The Doorway

I have researched it for years, and each new source I find tells a different tale.

Nearly half the sources insist it doesn’t exist. To explain away the many legends of it, these writers offer up as many reasons as there are writers denying its existence.

And even among the writers who claim it does exist, there is no consistent explanation of what The Doorway In The Middle Of Nowhere is. Some dismiss it as nothing more than the doorway of some ancient structure that has long ago fallen to dust. Others insist that it is a thing of supernatural origins, created by gods, or demons, or mages of eldritch times.

But whatever it is, there are two things about it that are consistent.

The first is that every culture has stories about The Doorway, and those stories go as far back as the cultures do.

The second is that none of those cultures agrees about precisely where The Doorway is located.

But among those stories, I found four that at least agreed that The Doorway was located on the windswept plateau I have been making my way across this past week.

Why it would be here, I do not know. No roads cross this gods-forsaken land. There is nothing here but the paths made by the great red deer herds who are the sole occupants of this land. Those thread their way among the towering rock spires, passing from one small green glen to the next. The only sign that humans have been here are the odd piles of bones and the occasional fire pit left by those who come here to hunt them. What they burn, I do not know, as trees are few and far between.

I had thought myself prepared for this journey. My research has led me to travel far, and I thought myself an experienced traveler. I even hired two mules to go with my own pack horse, and loaded them all down with food. What I wasn’t smart enough to bring was fire wood.

Nor did I possess the intelligence to bring water.

I remember the last flowing water I saw. It had been nothing more than a straggling trickle of water seeping from the face of the cliff which stood guard over the last road I had ridden. It had been a broad way, like an imperial road of old Las, and had angled upward along the face of that cliff to this plateau. My water skin had been nearly empty, so I stopped to fill it. I remember thinking how strange it was that the water, though cold, had a sharp, bitter taste to it, and how I’d been tempted to empty the skin in hopes of finding better water further on. More by stupid luck than anything else, I had kept that water, and it in turn kept me alive through five days of searching for more water.

And the road…it vanished at the at the edge of the plateau, like it had been built as some mad joke intended to lure unwary travelers to follow it into this desolate hell.

I found my last water yesterday. I had been without for nearly two days when I rounded a vast boulder to find my way blocked by a boggy stretch of ground. In the early days of my wanderings over this curse land, I would have tried to cross it, confident that I could make it to the other side.

That was before I heard a deer screaming in terror.

I found it, neck-deep in a bog. I watched for a while as it struggled to extricate itself from the soggy mass it had mistakenly thought would support its weight. As I did, I came to understand that what I’d thought was grass was actually a carnivorous plant that lured animals like the deer into the bog so it could use their nutrients to keep itself alive. I spent one of my remaining arrows putting it out of its misery.

But even knowing the terrible thing that the bogs harbored didn’t stop them from being the only sources of water. So I began to drink the filthy water that welled up around their edges. The first time I did, I vomited everything in my stomach up. But my body needed water, so I was soon back at the waters edge, scooping water up with my hands and drinking it. Now, after so many times doing so, I hardly notice the rotten meat taste that permeates the water, nor do I note much any dead animals that might float nearby.

I have forgotten much of my former life. When I came here, I had been a well-regarded scholar, even if people thought my fixation on The Doorway a bit odd. Lords had accepted me in their halls. Town head-men had feasted me on the best their hamlets could offer. My clothing, if not ornate, had always been clean, as I had myself.

The last of the food I’d brought with me ran out over a week ago. Now, I subsist on deer meat, whether freshly killed by me, or scavenged from from one of the bogs, and always eaten raw. My clothing is now so covered in filth of every sort that in places it is rigid. And me? I am, if anything, even filthier than my clothing. They at least is exposed to the rain storms that lash this land, while my body is not. And my pack animals? I was not amazed to learn that mule meat is far tougher than horse flesh, but was surprised to learn that it tastes sweeter.

Perhaps I have gone mad, but even as I descend further into squalor, my desire to learn the truth drive me to continue looking for The Doorway. That, and the fact that I no long possess any idea of where I am, nor how I might find the road that had brought me here.

I now move through a landscape much different from that which I first saw. Great solid slabs rise around me, jutting from the ground at odd angles, but they are not stone. They are something I have never seen before. Many have fractured, and more than a few look as though they were torn apart.

What is strange is what those broken surfaces reveal. How can I describe it? Can you imagine a substance as hard as any rock, yet containing within it piece of rock? In some of these great slabs, the rocks are rounded, like they had once been in a river. In others, the rocks are jagged, like they’d been ripped apart by some force unimaginable before being encased in the strange new rock. And in all of them, there are pieces of metal that I am sure are iron.

And these pieces of iron are not like the rocks. No, they have all the markings of something shaped by the hand of man! They are round, often with strange indentations or ridges on their surfaces, something that no source I have ever read says happens in nature.

So now I wander among these strange sights, looking at the increasingly huge pieces of rock, or whatever it is, and wondering if these could possibly have been made by human hands. I move around a vast monolith, twice as wide as my arms could reach and perhaps four times as tall as I…to find a doorway standing before me.

It stands in another shattered piece of…whatever these things are. And while the shape would not be out of place in any dwelling a human lived in, it is far larger, a door easily three times as wide as I could reach, and five times taller than I. But it is the door that stand within it that draws the eye. It gleams like silver that is burnished by ceaseless polishing. How such a mass of metal could be gathered, and more important, how it could remain untouched by greedy hands, even in this isolated place, I do not know.

Neither these questions, nor the many warnings I remember from my sources, stop me from approaching. I have done it. I have found the location of The Doorway. And having found it, I must approach it, I must find out what it truly is.

I am five paces from it when the voice speaks.

It is an unearthly voice, one that seems to issue from the very doorway, and I, who speak five languages, can understand none of the words I hear. What does “Demon-son-all pour-tall one” mean? Is it the name of the being that created this thing? What is the meaning of “Act-of-a-shun”? Or “Be-gin-ning”? The string of words, each one different, but spoken at precise intervals, I can only think is some form of count.

Whether those words are a count or not, after a double-hand of them have been spoken, the gleaming surface vanishes. And in it’s place….I see scenes of wonder.

People walk beside what looks like a road, except it is a single smooth surface, and it runs between patches of grass greener than any I have ever seen. Stranger still, upon it go not horse and wains, but strange vehicles that move themselves. Most are closed, but a few are open, and in these, other people travel. Perhaps the closed vehicles hold people as well.

I have little time to wonder, for the scene vanishes, replaced by a one that might have come from the darkest pit of the deepest of all hells. Here the road still exists, but there are no people, no strange conveyances, and the grass is gone, replaced by blackened stubble. Another change, and now there are people, but they attack each other with no uniforms or formation like armies would possess. No, they simply seem bent on slaughtering each other. And the vision changes again. And again. And no two scenes are precisely the same, for in some, not even the strange road is present.

Now I stand close enough that I could reach out and touch them. Are they real, or are they phantoms projected by this….thing? Another scene, one in which nothing is visible but a vast sweep of chest-high grass. On impulse, I reach out…and feel an odd resistance as my hand passes within the opening. Then I am aware that the hand stretched out before me is warm, far warmer than the rest of me. I feel a breeze sweep across that hand, one the rest of me feels not, and I see the grass wave in response to it. Some of the grass brushes my hand, and I grab it before pulling my hand back. In the image, the the upper part of the grass stalk tears away, and my hand comes back to me clutching a sheaf of grass unlike any I have ever seen.

I am aware that the view changes again, revealing a flat, unrelentingly gray landscape, as if all color and features have been erased. But that barely registers with me. For out of the grass I hold crawls long green insect. I am aware that it is looking at me as intently as I at it, for like the grass, I have never seen anything like it. I see it’s legs move, then in a flash, it is gone, launching itself into the air with a noisy beating of wings.

“So what I see is real!”

I have not spoken for so long I barely recognize my own voice. But they are my words, expressing my thoughts. And I look back into the opening to see what wonders it will reveal next. The view changes again, showing a dark scene illuminated by a pale, wavering light. Even as I wonder what it shows, a fish, vast beyond any I have ever heard of, swims into view.

Both the fish and the knowledge that what I am looking at is underwater, remind me of my own condition. I have not eaten for several days, and had my last water a day ago. Could I perhaps step through the opening and take some water and food? I brought my hand back safely, so why not my whole body?

Hunger and thirst make my decision for me. I watch, waiting for a moment when the scene before me looks promising. Other images appear. What might have once been people, but are now twisted and disfigured caricatures of humanity, shamble past. Then more desolate plains, but these under a sky as black as midnight, with the stars visible even though the Sun stands in the middle of the sky. Then a view, much like the first, but instead of people, strange creatures like man-tall lizards walk the streets.

Another shift, and now another featureless plain spreads beyond my sight. But this one is covered in grass, and before me, near enough to see its water rippling, a stream flows.

“This will do.” I step forward, even as I say the words. As my hand had before, my whole body feels a pressure, like I were trying to push it through an unseen barrier stretching across the opening. Then the pressure is gone, and I fight to keep from stumbling. The shock makes me gasp, and as I do, my nostrils are filled with scents I have never experienced before. Then I realize that the air here is cooler than where I had been before, but not uncomfortably so.

I turn to see where I had been….but there is no trace of the opening here. The Doorway does not exist here. There is not a sign that the place I have just come from exists. I stretch my hand out, sweeping the space before me….and find nothing but emptiness. That is when it dawns on me that, where ever I am, here I will stay.

Was it worth it? Was finding that The Doorway was not only real, but an opening between different worlds, worth leaving my past life behind?

Yes.

I may never go back to claim the fame of proving my discovery, but I have a whole new world to explore, and all manner of new things to learn. “Yes, it was a fair trade.” I tell myself as I make my way towards the river before me to drink, perhaps catch a fish, and decide what direction to go next. Part of me wonders what strange and wondrous things I will witness here. But that is for tomorrow, and all the days yet to come.

The Reward

My life was an ordinary one.

Barring the details, it could have been lived by any other man, in any other country, in any other time.

I was born, went to school, grew up, got a job, then got married. Had kids. Had grand kids. Then the doctor gave me that long-faced announcement that I had The Big C. Mine had grown quietly in my pancreas before expanding outward to attack my other organs. He didn’t use the word hopeless to describe my chances, but his expression, his tone, they all told me it was.

The final few days were confused. Sometimes the kids were there. Other times, they were with Grace, even though she’d been dead for a decade. Those were the worst days. Every time Grace was there, her face had that disappointed look on it, like when she learned I wouldn’t get my pension because the company had used it and all the other pension contributions to buy stock back. On the final day, no one was there. I guess I couldn’t blame them. I died on a Wednesday morning, and like me, all my kids had jobs to be at.

I spent my final few moments gasping because my lungs didn’t seem to have enough air coming in. Then it was over.

Some folks insist you see a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Me, there was none of that. One moment I was staring at the cheap ceiling tiles, then I was here. In a line with lots of other rather ordinary people. On either side, all there is to see is a barren wasteland, a place covered in loose black rocks that looked like they’d come from the sloping sides of a volcano. The line stretches before me, and behind me, too far for me to see any ending to it. And we are always in motion. Not a rapid motion, more a shuffling amble, but always we move forward.

I don’t need to ask where I am. I know where I am: Hell.

There are no demons armed with pitchforks. No rising towers of flame. There are no seas of lava filled with screaming sinners. But I know this is Hell as surely as if a huge neon sign hung in the sky announcing it was.

And I knew why I was here.

My live was one compromise after another.

Every day, I’d seen things I knew were wrong, even evil, and just turned away.

I gave myself the usual excuses for not acting.

It would be too hard to change the way things were done.

Things had always been done that way.

It didn’t effect me, so why should I care?

Every time I didn’t do the right thing, every instant when I’d remained silent, had brought me to this place. Looking at the faces of those around me, I knew they were here for the same reasons. Some of them were angry, shouting that they’d done nothing to deserve this. Others wept, lamenting the chances they’d not taken to be better than they were.

But most were like me. They knew where they were and accepted it with the same stolid attitude they’d dealt with the rest of the disappointing events in their lives.

And so here we were, the vast tide of humanity trudging to our final reward for a live spent just getting by.

The Screaming Tree

It wasn’t that Ciaran and Ciara O’Breoghan were naughty children. No, there were many children who behaved naughtily among the families that made up the The O’Breoghan’s household. What made Ciaran and Ciara truly stand out was the fact that they enjoyed being naughty.

The scarlet-haired twins had heard, again and again, that they should behave ‘properly’. There father, their mother, their tutors and even their servants would remind them that they were The Future Of The Clan O’Breoghan. Ciaran was told how he would one day take his father’s place as chieftain of the clan. Ciara had heard how she would one day marry the son of one of the neighboring clan’s chieftain.

And both of them hated being told what they would do.

At ten years of age, both of them both of them wanted nothing to do with the boring necessities of becoming the people their parents wanted them to be Yet no matter how much they protested, no matter how they tried to avoid it, they’d been told that as the only surviving children of Ruari O’Breoghan, what they wanted was less important than what their clan needed.

So they had settled on gone out of their way to be annoying. In hopes that their bad behavior would cause their parents to reconsider, they made a game of finding new ways to try the patience of their servants. They tormented one tutor after another until they gave up. And as often as they could, they offended guests to their father’s hall.

Of all their acts, this caused their parents the most trouble. In Irish society, the guests of a chieftain were honored before everyone else in the household but the chieftain themselves. So the twins took great pleasure in offering offense to any and all people who guested in Ruari O’Breoghan’s hall.

Tonight’s guest was a traveling shanachie. Both twins loved the stories brought by shanachies, and their resolve to cause trouble wavered when they first heard such an important person would be visiting. Then they saw their father’s guest. He looked nothing like the other shanachies who’d visited. His robes were frayed and filthy, and the skin of his face hung in pale folds around the pale eyes of a blind man. He seemed to hang from the pair of attendants who supported him, not walk proudly to face their father as the other shanachies had. But when he spoke, in a high, squeaky voice, they found it hard to hold in the gale of laughter that arose in both of them.

“Ruari O’Breoghan, son of Rian O’Breoghan, who was son of Niall O’Breoghan, who’s father bore your name, I thank you for your gracious hospitality. May your house and clan know peace and plenty through all the years.”

Both children watched in stunned amazement as their father rose from his seat and embraced the filthy old man. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, son of Daithi Mac Giolla Bháin, who’s fame is know across Ireland, Scotland and even among the English, I bid you welcome. It has been far too long since you have graced this hall. I was but a boy of nine when you visited last, and I hope I may show you as much honor as my father did.”

Taking the old man’s arm over his shoulder, father helped him to a seat servants brought and set beside the fire. There the two of them fell to talking of that long ago visit, a subject neither child cared to hear of. They made to leave, but their movement drew their father’s attention. “Children, come meet our guest for tonight, the greatest shanachie in Ireland, Scotland and England, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

To walk away would anger their father, and earn them banishment from the feast that was to come, so Ciaran and Ciara came forward to address the old shanachie. “We bid you welcome to this hall, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, greatest of all shanachies.” they chorused together.

Diarmuid cocked his head to one side, and an unpleasant smile spread across his toothless mouth. “Ah, I am welcome by you two, am I? I wonder where that welcome was when you were stiffing your laughter at my appearance not a moment ago?”

Ciaran and Ciara spared a quick glance, each seeing the other’s face go pale in response to their father’s face going crimson with embarrassment. Both of them began stammered attempts at apology, but their father’s voice growled out an apology that drown theirs out. “I apologize for my children’s ill manners, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran, Ciara, apologize to Himself, now!”

They’d only heard that tone applied to those who had gotten on the bad side of their father’s temper, and never to themselves. Bowing low, they put every bit of the chagrin they felt into their apology. We are most humbly sorry for have offered offense to you, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

They kept their faces down-turned, waiting for the acceptance of their words they expected. Instead, after a long silence, they heard a single sniff before the old man began speaking to their father again of his travels. Both of them wished to leave, but knew that until the old shanachie spoke to them, they could not, in good grace, even stand straight. He kept talking, pointedly ignoring them, and both children went from fear of their father’s reaction to anger at being so treated in their own hall. Worse, father kept up his side of the conversation, ignoring them and their plight as if they were invisible.

It wasn’t until after he’d finished a long, rambling account of his visit to the hall of the King of Connachta that Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin took notice of them. And even then, all he said to them was “Oh, you children may go.” before he launched into a story about his encounter with a Milesian trader.

Together, they raised their heads, hoping to find their father ready to rebuke the old shanachie for his lack of courtesy to them. Instead, they found their father listening with rapt attention to to the old man’s tale of the joys of wine from across the wide ocean. He did not even look towards them, leaving Ciaran and Ciara with no choice but to retire.

The shame they felt, being treated in such a manner in their own hall, felt beyond bearing. But it was nothing compared to the way the servants treated them. Like all great halls, theirs was staffed with many slaves. Some were captives taken from among the English, others people taking in battle and forced to serve those who had conquered them. All of them knew to lower their eyes and act humbly around their master and his children. Now, though, every time the children walked past a servant, there was a moment, just as their gaze slide away from them, when they saw not humbleness, but triumph. Their servant’s faces were no longer studiously blank in their presence, but held the trace of a smile, as they reveled in their tormentor’s discomfort.

That humiliation, with their father’s ignorance of their plight, raised a tide of anger in both of them they fought to contain until alone. The room they shared was the only place they could truly be alone, and once the door had closed, they both began to shout.

How could father let him…”

Can you believe the way that English serving girl looked at us…”

That we could be treated so, by our own father…..”

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

In that moment, as they often did, both children were struck by the same thought. They would find some way to take their revenge, not only on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, but on all those who they thought had mistreated them. But how? No matter how much they debated the problem, neither of them could find a method for exacting their vengeance. They were brooding on the injustice of it all when the nameless old hag who tended them entered their room.

Your father bids me remind you to be clean and properly dressed for the feast tonight. As the other servants are busy setting the table, you should be getting ready.”

Those words sparked the same thought in both of them, a thought they held inside until they were alone again.

If we can make others laugh at that old fool…”

“….then father will have no choice but to forgive us!”

They sketched out their idea as they dressed, laughing at each new addition they came up with. Ciaran stopped in mid-laugh. “But we can’t let them know what we plan to do.”

Of course not, brother. We must be as meek as mice and as polite as can be.”

With those words, they both banished any sign of mirth from their faces and walked side by side to the feasting hall.

Outside, the rumble of thunder told them that Taranis was busy this night, but the feasting hall shone bright with candles and fires. Father and the shanachie were already seated, but enough to the family retainers had yet to arrive that Ciaran and Ciara’s arrival could not be regarded as late. They approached the two men together, bowing low before speaking.

Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, we most humbly offer you our apology. Our ill manners brought shame to our clan, our father and this house.”Ciaran started, and Ciara finished. “We both bid you welcome to our hall and house, and hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”

They’d practiced the speech several times, and both children thought their presentation perfect. It caused their father to smile at them like they’d just recited the epic of Fionn mac Cumhaill from memory. But Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin? His blind eyes stared at them until they as transparent as the waters of Loch na Coille Bige, and he could see their lie as clear as a great brown trout swimming just beneath the surface. Then cheerful smile spread across his face. “Of course, children, and I thank you for your kind welcome. Please, don’t bother yourself over an old man’s ill humors. It’s only natural for children to desire enjoyment. So I hope you will feast and enjoy yourself this night.”

Unnerved but happy to be free, the twins took their place at the long table to await the coming feast. Their wait was short, as all the retainers had heard that tonight one of the greatest shanachies in all the Irish lands was to entertain them. That, and the rich feast such a visit would entail were enough to draw every member of the household with a claim to a spot at The O’Breoghan’s table. When the last had taken his spot, father arose to address them all.

Join me in welcoming our guest tonight, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.” The crowd raised their flagons in a roar of agreement, even the twins lifted their cups of cider. After a long silence as everyone drank the great shanachie’s health, the old man rose and lifted his own flagon. “I thank you all for your welcome and kindness. But now is no time for speeches by old men like me. Eat, drink, enjoy yourselves. Sláinte!”

An even louder chorus of agreement and laughter greeted this, and as the old man settled himself again, servants began to pour into the hall bearing food. The feast that followed brought food of every type, food in quantities fit to challenge even the greatest glutton. It flowed in such a delightful manner that the twins began to enjoy themselves, even to the point of forgetting their pledge of vengeance against Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. But no feast last forever, and as the last plates were being taken away, every flagon was topped off and their father again rose to address the hall.

My clan, I ask you to join me again drinking the health of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and to ask him to grace us with the telling of one of the great tales.” The shouts that greeted this call befitted the quantity of drink and food that had gone into the assembly. They were by far the loudest of the night, and with the drink on them, the adults called out their suggestions for what tale they wished to hear.

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

Please, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, tell us the tale of Oidheadh chloinne Lir!”

The old man listened to the cries, quietly smiling, until The O’Breoghan raised his hand for silence. When the voices had stilled, he turned to the shanachie. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, you are my guest, and it’s a poor host who demands payment for his hospitality. If you would choose to grace us with a tale, I would count it an honor beyond any I ever looked for. But I will not demand one of you, and if you decide to speak, I will not dictate to you what tale you tell.”

The old man bowed in his seat. “You honor me with your words, Ruari O’Breoghan. Truly, you and your hall know the meaning of hospitality far better than many another chieftain. But it would be a poor guest indeed who felt no need to repay such a feast as I have had this night. If you and yours will indulge me, I would tell the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his many adventures.” The hall rang with approving shouts that brought a broad smile to the old shanachie’s face, but as they tapered off, his head turned towards Ciaran and Ciara. The smile became less one that of a man swept up in praise, and more like that of someone seeing a chance to do an old foe injury. “But that is a long tale, one that I will no doubt have to interrupt it to drink and ease my dry throat.” The men laughed at the joke, knowing the shanachie would drink many a flagon of beer before he finished. “And I would not expect the young ones here to stay awake through it all as courtesy would require. Ruari O’Breoghan, would it not be a wise thing to allow your children to retire for the night?”

Their father looked at them, then his guest, and the twins saw he had understood what was really being said. The old shanachie wanted them gone so they could not enjoy the telling of one of the greatest stories of all Ireland. Perhaps it was petty, but every chieftain knew how unwise it was to cross a traveling shanachie like Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. “Perhaps you are right. Ciaran, Ciara, it is late, and you should be off to bed.”

Perhaps he expected them to be angry, and the twins were angry at how the shanachie had dismissed them out of hand. But as they rose and made their bows to their father, they also knew this would give them the perfect chance to exact their revenge on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran and Ciara made their way to the door, but instead of leaving through it, they turned aside and slipped along the wall. They found a spot out of their father’s sight but visible to many of household and waited. They had to wait but a short moment. The shanachie rose from his seat to walk into the center of the hall. With a final bow to their father, he launched into the mighty tale.

Goll, son of Daire the Red, with fame,
Son of Eochaid the Fair, of valor excellent,
Son of Cairbre the Valorous with valor,
Son of Muiredach from Finnmag.

Goll slew Luchet of the hundreds
In the battle of Cnucha, it is no falsehood:
Luchet the Fair of prowess bright
Fell by the son of Morna.”

As he spoke, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin’s arms swept about in the sort of dramatic gestures every shanachie they’d ever seen or heard loved to use. And as he gestured, the twins imitated his every movement in silence, making their movement even more exaggerated than the shanachie’s. At first, no one noticed their antics. Then one drunk warrior caught sight of them and nudged the fellow beside him. Both of them smiled as the the sad opening rolled on.

By him fell great Cumall
In the battle of Cnucha of the hosts.
It is for the chieftaincy of Erin’s fian
That they waged the stout battle.

The children of Morna were in the battle
And the Luagni of Tara,
Since to them belonged the leadership of the men of Ireland
By the side of every valorous king.

Victorious Cumall had a son,
Finn, bloody, of weapons hard:
Finn and Goll, great their fame,
Mightily they waged war.”

A third man noticed them, and where the first two could contain their mirth, this one watched them for only a moment before chuckling, then bursting into open laughter. No man laughed at such a moment without drawing the attention of those around him. Worse, it drew the attention of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and he paused in mid-stanza, their. When he did, their father came around the pillar that had kept them hidden. Finding Ciaran and Ciara were the cause of the commotion, his face went scarlet. For a long moment, they watched their father’s face as he struggled to contain the anger that filled his voice when he finally spoke. “What mischief have you two been up to? I told you to go to your beds!”

This was not the result they’d hoped for. Ciaran tried to answer. “Father, we….we were just…”

“Enough!” Their father had never shouted at them like this before, nor had he ever looked this beside himself with anger when dealing with their past deeds. He scrubbed his broad hands over his face before shaking his head. “I have tolerated your actions in the past because I thought it caused by your mother not being here to help care for you. Clearly, I have been too lenient in dealing with you. No more. Tonight, now, you will take yourselves to the cottage Cillian Mag Aoidh. You will stay there, obeying his command and helping him with his farm, until I decide you have learned your lesson.”

That stopped both of them. Cillian Mag Aoidh was the oldest retainer of their clan they knew of, a man so old he’d taught their father the use of weapons. For this service, their grandfather had gifted him a cottage and some land overlooking a cove most of a day’s walk from the hall. Did their father truly expect them to make the walk at night?

But father, how can we got to…”

Ciaran had no chance to finish his question. Father cut him off, his voice filled with anger. “You’ve made the walk more than once, both of you. Ill let you take your cloaks, it’s going to be a wet walk, but enough delays. You need to learn that your actions have consequences. If that means walking to an old man’s cottage in a storm, then consider it a small price to pay for the offense you have committed against this hall and your family’s name. Go! Be getting yourselves out of my sight.”

Their father stormed off to retake his seat, leaving them in a circle of shocked, silent faces. Ciarian turned to do as he was told, but Ciara, as usually, would not leave well enough alone. “This is all your fault, you filthy old beggar! Coming into our hall, disrupting our lives, and for what? So we can hear you tell a tale in your silly voice! Who’d want to hear you say anything?”

Such a blatant insult caused even Ciaran to gasp. He grabbed his sister’s arm, intent on checking her, but his words stooped in his throat when the bard turned towards them. His eyes were no longer milky white. No, now they glowed like the center of a forge as he spoke.

And who will ever hear your voice again, disrespectful child? Lugh sees what you children do, and all the gods have heard what you say. My you both repent your words and deeds, for if you don’t, then the gods will curse you to silence from this day forward.”

Whether it was those terrible eyes, or the cold ringing voice that called so ominous a curse down upon them, the twins fled the hall as fast as their feet would carry them. Yet even as they donned their cloaks, Ciara continued to rant about what had happened. “How dare he? Try to scare us with that silly curse, will he? Like I’d be put down by the likes of him!” She was still muttering under her breath as they exited the front door and made their way through the gate. As it closed behind them, Ciaran grabbed his sister’s arm, hoping to reason with her.

Are you mad, thinking his curse hollow? Did you not see his eyes, nor hear his voice? We need to apologize to Himself, we do.”

Ciara stopped, but listen to him? She’d never listened to him, or anyone else, once her blood was up. She shook off his hand, and stared at him for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was like a whip of thorns on his soul. “Is it a brother I was born with, or a sister? Was I the only one born with any courage, or any sense of what’s right? No, we need to find a way to strike back for this insult, we do. For if we don’t, we’ll never be respected as long as we live.”

Her words drove Ciaran’s reason aside, leaving his anger to take control of him. “I’m no woman, and I’ll not have anyone say otherwise, not even you! But what can we do, now, cast out of the hall?”

We might be cast out of the hall, for now, but there’s no one to say we can’t plan our revenge while we walk now, is there?”

With those words, the twins set out through the growing darkness, spinning out more and more elaborate plans for taking revenge upon the shanachie. But with every step they took, the darkness of the storm, until then just a threatening presence on the horizon, came closer. Taranis announced it’s arrival with a stupendous clap of thunder, followed by a roaring wind filled with rain and hail. Their cloaks did little to protect them from the assault, so Ciaran grabbed his sister’s hand and together they ran through the deluge seeking shelter. But no cottage, not even a herdsman’s lowly shelter, did they find. Again and again, Taranis’ mighty hammer struck the heavens, sending lightening down to smote the ground, and thunder to stun their ears.

Hope of shelter began to fail the twins when a huge dark shape loomed out of the rain. Changing course, they found it to be a ruined oak tree, its branches bare even though Litha was but two months passed. Ciara raised her cloak enough to tilt her head back before rounding on Ciaran. “Well, brother, this is a fine discovery you’ve made! Are you next going to lead us to a stream, so we can stay dry by drowning in it now?”

It’s sure you’ve a tongue in your head, but no brains to go with it. At least if we can go to the downwind side, we’ll have a bit of shelter to stand in while we get our bearings. Or do you enjoy being pelted by hailstones?”

That silenced his sister, but the thing that amazed them both was the broad, dark crack they found in the mighty tree’s trunk. Ciaran reached into it, up to his shoulder, and found nothing. “I think there’s space in here for one of us, maybe both. Would you like to try getting in, or would you rather I go first?” Ciara had a deathly fear of small spaces, something her brother knew well. “No, you can go first.”

Ciaran found the crack wider at the bottom than the top, but even there, it was more like he was forcing his body through the solid wood than into an open crack. Slipping his cloak off allowed him to finally get himself into the space behind the opening. It was profoundly dark inside, but it was also dry. Better, when he sat down and stretched his legs out, his feet barely touched the opposite side of the hollow. “Come in, sister, it’s dry and there’s plenty of room for both of us.”

Ciara heard her brother’s shout, but the thought of squeezing through the narrow opening filled her with a fear she couldn’t easily overcome. Another stroke of Taranis’ hammer, this one sending a lightening bolt down on a hilltop in front of her, overcame her fear. Unlike Ciaran, she could squeeze through the crack without shedding her cloak. Her brother helped her settle in next to him, and rather than get his own cloak, they wrapped themselves in Ciara’s. Ciaran could feel his sister shivering, and knew it had little to do with the chill from their wet clothing. “I ask you, is this not better than being out in rain?”

It is, but my heart still quivers with fear at the thought of being here. Does it not bother you, brother, to be in this small space?”

Ciaran opened his mouth, ready to deny he felt fear at all, but some deep part of him feared this place. When he answered as levelly as he could. “It does bother me, but I can set aside my fear if it means I’m not battered by hailstones while being soaked to my skin by rain.”

Ciaran should have listened to his fear. The words had just left his mouth when the crack they’d entered through closed without a sound. The noise of the storm gone, they could hear the great tree creaking, sounding so like a high, squeaky voice laughing at them. For a moment, they were stunned into silence. Then, as one person, they flung themselves at the wood, beating it with their fists, scratching at it with their fingernails. And as they tried to force the crack open, both of them screamed and screamed for help.

#

Ruari O’Breoghan’s head felt fit to burst as he untangled himself from the young Scottish serving girl he’d bedded and threw aside the bed covers. “Am I too old to be at the drink?” It was a question that made him want to prove his vigor. After a quick piss, he crawled back into bed for a morning’s roll with the fine young wench still asleep there. She was quite happy to oblige him, and after a long, breathless ride, she took his seed with joy.

Ruari lay for a while, happy to be resting, as his bed partner dressed and left. Then he rose, dressed himself, and made for the kitchen to find something to eat. There was a fine level of chatter going on, but every voice fell silent when he entered the room. That sudden silence told him something had happened, but he knew asking what would get nothing but silent evasion. “Cook, a bowl of porridge and mug of warm cider. Bring both to the small hall.”

The small hall was the oldest part of the complex that house the O’Breoghan’s. Supposedly it had been build by Ruari’s great-grandfather, but whomever built it, it was a dry, warm space on even a raw wet day like this. Cook brought Ruari’s breakfast himself, along with a spare mug of cider for himself. The two men had grown up together, Caolan being the son of a buanadha Ruari’s father had hired to train his warriors. Alone, they fell back into the informality they’d enjoyed as boys. “So, are you free to tell me what is it that the grand lord’s not supposed to know?”

Caolan took a long draw of his cider before answering. “Well, if you’ll be listening to the rumors flying through the hall, there’s many. The biggest is that when the servants went to ask what Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin might be wanting for breakfast, not only was his room empty, but the bed hadn’t been slept in. More interesting is the fact that the guards who were at the gate insist they never saw him leave.”

Ruari nearly choked on his mouthful of porridge. “You’re serious now?

I am.”

Well then, who was that telling us tales last night? Never mind. As my Da said, some things, it’s better to not know.”
“Aye, that true. But what of the twins? Will you be calling them back?”

No matter who our guest was, spirit or flesh, their behavior was beyond bearing. No. Staying with old Cillian for a day or two will do them no harm. In any event, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make the walk on a day like today. Besides, with them out of the hall, I’ll be able to have my breakfast without being disturbed.”

Ruari was good to his word, and it wasn’t until the the Sun rose next morning in a clear sky that he sent a servant off to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s cottage. He was brooding over his children’s manners when the whey-faced servant returned to report that the children had never arrived at Cillian’s.

What do you mean, they never arrived? Think, man! Did you see any sign of them? Any tracks?”

And how could I find any sort of sign or track after the storm we had? The only thing that could have left a mark that survived such a rain would be a herd of cattle, and two children aren’t a herd of cattle, no matter how ill-mannered.”

It was true, and Ruari knew it. Still, where could they have gotten to? “They need to be found. Have every servant, every warrior, follow the track to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s. There’s no cliffs along the path, and I can’t see them just walking into the ocean, so look for any place they might have taken shelter.” When no one moved, he rose to bellow at them “Go, blast you all! Or do I have to lead you in a simple search for two missing children?”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, every member of the O’Breoghan clan, and every household servant, scoured the countryside. But not one sign did they find of the missing twins. On the third day, a cattleherder’s son came to the gate. The boy carried two things: a child’s cloak like the one Ciaran had worn, and a tale of as terror so profound he could not at first tell it. Several flagons of beer loosened his tongue enough to relate how he’d gone to gather missing cattle, only to find the cloak lying beside an ancient oak tree. It had been dead as long he had been alive, but none of the local people would cut it down because it was held to be sacred. But when the boy found the cloak, the tree had been covered in fresh green leaves, like it was a young sapling. It also had something else new: a pair of burls the boy had never seen before. Two burls like a pair of faces screaming from the side of the tree.

Ruari O’Breoghan followed the cattleherder’s son to the tree. It was well away from the path his children should have been following, but on reflection, he realized that on a stormy night, it might have drawn the twin’s attention. He had never visited it before, but one look at the pair of burls protruding from its side told him all he needed to know. Even with their mouths locked forever in mid-scream, and the faces twisted in terror, he knew the faces of his children.

#

No one ever bothered what became known as the Tree of Screams. Even a thousand years later, when black Cromwell’s men made a sport of desecrating Irish holy sites, none of them would approach the towering oak. When it fell in a cyclone, the people who lived nearby hoped the dark curse that had brought it to be was dispelled. Then a sapling sprang from it’s roots, and no one was surprised to find, on it’s side, the same screaming faces.

An honest day’s pay

Paullus Lucius Decimus had been on the move, constantly looking for any sort of work, since the day he’d woken up in the abandoned building. He’d faced worse situations, like when he’d been forced to join the masses of humanity fleeing the Mongol army as it swept across eastern Europe. But even then, no one had asked any questions of a man willing to work at whatever task needed doing.

Now, facing a nation increasingly hostile to outsiders, he wondered if it were time to find somewhere else to live. He’d been in America for well over a century, and even in it’s darkest periods of xenophobia, it hadn’t been as bad as this. More than once, he’d gone to construction companies, landscapers, even restaurants, and been asked to show some form or identification. Before that strange reawakening, he’d had a decent set of false ID papers. But they’d not been on him when he came to in the filthy building.

Having been forced to it too often, he hated to resort to begging. So when Paullus heard that a so-called ‘professional’ renaissance fair was looking for help, he’d been glad for the money. He’d spent only a small part of that time in in his native land, finding it far too depressing to see the descendants of Rome taking pride in rediscovering things their ancestors had taken as a part of their daily lives. He’d spent much of that period in Persia, which had been far more interested in building on the knowledge of Rome than on trying to recreate it.

Still, he had spent enough time among the European peoples to know the clothing he was required to wear as he sold mulled wine and other food was more costume than accurate. It made him money, and he told himself that was all that was important.

Then, on the first day of the weekend, a group claiming to be sword masters began to perform. Paullus heard of them from the other workers, who thought they were fascinating. During one of the times he was allowed away from the stand he manned, he wandered down to watch an exhibition of their skills. What he saw made him stifle a belly laugh. None of the people exchanging mock sword strokes would have last a minute against a real sword master. For that matter, none of them would have fared any better against an average legionnaire. Then one man made a thrust Paullus could have avoided in his sleep, but his opponent allowed it through before staggering and falling to the imaginary wound. Shaking his head, Paullus turned away, ready to walk off. As he took his first step, he heard a loud voice behind him call out.

“We, the Swordmasters of the Kingdom of Trakonia, do hereby challenge any swordsman or swordswoman to face us. Defeat one of us, and we will acknowledge you as a worthy opponent. Defeat two of us, and we deem you an equal.” The voice paused, an all-too-obvious device to build suspense before it continued. “Defeat all three of us, and win five hundred dollars cash!”

Most of the people around him gasped, then cheered, clearly hoping to see a true fight unfold. For Paullus, who would make less than half that amount for working the entire event, it was money he intended to win. He pushed his way through the crowd to find a line of people signing their names to a list before laying down five dollars. So that’s how they make it pay, they demand an entrance fee from those who face them, then pay any winner out of the money they take. Paullus had the money to enter, but it would take everything he had. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was an idea he’d known all his life, so when his turn came to sign up, he did so with a smile on his face.

Paullus and the other contestants were herded into a small, roped off enclosure where they were to watch while they awaited their turn. Each challenger was led out of the space and offered a selection of swords provided by their opponent. That by itself bothered Paullus, who’s familiarity with Rome’s gladiatorial games reminded him that offering a bad sword to an opponent was one of the easiest ways to fix a fight. But as he watched, none of the challengers lost due to a blade the broke under an opportune blow, or warped when used.

No, all of the challengers lost because they were fools who had never handled a sword in deadly earnest. Some strove for follow the forms of dueling, and lost to the men they faced who actually knew the basics of such things. Others tried to simply beat down their opponents, and fell to disciplined sword work like any of the barbarians Paullus had faced. Then, it was his turn.

Paullus left the much emptier enclosure and approached the table covered in different styles of swords. He knew all of the classics lying before him: saber, cutlass, broadsword, rapier and many others. Only one sword caught his eye, and as he picked the gladius up from among the rest, he knew someone had put a great deal of effort into getting at least the form right. It was obviously a wooden replica, far too light to simulate the feel of a real blade. But as he gave it a tentative swing, it felt right in his hand.

He’d watched his opponent as he dispatched challenger after challenger. He was a head taller than Paullus, and had the extra reach to go with that height advantage. He was also a swaggering, over-confident fool. He loved to flip his rapier around in broad, useless flourishes, and he never resorted to any sort of footwork, stay flat on his feet through all the matches so far. This is going to be too easy.

Paullus saw his opponent smile as he walked towards him. Motioning towards the sword in Paullus’ hand, he tried to taunt him. “What, did you pick up a sword to match your manhood?”

Holding the gladius in front of him, Paullus looked it over, then smiled. “No, unlike you, I don’t need to carry a huge sword to make up my lack of manhood.” The ugly red flush that spread across the now scowling face told him he’d hit his mark. “I do have one question before we start: What are the rules of this contest?”

The scowl disappeared. “Rules? Why do you ask about…”

Paullus’ opponent didn’t get to finish his response. Two long steps were all it took for him to cross the space between them. The heavy pommel of the gladius slammed into the other man’s stomach, and he folded as the air whooshed out of him. As he fell to his knees, Paullus switched his weapon around and brought the edge whistling down to stop just short of the kneeling man’s neck. “Because I wanted to know if this means I’ve defeated you.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the crowd roared out it’s approval as his opponent dropped his rapier. Paullus didn’t care what they thought. He lifted his eyes to the two men standing on the inside of the open area. “So, which one of you is next?”

They were polar opposites. One, a short, stout man in a knee-length coat of chain mail and armed with a sword like the Crusader’s sword Paullus had once wielded as a mercenary in the Second Crusade. The other was tall and slender, dressed like some 16th Century fop and carrying an epee. They looked at each other, and the tall man stepped forward. “I will face you.”

Paullus hadn’t had a chance to watch this man fight, but as they faced each other, his movements made it clear he possessed more skill with his blade than the last man. Between his longer arms and the superior length of his blade, he had even more advantage in reach. But like many epee users Paullus had faced, he tended to commit himself to every stroke. He dodged two thrusts, waiting for the moment when he moved too far off his center to cover himself. As he did, Paullus shifted inside him, driving his knee into his attackers crotch.

Whatever sound he might have made was drowned out by the groan of sympathetic pain that came from the crowd. This time, Paullus didn’t spare his opponent. He drove the pommel of his sword into the back of the other man’s head, dropping him on the spot. Lifting his eyes, he swept the crowd. “This is how a real sword fight is conducted. There is only one rule: win. Win because the only alternative is death.” Fixing his eyes on the final man, he put every bit of his experience in killing into the cold voice he addressed his final opponent in the sudden silence. “So, sir, will you face me, or do you yield?”

The man in chain mail didn’t so much drop his sword as throw it aside as he shouted “I yield!”

The cheers of the crowd didn’t move Paullus at all. The only thing that truly made him smile was watching as the fat man counted out his five hundred dollars, a fine pay day for a sort day’s worth of fighting. Tomorrow, and for the next few days at least, he would not have to worry about food and lodgings. After that? He slipped his hand into the pocket of the jeans he wore under his costume.

“After that will be after that” he whispered to himself as he walked through the crowd that parted before him.

What are monsters made of?

“Sarah!”

The thing in front of him did not like Pete yelling. “Thing” was the only word he could use to describe the muscular human body wearing a tattered pair of jeans and topped with a wolf’s head. It lunged forward, reaching out like a man would to grab him while it’s muzzle split open in a snarl. The teeth this revealed would shred him in an instant if he didn’t do something.

He did something. It moved like a man, but it seemed to have the mind of a wolf. Pete was able to dodge it, and as it passed, he slammed the crowbar in his hand into the back of it’s head. The thing went down, and howled like a dog as Pete brought the crowbar down again and again until it fell silent.

It wasn’t the first horror Pete had seen. Another thing, much like this one but smaller, lay in the front room of his house. A woman’s body with a cat’s head and claws lay on the steps to his house. Pete had beaten them to death too.

Now that wolf-head was dead, there was nothing between him and his daughter’s room. He stepped over the still form and advanced on the familiar door. Blood had spattered everywhere in the hall, including a thin line of drops marred the childish sunflower that decorated Sarah’s door. Pete reached out to grab the door knob, and the house shook. It wasn’t hard to understand why it was shaking. Not a block away, a giant lizard was methodically reducing Plainview Grade School to a pile of rubble.

Fuck it, Pete, be honest, that’s fucking Godzilla stomping the school to pieces.

Pete remembered staring at the giant beast through his front windshield, wondering how many kids had escaped before the walking nightmare had begun its work. Even if the kids had all escaped, he had to do something, and quick. His fingers closed around the familiar doorknob, and it opened as it always had when he twisted his wrist.

“Sarah?”

The inside of his daughter’s room was all shadows and half-light. Like him, she had trouble sleeping if there was too much light in the room. So the room’s only illumination came from a tiny strip of sunlight that leaked around the edges of a set of heavy ‘black-out’ curtains. As it often was, there was a minefield of toys and discarded cloths between Pete and the bed where Sarah lay. She gave no hint she’d heard him.

“Sarah?”

He spoke louder, hoping she’d wake, but beyond a quick toss of her head, Sarah gave no sign of having heard. Again, like him, once his daughter was asleep, waking her could be near-impossible.

“Sarah!”

Louder still, but as he spoke, a thunderous roar tore the air outside. Sounding like a cross between tearing metal and low-flying jet, it shook not just the air, it rattled the room’s windows and throbbed through Pete’s body.

And still Sarah did nothing more than toss fitfully in her sleep.

Pete threaded his way through the object on the floor to reach his daughter’s bed. Bending down, he touched her shoulder. “Sarah, it’s Daddy. Wake up honey.”

His daughter rolled away from him with an inarticulate moan, and the temperature around him drop. His next breath came out as a cloud of fog, and across the bed from him, Pete saw a dark shape forming. If the thing with a wolf’s head had been a terror, to huge blob gathering before him would be a nightmare incarnate. It towered over him, topping out just beneath the eight foot ceiling, and half as wide as Sarah’s bed was long.

Pete had seen the darkness take shape before. His daughter had been a scared three year old, and he had gone to her bedroom to check on her. Like now, he’d found her asleep already. But as he stood beside her bed, he’d watched as the shadows coalesced into a teddy bear…a teddy bear in armor, carrying a sword and shield…a teddy bear that rose and moved between Pete and his daughter like a sentry.

“Sarah, you have to wake up now!”

The guardian teddy hadn’t done anything, but the way it positioned itself between them told Pete he would not be allowed to touch his daughter. It was gone the next morning, and Sarah had no memory of it.

But a few weeks later, another child had pushed Sarah down at the playground. The child and its parent had apologized, and Sarah had seemed to accept it with no hard feelings. But that night, Pete had witnessed a black outline of something that looked like himself stalk out of the house and vanish into the night. The next day, the town was abuzz with stories of a family murdered in their sleep, each member beaten to death in their beds. It wasn’t until the local paper printed their obituaries that Pete realized the family had been that of the child who’d pushed Sarah. And no one was ever brought to trial for the crime.

The dark shape became more defined. A rounded head, a long muzzle, broad shoulders…it began to look like one of the polar bears that had so fascinated Sarah at the zoo. Another screech, like the world itself were being ripped apart, tore the air outside.

People were dying outside, just as his wife had died after telling Sarah she shouldn’t be angry all the time. A black something had ripped her to shreds as she took a bag out to the garbage, leaving no trace the police could find. After that, things had gotten worse, and Sarah seemed angry all the time, just as she had been this afternoon when she’d come home from her first day at school. And now the school was being destroyed.

Pete had to act, now, before the monstrous shape across the bed could solidify and kill him. He had to act, or more people would die.

“Please, Sarah, wake up for Daddy. Please stop this.”

Sarah didn’t wake, but the giant shape became more defined. It’s thick arms made a few tentative swings, and from deep in its broad chest, he heard a rumbling growl like a dozen angry mastiffs.

Pete’s daughter was becoming a monster. He knew that. He’d hoped she’d grow out of it. But she ‘d just become angrier.

“I love you, Sarah. Daddy will protect you from the monsters.”

His arm rose, the crowbar came down, he swung it again and again, until the monster in his daughter’s bed was dead, and he wished himself dead beside her.

Ring tone

I hear the tinny, almost comical rendition of “The Ride of the Valkyries”. After so many times hearing that same string of notes, I know what it is: someone’s idea of a ‘cute’ ring tone. By this point, if I could find the person who put that ring tone online, they’d be dead, as dead as I’m about to be.

The first time I heard it, I was kicking back, reading a book as the Metra West commuter train took me to the Ogilvie and the hope of a sunny day to stroll downtown Chicago. The sound came from overhead, just the first dozen notes, then in a wave of compressed air and a flash of flames, my life ended.

The next thing I knew, there I was, reading my book again. The crappy PA blared Berkley will be the next stop, but nobody moves. Sitting in the middle of a massive rail yard, nobody gets off at Berkley on the weekends. The stop is brief, and as we start rolling again, I hear the same music. I die realizing I’m stuck in a macabre version of “Groundhog Day” where I relive my death over and over.

The third time, and I get out of my seat, and everyone stares at me. Like me, most of them know nobody will get off or on at Berkley, and they wonder why I am out of my seat. But I will only have a moment to find out where the tone comes from, and with it, the bomb connected to the phone. My ears told me the last time that it was in front of me, so I charge away from the doors towards the front of the car. Again, the announcement comes forth and the train slows to a stop. I should get off. Even as the cowardly part of my mind thinks the thought, my heart rebels against the idea. The train starts to move, and the ring tone begins. It’s behind me now, and I turn towards it. I see five bags vanish in a flash, and I die again.

The fourth time and I am out of my seat even as I realize I am back again. Without thinking, I grab the red shopping bag with the C-Span logo on it which is nearest to me down from the overhead rack. A woman just behind me shouts protests. It holds a list of events at a literary event dated to occur today, but nothing more. I drop it and grab another shopping bag, this one black with the logo of a local grocery chain. I have time to look in it and see a single book before the ring tone starts and everything disappears in a flaming blast.

Everything is as it was. I am holding my book again, but I drop it as I jump to my feet. Only three bags left. One of them is mine, the black backpack I carry when I go into the city, so that can’t be the bag. I ignore it and the two I remember looking into to grab another backpack. It’s a dark-blue pack with a battered leather bottom, and I notice it’s heavy. Both zippers are together on one end of their track, and as I pull the upper one around, it snags on the nylon overlying it. The PA blares out “Berkley. The next stop will be Berkley.” and I force the zipper back away from the fabric stopping it before pulling it open enough to reveal…an old laptop that is consumed with me by the blast from above.

I drop my book the moment I return. I stand and reach for the last backpack, a pink kid’s pack with a rainbow in the lower corner. It too is heavy, like the last one I looked into. I try to be calm so I can open it without jamming the zipper, and it works. But inside it are coloring books and crayons, not explosives. I stare at them as the PA repeats it’s announcement and the same stupid notes come down from over my head before my world disappears in flames again.

I am back again, and I remember my wife handing me my backpack as I left. How it felt heavier than it normally did. The strange way she smiled at me after I kissed her cheek and told her my usual “See you when I get back.” As the PA comes to life again, it dawns on me. She knows what I really do in Chicago. I walk around, but in Chinatown, and what I’m looking for is massage parlors that offer not massages, but sex. Could my wife build something like a pipe bomb hooked to a phone? As I disappear again, I know that she could, and that the ringtone is her message to me. The Valkyries didn’t just collect the valiant dead, they also brought vengeance. And this is her revenge on me.

The disappearance.

“Okay, remember, I’ll count to ten, then I’ll come find you! Ready….start! One….two…”

My eyes are closed, but I hear my children run off, laughing as they go. In a single-floored ranch like ours, it’s not hard to tell which way they’re going. I hear Kevin and Lisa’s footsteps echo as they dash down the hall.

“three….four….five…”

The muffle screech of a hinge in need of oiling tells me they’ve gone into the room they share. I hear murmured words, too indistinct to make out, and know they’re trying to figure out where they’ll hide.

“six….seven…..eight….”

The slight rasping noise of a sliding door opening and closing lets me know they’re hiding in their closet. Now, to make a show of finding them.

“nine….ten….ready or not, here I come!”

I make sure to be as loud as I can as I make my mock search of the house, opening doors and calling out as I wander around. “Where can they be? Those kids have gotten too good at hiding for me!” I hear them giggling as I fling their door open. “Could they be in here?” The closet take up most of one wall opposite their beds, and I hear Kevin hushing Lisa as I approach it. My fingers slip into the recesses on the opposing sliding doors and I slide them aside with a shout of “Found you!”

But there’s nobody in the closet, there’s nothing in the closet.

All of Lisa’s dresses, her tops, Kevin’s jeans and the pile of dirty clothing he insists on leaving in the closet….all of it is gone. The entire space is empty, not even an errant sock lies on the floor. But as I stand there, stunned by the sudden change, I hear them. They’re still giggling like they’ve put one over on Mommy for once and managed to hide from her.

I slap the back wall, push against it at different spots hoping that somewhere there’s a hidden door, some trick that’s allowing my children to hide not just themselves but all the clothing I know they have from me. But the wall is solid, as is the floor when I stomp on it in the vain hope of finding a trap door.

“Kevin! Lisa! Do you hear me! Come out this instant!”

There is no answer beyond more giggles, and I begin to panic. Could I have been mistaken and they hid in the master bedroom? I go out the door, thrust open the door to the room my husband and I sleep in, and begin searching.

Nothing. They’re not in our closet, nor in the bathroom adjoining our room. Could they be under our bed? On hands and knees, I peer into the dim space under our king-sized bed, and see nothing but a few dust bunnies in need of cleaning up.

Could they be under their beds?

I hadn’t thought of such a possibility, sure as I was that they’d hidden in their closet, but now I rush back to look. I find nothing, not even the favorite well-worn teddy bear Lisa keeps hidden under her bed so it is close at hand on stormy nights. But even as I look, I can hear my children laughing quietly, and quite close at hand.

“Kevin! Lisa! This is not funny! Come out at once!” Nothing, just the same occasional murmur of gleeful giggles. “Do you hear me? I said come out!”

But they don’t come out, they don’t suddenly pop up to bask in their joy at having frightened their mother. I cross the hall, intent on going through the small bathroom the children use. It has the same fixtures, right down to the slight crack in the glazing on the sink, but it is empty of anything personal. The children’s toothbrushes, the battered stainless steel comb Kevin inherited from his grandfather, even Lisa’s collection of hair clips, all of it is gone.

I search the rest of the house, panic tightening my chest as every attempt to find Kevin and Lisa proves fruitless. There is no place for them to hide in our back yard, but I look anyway. Again, nothing.

Now, the panic is all-consuming, a thing that has swallowed me, an ocean that threatens to drown me. I call 911.

“Carswell’s Corner 911, please state the nature of the emergency.”

“It’s my children! They’ve gone missing, disappeared!”

“Where did you last see your children, miss?”

“In my kitchen. I was playing hide and seek with them, and they’re not here. I’ve been through the whole house, I’ve searched every room, and I can’t find them anywhere!”

A moment of silence, then the disembodied voice comes back. “Miss, I’m showing you’re location as 127 Wolff Road, is that correct?”

“Yes, yes, that’s where I live! Please, can you get someone here to help me find my children?”

“Yes, miss, I’ve dispatched a car, they should be there shortly. Please stay on the line until they arrive miss.”

“Yes, of course, anything, just get them here to help me search!”

Another, longer moment of silence, then I hear a car, driving fast, coming up the road. The engine noise drops, the screech of tires stopping fast, and I see flashing lights out the front window. “Miss, officers should be in front of your house now. Can you open the door for them?”

I rush to the front door, yank it open, and a pair of men in uniform are waiting. One is older, tall and slender, his hair going gray. The other is short and heavy set, his dark hair buzz-cut short. Neither of them look happy. I don’t care if they’re happy or not.

“Officers, I’m glad you got here so quickly. I need your help. My children have managed to find a hiding place in the house that I can’t find. I need you to help me get them out.”

The younger man looks disgusted, like he’d just heard someone tell the biggest lie of all time. The older man just looks sad as he speaks to me.

“Mrs. Sanchez, how many more times are we going to have to come here? We’ve searched your house more times than I can remember, with you right behind us. Every time, we’ve never found any kids, and that’s because you’ve never had any kids!” He scrubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. “I’ve told you before, if you keep calling us, we’re going to arrest you for filing a false police report. I’m not going to do that this time….but this is your last warning. If I, or any other officer, have to come here again, you’re going to go to jail. Now, have I made myself clear?”

Is he insane? I remember my children. The hours I spent in labor before Kevin came out. How Lisa had always been sick as a baby, but had grown to be a force of nature. I remember every time they fell. Every scrape on their knees. Every day home from school for a fever. Everything. ”But officer….”

He didn’t give me the chance to finish. “I don’t want to hear it again. I mean it. We’re going now. Your husband should be home soon, so you can tell that poor sorry bastard all about it. God knows how he puts up with someone as crazy as you.”

And that was it. He turned and walked away, his young partner giving me a final, sickened stare before following him. They weren’t going to help. They didn’t care. They thought I was insane, people who believed something as crazy as me never having any children. I close the door knowing I’ll have no help.

I have to find them. I have to. I can hear their giggles, but where are they?

Wait…what?

I open the door again. My door is stained wood, but not this door. It’s red, and not some calm brick red either. No, it’s a bright, almost garish red, the sort most people would call ‘fire-engine red’ I hate red, especially bright reds. Did some vandal paint it this hideous color?

Then I look closer, and see the wear around the door knob. The scratched paint near the lock. There are scuff marks at the bottom, some of them old enough to have started fading.

What is happening here?

 

The strange case of Lindsey O’Hara

[This is the beginning of an idea for a crime novel I’m thinking of writing. Any feedback is welcomed.]

She had come in yesterday, just as Mike Shannon had been getting ready to leave for the day. A short, slender woman, her back as straight as a reed. She had the coal black hair of someone with am Armada survivor in her ancestry, but skin so pale it might have been paper. Her request was simple: she wanted to hire Mike to investigate the murder of Lindsey O’Hara, late of Tuam. She was willing to pay his rates, plus any extra expenses he might incur. Given the lack of cases Mike had had of recent, he’d ready to be dickered down, but if the customer wanted to pay him full rates, he’d not object.

So Mike climbed the stairs to his office over Flynn’s Pub intent on researching the crime, But his search soon made one stunning fact clear: Lindsey O’Hara was his most recent client. The face that stared out of the photo with her obituary was the same face he’d seen the night before. Further digging brought up more stories about the crime. Lindsey had been the only surviving child of Rory O’Hara, and the last living member of his family.

Rory had expanded his Tuam-based contracting and real estate development business into the Dublin market just before the Irish economic bubble had popped. Mike remembered his end well, having been part of the team investigating it. Exhibiting singularly poor business judgment, Rory had decided it would be better to get in bed with the Kinahan crime family than to go bankrupt. When his company went under anyway, his underworld ‘friends’ had taken him to an isolated farm on the outskirts of Dublin and put a bullet in his skull. Linsey had followed her father in dying a violent death. She’d been shot three times in what was described as a failed robbery of her home. After their usual bluster, the local garda had failed to bring anyone to trial for the crime. Eventually, the story had faded from from the headlines.

How he’d forgotten the shooting, Mike couldn’t fathom. He leaned back, his old office chair protesting at the sudden motion. “Well fuck me, how about that? I’m working for a dead woman. But how am I to get paid by a dead lady?”

The screen on his mobile lite up, and a tinny instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” began blaring away. He only used that ring tone for one person: Liam Pleshen, an old acquaintance and current a senior manager at the AIB branch where Mike did what banking he had. Liam had gotten in trouble with a couple of bookies over a bet on the Grand National. He’d won on a long shot, and suspecting Liam of possessing inside information, they’d not only refused to pay up, they’d threatened to go to the garda. Mike had managed to mediate an agreement by drawing on his former colleagues in the Dublin branch to lean on the bookies. Since then, Liam had been a vital source of information where banking was concerned.

Mike tapped the phone. “Well, Liam, how are things for the idle wealthy?”

“Yeah, hello and fuck you too, Mike. I called because there’s been some odd activity in your bank account. To be precise, five thousand euros were deposited in it overnight. The only way I can see you getting that much money is either you finally solved a case, or you’ve quit pretending to be ethical and have started blackmailing your ex-clients.”

Five thousand euros? That would cover what Mike charged for a couple week’s worth of investigation, maybe more.”Can you find out where the money came from?”

“Half a sec…” Liam’s fingers clattered on a keyboard was the only sound, then a muted “Fuck me!” before he spoke to Mike again. “The money came out of an account registered to Galway United Development, but isn’t that….”

Mike drew in a sharp breath. Galway United Development had been the shell company Rory O’Hara ran his other companies through, and the only one that had escaped liquidation after his death. As his sole heir, Lindsey would have had control of it. “Yes, it’s the last business holding of the O’Hara family. Is there any record of who authorized the transfer?”

“Mike, I’m just your friend the neighborhood banker, not a forensic accountant with the grada. They’re the only ones who could find something like that out. You should call your old pals in Dublin, maybe they can find that out who’d be sending you money from a dead man’s accounts. Then again, maybe they’ll be asking you why you’re getting money from a source like that. Why are you getting money from them, Mike?”

No way Mike was telling someone he’d been hired by a dead woman to investigate her own murder. “I don’t know, Liam, but I’ll find out. Thanks for the call. Maybe you should stop by Flynn’s and I’ll stand you a couple of pints as thanks for letting me know I’m flush again.”

“What, and drink on a dead man’s tab? Thanks, no.” and broke the connection, leaving Mike to sort out what he knew so far. He’d grown up in America, so he wasn’t one to believe in banshees or spirits. That meant either someone posing as Lindsey O’Hara was orchestrating an outside investigation of her death, or someone with the funds to hire an impostor was pulling the strings. But why?

“Well, Liam, I might just have to follow your advice for once.” Mike opened a screen, then accessed his ‘Doomsday’ file. It had all the names and contact information for every member of the garda who might be willing to help him as a friend…or whom he had dirt on to use to extract a favor.

Olivier Dzba was one of the former. The two of them had been in the same class at the Garda Training College, and with them both being outsiders, they’d become friends. Olivier had been six when he’d come to Ireland with his parents to escape a nasty civil conflict in the Congo. So unlike Mike, he’d come up through the Irish school system, and spoke Irish like a native. Watching the reactions of some of his Irish classmates as a stream of Galway Irish poured from the huge black man had given Mike many a laugh their first year. Mike tapped in the phone number he had for his old friend, and smiled as he heard that deep baritone coming from his mobile.

Ceanncheathrú Bhaile Átha Cliath, Garda Siochana, Bleachtaire Dzba ag labhairt.

“Olivier, you know my Irish isn’t worth shite, so could you speak in a language I can understand?”

“Mike? Jaysus, lad, where’ve you been hiding? It’s been ages since I heard your voice.”

“Athlone. Not the Middle of Nowhere…but I can see it from here on a clear day.”

That got him a laugh. “Ah, you always were one to love Dublin, weren’t you? For myself, I can’t wait for the next bank holiday…I’ve a spot already reserved on the Corrib. Three days salmon fishing, and not a case to be solved.”

For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

#

As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”

The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”