice on my face, sliding into my jacket and melting on my neck. My hand in his, strong grip, supportive. Like you could feel the love contained therein. I look up to gaze at him. He is fully twice my size. That smile. That wink. “Come on, big man,” he says.

Neither of us are big but it doesn’t matter. He’s twelve but he looks like a man already. Distantly, I hear myself thinking: That’s how old you will be the last time you see him. But at twelve I was never a man. When were you ever?

He pulls me forward, gently. It’s the worst storm in years, they’re saying. Fur coats and shiny shoes pass here and there, white faces to match the whiteness in the air. And we the dark ones, our jackets too thin, our sneakers wet and frozen. Each building like a castle, with curious figures standing sentinel in windows eight and ten and fourteen stories high. I wanted to know which room the kings and queens slept in back then. And Francisco would laugh and point at various windows.

“Who else lives in a castle?” he asks, playing along. I’m too young to know where we are, to know that it’s a neighborhood on the other side of Broadway. To me it’s just CastleTown. That’s all it ever would be.

“Princes,” I tell him. “The Pope.”

He laughs again. It fills me with warmth. In twenty-four hours the water mains below the street will burst and destroy seventeen subterranean power converters. The Heights will go dark, the castles reduced to the same frigid, poorly lit homes of our neighborhood. But tonight all is twinkling and bright and beautiful.

The scene shifts. My head swims. When the picture resolves all is darkness and chaos. I feel my body rocking. I feel my mind reeling. The thoughts that form make no sense; I’m not thinking in words. I’m thinking in terror.

The bedroom door is shut but the light seeps in from the hallway, falls across the threadbare carpet, paints a line up over the tiny bed, over the animals arranged neatly along the headboard.

The floors rumble. Cisco is holding my four year old body, rocking me. The shouts and shrieks are muffled by his chest, his arms. He shushes me, whispering quietly. It’s okay, he’s saying over and over again. It’s okay.

I’m crying. The tears are wet on my face and his shirt. The voices get louder, the pounding harder. They’re upstairs now, in the hallway. My breath catches in my throat and I hear a thought forming. I’m saying no. No no no no no.

A door slams. The screams end. In the street a car peels away.

After a time Francisco lays me down and smooths the hair down on my head. Kisses me and tells me it’s okay now, it’s okay. Stay here and I’ll be right back. I grip his hand for a moment but then relax. Because I know he’ll be back. He’ll be right back.

Two doors open. Across the hall I hear him whispering. And as my breath slows, I hear her crying and sniffling. The last thing I recall is his arms wrapped around me, his breath on my neck.

My head begins to spin.

The water jugs on the balcony are empty and the sky is clear when I wake up. The evening storms come only sporadically as November draws to a close. I make a mental note to stock up on water. Then I think better of it and write it in crayon on the kitchen counter.

In the fridge are two liters of bottled rainwater, warm. I upend one to nearly empty, swallowing greedily, lean over the sink, pour the rest of the bottle over my head. The AC still works but without the coolant it only pushes around thick, moistened air. All the same, the sun pulls down the temperature as it drops below the horizon. Satisfied, I dress and slip a bottle with fifteen time-bumps into my pocket. Ambitious, but not impossible to unload in one trip.

I head South on Amsterdam and West along 181st. On the corner of Broadway, the theater advertises movies that are coming soon but will never arrive. Someone has pulled the block letters down so all that remains is the word “SOON” in thick black print. Ready when you are, I say to myself.

Across the street, McDonald’s is selling the cheapest burger in the six boroughs. The sun casts a pinkish hue against the line queuing up at the walk-thru window. Bums and well-to-dos stand together amicably enough. A man in black converse and a pin-stripe suit is telling a story of woe to whoever will listen. I keep walking.

CastleTown is still the best place to unload the discs, even after the market crash. Show me a man with something to lose, Luis always said, and I’ll show you a buyer. Why do you think they live in them castles? Why do you think they have all that stuff? It’s cause something’s missing, hermano.

I unload twelve bumps in four hours, sliding down Cabrini with my hands in my pockets, leaning into passersby and whispering, “You can do it again.” One of them calls the cops I guess, because Banks pulls up around one o’clock with his lights flashing. He takes me home and says he’ll look the other way, but this is the last time.

The last time, I think. Yea right it is.

And he’s doing me a favor getting rid of this shit. He fishes the pill bottle out of my pocket and gives it a shake. Frowns a little, like he’s disappointed. But in me or the take, I don’t really know.

Don’t let me catch you on the West Side again, he says. And he slinks off into the night, sans headlights, a white and blue shadow on wheels.

The last time I did a turn up-county, Banks was pushing papers and I was just some no-name kid from the barrio. He did my fingerprints and looked at me sideways, disapproving, telling me what the next twenty years of my life would be like.

“Sure, you’ll do a month in the county before they turn you loose. And then what? Next time you’re carrying weight and packing heat, and then you’ll do a decade in state prison.” He clapped his hands together one-two. “But more likely the deal goes sideways and we’re scraping you off the corner and into a body-bag.”

I laughed because I was seventeen and I knew it all. They wouldn’t keep me a week ’cause I was underage, and after all, I was only carrying a couple of discs. Back then, the boys in blue hardly knew what to make of Redo. Another designer party drug, they thought. Uppers or downers, it didn’t matter. It was all the same to them. Didn’t take long for half the force to get hooked.

I cleaned up my act; I took more precautions. I didn’t move as many discs, but back in those days the Heights were flooded anyway. It got so everyone you saw was either looking for a time-bump or carrying, and most of them were Rafi’s boys or would be soon. He had the Heights locked up in the first few years after Redo hit the streets.

Every once in a while you get a dope-fiend or a speed-freak. But that’s less and less frequent these days. And no one carries that stuff anymore, so they won’t be asking for long. Why bother with a simulated high when you could have a real one, guaranteed and straight from your own past?

Do it again, I whisper as I shuffle past bloodshot eyes and shaking hands. Fort Tryon’s gone to shit in the autumn storms, the torrents cutting dark rivulets into the mud and pushing rocks and leaves across every path and into every sewer grate. But it doesn’t hurt the market any and the park still crawls with hopeful slugs looking only to go back and do it again. There used to be a hopper named Frankie up here peddling Redo as bona fide time-travel. Don’t just do it again, he’d say. Go back and change everything.

One morning he was shot in broad daylight by a client looking for more than a flashback. I was a hundred yards away and it sounded like a firecracker going off. When you got there you could see Frankie face-up with one eye open, only half his face was gone with only the one eye remaining, a bloom of bright red blood painting the canvas of asphalt around his head.

“Go back and change that,” the guy kept saying. “Change that, motherfucker!”

It was Banks who came and put the guy in cuffs. These days, that’s what it takes to get sent upstate. They don’t have room anymore for small fries like me.

You didn’t wait long enough, is what I was thinking. You gotta try harder.

You hear the stories now and again. A guy from the Bronx said he saved his dog from running into the street and getting flattened by an ice-cream truck. The chimes started playing that ice-cream music and the dog set to whining, and then he was out the door and the poor guy didn’t even see him coming. Turned the truck over and spilled ice cream everywhere. The driver was fine; the dog was killed.

So this guy goes back ten times, twelve times, tries to get his hand on the dog’s collar. Finally manages to shout NO at just the right moment, and that’s what does it. By the time the dog is in the street, the truck is already gone. That night the dog shows up at his backdoor, just wagging his tail around and looking stupid and happy.

Or the time Rico down the block got stabbed at the gas station hold-up in ’04. He went in for a pack of gum and these guys came in and cleared out the register. Rico stood frozen, eyes wide, scared to death. Stop looking at me, this guy yelled, over and over, each time Rico goes back to do it again. But Rico stares terrified, so he sticks the knife in his chest, just misses the heart. Cuts through some muscle and into the lung. Rico is messed up for years, can barely move his arm after that.

Rico goes back for the hundredth time and musters up the energy, and when the guy starts yelling, he just closes his eyes. And that’s all it takes. When he came out of it, he said the pain was gone. Full rotation of the shoulder, didn’t hurt to breathe any more.

A lot of folks will tell you it’s bullshit, but I don’t know. The more I see, the more it starts to make sense.

When I wake in the morning, I can hear Paul’s generator running across the hall. There will be gas available down at the Sunoco on 184th, and the balcony cisterns are half-full. I put together enough water to trade for maybe a gallon of gas and stow the rest in the defunct refrigerator. There’s still time to lay in a store before the rains give out in December. Used to be you’d never see a thunderstorm in the city past August, but those were the days when September brought cool air and the trees started to turn. You might not remember those times if you didn’t go back to the old days so often.

My current journal tells of the old days in fifty or so pages of increasingly illegible handwriting. I turn to a fresh page and flex the fingers of my writing hand. I try to make a fist, massage my forearm. Grip the pen and put it to the page.

July 12: I write. The last time.

’01 in the Cellblocks: getting high.

Winter, ’96: Francisco in CastleTown.

1994: The big fight. Dad disappears for weeks.

The penmanship is sloppy and the shakes are getting worse, but I get the important pieces down. Beside the book is my one bottle, four discs remaining, the black clock inked on the grimy white cap.

I turn to the start of the book and push through it mechanically, looking at the headings as the pages flip.

July 12, 2002: On the corner. The hottest summer in the Heights. Rafi and the arcade. Francisco’s car on Cabrini. The last time you saw him.

Again and again. July 12, 2002. The occasional deviation.

November 29, 2001: They fight. Dad breaks all the dishes.

March 14, 1997: Birthday and circus. Francisco buys the bicycle.

And July 12: Hot summer. Francisco on the corner.

And July 12: The last time you saw him.

And: The last time with Cisco

The last time

the last time

last time

for pages and pages and pages.

Books of memories, you could say. But memories don’t change; they can’t change. This isn’t some photo book or home movie. It’s a lot bigger than that.

They say you don’t forget the important moments in life, and I think that’s true. The Redo doesn’t let you forget, and I think it has a plan. You don’t come up just anywhere. You come up where you’re meant to. You go back to the right places, you see things you might have missed the first time around. And you keep going back, well, that’s what makes you stronger. They say muscles have a memory, and that’s how you can’t unlearn riding a bike.

Well I think memory is a muscle, too. And the more you exercise it, the stronger you get. Strong enough to go back and do things right. Strong enough to change what needs changing.

When I come up on that afternoon in July, the sun is bright and the air heavy. The cool sting of cola blends with the aroma of exhaust and burning plastic. Rafi is there again, hitting me playfully, smiling that gap-toothed smile, filling my heart with joy. In my mind there is nothing but a blank slate of possibility. Anything could happen today. This could be the greatest day of my life.

We move into the street and head West into CastleTown. The buildings stand tall and firm. White faces in polished windows, white brick and oak doors with doormen to guard them. Dukes and princes, I hear myself saying, with a giggle. I’m old enough to know there’s no royalty here. There’s no royalty anywhere, not anymore.

The heat is stifling, but an energy courses through my limbs. We bound across 187th and onto Cabrini. Air still and street empty, but in the distance the sound of an engine revving.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re going to see him.

The thought echoes and recedes into the depths of my consciousness. The dusty red car appears, rounds the corner onto Cabrini.

He’s pulling up in front of us. The moment of truth.

When the window rolls down and my hands are on the hot metal of the doorframe, I take it all in. His eyes, shining, his hand, strong and gentle and warm as he lays it atop my own. The intensity of the sun as it spills through the windows, painting every surface with light. The car’s interior, tan leather rubbed raw with age and relics of fast food jaunts and soda cans lying here and there. A small plastic bottle tucked into the niche on the driver’s side door, orange and transparent and capped in white.

I capture it again. The moment stretches on for an eternity. I have all the time in the world to gather my strength, to tell him I love him. The well-chosen word here will change everything that follows. This was the last time, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. All I need to do…

He winks and draws back his hand. My stomach churns with love and anxiety. And the engine revs. As the image begins to fade, the vertigo returns.

We’re back here for a reason, of course. We’re meant to come back and change it all. We’ll see what we need to see. Say what needs saying. Some memories float to the surface no matter what you’re going for. Redo‘s like that, you know. It takes you back where you’re meant to be.

So I repeat it again because I know I’ll be back, and next time will be different. Next time will be right.

I’ll be back again, I’m saying. Head spinning, his car vanishing in the distance.

I’ll be back for you, Cisco. I’ll be back here again.

fin

 

mike
Michael Ian Bell grew up in Northern New Jersey, where he currently teaches English and serves as the Director of Campus Life at an independent school.  In summer he co-directs a boys’ camp program in New Hampshire.  When the homework is done or the kids are all tucked away in their cabins, he spends the last hour of his day writing, (or at least, that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  His first published story appears right here, in Shimmer.
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