This one time the rain was coming down in buckets and I couldn’t even see the street from my front door. It had been a while since the last soaking rain and it was about time for something to wash all the pollen off of everything — even though it meant it would be back worse than ever tomorrow. I’d risk drowning like a turkey in this downpour to get a good deep breath right about now.
I could imagine what things would be like when this let up — little chartreuse rivers going down the sides of the streets. Cars that you could once again tell apart by color. The ability to touch a door handle or a doorknob without having to dust off your hands and having to remember to wash them before I touched my face or eyes.
I wondered if the neighborhood squirrels were sitting this one out in my attic. It was something, watching the cat pace around down here, walking into furniture because she was looking up at the ceiling, trying to track their movements.
Meanwhile, I stood in my open doorway in sweats and a flannel shirt and watched the torrent come down. Rain hitting the stoop splashed my bare feet, deliciously cold. I could see a mist of tiny droplets clinging to the hair on my feet that made my old roommate refer to me as a hobbit.
I started to hear the wind whipping hard through the trees and I started to see little pellets of hail. That wasn’t uncommon in storms like this. If I tried hard enough, I could hear thunder as well, like the coachman driving the storm was using a little of his whip. The dogwoods out front were dancing around in the gusts, shedding leaves and those little red berries the blackbirds came through in droves to devour.
I noticed the siren that sounded when the weather service spotted or got report of a tornado in the county. It had been going on for a while, just drowned out, as it were.
And that reminded me of when I was a kid in elementary school. That wasn’t too far from here, in space, if not time, and it was the practice back then to crack open the windows and herd all the children into the halls, where we would line up against the walls in the main hallways during tornado warnings. We’d crouch down on the floor, knees up to our chests. They seemed to be undecided whether we were supposed to be facing the wall or facing away. I just remember on one of these adventures I was seated on the floor next to a pretty girl I had always had a bit of a crush on — bright, hard-working, not much driven by what was popular. Even at nine, that sort of thing got my attention.
I was a nerd back before nerds were fashionable, so she wouldn’t much give me the time of day. I don’t remember resenting it back then. That was just the natural order of things.
I just remember that she was scared and crying and that when I put my hand on her arm to comfort her, she leaned in and draped my arm around her shoulders, and I held her like that until the “all-clear” sounded, and then we picked up whatever stuff we’d brought with us and got in line to go back to our classroom. She gave me a thank you and went back to her desk and nobody ever mentioned it. Even the kids that ordinarily would have teased the hell out of both of us under other circumstances, who I knew damn well saw us.
It’s one of the moments I go back to in my head when it’s time to talk myself out of climbing up some random clock tower somewhere and starting the shooting. If a pack of rowdy ten-year-olds can tell when it’s time not to tease someone having a weak moment, then there’s hope for humanity.
But every time I hear a tornado siren, I think of her tear-streaked face framed by wavy brown hair and wonder how she’s doing.
When tornadoes are nearby, they sound like a train going by. The one that had been spotted was close. Or rather, close enough. I could hear it. I didn’t particularly feel like seeing this one, as I had already seen a few, what with my likely-to-be-terminal case of not knowing when to come in out of the rain. What can I say? I like to see God work, even when what he’s doing is dragging the eraser on the top of His pencil through a line of houses in a subdivision.
Sometimes it seems it takes the worst that He can do to bring out the best in us. That’s not the way it ought to be, but what can you do? People are stubborn and selfish until they realize that losing everything isn’t the worst that can happen.
But then the rushing sound started to fade, and in the next minute or so the siren went quiet. And I went to grab my camera. I loved taking pictures of the trees and flowers with water dripping off of them. And that really is the only time someone with allergies as bad as mine can get close to the damned things.
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This one time, about six days into the massive solar flare-up, I was laying out up on the roof getting a moontan. Nobody knew how much worse it would get and we were all, in our own ways, trying to make the best of it. The reports we could get, what with the satellites all shut down, said the UV reflecting to earth from the full moon provided as much as the summer sun would ordinarily give us in half the time, so I figured I could, as pale as I was, give it maybe forty-five minutes per side.
I tried to bring a book to read, but the light was all wrong for reading. The pages were too bright, though just about right if I shaded them with something. That was too tiring, though. And all things considered, the tanning goggles were still a good idea anyway.
That wasn’t any kind of big deal. That was usually how it went out by the pool in the summer, too. Except it wasn’t summer, and it wasn’t daytime. I was terrified that I was doing something stupid, but I just couldn’t stay cooped up anymore. I needed some normal. I knew this wasn’t normal, but taking the opportunity on a day off to get a tan was normal. Even if it was November.
I’d take what I could get. And what I could get today — tonight — was an hour and a half of beach blanket spread out on the roof deck. Ten minutes into it I started crying and couldn’t stop because it was so strange, but I stayed the whole time. It was what I could get.
No one was a hundred percent sure what had pissed off the sun or how long it would continue, especially then. We were all pretty sure we were headed for crop failures and a mass extinction event. Probably there was a mad rush to go through old tree rings and antarctic ice cores and archaeological samples to see if this had happened before. To see whether it was survivable.
In the meanwhile, the power grid had been down pretty much for the duration. Metal everywhere was sparking like a fork in the microwave. The earth itself was starting to defend itself by filling the air with extra clouds. That blocked some of the direct radiation, but trapped some of the extra heat. We were in for some killer storms in upcoming months, they said. And we were absolutely screwed if the coronal hole all the way around the sun’s equator didn’t close up.
Some of the apocalypticos were already committing mass suicide, or hiding in basements wondering why Jesus didn’t call them into the sky to miss the time of tribulations. The hospitals, many of which were already out of backup power, were full to the brim with people with radiation sickness. People like myself, who couldn’t stand to be cooped up all the time, came out at night, wearing hats or all-over clothes or carrying moonbrellas if the moon was out, to meet outside in the parks or on the sidewalks to check up on each other. Stores that could get by without power opened up an hour or two after sunset and closed a couple of hours before sunrise so the people who worked there could get home.
That was rare, though. It was mostly curfews and martial law and people in various uniforms shooting looters.
While I was up on the roof, though, crying, listening to the sounds of no bird or airplanes or televisions or cars or anything but the occasional ambulance, I heard the roof-access door open. I couldn’t open my eyes to see through the tear-streaked goggles. I was afraid, but I couldn’t look to see who it was or whether I was in some kind of trouble. I just couldn’t care anymore.
Footsteps approached. I could feel a shadow for a moment. Then it went away, and the door opened and closed again.
And eventually it was time to go back inside. When I was packing up, folding up the blanket, I found that the person who had come to visit had left me a bottle of beer. Ironically, a Corona Light.
That was when I had decided to believe we were all going to be okay, or at least mostly okay. For those of us that made it through this, and out the other side.
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This one time I was watching a tiny plum-and-scarlet crab move into a sandcastle and I had this thought about entropy. Entropy is a confusing thing. It’s what people blame when things fall apart. And people are all emotional about how they think about it, because things falling apart is kind of tragic. People we love age and die. Beautiful fragile things get smashed and broken. Sturdier things tarnish and weather.
Sandcastles, for instance, are licked apart by salt winds and the action of the foam-caked waves like a toddler with an ice cream cone. Any inhabiting crab has to perform constant maintenance to keep them up, and, unless the crab is a meticulous and conscientious housekeeper and capable and thorough handycrab, it’s a desperate and ultimately losing battle.
This is the natural order of things, people say. And their argument: “Imagine the action of wind and wave actually constructing a sandcastle. How unlikely is that?”
Unlikely things happen all the time. All the time. That is the natural order of things.
And I thought about it. I looked at my own sandcastle, with its new tenant scoping out the kitchen and planning an island and a total overhaul of the mess I’d made of the cabinets. (After all, building contractors don’t have to live in the houses they make.) I looked down the long, straight strip of brilliant white sand, bounded to the side and above by turquoise, and I saw three or four more.
Four or so billion years ago, probably not a single sandcastle. A few billions of years of wind and water action and some slapped-together chemicals get together and form long, tangly strands and little curious microbes and gummy wobbly colonies and complex organisms with spines and shells and climb out of the water and, a million thumbs and plastic buckets later, sandcastles are inevitable. And there are more and more every year. More elaborate. More durable. Season by season, year by year, there are more sandcastles in existence in any given sun-bright snapshot-second than ever.
That’s pretty much the opposite of what people think of as entropy, but that’s sure as hell the natural order of things.
“But things wind down,” people say. “In a closed system, things turn into waste heat and useless choking dust.”
Yeah, but find me a closed system. If you start with a Big Bang and have it wind down through quark-gluon plasma and hydrogen/helium formation and spiraling accretion of stars and galaxies and galactic clusters, you eventually get the superstar that blew up and left the debris our solar system formed out of, with our modest but shiny new suburban sun and all our charming and quietly unobtrusive planetary neighbors and our wind and our waves and our sandcastles. We wind up on the very ticks of the universe itself winding down.
And things are far from over. Our sun has several billion years left on its clock. There are a zillion lumps of strange bits of matter zipping around out there, headed our way to fall into our well and keep things stirred up. That’s the next wind, the next wave.
And hell, maybe that will knock down our fragile little sandcastle and evict our pearls-and-apron steel-toed house/handycrabs. Maybe we’ll all scurry and run and dig into our burrows until the smoke clears. Maybe we’ll make it and maybe we won’t. But here’s something to think about.
What have the interstellar tides and winds and waves been building out there for the past thirteen billion years? What kinds of sandcastles, and what kinds of crabs?
This one time the old fear came back — the fear of getting lost someplace familiar. I’m an old woman, and you can’t be one of those without having been through your share of fears coming and going, but this one was the biggest one I ever ran across. The one that nearly made it too hard to live.
We keep our grip on reality by being able to trust what our senses tell us. Make someone doubt what their senses tell them and you pry fingers loose. You’ll see a breakdown on the spot. We build a picture of the world inside our heads out of the trickle of data we let in. And we take a lot of shortcuts. And sometimes we ignore stuff that contradicts what we think we know because it runs the risk of smashing the world as we know it and making us start over.
Did I say sometimes? My mistake.
You know your man loves you so you ignore the signs that he’s faking it, looking for excuses to not come home to you. Stuff that’s obvious to anyone who really doesn’t care one way or another. Because once you notice, it shatters your world. That kind of thing. Everybody has comforting illusions that are too dear to part with.
Mine is that I know where I am, where my home is, where my things are.
I live in a big building with lots of floors. Everybody who does has gotten off on the wrong floor sometime, not paying attention, and only been shocked out of it when their key doesn’t fit the lock. Carry that feeling with you for a few hours, that whole-world-out-of-joint feeling, only add to it not knowing how far back you need to retrace your steps to find your way back to the real world.
Imagine sitting in your comfiest chair by the window and worrying that if you get up and start walking with the wrong foot first, you’ll end up not being able to find your way across the room. That you’ll eventually find your way across some room, but it won’t have been yours, and you might not be able to find your way back to your chair.
It might be worse for me because I’m blind, but I imagine it’s the same with strong enough OCD.
It was really bad for me at first because my eyes worked fine up to halfway through my twenties. But it went completely dark overnight. It was a rough adjustment. Once you get to know a place, though, you feel safe again. You can light a room with white noise from a fan, a bowl of potpourri with a particular scent for each room, the smell of a wooden bookcase, the sharp plastic tang of a new bathmat. You might even learn to smell the cat before you sit on him — though if he’s smart, he learns to greet you when you come into the room. Because nothing really ever keeps you from sitting on the cat from time to time.
So this one time there was this loud crackle outside the window where I was sitting, and I could feel the light from whatever it was on my skin like a wave of heat, and then things went quiet. And then there was a roaring, but not a loud one, more like the blood in your ears after a run or sitting up too fast from having been asleep or sex. And then the air in the room changed, like it got colder, or maybe there was more of it. I felt the doorways on the other side of the room, lemon soap and metal in the kitchen, lavender potpourri in the far corner by the hall with the bookshelves, cotton and musk from the bedroom, but there were echoes in the air that were slightly different. Instead of just lemon, a kind of lemon-orange blend. With the paper of the old books, a combination of the same only with more leather. With the cotton and musk from the bedroom, another waft from the same direction with a hint of the smell of a man.
And then instead of just doubling, it doubled again. And again. Like the doorways opened up into a range of variations. Into a dozen pasts and futures.
I was frozen. Terrified. I’m sure I cried out. But eventually I got up and felt my way across the room to the hallway. To a hallway. And then back around the room to my bedroom doorway. Inside there were murmurings not quite drowned out by the sound of the ceiling fan. Scents of things, some of which were mine, some belonging to people lost to me more than a decade ago.
I made my way around the bed and made sure it was empty before climbing up on it. The textures were too stiff, too silky for a brief second under my hand, but settled down to a familiar cheap cotton. And then the sensation of extra space went away. Slowly. And I must have fallen asleep.
It’s been nearly as bad a couple of times since then, reminding me of a time I was out on a frozen lake once and the ice cracked. Everything’s fine before then, but afterward? Afterward you know it’s broken, and it’s just a matter of time before the cracks catch up with you and you fall in.
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This one time I had a vision of fire.
Go figure. I mean, I am a firefighter. An old one, at that. I’ve done my share of climbing up ladders and passing out from being too hot in the suit and being too cold from being drenched and coughing my lungs out from breathing God knows what. The best part of what I do these days is teach. I teach about what fire is and where it comes from, about how it changes the world around us into choking poison, about how it renders your fat into fuel and sucks it out through your pores, about the mysteries that summon it here and how to banish it.
It depends on who you’re teaching whether you treat fire as a science or as a supernatural force. I prefer science myself, because man can control science, but sometimes I think I’ve seen too much to be able to buy it as 100% science myself. When you’re in a place that ought to be familiar, and you’re looking through a dirty, water-streaked mask into a room so dark all you can see are the creatures of flame leaning up against the walls and climbing across the ceiling, laughing and gesturing like guests at a fancy party, and you banish them and step away and they pop right back up, or circle around behind you — that’s when you know you’re fighting the devil and his minions. Fire does impossible things.
We tell people it takes three things to summon fire: fuel, oxygen, and enough heat to get it started. The oxygen part is a bit of a simplification, but seeing as this is earth and that’s the element that powers it here under most circumstances, we try not to complicate matters. We save that explanation for the kids that aren’t comfortable unless they know why. But those are the ones that really start having trouble once they start seeing the demons and start trying to figure out what they’re saying in the roaring hissing whistling popping cracking language of theirs.
It’s starting to seem like there are other sources of fire these days. That the triad of fuel-oxygen-spark is, you know, just kind of a guideline. I don’t like that. But it’s true. Stars, for instance, make fire just by squeezing hydrogen really really hard. And if bullshit like that works, you have to wonder what else might. We’ve learned fantastic ways to make light without heat, without that cascade that starts with something rich and ends with ash. Maybe fire’s killing attendants, the fat-melting, desiccating heat and the strangling, lung-tarnishing smoke, are free to travel without fire’s supervision. Maybe fire itself, the standing flame, can wander afield, harmless. Like a mob boss you can’t pin anything on.
I prefer to know how things work. Without a bit of consistency, there’s no hope to the job.
But, you know, a few days ago I was down in our little weight room with the boys trying to keep some muscle tone on my arms and keep my black ass from spreading from all the sitting around. We had all the doors open since it was a nice day. From where I was spotting for the guys, having done my rounds with the gear first, I could see out to the street where people were walking past, and I could see out the back to where there were public tennis and basketball courts. And, as best as I could tell, the world was on fire.
There were flames, ranging from the size of a dog to twice the size of a man, moving around out there like extra people on the sidewalks, extra people on the courts. Maybe four people out of five had one right nearby, or maybe even wrapping around them, and then there were flames that seemed to be walking around unattended. I could see a tree or two from where I was walking around, pretending nothing was wrong, and they were enveloped in flames. But nobody was being burned up. No pain, no screaming, no smoke, no soot, no ash.
But, a few days ago — that was only the first time. It’s gotten worse.
I don’t know what it means. Are the flames actually demons or angels or our own spirits? Is that the fire of living, of us using up the fuel and air we have as we go about our business?
I wish to hell I knew. Because otherwise I’m just going crazy.
This one time we were all on the stage pretending to be all musical and stuff, because that’s how we get paid. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of us — pretty sure — but you’re about to hear some things that might contradict a few of our public statements here and there, and our PR guy works really hard at scripting those and making ’em sound like our own voices. He’s about the only member of the band that we all universally have any respect for, and also we pay him good money, so you’ll understand if I don’t want to be the one to undermine his good work.
So yeah, maybe I’m just a little bit in love with my body and spend a lot of time working on it and keeping it happy. And I’ll admit that gets me a frightening amount of attention — way more than I deserve and some of it truly, truly frightening. But singing and playing and keeping it moving onstage so the act is actually interesting to watch is an athlete’s job. Dancing for a couple of hours is hard enough work on its own, but try it when you can’t take a breath when you want because it would interrupt a phrase.
The lights and the smoke and the lack of sleep and the stupid things you do to try to make up for the missing sleep and the huge fights that come from the stupid nothings that a bunch of people who used to be best friends so they never hold back anyway and are now just sleep-deprived thirty- and forty-year-old toddlers in a six-month extended whingeing fit will age you pretty quickly. We can’t all be Tina Turner. And she paid for it with Ike, if you know what I’m saying. It gets harder all the time.
Do I sound a little defensive? Maybe I’m a little defensive. Maybe I know that I’m screaming sleep-deprived toddler number one, and I feel really guilty about the burden I put on the rest of the band. And it’s absolutely unfair that our bass player and his old high school ex-girlfriend write all of our best stuff and no one will ever remember his name — or that she even exists. And our lead guitar and our sound guy have been through some truly heinous shit in the past ten years that no one will ever get to know about, and all of it just because one’s gay and one’s of mixed racial heritage and that shit doesn’t die even in the twenty-first century.
I’m nothing without the band, and I knew that before I went solo for a couple of years. I did the solo thing to prove to them and the world that I needed them, and to let them figure out whether they really needed me, or wanted me despite everything. To give them the space. I did it as penance, to spiral down like a moth that got too close to a hot light, to show them, and all of our fans, that I really did know my place. And I did it even though no one will ever give me the credit for doing something like that on purpose. Because I’m just a dumb bimbo who flings her breasts and ass around onstage to keep the fans drooling and shelling out for tickets and a trickle of MP3s that they can close their eyes and masturbate to.
This is all beside the point, but this is the only place I could ever get something like that off my chest. Someplace anonymous. So it was either here or on that “Three Wolf Moon” t-shirt thread at Amazon.com. And I really am so self-centered that I would waste your time with this when there’s an actually interesting story that needs telling. So be it.
So we were doing our job as a band, pulling together where we were supposed to and leaning on one another when it was time for someone else to shine, and you could see it by watching the crowd. It wasn’t a huge venue, but we weren’t in one of the huge population centers either, and it was all okay. Big gigs come with so much extra production and promotion that they’re three times as exhausting as the one-day shows in flyover country. I learned to love the smaller shows flying solo.
But the crowd was something else this time. It was an open-floor arena thing, a sold-out show and fairly-well packed, and the crowd had done that thing it does that gives me the willies, but it’s the thing you go for. It’s the goal. It had started to gel into a loose mass of bouncing heads and waving arms and everything it did passed through it in waves. You could see a ripple of identical motions bounce around like waves in a big boiling pot, with little nuggets of holdouts here and there, being excluded for a moment and then reabsorbed.
I learned a long time ago to look out for those little clumps where things don’t mesh. And there was one this time. And the closer I looked, the more I knew what was up. There was someone with a gun.
It’s amazing how the world shrinks to a tiny point and you can focus on something that’s no bigger than the head of a pin at arm’s length. When you’re numb from the sound and bounced around by the kick-drum and blinded by dripping sweat and flashing lights. But I knew if I froze, if I stopped singing, the crowd would fall apart.
I saw one flash, then another, but there was no way you could even hear a gunshot in this place over the band. I couldn’t look around to see what happened, but nothing happened to the music. I took it as a sign that the shots missed.
But then I saw the crowd react. The gap around the gun widened in a fast ripple, but when it hit the edge it rebounded twice as fast. I saw motion zoom toward him over the top of the crowd. I saw the circle around him close, cover him for a moment, pinch him to the top, and surf him to the edge nearest the stage on a sea of arms like cilia on a microbe — where he was dropped at the feet of security guards. Where his corpse was dropped at the feet of security guards.
Questions asked after the show brought me the news. Every rib had been broken. He had just been smashed where he stood, both lungs and his heart punctured by bone fragments. And yes, they had found powder burns on his hands. And a gun in a trashcan on the opposite side of the floor. And, eventually, two holes in the backdrop and the walls behind the stage, proving that he had actually been firing at me.
The show never stopped. They just assumed the guy got hurt in the mosh pit until, after the show, the rumor got around that someone might have been in the crowd with a gun. God forbid anyone do anything to stop the show just because someone was taking aim at the lead vocalist.
But the crowd is a beast. It has a survival urge, and it knows that it will die when the music stops. Who can blame it for wanting to live as long as it can?
I’m a huge fan of the Zombie genre in… well, anything really. When I got my copy of ZOMBIESQUE in the mail I think I may have squealed out loud and jumped up and down a few times. The zombie phenomenon wasn’t always around, but now that it’s here to stay it seems like everyone is just craving more of the undead. And you will find them with a vengeance in the pages of Zombiesque.
The book is a collection of 16 short stories from various authors. There are stories of zombies that we all know and love from the classic Romero stumblers, to zombies types that we’ve never seen. There are stories of people that purposely turn themselves into zombies for fun, and stories of zombie cheerleaders.
While those two were my favorites out of Zombiesque, there wasn’t a bad story in the book! Whether you like your zombies eating entrails and brains, or if you like to see a softer side of the undead, there’s a story for you in Zombiesque!
She makes special mention of Seanan McGuire’s “Gimme a Z!” and Tim Waggoner’s “Do No Harm,” both of which seem to be turning out to be crowd pleasers.
Thanks bunches to Kelly, and here’s hoping you agree with her!
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This one time I was maybe on my third day out in the woods. The food in my duffel was down to maybe fifteen packets of instant oatmeal and a sack of venison jerky I had bought for a different trip a couple of months ago. I’d nearly forgotten about it. As long as I had that stuff in the bag to avoid eating, I would never be starving. Just, you know, deliberately getting skinny.
And if I was shy a tent stake, there was at least one piece of jerky in there that could do the trick. Another was just about perfect for putting an edge on and using for a razor when it was time to clean up and walk out of the woods. If that time ever came.
I’d had some in my hand when I discovered a rattlesnake. When she just slithered away, I couldn’t decide whether it was because she thought I was going to stab her with it or offer her a bite. You get the idea.
In addition to the food, or possible food, I had a change of clothes, two plastic bottles full of water, three identical .40 caliber pistols and a box of rounds, maybe close to a hundred, and maybe $180,000 in tens and twenties. The bag was heavy, is what I’m saying, and that’s an awful lot of not-food to be slogging around in the woods with.
The scam was more tedious than interesting. Two hundred thousand in cash was supposed to buy half a million in counterfeit twenties of a grade for use overseas where people weren’t as particular about serial numbers or bleach pens. But $20,000 in cash bought $200,000 in a better grade of counterfeit cash from someone in a huge panic who had the right paper but was iffy on all those different fiddly inks. Well, $20,000 in cash and about ten pounds of chopped-up newspaper. So a couple of swaps later and maybe a few more days in the woods and a hike down a section of the Appalachian Trail and I’d wander out in some podunk townlet, rent a room somewhere, register an LLC, buy a web domain, buy a business license, and pretend to sell stuff online until I could explain the deposits. I’d even pay my taxes.
The guy in a huge hurry got twenty grand for a plane ticket and a quick vacation and all of his uncomfortable evidence taken off his hands. He’d be happy enough. The guys who were expecting two hundred grand of clean cash now had, at least, ten thousand pieces of paper of the right grade to do something a little more impressive. If they did fifties or hundreds, they’d get way more profit than the cash in my bag. I hate to leave people with nothing.
It was a big change from working Wall Street, but somehow this felt … cleaner. Knock a couple of zeroes off the end of the numbers changing hands and it was only criminals you were stealing from. At the previous levels, it was corporations and governments, and, while you were still screwing with criminals, /they/ were slinging around money skimmed from taxes and pension plans, and just about always there was at least one starving grandmother on the business end of the stick.
I didn’t have enough money to retire on, but it was enough for a fresh start and maybe some legitimate investing. And if I had any luck, I could still retire someplace overseas in a year or two. Or, I dunno, get a legitimate job again.
And hell, if you ignored the smell, I was probably in the best shape of my life. The scenery was amazing. I got to sleep when I felt like it. I could set fire to things if I wanted. Other than the ground being cold, hard, and more than a bit lumpy, and being hungry, and drinking water that was largely what you get from flushing the giant toilet that is the forest floor with the occasional rainstorm, and needing a shower, and feeling like I had been beaten by a giant with a sack full of car tires and also generally exhausted, this was a vacation.
So I was lying on the ground where I had scraped together a pile of leaf litter, the sun having dropped just a bit too far to be of any use to someone trying to not break an ankle on a rocky trail. I’d scutted maybe two hundred yards downhill to be closer to water and found a spot where someone else had cleared out a pit for a fire. I had a healthy blaze going already, but I needed it to die down a bit before I could use the coals to heat some water. I had maybe an hour, so I couldn’t resist the temptation to lie down and veg.
I had half drifted off when I heard something through the spare pair of pants I was using for a pillow. Something through the rock that the wad of jeans was on. Something rumbling.
I could see a clear patch of sky through the trees up to the north, and hanging there was a star bright enough to be Venus, and that’s what I thought it was until I remembered that you don’t get planets in the northern sky unless you’re in the southern hemisphere. I’d been hiking for a while, but not that long. Maybe I was just a bit turned around. I fished my compass out of a pocket on the bag — and I was nowhere near as turned around as the compass was. It just wandered around and refused to settle down.
Meanwhile the rumbling got louder — loud enough for me to hear it without my head on the rock. And I could hear something else in it.
I laid my head back down. Moved the jeans, even, and just let the rock talk to me via bone conduction. And sure enough, it started to sound like a voice, like what you’d expect it to sound like if you taught a bear to talk and then muffled it with a pillow. And the point of light in the sky had gotten brighter, and maybe a touch yellow. And it was surrounded by a greenish halo, like I’ve seen with pictures of the aurora, only not like some vertical curtain. Just a halo. A huge one.
Then it lengthened into a streak and vanished toward the horizon to the north.
The growling got louder. I jumped up and grabbed my bag and started toward the fire, though I have no inkling at all of why.
And then the ground started jumping up and down and trees cracked and broke and fell down and I fell down and the rumbling filled the sky and it went on way longer than I had any care for.
And then everything quietened down and stopped shaking. For some reason I scrambled back to the stone and put my head to it again. And I really wish I hadn’t. Because what I heard through the stone then sounded like a bear that had been taught to speak, muffled with a pillow, laughing quietly to itself.
This one time I was walking out along the cliff, pushing the baby in the huge-wheeled off-road stroller. There was a defined trail along the edge for the most part, but the rail had fallen down in a bunch of places and in some of those places the trail kind of forked away from the edge and was a bit rougher.
Technically all this land belonged to my grandfather, but the cliff’s edge had an easement from the county to allow public access to the view. This was a bit of a sticking point sometimes, since that meant that the county was supposed to put up benches and trash cans and, occasionally, send someone to empty them. But the onshore breeze made a huge effort to empty them on its own schedule into grandpa’s acreage. Sometimes I just came out here to police things to some bare minimum and put the lids back on and make sure the county was up-to-date on where the rails were down and where the trail needed maintenance.
Other than tending the baby, it was the only thing I could make myself do to feel useful. And it was still a big effort. But if the weather was nice out, I would come out and retrace my steps through where I would go to think when I got to come up here to visit when I was a little girl. I spent a lot of time at the place where I would always stop to throw rocks into the ocean.
It was awful, but most mothers will understand that sometimes when I stood there, holding little Chloe, I wondered if I had the strength to throw her out beyond the rocks at the cliff’s bottom. Or, on worse days, if I had the strength not to. My life ended the moment she was born. Throwing her over and then following her would just … make things tidier.
There was this awful little overlook where a wooden platform had been constructed, at enormous lowest-bidder expense, to stand out over the water and allow you to look down to where the sea broke against the rocks. We had at least a couple jumpers there per year. Back when the tech bubble burst, I got into big trouble at my high school economics class when I turned in as a project a business model for setting up a stand here selling tickets to the steady stream of jumpers — and slightly cheaper tickets to people who just wanted to watch. And videos. And a souvenir stand. Concessions.
The mandatory therapy was an enormous crock. That was the first time grandpa had stepped in to “save” me. The most recent time being after my shitheel boyfriend bailed when I decided to have the baby, throwing away my art scholarship and any shot of moving with him to Vancouver. I couldn’t have moved back in with mom and dad, not when they were struggling so hard already. Not after all the fights. Not after I caught mom with her boyfriend. Not after he tried to add me to his list of conquests.
In my head the ticket booth is there. And the concession stand. And, as a concession to my old therapist, a combo confessional and counseling booth. In reality, I wheel us out to the edge, where the platform of the deck is nice and springy. In my head, I gather Chloe into my arms and take a running jump. In my head, the motion sensor triggers the camera under the deck to snap a commemorative picture and the kiosk computer emails a copy to the next-of-kin in the register with any final comments.
In reality, I leave Chloe in the stroller and walk up to the rail, leaning into an onshore wind that smacks me with salt and threatens to pull away while I’m bracing on it. I lean over the edge.
In the long moment when I studied the ocean, I saw the surface of the sea as an enormous swelling membrane breathing up and down, gray and slate blue and scribbled on with white. Then it pushed upward higher, revealing the shape of a gigantic chubby hand under the surface, larger than a house, larger than any ship I’ve ever seen or even imagined. And then an arm, and a huge bald head — like a fetus the size of a city pushing against the placenta of the ocean’s pregnant surface.
I was horrified. Repulsed. The bonus, though, was that I no longer had any urge to throw in my child, or, Heaven forbid, jump in myself.
The sea was already full to bursting. And nearly ready to give birth.
This one time I was warm and toasty up in the fire tower, which almost never happens during the winter months. The place wasn’t incredibly well insulated, but we did our best any time we got the opportunity to bring up any improvements. The truth of the matter was that the tower was one large octagonal room, and four of the eight walls were floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and the other four walls were glass from about the middle of the walls to the roof. There really wasn’t much you could do to insulate that, especially at the top of a hundred-foot tower on the top of a reasonably tall peak in the mountains. The wind whistled through everywhere, and if you actually managed to shut it all out like you’d want to, you’d suffocate like a bug in a jar with no holes in the lid. The air was thin enough up here as it is.
But hey, we had our own lightning rod. And we were on the power grid since we convinced a local data provider to build a cell tower and a satellite uplink here. So we also get cable.
We used to get one particular local radio station really really really well, like in our fillings and eyelashes. It interfered with any method we had for communicating, anything with a radio. Hell, anything with a speaker. Even if it was off. We had them shut down, seeing as we were here first. A few of us that were stationed up here at the time may well have suffered some permanent damage from that. Like our eventual kids, if we can have any, might end up with an unusual number of arms or legs or tentacles. Or feathers. Or scales.
The reason I thought about it then was that the whole place got unbelievably warm when the transmitter was going, no matter what the weather. It wasn’t quite that warm now. But the wind had stopped, and that always just seemed unnatural.
Comfort wasn’t permitted. I set the rules for this place, being the one who had been here longest and the one who was guaranteed to be on staff during the months when campers were less likely to show up and set the forest on fire. When you noticed yourself getting comfortable, you did something about it. So I suited up, grabbed the binoculars, and made a round outside on the walkaround deck.
That was more like it. I spit over the rail, knowing a rock of ice would be hitting the ground by the time it got there. Assuming the wind didn’t grab it and take it to, I dunno, Iowa.
The clouds out here were strange, confused things. UFO saucers of mist that grabbed hold of peaks like they were afraid of getting torn free and lost. Clouds that looked like a jumble of body parts, butts and breasts and bellies and knees and elbows, sailing overhead in an underlit orgy. Even this high up we’d get impenetrable yellow fogs. Stormlight with no storms. At sunrise and sunset the Brocken Specter was a regular visitor.
This evening, this sunset, there was another sort of visitor to the peaks.
The wind was calm around the tower, but there was a cloud layer above us, masking most of the peaks. I could see the nearby ones on this range, but the ones on the range to the west were obscured. There were no snow-veils blowing off the peaks I could see, so whatever wind we had was above the cloud layer.
There was a disturbance in the cloud layer, though. Or more than one.
If you’re in a bathtub, like in a bubble bath that’s starting to thin out, you can paddle with your hands to make swirling eddies in the bubbles. Just drag a hand slowly and watch things swirl. Pick your hand up and do it again somewhere else. Tease the remaining bubbles into clumps set them against each other like icebergs at sea.
Looking north, I could see something like that. Stationary clouds with a sudden parting, sudden swirling, coasting to a stop. And again. And again.
It started as far away as I could see, miles and miles. And as I watched, it resolved itself into a kind of pattern. Two lines of trails in the cloud layer in an alternating pattern. Where there was a disturbance in one line, there would be blank smoothness in the other. It stuck me as annoyingly familiar, something I could puzzle out, so I stared at it, both naked eye and with the binoculars, watching the pattern develop and resolve and painstakingly slowly, work its way south toward me. It was maybe a couple of miles away, maybe ten minutes away by the pattern I was watching, when I figured it out.
I was watching the legs of an invisible giant wading through the cloud layer. And it was coming this way in glacially slow steps, walking along the ridge. And now I could see it was kicking sparks free as it walked, cloud-to-cloud lightning lighting the cloud layer in blues and reds from the inside.
I have never been more terrified in my life. I needed to get down. I considered the fast way, seriously. Then I considered the slow way, down the rungs we come up and go down when the shifts start and end, wondering if I could hold it together long enough to keep from slipping. There was a handrail and a belaying line for when the winds were really high, but I was beginning to resent the few minutes it would take to strap on enough rig to make it useful.
I went inside to the radio and asked for a weather update. And asked if anyone knew of a plane or helicopter that had the bad sense to be flying south on the ridgeline. I made the effort to ask the two questions with enough precious seconds between them to try to keep them from sounding like they were connected, to try to keep from sounding crazy, but I know I failed. I waited as long as I dared from a response from the rangers’ station, but there wasn’t any. At least not fast enough for my sense of impending doom.
And then, since I was basically already suited up, I got the hell out. I popped the trapdoor, clipped onto the line, and half slid, half rappelled, and goddamn nearly fell all the way to the ground and beat feet back to the treeline. By the time I turned around, the entire tower was stomped sideways away from the ridgeline, looking for all the world like a smashed mosquito.
I never heard it happen over the sound of my own heart hammering in my ears, over my own rasping breaths.
The Jeep was untouched. I went back and climbed into the cab, but it took me half an hour to remember what I had to do next. It was a long drive back to the rangers’ station in the dark.
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This One Time, 97
This one time the twins were both sitting up on the sofa and trying to give each other this ratty old stuffed bunny. I could imagine why neither of them would want it — it was old enough to vote and get drafted and buy beer, though it might not be able to grow a […]
- This One Time, 97
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