We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for some exciting news! The 21st edition of Scare Street’s Night Terrors anthology has been released, and it features my short story “You Can’t Kidnap a Baby.”
Check it out here.
We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for some exciting news! The 21st edition of Scare Street’s Night Terrors anthology has been released, and it features my short story “You Can’t Kidnap a Baby.”
Check it out here.
“What do you mean, a hole?” Thon stumbled but caught himself, struggling to keep up with his longer-legged sibling on the steep grassy slope.
Dahlia slowed to a trot and then stopped to look back. “A hole. Or a window, or something.”
Thon caught up to her and stomped his front hoof. “You’re not making sense. The sky is empty. You can’t have a hole in something that isn’t there.”
Dahlia twitched her whiskers imperiously. “You’ll see when we get there.”
Thon’s ears flattened in annoyance. Everyone thought he couldn’t understand things because he was too young, but how could he when nobody would explain anything?
“I’m not going all the way up the hill if you won’t say what you mean.”
Dahlia continued up the slope, tossing her next words over her shoulder at him. “Well go back then, if you’re going to be such a kitten.”
Thon scrambled up the slope, grumbling to himself. He was not a kitten. He was almost ten years old, which she knew perfectly well. It wasn’t his fault his legs were so short.
Angrily crashing through a clump of poufy-flowered grasses, Thon was rewarded with a spray of pink pollen in his face. Thon sneezed and shook himself. He frowned and looked around in time to see Dahlia disappearing behind a stand of aspen trees.
With a mischievous grin, Thon bent down to grab the base of one of the grasses in his mouth, and yanked it out of the ground. He continued up towards the grove, holding his head high to keep his prize from dragging on the ground. The fluffy flower would lose some of its pollen on the way, but there should be enough left to make pelting Dahlia with it worthwhile.
When Thon passed the grove, he found Dahlia standing on a rock at the top of the hill. She stared quizzically at the sky.
“See?” she said.
Thon didn’t see. It looked perfectly normal. Except for one patch where the sky was a slightly different shade of blue, and the clouds didn’t match up. It was like looking at a wall painted to look like the sky, but there was a window you could see the actual sky through. Only they were both the real sky.
“That’s weird,” Thon said. Or at any rate, that’s what he would have said if his mouth wasn’t full of plant material.
Dahlia turned to look at him, to make sense of his garbled statement. Thon was about to pounce and attack her with the flower when a roar split the sky. It was the loudest sound either of them had ever heard.
Thon ducked his head down between his front legs to block his ears, but that didn’t do much good. It just kept going on and on, like an angry waterfall.
The two creatures ran for cover in the trees. They didn’t notice the small, bird-like object crossing the odd-looking patch of sky. If they had, they couldn’t have imagined the chaos going on above.
In the cockpit of the Boeing 787, the pilots were struggling to understand why they had made landfall several hours ahead of schedule, and why the coastline looked nothing like they had come to expect after several years of flying the route from Houston to Sydney. What was worse, they had completely lost all GPS navigation, and could not raise anyone on radio.
To the great relief of everyone involved, after about five minutes the 787 found itself flying over the Pacific Ocean once again, and the sky above the hill where Thon and Dahlia hid amongst the trees was once again quiet.
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I thought it was over after I threw out the strange orchid. It wasn’t.
For the rest of the day I kept to the guest bedroom, trying to pretend the whole thing hadn’t happened. I was psyched about the job opening in my old classmate’s firm, and so I cyber-stalked him and his colleagues and their competition. Just to get a good sense of what I was getting into.
I also kept putting resume’s out other places, just in case. It wouldn’t hurt to have more than one offer on the table.
When I eventually had to come back downstairs for food that evening, I found my sister staring at one of her houseplants. It looked like there was an odd sprout in it, but I wasn’t really familiar enough with the flora in this house to know whether or not it was unusual.
She wasn’t petting it, which was good enough for me.
The carpets seemed to have acquired a greenish tint in places. Maybe from the dust the orchid puffed out when I took it too the garage. I vacuumed, and that helped a bit.
It didn’t get better. It was never got as bad as it was that first day, but the house was steadily getting greener and fuzzier. I told myself it really wasn’t that much different than it had been before. Maybe the furniture had always been growing mossy stuff.
I vacuumed twice a day to keep the worst of it out of the carpets at least, and got rid of anything particularly orchid-like growing in the other houseplants. None of this seemed to bother my sister, either the growing things or my interference with them.
She didn’t leave the house, or answer the phone. I had to remind her to change clothing and feed herself, but she would if I told her to.
It was all beyond ridiculous, but it was temporary. The meetings with my former classmate and his colleagues went fantastic, and before I knew it, I had an official job offer and a start date. I was getting my life back.
It seemed like an eternity but finally the morning came. I carefully lint-rolled every bit of plant material off my work clothes, and reorganized my favorite briefcase.
I hustled downstairs, aiming for the front door. Fluff and dust kicked up in my wake. I would have to re-lint roll myself in the car. No matter. I opened the door to leave.
“Are you going?” said my sister.
My sister stood by a tall potted tree fern that was now dripping with something like spanish moss. She hadn’t said a word to me unless I spoke to her first in days.
I scratched at my arm. “Yes. My new job starts today. I told you that.”
“Are you going to leave me?”
A queasy knot settled in the pit of my stomach. I could leave. In fact, I had already perused a few apartment listings, and contacting landlords to arrange viewings was on my to-do list for next week.
But what about her? She wouldn’t leave, I knew that. Or if she did, she would take it with her. Her clothes already had fuzzy greenish patches, and her complexion was pale and sallow.
“No,” I said. “I’m going to stay here with you.”
I closed the door, and we walked over to the couch. A big potted hibscus tree sat in the middle of the room. It’s flowers were huge. They’d once been white, but now they were light green and dramatically splattered with dark red spots.
Dust hung in the air, visible in the rays from the window, and almost seemed to shimmer.
My phone rang from my purse by the front door.
The dust looked like krill drifting in the ocean currents. I sat on the couch with my sister and thought about whales swimming through the living room and sifting pollen out of the air.
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The job search went better than I expected that morning. I didn’t quite manage to land a job offer on the first day, but I did have a good lead. Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I put out a message on LinkedIn, just letting everyone know I was in the market for a new opportunity.
As it happened, a few friends of mine from college had put together a business venture two years ago. Their endeavor had been much more successful than mine, and they were looking add someone with my skill set to the team. It was better than I could have hoped for. What better way to get back up on the horse? And this time with some backup. I had a lunch date set up with their team in two days.
By the time I’d hammered out the details, I was starting to get more than peckish. I glanced over at the clock. 11 am already?
No great surprise, time does march on. But I was surprised I hadn’t heard anything from downstairs. My sister must be up by now, and yet there had been no exclamations of surprise, or excited phone calls to other botanically-inclined friends. Had she left for work, or errands, without noticing somehow?
That hardly seemed likely, given how excited she was about it yesterday, even before it doubled in size. I didn’t know what to expect when I came downstairs, but if I’d made a list, what I saw would have been at the bottom of it.
My sister sat at the table staring at the orchid with a vacant, sleepy smile. She was petting one of the orchid’s large, fuzzy leaves. As I came closer, I realized to my horror that the hairs on the leaves were embedding themselves in her skin, giving her palm its own fuzzy green-brown coat.
“What are you doing? Stop that.” I grabbed her hand and pushed the orchid away.
She looked startled for a moment, but her face soon reverted to a wide-eyed calm. “It’s really soft. Feel it.”
I’d known my sister to do some kooky things, but this was bizarre. She almost seemed high.
“Um, no thanks. You just say here for a second,” I said. “And I’ll get rid of this.”
I carefully picked up the orchid by the bottom of the cracked mug, careful not to let the leaves touch me, and then hustled out of the room. My sister watched me remove the orchid passively, which was somehow more disturbing than if she’d fought to keep it. The orchid shed dust like pollen or spores all over the place as I carried it through the house. I tried not to jostle it.
What was I going to do? Duct tape, I thought.
They use duct tape like a waxing strip to remove soft hair-like cactus spines. That would probably work. I chucked the orchid, mug and all, into the garbage can in the garage. In one corner of the garage my sister had a disorganized table with a bunch of tools and home-repair type items on it, and I poked around there until I found the duct tape.
My arm was itchy.
I looked at the duct tape and I remembered how for most of my formative years I thought it was called duck tape and didn’t this duct tape actually have yellow ducks on it or was it actually spots? I should probably actually call this duct tape duck tape only it actually didn’t have anything yellow on the tape no spots or ducks or geese or anything. I used to be afraid of geese but they’re actually far too small to back up their threats so I really should have been afraid of swans, because they’re just as aggressive but they’re huge and I think they could kill a person. They’re so beautiful too they would get away with it because no one would believe it a swan could get away with murder so easily plus how would you arrest a swan they don’t have wrists to put handcuffs on?
The orchid was in my hand again. Or maybe I had never dumped it at all?
I threw it away, again or perhaps for the first time, making sure it didn’t touch me. Only it already had. An itchy patch on my arm the size of a silver dollar was studded with those fine hairs. My stomach growled and my feet hurt from standing. How long had I been here?
I laid a strip of duct tape over the patch of hairs, and pulled it away quickly. The irritating, and possibly worse, hairs came with it, bar none. Excellent.
When I went back into the kitchen I found my sister where I’d left her. I used the duct tape to remove the stinging hairs on her hand.
“Does this hurt?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
“Why were you doing that?”
“I don’t know. It was soft.”
“Don’t do that again, okay?”
“Good. I’ll make us brunch.”
She still seemed very out of it, but I was fairly sure that would wear off with time. And that, I hoped, was the end of it.
If you missed Part 1, click here.
I couldn’t sleep the first night at my sister’s house, the first night of my exile. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was the responsible one. I was supposed to be successful, too. That’s how this works. If you work hard and take care to proof-read your homework, you get better grades than your sibling who goofs off all the time and doesn’t take anything seriously. This had held true my entire life up until this point.
Why, in the unforgiving world of adulthood of all places, had the situation suddenly been reversed?
It wasn’t as if my sister was particularly successful either, drifting from one side-hustle to the next while relying on thrift stores and dumpsters to make ends meet. I’ve heard her brag about how little she spends on food or heating in a month. As if living like a peasant is an accomplishment.
And yet there I was, a dependent slug living on her charity after years of schooling, and several more of gainful employment. It was only temporary, of course. Tomorrow I would polish my resume, and start making calls to contacts. Within a month or two, I would be employed again and back in a modern, tastefully-decorated apartment in an up-and-coming area of the city.
The most productive thing I could do right then was get a good night’s sleep. But I couldn’t.
Not uncommon, for the first night in an unfamiliar environment. I should cut myself some slack. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, maybe I should start going through online job postings, just to get a sense of the market. I grabbed my laptop and crept downstairs. There wasn’t a desk in my sister’s spare bedroom, and using a laptop in bed is terrible for the posture. I plan on having a long, upwardly mobile career and I do not intend to look like a hunched old granny just as I hit my peak.
I settled myself at the kitchen table. Light from my laptop screen irradiated my face and ensured the rest of the room would appear cloaked in darkness despite soft moonlight seeping in from the windows. I pulled up a job search site and began to consider search terms, but my gaze kept drifting to the plant on the table.
Everything about it annoyed me. It had no purpose; it was just clutter. Don’t get me wrong, I like decorative objects if they evoke something useful. Serenity, for example, as most self-respecting orchids do. This thing looked like it might already be rotting, an effect enhanced by the broken mug it was planted in. It didn’t evoke anything in me except disgust, which seldom enhances productivity.
This aesthetic did fit the room, which was both the only remotely positive thing I can say about it, as well as a sad commentary on the state of the kitchen. It wasn’t filthy, just messy and cluttered. Full of herbs hung up to dry and drop dead leaves on everything, and jars of other herbs or peppers left to soak and have their essence extracted like medical specimens in jars.
I considered one jar of herbs and vinegar. It had a considerably higher ratio of vinegar to plant material than the other jars. I picked up the jar, unscrewed the lid, and tipped some of the excess vinegar into the broken mug housing the orchid. I put the jar back exactly where it had been, and wiped up a few drops that fell on the table or slid down the side of the jar.
There. Now the orchid would be put out of its misery, and the herb/vinegar mixture would be more like the others. By any objective standard I was helping.
I packed up my laptop and headed up to the spare bedroom to attempt sleep again. I might not have accomplished much in the way of job searching, but I had done something. What kind of namby-pamby life form could be done in by a salad dressing ingredient anyway? If the orchid did die, it just proved how pointless keeping it around had been in the first place.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my alarm clock, as I had for as long as I could remember. I’d gotten very little sleep, and the raucous chirping was particularly painful. Technically I could have done without it, as the hour was meant to accommodate a long commute and I had nowhere to go. Still, I saw no reason to dwell on that, and sleeping in would only encourage the kind of laziness that would extend this hiccup in my life. My sister wasn’t awake yet, and wouldn’t be for an hour or two.
I went down into the kitchen to get coffee brewing, hoping that there would be something decent available. My sister had said something alarming about dandelion coffee earlier. I paused as my fuzzy mind detected something wrong on the kitchen table.
The orchid was now at least twice its original size, its wide, furred leaves spilling down onto the tabletop and hiding the mug entirely. I blinked several times, commanding my sleepy mind to make sense of this. It wouldn’t.
I dug a nearly-empty container of instant coffee out of the back of a cupboard, made myself a cup of something tolerable, and hurried upstairs, leaving the orchid to its nonsense.
I tried to hide my annoyance as my sister and I made frequent pilgrimages to and from the moving van. It was nice of her, really, to take me in after my bold, but carefully calculated, choice to dive in and start my own business ended in failure. Perhaps it wasn’t so carefully calculated after all.
My sister was thrilled that we’d be living together, or at least she pretended to be. No, she probably was thrilled. There wasn’t any real reason for her not to be. We’d always gotten along well.
But as we aged out of adolescence and became firmly entrenched in our adult years, I felt like I’d grown up. Whereas she…hadn’t.
I mean, her house was proof enough of that. Full to the brim with silly pseudoscience knick-knacks. The essential oil diffusers, the himalayan salt lamp. Enough potted herbs to season an entire banquet. And all the furniture was made of this dark distressed wood that always gave the impression of being sticky.
I knew I was mainly upset about the way my life had gone off the rails, and was projecting those emotions on everything annoying around me, but knowing that didn’t change how I felt. At least my sister had stopped talking about how wonderful this was going to be, and had moved on to blathering about some a-MAZE-ing orchid she’d just bought. It takes much more than some little flower to amaze me, I can promise you. But at least this topic didn’t require much input from me.
Finally all of my stuff was at least moved into the house, if not put away. Most of it was going to have to stay in boxes in the basement for the time being. There just wasn’t anywhere else to put it.
I ducked under an overgrown spider plant hanging in the entryway, heading into the kitchen in search of promised lemonade. A small plant bearing a few lackluster buds, and covered in brownish fuzz sat on the kitchen table. My sister rotated the broken mug it was planted in, examining the plant from every angle.
“That’s not it, is it?” I pointed at the plant, which only served to remind me that I was at least a month overdue for a manicure. Fat chance of that.
She nodded enthusiastically. “Wait until it blooms. They say the fragrance is something else.”
Oh good, now the house would smell like a perfume shop as well as a health food store.
I sipped my lemonade, watching my sister as she stared at the orchid. I didn’t like that plant. Why, I couldn’t have said. But something was wrong with it.
For months, maybe even over a year now, she had come to the bridge everyday. It was a good routine, even though she never accomplished what she ostensibly went there for. It got her out of the house. The walk was very pleasant, good for the mind and the body.
One way or another, today it was over. Tomorrow she was moving to another city. So today she would either cross the bridge, or she wouldn’t.
Since she came to bridge everyday to cross it, one would think the right course of action now was to finally cross the bridge. That was the obvious answer. She stood at the end of the bridge, where the boundary between land and bridge blurred as dirt and moss crept onto the wooden planks.
But not crossing the bridge had almost become a tradition in and of itself. She couldn’t deny that. Still, even though she hadn’t crossed the bridge, she had always intended to do so eventually. Would failing to ultimately cross the bridge render all those other days meaningless?
Surely not. And yet, she couldn’t deny it would necessarily rob them of some meaning, at least.
Slowly, almost unwillingly, she began to walk across the bridge. Butterflies rose in her stomach as she passed the furthest point she’d ever reached, and kept going into the veil of branches and leaves that hid the other side of the bridge from sight.
It was longer than she’d realized. There was a curve in the bridge, as she suspected. As she walked she thought she could feel the bridge start to wobble under her feet. A few yards further, and it started creaking ominously.
Finally, she saw the other side of the bridge, where the wooden planks met land again. Only they didn’t. The bridge was broken, and stopped short about three feet from the land.
Obviously, it would be necessary to turn back at this point. But she had come so far. Now that she was out here, she didn’t want to turn back. Suppose she could jump the gap? She didn’t have a great deal of experience in jumping over things. But surely that distance was doable.
The boards immediately in front of the gap were not very stable, and they creaked and sagged as she edged her way closer to the gap. But finally she got close enough and flung herself onto solid earth. She stumbled but caught herself.
There, she had done it. She looked around. It was, in all honesty, not that much different from the forest on the other side of the bridge, albeit thicker and the undergrowth grew thick and exuberant.
There was something of a path, though the forest had begun to retake it. Obviously since the bridge was broken, it must have been a long time since anyone had traveled this path. She found a strange satisfaction in that. The path belonged to her. And anyone else with the guts to jump the gap, but there couldn’t be many others.
Actually, she was a bit worried about getting back. She knew she could make the jump now, but she would have to land on those creaky planks, instead of the solid hillside. That could wait, now that she was finally here, she had to fully take in the moment.
She walked down the overgrown path, noticing flowers and birdsong and the way the light fell through the leaves. A hummingbird flitted through the woods. These were rare in her region. She’d only seen one once before, and to see one now felt like a reward for finally making the crossing.
As she walked, though, anxiety about getting back pooled in her stomach. Soon, perhaps too soon, she felt she had to return to her side of the bridge just to be sure she could.
The bare planks stretching out towards her felt mocking rather than reassuring. She looked down into the gap uncertainly. The slope of the hillside and thick branches made it difficult to judge how bad a fall might be. It wasn’t a tremendous distance, at least not until past the point where she was likely to fall. But it would almost certainly be more than the maximum jarring hop one might undertake voluntarily.
But jump she must, whether she was bound to fall or not. There might have been some controversy about whether crossing the bridge was strictly necessary, but getting back was certainly mandatory.
She gathered herself, took a running start, and jumped. Her foot struck a plank; it bent but seemed to hold, but her other foot struck an unstable plank that twisted underfoot and she lost her balance. She fell, crashed through branches, hit the ground hard and rolled downhill into the creek.
Wet, muddy and stunned, she sat up. Her jeans were torn and her leg badly scraped, but on the whole, she was unharmed. She sat in the creek for a few moments while her mind caught up with her predicament. The cool water felt good on her bruises, but the water made her clothes heavy and uncomfortable.
She stood up on shaky legs and began to slog through the creek towards her side of the bridge. At this point, she had to concede that she’d never been meant to cross the bridge, though it was conceivable she might think differently later.
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She came to the bridge again today. Maybe this time she will cross it, but probably not. After all, she’s been coming to this bridge every day for months now. Why should today be any different? Maybe she will step on the bridge this time. She’s done that before. Maybe she will walk on it a bit, just to that clump of moss, where the shadow from the birch bough falls.
Deep down, she knows she’ll probably never cross the bridge. Perhaps she doesn’t even want to. She must want to, otherwise why would she keep coming? Yes, she wants to cross the bridge, and someday she will. But crossing the bridge isn’t really the point. She keeps coming every day, and sometimes she steps on the bridge. That’s progress, isn’t it? That’s the main thing.
The bridge is long. Much longer than the sort of bridges people normally consider crossing. It’s old, which is why mosses grow on it, and made of wood. It cuts through the trees clinging to the edge of the ravine, spans the big creek. Further on it looks like a hill rises up to meet the bridge but she can’t quite see where the bridge ends. But as she’s already decided, actually crossing the bridge isn’t really the point, as long as she does it some day.
Certainly not today. But she will probably step on the bridge today. She should make sure her shoe laces are properly tied first. The shoes are new, at least new to her. She bought them at a thrift store, and it didn’t look like they’d seen much use. Her laces were tied already, but not with a double knot. So she retied the laces, making sure to end with a square knot, so the bow lay perpendicular to the length of her foot. Then her shoe laces would be much less likely to come untied if she walked on the bridge.
But probably not today. It is cloudy, and looks as though it might rain. There are damp patches on the bridge already. It might be slippery, especially with the moss.
She turns to leave but hesitates. This is why she wore the running shoes in the first place. In case of slippery patches or big splinters or bugs, possibly. Visiting the bridge is enough progress for anyone, but she’s here already, so she may as well walk on the bridge.
She takes three steps on the bridge without it creaking. By now she knows the creaky spots pretty well, at least up until this point. She takes another step, and it creaks. Another step, and it doesn’t creak.
She hasn’t decided what to make of the creaking, though she’s spent a lot of time thinking about it. Is it a complaint? A greeting, of sorts? A warning?
Sparkles of light reflected off the creek below peek up at her through gaps in the boards. She can’t see any more of what lies on the other side of the bridge. It’s still shrouded in shadow and branches. The bridge might curve a bit, actually. The point where she thought the end was might just be a curve where the bridge goes off in an other direction.
It is a very long bridge.
That’s enough for today. She turns around and hurries back to solid ground. On the walk home, she thinks about corners and curvy things. Maybe she will make cinnamon buns.