361. To Fix A Light Bulb

Charlie thought he blinked. When it happened again, he blinked really hard a couple of times just to make sure it wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. When he looked up, he saw the filament burning bright yellow inside the clear light bulb…

And then it went out.

He finished the rest of his double-glazed doughnut and wiped his fingers on the sleeve of his uniform before dialing a number.

“Yeah? Tony?” Charlie could still feel scattered doughnut crumbs in his mouth. “Light’s out in docs. Fix someone to have it looked at, will ya? Thanks.”

At the front desk, Tony put the phone down and sighed. So there goes his 5-hour streak of doing nothing. He might as well do something anyway. It was just one of those days that nothing seemed exciting enough to do, and nothing exciting happened at the same time.

The sound of the rain greeted him when he pushed the front door open. The mid-afternoon rain came rushing in with the strong winds outside. Tony shut the door and went back to his desk. Not today, he decided.

He called Andy.

Andy had been shadowing a lad named Gregory all week long. Suspecting the boy of dealing narcotics, they searched his car twice and house once in the past two months alone, but found nothing. Andy was sent to follow him to catch him in the middle of an incriminating act. There has been nothing so far.

The rain came after he had been waiting around the corner of Gregory’s house for forty-three minutes. And when the April showers came, they came in torrents. The world outside was a sea of melting grey. For all he knew, Gregory might have slipped right by his cruiser, and he would have been none the wiser. But when you had a job, you had a job.

His phone rang. It was Tony.

“Yeah?”

“Andy. Crazy rain, eh?”

Andy sighed. “This is the second time this week I’m getting doughnuts, mate. Look, I don’t mind popping by the store, but you guys have got to at least chip in-“

“No, no, no. Nothing of that sort. Well. Not doughnuts, at least. Charlie’s in the docs and the light went out or something. Strange thing, he hasn’t come out since. Think you could grab a couple spare bulbs on your way back? 50-watt, 60-watt, doesn’t matter.”

Some grumbling. “Fine,” Andy said. “But you pay for the next round of doughnuts.”

“Sure thing. And don’t forget the receipt.”

Andy killed the call. It was another two and a half hours before he could call it a day and report back. Surely Charlie had things he had to get done. Unless he was using the dead bulb as an excuse to weasel out of doing actual work.

He fumed at the thought. The bulb could not wait.

Laura was just done saving the laundry from the rain when her mobile rang.

“For crying out loud, Andy,” she said when she picked up the call. “It’s my off day.”

“I know. I know. But this is kinda urgent.”

“National emergency?”

“Well. No. But-“

“Good afternoon to you, then,” she said, then left the phone lying face-down on the tabletop without shutting the call.

The doorbell rang. She opened the door to find a tall lad standing there in a navy raincoat. He flashed a smile at her. He also flashed a handgun.

“Hello, ma’am,” Gregory said.

He made her sit down in her favorite chair, far from where her phone laid face-down on the tabletop. She prayed to God that Andy was, for whatever reason, still listening on the other end. Gregory pulled the hood of his raincoat back, revealing a rain-soaked tussle of orange hair.

“Listen to me,” he said. “I need your help.”

Around the corner from Gregory’s house, Andy scrolled through his list of contacts, wondering who he could call next. Laura had always been so cold, anyway. The sting of her last rejection when he asked her out for dinner hasn’t quite faded still.

A text came in from Tony.

“Hey buddy. Forgot you were on shadow duty. No worries, we’ll see if the rain lets up. If it does and I go get it, I’ll send you a message. Cheerios.”

He tried to look up at the sky through the windscreen. He could barely make out the outlines of the houses right in front of him. The rain didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon.

“Ah, to hell with it,” Andy said to himself and started up the engine.

When the doors opened to the sound of the roaring rain, Tony was surprised to see Laura walking in.

“Just couldn’t stay away for long, huh?” he jested. Laura paid him no attention and went straight to the back. He shook his head. What was new?

At least he didn’t try and actually ask her out, like Andy did. He could still laugh at how brutally she turned him down, but mingled in his mirth was a sharp jab of melancholy. At least Andy tried, you know. He had the guts to approach Laura and spill the words out. Unlike some of us here.

Tony scrunched up his face and focused on resuming to do nothing.

“One… There we go,” Andy pressed the note onto the counter, then took the light bulb and left. The worst of the rain had passed, and the streets were brighter now without the dark clouds. The shower was still coming in steadily, however. He got back into the cruiser and started driving.

Charlie blinked in the sudden light. Had he been asleep? His groggy head said yes. His mouth opened to say no. He heard the clicking of the light switch, and then he heard Laura sigh.

“What happened to the lights?”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “They went out.”

“And you didn’t think to fix it?”

“I did,” Charlie said. “It was the first thing I thought of, in fact.”

“Good to know.”

“I told Tony about it, and he said he’ll handle it.”

“Really?” Laura folded her arms. “Because Tony’s sitting right outside doing nothing.”

“He probably got someone else to do it. Say, aren’t you supposed to be off today?”

“Change of plans. Got a flashlight I can borrow?”

Tony was still melancholy when the doors opened and Andy stepped in. Andy placed the new bulb in front of him.

The two men stared at each other for a while, saying nothing.

“Well,” Andy said finally. “Back to work.”

And then he went out the door and into the pouring rain again.

When Laura pulled the file out of the cabinet and walked out the door, Charlie was sure that it was against regulations, but he could not say for sure. Laura definitely knew the regulations a lot better than him – who was he to tell her otherwise?

Laura’s exit was blocked off by Tony.

“I need to tell you something,” he said, breathing heavily.

“Not a good time,” she said, and then tried to step around him. He cut off her exit again.

“It’s rather important.”

“I’m sure it can wait.”

Tony drew a deep breath. “I’m in love with you, Laura,” he said. “Truly, madly, deeply. And you might think of me as a lazy, unattractive, good-for-nothing, and you will be right. But you inspire me. You make me want to be a better man. And I know this might not be what you wanted at all, seeing how you turned Andy down the last time, but with all the courage I have, these are things that I must say, and – is that a suspect file?”

Laura clouted him hard on the side of his head, and he dropped to the floor, out cold.

Instead of heading back to haunt Gregory’s house corner, Andy decided to drive over to Laura’s place. His expression of surprise was only matched by Gregory’s when he pressed the doorbell and the lad answered the door with a gun in hand.

There was no time to think. Andy tackled Gregory before he could move.

There were gunshots, like the sound of hammers striking wood in a small room.

When Laura pulled her car up and found her front door open, she knew that something was terribly wrong. Instead of creeping in like she was in a typical Hollywood thriller, she went up to her neighbor, Miss Elise Rosenbaum’s door and knocked. The wrinkled old lady answered the door.

“Miss Rosenbaum, how do you do?” Laura mustered the sweetest smile she could.

“You still haven’t returned my frying pan!” the old lady said. Laura grit her teeth. She had been hoping that Miss Rosenbaum would develop amnesia, or dementia, and forget all about the frying pan. What happened was wholly unfortunate, to say the least.

“It will return to you soon, good as new,” Laura promised.

“I don’t see how it can. That thing is as old as this house.”

“Might you have a rifle just lying around? Firearms of any sort,” Laura said. “Just purely out of curiosity. And – hypothetically speaking – if I were to ask you to lend it to me, would you? Assuming – hypothetically speaking – that my life was in danger and by proxy, yours could be as well. And under the assumption that between the two of us, I’m the one better equipped to handle firearms.”

Miss Rosenbaum gave her a strange look. Then she lifted her chin, her mouth forming an o-shape, like she just remembered something.

“Frank used to have just the thing, but I’m not sure if it’s any good. Come on in…”

Tony had gotten quite well-acquainted with the floor when his eyes fluttered open. There was some blood on the ground as well, though he could not tell whose. Or if it had been there all week. The little details escaped him.

There was something about a light bulb, yes. That was how it started. But how did it end with him lying face-down on the floor? Someone must have hit him. That would explain the pain on the side of his head. Who would hit him, though? And what for?

He shook his head, and immediately realized what a bad mistake it was. A wrecking pain exploded inside his head. For all the pain it caused him, though, a metaphorical light bulb flicked on in his mind.

“I arrest you in the name of the law” was what Andy was trying to go for. But with his lip split, his face swollen, and his tongue bitten to ribbons by his own teeth, the best he could do was, “Irish Stu in ge gname o’ de gaw.”

Andy had Gregory pinned to the floor of Laura’s living room. He twisted the lad’s arm behind his back and put cuffs around his wrists.

There was a rattling sound, like chains. Andy looked up and found himself staring at what appeared to be a full-sized minigun.

On instinct, he put his hands up to surrender. When faced with a person pointing a minigun at you, the only option was to surrender, no questions asked.

“Andy?” Laura’s voice.

“Laura?” Andy tried, but what came out was more like “Vova?”

Then came the sound of wailing sirens, and in through the open door streamed in special ops, all of them dressed in black from head to toe and carrying rifles aimed at Laura.

“DROP YOUR WEAPON!” one of them screamed at her. “DO IT NOW!”

Laura dropped the minigun without a word and fell to the floor with her hands on her head.

Back at the station, Charlie stepped out to the front and found the brand new light bulb sitting on Tony’s table.

“He had it all this time?” Charlie shook his head. He took the bulb and went to look for a ladder.

332. Neil

Neil would have you believe that he is a perfectly ordinary, mostly harmless person. But that’s what the imp in his head would like you to think.

“Where do you get your ideas from?” you will ask him. With the twisting of knobs, the pushing of buttons, the calibration of instruments, and the pull of a lever after a short folk rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”, all of which happens in the fraction of the time it takes to blink, you will hear Neil say:

“Where everybody gets their ideas from: sentient poodles working 18-hour workdays in a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. They send me letters every Wednesday.”

You will write all of this down, drafting your article in your head. Neil will look at you and offer a kind smile. The imp will laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

He will tell you that he writes his stories one word at a time. He won’t be lying. He only tells the truth, and you will hear what you want to hear.

He writes with a quill, a feather plucked from the tail of a phoenix that once resided in the office of the Grand Archmage Durwin, who lived in a castle on the Isle of Man in the 14th century. The phoenix gave the quill to him after he helped her escape so she could be reunited with her love, the constellation Aquila. He watched her dive into the sky, tracing an orange trail through the obsidian sky, joining Aquila among the stars that were really leaves on the world tree.

The quill writes in words of fire, telling tales of dreams and death, stopping only to ask for apple juice. It writes the stories it remembers, of kings and saints and ghosts and gods and of the world, the real world, not this flimsy imitation of reality that is as solid and as permanent as a veil, half-transparent and fluttering in the wind.

Sometimes, Neil tells it to write something different. “Write me a story about a discontented housewife,” he tells it, or, “Give me a story about forgetting.” And the quill writes.

Neil has only ever written two stories by his own hand, when Morpheus required it of him. He won’t tell you which.

When he isn’t freeing forgotten kingdoms from tyrannical sorcerers or having tea with the seasons beside Ymir’s bones, Neil likes to sing. He also likes to cook, but the milk does that a lot better, so he mostly sings. He sings into the void these days, because his songs have a tendency of running off to live their own lives. One of them is now a famous Hollywood star.

Death visits him often. She hasn’t forgotten that he died ten years ago; but if she took him into heaven or hell, she would never know how the Marquis got his coat back. Every last Friday of the month, they meet for tea and biscuits. She is still eager to know how Loki made the gypsy witch cast the curse meant for him on her own son. He will have to figure that out soon.

His clones do his shows and book signings and shopping for him. In the unlikely event that he needs more time, he simply asks for more, and the eternal timekeeper steps aside for Neil to do what he needs to do. The eternal timekeeper only does it for Neil, and, if she asked, Mary Poppins. But Mary Poppins never asks. Time stops to ask her if she needs anything, something to drink, maybe. Neil has never met Mary Poppins, but Mary Poppins has met Neil. She sometimes sings about him.

Sometimes his words come back to him, after having seen the world and spoken the tongues of men and tasted their power, sweet and burning like wine; and they sometimes return with other words that they have gathered from the corners of the earth. They return to his head as white hair.

Woe to you if you are one of those who would hurt or lie to lure children to their deaths. Woe to you if you would squash the imaginations of children and take away their right to read, to daydream, to ask questions, to be children. Woe to you, because his words will find you, and they will bring you back to him.

In his hands the holds the book that once belonged to Fate. You do not want to know how he will write the continuation of your story.

When you look into his eyes, and instead of an impish mischief, you find there waiting for you a fury that hell cannot contain… Pray, oh pray, to your gods – to Mary Poppins, if she would hear you – that the ending of your story involves a sweatshop operating out of the underground level of a cotton factory in Algeria. Pray that your eternity involves writing letters to be sent off on Wednesdays. Ask him; ask him if he knows of the things you have done in the dark; if he would really do all the things I have said he would do.

He will open his mouth and tell you the truth. And you will hear what you want to hear.

315. A Picnic For The Seasons

A long time ago, the seasons came together to talk. Deciding that no discussion was complete without food, they each agreed to bring a food item with them to the talk.

Spring was the worst cook among the four, because she was always overeager and impatient, and also because she insisted on dressing up the things that she made in every color imaginable. To Spring, the seasons assigned the task of bringing the appetizers. She decided that she would bring sandwiches, and it was good.

Summer was the biggest, and he knew not the meaning of subtlety. To him, they decided to assign the task of preparing a roasted bird. It made sense, because then Summer would know if he had overcooked and burned the bird, and also because Summer didn’t know the meaning of undercooked either. They reasoned that if Summer could roast a bird and didn’t overcook it, it should be just right.

Then there was Autumn, the temperamental one among the four, but who was also the vainest. She spent a great deal of time combing her copper-and-rust red hair, and also spent a great deal of time picking out her clothes. Her favorite one was a yellow-and-orange loose dress with thin straps for her shoulders. This was the dress that she wore for the talk. Autumn would not be told what to bring, and she came with a platter of stewed pork in the end. No one complained.

The last of them was Winter, and it went without saying that he would bring the dessert. No one said anything, and he did not agree to anything, but they simply understood. He showed up as he always did, with his skin as pale as death, dressed in a finely tailored dark suit. No one asked him where the desserts were, and neither did he tell them. But when the food was laid out, the trifle was there.

They laid out their mat on a grassy patch by the side of the mountain. A large tree grew at the end of the grassy patch, and the clouds floated past them. The bulk of the mountain beside them sheltered them from the sun as they ate.

There were no words when they were eating, because words had a tendency of changing the flavor of food. Sometimes it was for the better, and sometimes it made food taste so bad that no one has the appetite to eat any more. They all knew why they had come out here, and they all knew what the talk was about, and so they agreed to be silent for the eating.

When the last scoop of trifle had disappeared into Autumn’s mouth (she was the slowest eater), the rest of them watched and made sure that she had swallowed properly. Autumn raised her glass to his lips and took a sip of apple juice, and with that, the eating was done.

“Life is dead,” Summer said.

This they all already knew. Sometimes, ideas got ideas of their own; and though they cannot be killed the way mortals or gods are killed, they can be killed in the end. And the only way to kill an idea was with another idea.

“How?” Spring asked.

“He tried to become Fate,” Autumn explained, and was quick to add in her opinion of the matter: “Which, it goes without mentioning, was a terrible idea. He figured that if he became Fate, he could also guide all living things along their path after he had brought them to life.”

Summer shook his head. His hair was long and bright and golden, and every strand shone like the sun through the clouds. “He became Fate, even if it was for a little while,” he said. “He became she, and she married Time.”

Autumn clicked her tongue at this. Time was an enigma, and he was more of the dangerous sort rather than the mysterious sort. He was obsessively neat in the worst possible way, and to add to that, he suffered from a host of multiple personalities within himself, all of them as compulsive as the next.

“Time,” Spring shuddered at the sound of the name. “I heard that he murdered Baal because a strand of his own hair was sticking out at an odd angle.”

This was true. And Time had relished every cathartic moment of beating the divine life out of Baal.

“So Life, or Fate, as she now became,” Autumn continued, “Thought that she might give Time a little bit of advice on how the humans should be governed. He endured it for a little while, I imagine. He was never fond of being told what to do, but I’m amazed that he did not snap her neck the first time she tried. Eventually, though, Time decided that he has had enough of his wife.”

“I was there to see her, after it was done,” Summer said, a haunted expression on his face. “She was a tough thing to kill, which I think made it worse. He broke her in more ways than you can imagine. Lucifer would have cringed at the scene.”

“Yikes,” Spring said. She didn’t dare imagine what it might have looked like.

“So Life is dead,” Autumn said, “And we must find a replacement.”

They murmured their agreement, and then one by one, they told the stories of the people who could be Life. Spring told her story first, and Summer spoke next. The third story was Autumn’s, and though Winter did not speak, the story was clear enough.

And so their stories were told.

301. You Of My Heart

She giggled for the fourth time in two minutes, eyes still glued to the smartphone in her hands. For his part, Amir did what he had always done: make a little smile, indicating amusement, as he died a little more inside. She noticed this smile once or twice. She never reacted to it, only continued to tap away at the keypad, stringing her reply.

He went and got two cups of water from the kitchen. Hers was always warm water – never outright hot or cold, but not quite room temperature either – that he had to mix water from the dispenser and kettle in an exact ratio. It was the way she liked it, and he always remembered that. He set her cup down on the coffee table before her, and she only took her eyes off the screen for a second to look at him.

“Thanks,” she said, smiling like the sun. Her fingers grazed his forearm in a gesture ambiguously hovering between friendliness and romantic intent. His heart melted a little at her touch.

She must know what she does to do me, he thought as he watched her drink from the cup. Girls were supposed to be good at picking up subtle gestures. If that was true, then she was either deliberately toying with him, or being selectively good at noticing the little nuances in people’s actions. There was no way—no way that she had not noticed the thousand-yard stare when he looked at her, with his chin rested in his hand. Or how he had been there when she broke up with David (that jerk) just earlier this year, always ready to listen to her cry on the phone, or to go mamak together to take her mind off things, or even to hang out just so she won’t have to be alone.

He even bought her chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Chocolates. On Valentine’s Day. Was it so hard to put two and two together?

She giggled again. And then came the familiar sour wrench in the middle of his chest. Still, the little smile came to his face, already a conditioned response whenever he was around her.

“Woi, who’s that lah,” he jested, raising his eyebrows at her when she looked over, “New boyfriend ah?”

“Tch, bising lah, Amir,” she said, the goofy grin lingering on her face. Her eyes and attention returned to the phone before he could say anything in response. She didn’t say no, he thought, and the corners of his mouth suddenly felt very heavy. She didn’t say no.

She didn’t say yes, another voice wrestled back with all the strength of a beetle against a boulder. It doesn’t mean anything, the voice tried again, but weaker this time. He sighed heavily, and somewhere at the bottom of his throat, something bubbled and welled.

Who was he kidding?

It had been the subject of a hundred nightmares. Seeing her walk away with her hands holding the hands of another boy, leaving him behind. They would be talking; laughing; sometimes even singing together; and he would be left behind. Forgotten. Like a second-hand car that was only useful for as long as the shiny new car took to come around; then is left alone, or sold off for the next person to make use of.

Why do I let her do this to me?

Because I love her. Because she’s important to me. Because if a guy breaks her heart, I will break his face. Because I want her to be happy, no matter what. I only want the best for her.

She laid the phone down and leaned back into the sofa cushion, sighing wistfully. There was a faraway look in her eyes. The dimple on her right cheek was sinking in, and around it her skin was turning a soft pink color. He noticed these things.

He also noticed her fingers stroking the protective cover over the back of her phone, like she was trying to wrap her fingers around a hand that wasn’t there. She made a little laugh to herself and buried her face in her hands, completely oblivious to the world around her.

He opened his mouth to say something. He wanted to tease her for her girlishness, or even poke fun at her and make her blush even harder. He wanted to go over and pry the phone from her – she would wrestle him to get it back – and see who was this fellow who was taking up all her attention. He wanted to pull her up by her hands and get her to do a crazy dance with him in the middle of her living room.

But none of these things happened. The words that were supposed to come out got caught in the middle of his throat, and a little strangled sound came out. He masked it as a cough, even holding his hand to his chest for added effect.

She looked over at him. Pearly white teeth peeked out from behind pink lips. “What? Never see people fall in love before is it?” she teased. He chuckled and waved a dismissive hand as his heart went through a blender inside his chest.

As long as she’s happy, I’m fine, the voice in his head repeated over and over. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. As long as she’s happy, I’m fine. But honest to God, fine was the last thing he was feeling. And despite what people would tell you, repeating a lie often enough does not, even for a second, cause it to become true. And, dear Lord, he was done lying to himself. He was done playing Éponine or Sydney Carton or that guy in the E. E. Cummings poem. He was done with pretending.

“I better head home.” His voice came out in a croak, more due to his fake coughing fit than any surge of emotions. But the emotions were there, all right. “Shower, have dinner, those things,” he said.

“Please,” she held up a hand before her. “Knowing you, you’re going to end up watching cat videos on YouTube until your dinner goes cold. Don’t think I don’t know you.”

He held up both hands in mock surrender as he got up from the sofa. “You got me,” he said. “Guilty as charged, your honor. What will my sentence be?”

She grinned wide, and then her face scrunched up tightly. “You,” she said, pointing a finger and squinting at him, “Are sentenced to an hour’s conversation with me, on Skype, later at nine-thirty, my computer’s time. For every minute you’re late, an extra hour will be added to your sentence.”

He made a dramatic nod. “As you say, madam,” he said, and headed for the door – and not a second too soon. The side of his face twitched, and he felt something hot at the back of his eyes. He heard the squeak of the cushion as she got up to show him out. He waved her away without looking back.

“No need,” he kept his voice level the best he could. “I know my way out.”

He lingered at the door for a split moment. It wasn’t even enough to notice; but as he stood there, foot ready to cross the threshold, he came to the dreadful realization that there would be no turning back. Not for him.
The moment passed and, with his heart in his throat, Amir stepped beyond the door. He was out.

“See you,” she called as she closed the grill gate behind him, watching him go. Ordinarily, he would have turned back and returned a “see you soon” of his own, meaning every word of it. But this time, it was different. He was outside now. This time, he didn’t turn back, and what he said was:

“Goodbye.”

And he meant it with all his heart, even as the first teardrop escaped the corner of his eye. He walked away and, somewhere terribly far away, a lone bird sang.

294. Drawing Death

Goruk was a shadow slipping into the distance, silhouetted against the burning evening sun. He did it casually – like he was just heading back into his hut – and naturally, and no one ever noticed that he was gone. It would be dark before he came back to their village, and Bagroof thought that he might have an idea.

The other men chattered on around him as the fire spat yellow-and-orange embers in the middle of their circle. A thin trail of smoke snaked up into the sky, golden on one side and lilac on the other. A steady wind carried the smell of rain down from the mountains, and the tall grass rustled as it passed.

The good thing about being the quiet one was that it gave you space to observe. He watched the rest, wearing the smiles on their faces as they exchanged words and anecdotes. Morguk was still trying to convince Berethum and Agrisaf of the giant beast he saw (as tall as ten trees, he said), Zanu and Tarran were laughing about something humorous that happened during their hunt earlier today, and Riastak, the youngest of them – hardly a man – listened in on the conversations.

For a moment, Riastak caught Goruk’s gaze, and a transcendent understanding passed between them: they were men alike, in spirit if not in age or body. Riastak was young, but built well. When he is fully grown, he will have the stature of a chief. Bagroof, on the other hand, could have never hoped to be even as big as his peers.

The moment passed, and Riastak went back to listening in on Morguk’s tale of the giant elephant. Bagroof got up to leave. Goruk was out of sight, but there were more ways to track a man than by sight.

Girls have been disappearing from the village. It started with Siris, many months ago. They thought that she must have wandered away while collecting herbs, and got pounced on by a wild cat. They sometimes found the mangled bodies of lost friends hanging from tree branches, and the feral yellow eyes of the wild cats close by, warning them to keep away. But Siris’ body was never found.

A while after that, Gillian also went missing. Then Rainee. Then Valarie. And it became clear that it wasn’t a question of what was behind the disappearances, but who. Bagroof observed these things, and he observed the people in the village. Tonight, he was going to find out if he was right or not.

The sky faded from a calming purple to the deep darkness of ebony, and it was getting harder to see. Dark clouds rolled across the skies, blotting out the light of stars; and when the wind came, carrying the smell of the rain with it, Bagroof was afraid that he might lose Goruk’s scent. But when the wind died down, Bagroof was always able to catch Goruk’s trail.

It was late when Bagroof arrived at the foot of the mountain. There, he stopped and ate some berries from a bush to quieten his stomach. As he ate, he caught the glimpse of a small ghoulish face, as white as snow, hidden in the leaves. In the center of the face were two eyes, like little black stones. It hooted at him, then flew away, disappearing like a phantom into the night.

When his tummy stopped making hungry noises, he carried on.

The scent stopped at the mouth of a cave. It was completely dark outside, and thunder rumbled overhead without the accompaniment of lightning. In the darkness, Bagroof could see a faint yellow flicker on the far wall inside the cave. He got onto his hands and feet and cautiously crawled in, keeping his head low.

It was the crying he heard first – a strangled sort of sound, like words that got caught in the middle of your throat. And then he heard the scraping of stone against stone. The floor of the cave sloped off to the right side into a steep decline which led to the bottom of it. Bagroof kept to the left, and as he approached the edge overlooking the bottom of the cave, he got down onto his elbows and knees, and his chin almost touched the ground as he moved, silent like the growing grass.

When he peeked over the ledge, he saw Siris by the yellow firelight, but not Siris as he had known her. Siris was a healthy girl with hair as brown and red as the river mud, and with skin the color of chestnut. The Siris he saw, motionless against the cave wall, looked like she had aged thirty years in the time she was gone. Her skin wrapped around her bones in dry folds, and her hair was like dried weed on her shrunken skull. Part of her cheek was gone, and something white squirmed inside her mouth. The eyeball on the same side as the cheek was missing, the the other one, closer to the ground, stared out into the fire without any spark of life in it.

There were more bodies, two of them just beyond the fire, where he couldn’t see. What he could see, where Siris’ dead body was also facing, was Goruk standing with his back against the fire, a piece of chalk in his right hand, slashing away at the cave wall; and with his left hand, he held Valarie’s throat. Her cry rose, bubbling from her mouth, and as soon as she made a sound, Bagroof saw Goruk’s hand tighten around her neck so her eyes rolled up and her tongue stuck out. Then, just before she slipped into the eternal sleep that waited at the end of life, he released her neck, and she heaved with the exertion of taking in breath.

It would be midday before Bagroof arrived back at the village, alone and hollow-eyed. He would not speak, or even eat for days after that; and when he finally opened his mouth, his voice was cracked and hoarse, and his words came out in incoherent sentences. But with time, this is what they gathered from his testimony:

All along the walls of the cave, he could see outlines in chalk: faces, he realized, of the girls from the village, with their faces caught in the moment as they slipped from life into death. It had to be the young girls – they were easier to subdue, and their necks were thin enough for Goruk’s hand to wrap around for him to conduct his macabre work.

He looked up from Valarie’s choking, dying face when he heard the scream of a madman, and found Bagroof soaring from the ledge above, then landing onto him a moment later. Again and again Bagroof hit him, at first with his bare fists, and then with a piece of loose rock he found. Blood and bone and brains were splattered all across the cave floor; but in the seconds before his death, even as blood came out of his mouth and ears, Goruk had looked up – right through Bagroof – at some invisible, unknown person.

“I try to draw you,” he said, choking on his own blood. “You don’t look like what I think.”

And with that, he had died.

But what about Valarie? Some of them asked. Bagroof gave no answer, only cradled his knees and rocked back and forth while tears rolled out of his eyes. He never cried aloud, only silently. But when he cried, he cried for hours and hours, until he went to sleep.

Using Bagroof’s description, a group of men had traveled out to the cave in the mountains. Riastak was among them, as were Morguk and Zanu. They found the cave with Goruk’s body in it, dead beside a pile of ashes, and also Siris and Rainee’s bodies. They did not know the last girl whom they found, and thought that it must have been a girl from another village whom Goruk had found, perhaps in the woods. They also saw the chalk pictures on the walls, the outlines of faces of girls choking to death.

But they could not find Valarie. They did not see any footprints, or found anything that might have helped them to find out where she went next. If Bagroof hadn’t been laying dazed in his hut, and had followed them out into the cave, he might have been able to tell them there was something they missed. A painting on the wall that Goruk had not done.

It was against the far wall, beyond the bodies of Rainee and the unknown girl. A large man with no face and wings like an eagle protruding from his back, arched towards the heavens. In his hands were sickles, like he was ready for the harvest.

If they had found Valarie, or asked Goruk if he had been alive, they would have given the same answer. They both, after all, have met the winged man.

He was Death.

254. John Steinfeld

John Steinfeld was a genius. There was no questioning that, and Oakley knew it before John even said a word.

But what Oakley also knew was that geniuses didn’t behave how people think geniuses behave. The trouble with genius is that it neither shines nor glows, but rather flickers helplessly, and at times whimsically, never working consistently enough for anyone to rely on it. And the other trouble with genius was that it also came with the price tag of insanity.

People were better off with constant mediocrity than occasional genius, that’s what Oakley thought as he stepped into the saloon.

The place was dark, and the light that filtered in through the two windows was dull after passing through the thick layer of dust that rested on the glass. Men sat at small tables with their hats on and heads low, half-finished drinks and poker cards in their hands. The bar lady glanced up at him for a moment, then went back to drying the mug in her hands with an old rag.

Oakley saw John in the corner. There was no mistaking the man, whose short hair was not cut as much as it was hacked off, and whose voluminous beard spilled to his chest in tangles of grey and white. John’s good eye  rolled to look at Oakley as he limped over. His other eye, the one that was clouded over and yellow where the whites should be, didn’t move – ever looking off to one side.

“John Steinfeld,” Oakley called, sitting down on the other side of the small wooden table. “How fares ye?”

“I could be better,” John replied. “That depends on what you came to tell me. I expect it to be bad news, looking at your leg, and seeing that we’re met here, not out on the sheriff’s porch.”

There was no point in beating around the bush with the man. Oakley reached into his pocket and brought out the two black tin stars, then laid them on the table before John. John looked at the two objects with what appeared to be fascination, and his hand moved to touch the bullet hole in the middle of the stars, feeling their jagged edges.

“I told you to bring them back alive,” John said.

Oakley shrugged. “Things got messy,” he said. “Big Billy pulled his gun on me first. Ain’t nothing else I could do, except take his bullet in my chest. And I knew there was no way around Nasty Dan, either, if I’ve shot Big Billy. So there you have it.”

John looked like he had swallowed something sour.

“That’s a big, fat lie,” he said. “And that makes you a liar.”

Oakley’s face twitched. “Why do ye say so, John?”

John’s bad eye rolled around and looked straight at Oakley. Or maybe it looked straight through him. There was no telling what it could do. In that moment, Oakley saw John Steinfeld’s genius flash like the light of the midday sun.

“A pretty lady,” John said, seeing into Oakley’s past, “A bag full o’ coins, and a handful of sweet words. She didn’t even service you, and you went and jinxed up our operation for her. Was it worth it?”

Oakley’s jaw became tight. There was a smart retort to be made here, but the words wouldn’t come to him. John closed his good eye, and he raised his empty hand, making the shape of a gun with it. He pointed it over Oakley’s shoulder.

“Bang. Bang. Bang.”

He vocalized the gunshots slowly, each one of them gravely low, and punctuated by silence. Oakley didn’t dare move. Maybe God knew what went on in the strange man’s mind. Maybe John Steinfeld’s mind was as much a mystery to God as it was to everyone else.

John leaned back and laughed a mad, cackling laughter. “She dies tonight, Oakley,” he said in between chuckles. “Beneath the light of the waxing moon, and her blood will paint the boards of her own house.”

Oakley shot up to his feet. The wound in his left thigh burned. His hand reached across the table, and his fingers caught a fistful of John’s shirt.

“You called guns on her?” Oakley hissed.

John laughed some more. Oakley gritted his teeth and shoved the man back, and John fell off his stool and onto the ground. There he rolled around, pounding the ground with his fists as he laughed.

Oakley put on his hat and bolted out of the saloon. Within the hour, he was already racing out of town.

240. The Wandering Witch

There were a few things about Timmy that no one understood, not even his closest friends or his parents. And if you asked him, he couldn’t have explained any of those things any better than anyone else either.

For instance, he insisted that the jelly go on his bread before the peanut butter, even if the slices were switched. It just felt wrong to have it the other way; and the one time his mother forgot and made it the other way around, there was no way Timmy could have know that she had put the peanut butter on before the jelly – but the moment he sank his teeth into the sandwich, he let out a shriek so horrifying that his mother never forgot again.

And then there was also the fact that he couldn’t sleep unless every door in the house was closed. Windows left open were fine, but as long as a door remained open, or even if it was not quite closed properly, he couldn’t bring himself to sleep.

“What if you just ignored it?” was one of the many unhelpful things his father tried suggesting. “You know, pretend that it’s closed.”

“But it’s not,” was Timmy’s reply. He never understood how grown-ups could pretend so well. He supposed that given enough willpower, some grown-ups could pretend that gravity didn’t exist, and walk right up into the clouds.

But maybe that was how witches flew, he thought. They pretended that they didn’t have to walk, and they pretended that broomsticks could fly.

Then came the time when he suddenly got the urge to climb up onto the roof of the family barn with a piece of chalk. He tried to ignore it, as his father said, but the urge, not one to be brushed aside, came mewling back to him like a cat. Except it didn’t actually mewl, because urges can’t mewl; but it had about the same effect. As the days passed, Timmy found it harder and harder to ignore the urge.

And so one day, he took a piece of chalk, and somehow found his way up onto the roof.

Okay. Now what?

Now draw a spoon, a pointy hat, and a schoolmistressy tick, the urge said. Oh, and while you’re at it, draw a cute little kitty. I love cute little kitties.

Timmy drew, on the family barn’s room, a spoon, a pointy hat, and though he had no idea what a schoolmistressy tick was, he must have somehow got it right, because the urge didn’t bother him.

The cute little kitty. Don’t forget the cute little kitty.

Okay. Timmy drew, to the best of his abilities, a kitten beside the spoon, the pointy hat, and the somewhat schoolmistressy tick. With that, the urge left him alone. He climbed off the barn roof and carried on with his life with no further strange disturbances.

That is, if you don’t count witches-in-training crashing through the roof of your room as a strange disturbance.

“Yow!’ Timmy hollered when she burst through his ceiling, showering him in splinters and dust. The witch got up, her face contorted violently, and then she let out a sneeze so strong that she fell over backwards.

She must have been a witch, and Timmy knew this because she wore a black pointy hat, and in her hand she held an old, crooked broom. Her face was surprisingly clear of warts, though she had freckles like constellations over the bridge of her nose; and instead of a big beak-shaped nose, this witch hat a small, upturned nose. She was a young witch then, and considering that she crashed through the roof of his room instead of flying across the moon while cackling, she wasn’t a very good one either.

“Well, excuse you,” she said, sniffling. “But I have been to dungeons that had less dust lying around!”

There were many questions that Timmy could have asked. Including, but not limited to, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Where do babies come from?” or “What is the secret to immortal youth?” Generally questions that grown-ups had no answer to; and by law, the witch would have been required to answer the first question from a child with all truthfulness. Instead of any of these, however, Timmy asked: “Why are you here?”

The witch’s eyebrows went up, and she assumed a testy look. “I don’t know,” she said, dusting her customary black cloak, “Why are you here?”

“Well, I live here. This is where I sleep.”

“And there you have it,” she said. “This shall also be where I sleep.”

“No, it’s not,” Timmy said.

She looked genuinely surprised at this. “What do you mean, it’s not?” she asked, in the way that told him she wasn’t really asking, but really telling him that what he just said was incredibly silly. “You drew the FTW sign over the roof.”

“What’s FTW?”

“Friendly To Witches. The spoon, the pointy hat, and the schoolmistressy tick. The cute little kitty was a nice touch, I must say.”

Timmy had no idea what any of this meant. So he said: “I drew that on the barn roof,” and pointed out his window.

The witch followed his pointing finger and saw the pictures drawn in chalk. An embarrassed look crossed her face, but she wiped it away and replaced it with an air of superiority, which she achieved by puffing up her chest and raising her chin at him.

“I meant to miss it,” she said. “Now, I require you to bring me a glass of milk!”

“Why?”

Again she gave him a look of incredulity. “Because I said so,” she said, summoning all the authority she had (which wasn’t a lot) into her voice, “And I’m a witch! So do as I say!”

“What happens if I don’t?”

“You… You get turned into a… A toad!”

“Cool!” Timmy exclaimed. “Can you show me how to turn into a toad?” He knew at least thirty girls at school who would be very grossed out if he did, and he couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces.

A frown formed on the witch’s face. “Um. No!” she said. “Bring me my milk, and we shall talk about it! I shan’t say another word until I have my milk!”

“But what if we don’t have milk? Would you like orange juice instead?”

Those who have played charades would empathize with the witch, who could not say a word, but had to tell Timmy that either one would do. So she shrugged, and mentally hit herself on the head. Witches aren’t supposed to shrug.

As Timmy went past his parents’ room to get the milk/orange juice from the kitchen, his father’s sleepy voice came trailing out: “Timmy? What was that ruckus about?”

“A witch crashed through the roof and landed in my room,” he told his father. “She’s going to show me how to turn into a toad, but she’s not going to do it unless I give her milk or orange juice, so I’m getting it for her from the kitchen.”

It was the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth. Timmy’s father sighed heavily, and must have went back to sleep, because then the snoring resumed. Timmy poured a glass of cold milk and brought it for the witch, who finished it in one long gulp.

“So you can do magic?” Timmy asked when he felt it was appropriate to ask.

“Not magic,” the witch said. “I practice witchcraft. Magic is a gimmicky form, reserved for amateurs and party performers.”

“So how do you turn into a toad?”

“You don’t. You don’t get to turn into anything.”

This struck Timmy as deeply disappointing. “But you said you’d turn me into a toad,” he whined.

“Even if I could,” she said, “I wouldn’t do it on you. It’s simply far too much effort, and oh, how I need my sleep!”

With that, the witch climbed into Timmy’s bed, set her pointy hat on the floor beside it, and fell into a deep sleep. A trail of drool escaped her mouth and ended up on his pillow.

Timmy laid down on the ground with his hands tucked behind his head and looked up at the hole that the witch made on her way in. It was big enough for a door, but it didn’t end on the floor. So was it a window, or a door?

The more he thought about this, the more frustrated he got, and so he brushed it off as a hole in the ceiling. And that was when he realized he could neither sleep with a hole in the ceiling.

So Timmy laid on the floor, staring up into the starry night sky, unable to sleep for the rest of the night.