At the Boys’ Day School, they called themselves the Gang of Ten and oozed bravado. Like all bullies, they were cowards, so they taunted and harassed only the weakest they could find.
Brian was a particular favorite. They called him the fairy. Whether Brian actually fancied other boys, the Ten neither knew nor cared. They found him an unresisting target.
Out in the evening and up to nothing good, the Ten crossed paths with Brian, running an errand. With, “Hey, look, it’s the fairy!” the chase was on.
Down the side streets and alleys he knew well, he nearly lost them, but they were ten and had split up. In an empty square with a decrepit but functioning fountain, he stopped and took stock. First, they were nowhere, then everywhere. Determined at least to make things difficult for them, he headed for the fountain, waded in, and crouched behind the statue at its center. Cries of “Fairy! Fairy!” followed him.
As the gang closed in, a column of water the size and shape of a human adult rose from the fountain. In a voice like the burbling water, but amplified, it said, “You called for a fairy. I am here. What do you want?”
A frozen minute later, they scattered home, those who had wet themselves to change, all to cower in their sleepless rooms. Brian had heard but was too close behind the statue to have seen. He peered out just as the column collapsed. Satisfied that his tormenters were gone, he made his own, cautious way home.
School became less stressful for Brian, as the Ten stayed far away. None was in his advanced English course, so none saw him smile as his classmates read from King Henry IV, Part 1:
Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur. Why so can I, or so can any man;
but will they come when you do call for them?
— end —
Gordon Cash is a lifelong professional scientist. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife and their six cats.
I lived my life, alone, among men and rats in that filth-bearing nest they called a city. My father, a fool, had found his cold place in the earth when I was a child, and my mother, mind gone, soon followed. My sister took work driving the plains, and I found myself toiling in dim rooms for men I had never met, for days and years, until my face grew saggy, my bones tired, my ears began to ring, and my eyes blurred.
The only woman to ever touch me with warmth had demanded more than I could give. Children’s cries had brought smiles to her face, and to me, a knowing look, yet I discovered that my loins could provide for her only dust. Soon she faded, leaving me with nothing, and with that nothing I sat amid the decayed farmhouse of my childhood years, waiting to rot alone among forgotten rye.
That is, until the night the heavens gave me my daughter.
Her birth was from a storm, there was none like it; the night sky a lavender glow, the air rushing with the scent of rotting flowers. She came from the stars, of that I am sure, the ground burst at her birth. Yet she lay unscratched, warm, round, and wet.
I held close the child, a gift of life far beyond my worth. I took my daughter in, I made her a bed, I fed her, I bathed her. I loved her.
She grew as fast as my delight. Her arms were strong, her hair long and flowing, her stride wide as she danced ripples among the fields. She jumped and ducked in a playground I had built, dashed and swerved among the poles and stones. When she sang dogs howled to meet her.
When night fell, I would take her head upon my lap, her skin azure and cool, her arms engulfing me. I stared up above at the sparkling black and told stories I had long forgotten, of my past and things before it, of people and places I had never seen. At times I did not know the words that left my mouth, but my daughter understood, shimmering all the while.
My sister came to visit and I hid my daughter. I spoke nothing of her new niece, and only groaned out to the intruder my old complaints. I feared this woman, who would not understand, could not understand.
I froze when she asked about what I had created outside, of the poles and ropes, titled steel slopes and patterns of smoothed stones. Creations whose form had been gifted to me in dreams. For this I laughed my only lie:
“Art,” I said, “Just a lonely old man and his art.”
First I fed my daughter with meat from a store down the road. When my funds withered, I fed her the remains of the farm. I gave to her my parent’s old cows and senile pigs, one by one, as my daughter grew and grew.
When none were left, my daughter would leave to hunt for hours, then days. I would sit by the window, mad with worry, until I heard her crawl through the door, covered in the browns of dirt, the greens of crushed leafs, and reds.
The stories in the paper lay first in the back pages, of missing dogs, then sheep, then cattle. Soon they traveled to the front, of a missing child, of a man stripped to bone, of a house wiped clean of every living thing. I held my daughter and wept, but I could not allow her to starve, and soon her feet, stepping in threes, would be out the door and into the dark, her long stomach rippling from hunger.
I went to town to hear the stories for myself. The people spoke with fear, with hate, talk of fleeing or fighting. Some thought it a bear, but a bear could not break down a door. Some thought it a madman, but who could climb to such high windows, or slip through cellar cracks?
I fled when they began to speak of the police, and then, of the National Guard.
I slept that night with my head nestled in my daughter’s back-spines. She stroked me, our roles reversed. I whispered for her to leave, to run. To flee to the mountains where they she could get lost among the trees, or into the darkness of some sewer. My daughter could fit into surprising places.
She rumbled and cooed, and spoke images of far-off places, of cities that floated, of rivers of metal, of spheres that danced in forests of gems; of horizons of purples, of towers of skin, of a world so beautiful that it made me scream.
Then it was I heard a shout from outside, fear in the voice of my sister. Perhaps she had heard the stories, perhaps her visit was only curiosity, but my pleas could not keep her hand from my door.
Her face was pale, her voice cracked as she glimpsed my daughter. Her hand went to her holster and I dashed, but my daughter was faster still. She no longer needed me to protect her.
I wept at the feet of my sister’s skin, ripped in clean lines, flesh scooped away. My daughter cooed, and lifted me up in her dozen hands. She held me close to her back, and carried me from that sepulcher.
Out we went, through fields of rye, past abandoned towns, through forests where the trees bore her mark, into a hole, deep through the earth.
There I blinked in the shadows, hands pushing blindly through mucus and dirt, voice silent, until I saw movement.
I fell to my knees, neither laughing nor crying but both. My daughter was not of my flesh, she did not inherit my dust. For there, resting a sublime peace in cots of skin, lay my granddaughters, warm, round and wet.
He slid from his pupal case, and though he witnessed other flies struggling to escape theirs, none of them suffered a time limit. None of the others nearly drowned in the strange secretion which covered him. They had hairs, small and sharp ones like thorns angled into the wind. He had a fluke mutation that produced an oil instead of hairs, and production never stopped. The oil consumed him, and what he consumed became oil.
When he emerged in the light, half suffocated and stumbling, the secretion never dried. It ran off him in the wake of even more. His world blurred, his compound eyes covered in a replenishing film. His wings flapped too slowly for flight. They clung to his sides when he stopped trying. He crawled instead, on six legs which soon gained the oily mass of twelve. They carried him doubly far as well, and doubly slow compared to most flies. The gooiest food belonged only to those who could land on it first.
He ached after his first day of pitiful exploration. The most crushing pain came from inside, as his whole body felt like an empty, collapsing stomach. He expelled oil in both the light phase and the following dark phase which lasted just as long. He fed like the others, sucking up whatever happened to die and spread itself out on the world.
The others had plans. He didn’t know them. The flies fumed away from him in visible clouds, like the odors that billowed from their food heaps. The light always took its share. When it shined the most viciously, pulling vapor from all food, he scrambled to merge with the buzzing masses.
Enormous creatures flew in daily, like mountains that broke off the horizon and perched before him. Their beaks pitched downward, like mountain peaks inverting themselves. They tilled both the living and the dead underneath.
He slid under the crawling masses, deep in the piles of hollowed thoraxes and snapped-off legs. The mountainous creatures snatched up and swallowed the flies nearest to them, the fullest and greediest ones who ambled after their drunken flights. The oil helped him only for those times: it kept his body greased so he could burrow deep.
Even there, buried under hundreds of dead flies and live eggs, the oil covered him the most. It smothered even his thoughts. When he crawled out of the heaps, he could only yearn to think like the others who paced in the air. For him, every moment involved constant feeding or a plod to the next reeking warm puddle.
The oil cried out of him. It congealed, and he had to rub himself down between long journeys. His spinning forelegs felt a new hunger as they cleaned him, as though their joints had empty stomachs of their own. He learned to rebalance himself and scrape off the gel with his hind legs. Later, his mid legs joined the sickening dance. His antennae wriggled in vain, conducting nothing.
In late adulthood, he crouched and waited. He guarded the tiny spot under him, hopeful that the gunk went deep. He watched the zooming flies grow and shrink around him. They formed a map of living dots in the sky, his only guide to the next swamp of nutrients. Though he could hardly see, the taste sensors on his legs didn’t work at all. They drowned in the swamp of his own secretions.
Nothing could happen in the dark, and the light gave him nothing but gummed-up motions. All other flies, even impossibly big ones, chased the sky itself. They flew to other worlds, to other feasts and dangers. They fed only to fly, to find glory in all directions. They expelled all their food in the form of blissful flight.
He, however, failed to fly in the hottest, driest times of the light cycles. The effort only wore down his limbs faster. His legs never truly rested, as they had never hung freely in the air. They felt tired to the point of nearly breaking off.
Other flies grew old too, he observed, for they played as hard as he worked. They slowed, pondering their euphoric adventures on their final drunken day. Although he lived most soberly, beneath the whole intoxicating sky, he at least lived. He had proven himself worthy of survival, even in the torment of the whirling fun around him.
When he spotted a female, alone and thick with fertile guts, his instincts flared in ways his matted wings never could. In his whole life he had expelled only oil, but his mutation could not expel him from life itself. He had but one triumph left, and such an easy one too. A natural one. A pull. A lust. The female wore the right pheromones. She poised herself, ready to take anyone.
He crawled one final path, scurrying like no other fly. All the others danced in the sky or fed on animals who lay fuming and ever-deflating. Death would hollow him out too, before the light rebirthed itself again. He couldn’t carry his layered secretions for one more feeding. He would live on inside her, though, in hundreds of lineages. As he neared, he saw himself ossified in her eggs like the ones he had seen while hiding. He knew them innately as well, their eternally round shapes–ageless, endless worlds of himself. They called for him to go there, to her.
Once inside her, she would take care of him forever, as long as meat kept falling to the ground.
He reached her, and his instincts dared him to mount her with every muscle. Strengthened from his life’s journey, he reared up faster and with more ease and rapture than any other fly. He only needed a moment now, with her and within her.
She saw him drawing behind her, saw him rising, with her big red eyes. And when she saw all that oil, she simply flew away.
“On the other side of the mirror there’s a real forest,” Gavin said.
“What are you talking about?”
“You should know, Sabrina. You’re the one who gave me that box.”
A treasure box had seemed like the perfect birthday gift for a little brother who was always collecting things. At six, it had been hockey cards. At seven, the bones of whatever unfortunate animal carcass he could find around the yard or the beach. At eight, dried leaves shaped like needles and ovals and squares. At nine, the sayings from every fortune cookie received by family members in Chinese takeout packs. He’d needed a place to put all that.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina had picked the treasure box out herself, bought it with saved-up allowance, and she was quite proud of it. The lacquer shone on the wood. She’d learned about the different types of wood and chosen oak because it meant strength. She’d picked this particular box because it was big and had a mirror inside.
“Let me see that forest?”
“Maybe later. I want to keep it to myself for now.”
“Then why are you telling me about it?”
“Because you gave it to me, stupid! I thought you’d like to know.”
He walked off, fists swinging, back to the room and that stupid box.
It was a year ago that they’d stopped playing pretend games. How many times had they hidden themselves in the big hall closet, hoping to run into talking beavers behind the bedsheets and cleaning supplies? It had all ended one day with Gavin’s folded arms and declaration, “Beavers can’t talk. That’s stupid.” The truth had struck Sabrina one night as she was failing to get to sleep, distracted by cars rumbling sporadically outside the window: she’d needed the games more than Gavin had. And now that there was some magic landscape in the box, he wouldn’t show her.
Forests weren’t that exciting anyway, she told herself. There was one just down the road. It had raccoons and skunks in it. If that’s what he wanted to imagine in his box, let him imagine it.
◊ ◊ ◊
First, Gavin made sure that his door was locked. His parents didn’t like him locking it, and would yell at him if they discovered he was keeping others out, but sometimes it was necessary. He ran his hands over the smooth, shiny wood. Slowly, he opened the lid and looked into the glass that lined the top.
His features stood out crisply, and then began to blur. Bushes bloomed over his nose. A spruce sprouted from his forehead. He watched as a tiny rabbit tracked across the ground—boing, boing, boing. Branches moved with the stirring of a minuscule wind. Soon there was no face in the mirror at all.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sabrina took her book into the yard, which smelled of decaying leaves and sounded like cars rumbling past. She was on the last installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. The battle was bloodier than usual for that kind of book… Tash was revealed to be an evil god, Aslan a benevolent one…almost to the end now…
◊ ◊ ◊
It was past Gavin’s bedtime, and raining. The kids in Narnia ascended to heaven, a disappointment. Susan was excluded because of her interest in lipstick. Sabrina decided that if she ever wrote a book, the queens would wear lipstick and no one would care.
She wondered what was going on in Gavin’s forest.
She hadn’t meant to do it, but her hand moved to her brother’s doorknob. It wouldn’t turn. It wasn’t like Gavin to lock the door. “Best leave him alone,” sang her mother’s voice in her head, while a younger, stronger voice called out “Go in there!” She’d read a detective story that explained how to pick a lock once, and practiced on her old diaries until she could produce that satisfying click. She’d never tried it out on a real door, but she did have a hairpin.
Her feet clumped through the dark room, past the night light with its tiny flicker, to the lump on the floor that was the treasure box. On the bed, her brother stirred and Sabrina stopped in her tracks. His breathing remained even.
Slowly, slowly, she knelt beside the box. Lifted it. Stood up, careful not to make the floorboards creek. Carried the box into the hallway, where the light was on.
Fingerprints smudged the gleaming oak surface. If she’d known the box would smear so easily, she would have bought Gavin a different one. No—they weren’t fingerprints but paw prints, tracks left by an impossibly small animal. Her breath caught in her throat as she lifted the lid.
It was a crowded city street on a busy Saturday morning. Shoulders scraped shoulders, feet kicked the heels in front of them while others sped past the lackadaisical strollers. With my head down I bumped against one pedestrian and was pushed by another. I raised my head and watched a sea of eyes penetrating my forehead. My hand slapped across my temple. Those that were prying now looked away. Their faces blushed, no doubt ashamed they were caught glimpsing into my most personal secrets.
The crowd was filled with people trying to bore their eyes through my hand. But I wasn’t going to let them in. These are my thoughts, my mysteries, my ideas and I wasn’t ready to share. But still they stared. I pushed my way across the crowd; bodies collided as I went against the tide. A side street came into view and, with a few quick steps, I made it around the corner.
Small human clusters sauntered down the short alleyway. A few open doors, one led into a book store, another a ladies boutique. I took the last door where coffee beans wafted through, and the chairs held the odd patron. A small round table down the end lured me deep into the cafe.
With great care I searched my perimeter and saw no threat. Cautiously, I lowered my hand and exposed my forehead. No one turned their attention toward me and a low breath escaped my lips. From the side I saw someone approach. No need to send a message, my hand flew across my forehead.
She stopped at my table and raised her eyebrows. “Would you like to order, hon’?”
“Ah, yes. A double shot latte and a ham and cheese croissant. Thanks.” I stared at her as I felt the beads of sweat pop across my upper lip.
She looked at my hand. Here was another peeping Tom snooping through the open window of my mind.
Was there nowhere safe?
Lorraine Allan is an Australian writer. Her first novel is still in the polishing stages and in the meantime she has turned her hand to writing short stories.
I’m the biggest YouTube star of all, though no one has seen my face. I’ve never appeared on any talk show, but you all know my name. Every time a teenager rides his bicycle off a second floor roof, or tries to jump a twelve-foot canal and doesn’t quite make it, I am there. Every time a dancing girl gets hit in the face with an unexpected basketball, or a man shatters a priceless relic on live TV, I’m in the background, laughing voicelessly. Every time a news anchor says “Officers fucked the man—cuffed, rather,” mine are the invisible fingers that twist their tongues.
I am the Fail.
I’ve been around as long as creatures have been attempting to exert their feeble wills. The cat who pretends, nonchalantly, that he didn’t really want to make it all the way onto the countertop. The bird who thinks a window is an open gateway. I take my thrills where they come.
My hands have always found business enough for them, long before the dawn of humankind. But things certainly got interesting, to say the least, ever since you folks started to wander the earth, upright and full of misplaced confidence. There almost hasn’t been enough of me to go around.
The larger the goals, the more spectacular the failures. And I have been right there, loving every minute of it. Every cannon that blew up in the shipmate’s face, every pair of scissors that found their way between the ribs of some overly anxious art teacher: that was me. I am the intersection of intention and limitation, the immovable object that blockades aspiration’s path with decisive finality.
‘Cruel,’ I have been called by some. And cruel I may be. But there’s a need for cruelty in this world, for why else should I take such pleasure in what I do?
Though I may seek sensation—along with satisfaction, its partner—I have never sought celebrity. Rather, it found me. I have not been alone, you see, in the mirth I take in the frailties of your kinsfolk. If anyone laughs louder than me at my successes, it is you yourselves. This mean little injustice has always given me disproportionate joy. As my toothless grin leers down at those afflicted by my hand, I can always count upon the laughter of crowds. Is it petty, to take such glee in bearing witness to so small a weakness? Then ‘petty’ is a label I shall have to live with.
Yet never in a hundred thousand years of taunting your kind, did I ever expect to dress myself in such glamorousness. It has been a rapid and not altogether ungratifying transition. However tawdry and unbecoming the fame now ascribed, I take pride in noting that it is not fleeting. My fans, I’m happy to report, are both consistent and rapacious.
The technological marvels that have enabled your species to befuddle itself to no end have also, to my surprise and lasting pleasure, made me the biggest thing going. If a drunk is about to teeter off a third-story parking garage parapet, it’s easier to record the schlub’s descent than it is to lend a helping hand. If a stage collapse is imminent at a heavily-attended concert, the odds that it isn’t being recorded by dozens of spectators are slim to none. What once I did solely for my own personal gratification is now performed for a virtual audience of millions.
My only problem is, as you might expect, a matter of scale. Where do I go from here? Don’t get me wrong: I take pride in what I do, and I enjoy it as much as I ever have. But when one starts to receive adulation from the masses, one always finds that mere blandishments cease being enough. One begins to crave accolades, recognition. And that is a profoundly difficult thing to come across in my line of work. I mean, people will laugh at a bicyclist who grinds his face into the asphalt when his handlebars come off in his sweaty fists, but they don’t exactly nominate the faulty bike for a Golden Globe.
So, I’m at a bit of a loss, here. I have plans: big, big plans. But I need to find the right outlet, the right marriage of subject and audience. That’s where the real money is.
I’m talking, of course, about Tragedy with a capital ‘T’. Failure is sweet, but the real star of our memories and our regrets is the Inescapable Tragedy, the Ineluctable Mass Atrocity. We enshrine such events, singing eternal, bleak paeans to them in marble. That’s the closest to an award I can hope to obtain.
So, yes. I’m working on a few things. But, in the meantime, doesn’t that gymnast practicing in her apartment look like she’s awfully close to landing on that scented candle burning away on her coffee table?
It’ll have to make do, at least while I put a few things together.
Troy Blackford is a writer living in the Twin Cities with my wife and two young sons. He has twenty-three published short stories—to be found in places like The Missing Slate, Inkspill Magazine, the Mulberry Fork Review, ‘Fireside Popsicles‘, and the Halloween-themed anthology A Shadow of Autumn—as well as an assortment of longer works available on Kindle and in paperback.