The long line that had formed down the grand corridor never dissipated even as the Registrar was averaging three to four entries per minute. The quill in his hand shook violently as he scribbled down the information in their appropriate categories.

                Item 1: Class

                Item 2: Subclass

                Item 3: Duration

                Item 4: Cycle Number

                Even as a very simple form, it was up to the Registrar to assign every entrant a destination based on a careful calculation of each line in relation to the others. Having mastered this task within the past seven-hundred and thirty-two years, however, it was as effortless as brushing his teeth.

                “Class?” he asked, poised to write. Before him a woman stood clothed in sheer black lace and a scarlet bodice.



                “Fantasy.” The Registrar ’s mustache bristled slightly.


                “All night long.” He peered over his glasses at her for a brief second, then his quill continued to dance along the page.

                “Cycle number?” There was no answer. “Cycle number?” The Registrar looked over her closely, examining her reluctance to answer. “You can either tell me, or I’ll look up your previous records.”

                “Two,” she finally answered. The Registrar was dissatisfied.

                “You’re at least a five. Maybe even a six.”

               She stammered, “But how—what makes you think—”

               “You’re missing a leg, sweetheart.” He pointed the feathery end of his quill towards her skirt.

               The woman let out a cry of indignation.  “How dare you!”

                “Let’s see it,” the Registrar insisted. She looked about her seeking some kind of support, but the next few in line who had been overhearing the dialogue remained unsympathetic if not a bit curious to see for themselves. 

                “This is harassment!”

                “The leg.”

                Realizing the state of her dilemma, she hung her head before pulling aside the flowing skirts. After a moment of looking down at the one remaining leg, the Registrar nodded solemnly. “It’s not the end of the world, you know. Everyone’s got to get reprocessed at some point. Why would you want to keep going on like this? Eventually it’ll be the other leg, the hands, the middle. Nobody’s fantasy there.” The woman burst out a volley of sobs she’d been holding in. “There, there.” He patted her hand, but simultaneously jerked his head to summon a pair of orderlies over. They took her arms and waited for him to fill in the lines of a blank ticket and rip its perforated edge. He handed it to the woman who looked at him with sorrowful eyes. “Don’t fret, now. The chances of you coming back as a nightmare is a four to one. Well, three to one. At worst it’s a fifty-fifty.” Her sobs returned as she was escorted away from the counter, and the next in line scooted up.




                “Ahhh,” the Registrar sighed. “Duration.”

                “I couldn’t really say. Out there in the suck where the only thing between you and the Almighty is a gun and a bullet, an hour could seem like seconds. But the nights…the nights last a lifetime!” The soldier blew out a stream of smoke from his cigarette.

                “No smoking. What’s with all you soldier types? Now…what was the duration?”

                “Thirteen minutes,” the soldier mumbled.

                “Cycle number.”

                “Four.” The Registrar went back to his ticket book and filled out another for him.

                “Next!” The Registrar called. “Class?”

                “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.” The Registrar looked up, annoyed with such an absurd statement. Over the centuries, he’d heard many excuses and stories but never something so ridiculous. A class was, well, a class. Every dream was born with one or the other, and to not know was simply impossible. He studied his subject through narrowed eyes, finding a girl on the edge of maturation. She stood serenely with her hands clasped loosely at her front, an innocence in her eyes but an equal determination in her smile.

               “Do you know how long I’ve been doing this job?”

               “I’m afraid I don’t,” she began apologetically, “but as efficient as you appear to be, I would say for a long time.”

               “Almost eight hundred years!” The Registrar exaggerated, extending a finger towards the domed ceiling high above his clerk’s visor.

               “Oh, my! That is a long time. You must be the best there is.”

               The Registrar eyed her even more closely, searching for sarcasm but finding none. He leaned in deeply and lowered his glasses. “You’re a little young to be here, aren’t you?”

               “I’m almost nine,” she boasted.

               “What do you mean,” the Registrar stammered, “nine? This is your ninth cycle? Why that’s simply impossible.”

               “But that’s what—”

               “Child, I have no time for these games.” The Registrar huffed and took up his quill again. “Now, tell me your class. Day or night?”

                The girl stood silently biting her lip, her eyes jumping from left to right in consideration of the two options. “Both?”

                The Registrar slumped forward, removing his glasses with a long exhalation. With eyes closed he spoke. “Young lady, I do not have time nor energy to entertain such tomfoolery. You are either one or the other. Not both! You can’t be both because there are only two classes of dreams! Night and day!” The Registrar caught his breath and continued quietly, “That is simply how this works.”

                “Oh!” The child suddenly brightened with a newfound understanding. “But I’m not a dream.”

               The Registrar blinked behind his glasses and stated quite assuredly, “But of course you are.” The girl shook her head patiently. “Then what could you possibly—” The Registrar choked his question to a halt, the dawn of realization breaking through. “Oh.  Oh my.” From under the counter he produced a slanted microphone at the end of a cable and blew a cloud of dust from its base.  Muttering to himself he flipped the switch and began speaking but stopped as his voice did not amplify.  “This blasted piece of useless junk…Ah!” He gave it another try. “Attention! Requesting directorial assistance at station four! Requesting directorial assistance at station four! Code White. I say again, Code White.”

               With the announcement came a flurry of activity from all around, including the other six counters where those registrars began craning their necks to have a look at the subject of such an alarm. The little girl did not move yet fell under no anxiety. Her contentment and tranquility remained in eyes that befriended the Registrar. The Registrar himself looked back into hers, and a shadow of sadness fell over his face for he knew she did not understand.

               From across the Great Hall a small formation of guards approached in step. When they reached the station, the center two stepped aside and a suited gentleman took two long strides forward. He looked down at the girl before him, then with a single motion he removed the fedora atop his head and bowed graciously.

               “Hello, young lady.” Turning to the Registrar, he assured him that the torch had been passed and to resume his work. Then back to the girl, “It seems there’s been a little mix-up. Yes?”

               “I suppose so,” she replied, uncertain if she truly had any idea what was going on.

               The gentleman grinned at her. “I am the Assistant to the Director of REM, Reverie and Trance. I apologize on behalf of the Intake Division for any inconvenience you may have experienced. If you’d kindly come with me, we can sort all this out.” The Assistant Director extended his hand towards some unknown destination beyond them.

               “Of course,” the little girl agreed, but stopped after a step and turned to the Registrar. “Goodbye, Sir. I’m sorry to have troubled you.” The Registrar nodded but found no words to speak in return.

               The girl entered the formation which closed around them again and walked along, marveling at the magnificence and beauty of the place. High above hung planetary rings as chandeliers glowing with starlight. Ribbons of amber extended through latticed windows to cast a hue of amber gold over the faces of a thousand dreams. As they ascended stairs to a second level in the palatial facility, the girl gazed over the rows of lines which seemed to extend beyond her vision. The lines wriggled with the subtle movements of the fairies, goblins, witches and freaks, clowns, acrobats, animals and insects, saints and devils, and some just ordinary looking people. The little girl stopped and peered over the rail, her eyes widening in awe.

                “Twenty million, nine-hundred-thousand and eighty,” the Assistant Director proudly informed her at her side.

                “What?” the girl blinked up at him.

                “That’s approximately how many dreams you see before you now, and about twenty times that will come through each day. Of course, we’re only one facility of hundreds but as the Headquarters for REM, Reverie, and Trance, we draw the largest numbers.”

               “What are they all doing here?”

               “Reprocessing,” he replied, turning away.

               “What’s that?”

               The Assistant Director puzzled at her for a brief moment before saying in a hushed tone, “The Director is better suited to answer your questions.” He continued to walk, and she followed obediently until the group arrived at a tall set of wooden doors. The guards around them dispersed to take their own vigilant positions. The Assistant Director moved forward and led her through into an anteroom where a woman was seated behind a desk, though she did not pay them any mind. He instructed the girl to wait before slipping out of sight through another smaller pair of doors.

               “Hello,” the little girl said to the woman who smiled radiantly in return.

               “Hello there.” A clock ticked loudly in the silence around them. “What’s your name?”

               “My name is Hope. What’s your name?”

               “My name is Felicity.” The Assistant Director reappeared and instructed the girl to follow him in. 

               “It was very nice to meet you, Felicity.” The woman nodded pleasantly.

               “And you as well, Hope.”

               The next room was dark, its walls ascending to a height immeasurable in the shadows and filled with the greatest collection of books the girl had ever seen. In the center of the room was a single chair facing a great marble desk upon which a lamp illuminated a pair of wrinkled hands folded in solemnity. The Assistant Director gestured for the girl to continue on but remained at the door as she approached the chair and sat. Her hands folded on her knees, she smiled at the man behind the desk as his eyes lit up in recognition.

               “Hope,” he said, then repeated as if uttering a word in an unknown language. “I am the Director.”

               “Hello.” The girl smiled at the old man whose signs of aging were given another ten years in the dimly lit room. The click of the door closing behind her echoed. The Director’s eyes glided over the girl’s youthful visage as she marveled at the expansive library. “Did you read all of these books?”

               “Half of them.” Hope’s eyes met his and he looked away.  “The rest I’ve written.” After some moments of silence, “You must be wondering why you’re here.”

               “Yes. The very nice gentleman who led me here said you would be better suited to explain.”

               “Perhaps,” the Director nodded with a chuckle. “An industry as old as time itself. Older even. There’s been little change to the whole thing besides the obvious need for expansion, new facilities erected, and of course we reprocess dreams now. Several millennia ago, we were still incinerating them. But with the rapid growth of the human population we couldn’t keep up with the demand.” He stood and began walking along the shelves. “On average a single dream can be redistributed up to seven or eight times before being reprocessed into a different dream, and for approximately every seventeen dreams reprocessed a single dream is born.”

               “But how is a dream born?” asked Hope. “Do they have mothers and fathers?”

               “No, no. Nothing quite so complicated as all that.” The Director stopped and turned to her, his shadowed eyes sparkling. “Shall I show you?”

               “Yes, please.” Hope straightened up with excitement.

               Without speaking further, the Director took three long strides back to his desk and stood with his eyes scanning the books. After several seconds, his eyes widened, and he retrieved an old book bound in ancient leather and hemp string.

               “Books,” he said, “are the portals through which dreams travel with least resistance. They may appear antiquated, even archaic, but there is a reason why good men read books and evil men burn them.” The Director returned to his desk and placed the book reverently down, running his fingers over the aging cover. “Now then…You’d better hold on.”

               As he flipped open to the first page, there was a flash of light and the floor beneath her seat gave way. A sudden weightlessness overcame her body in free fall, and around her the movement of shadows shot upward in cascading streams. Her ears filled with the rushing of air and space as she plummeted into the dark. The fall seemed to be lasting some immeasurable amount of time, but after several moments she realized she was in fact slowing down. Finally, she stopped without the hint of a jolt, or rather, she felt as though she stopped, for in the pitch black she was uncertain. A burst of white broke the seal of darkness, and the silhouette of the Director filled a bright doorway before her.

               “This way,” he informed her, then stepped into the light. Hope followed, fluttering her eyes against the transition.

               From the top of a narrow staircase, she looked out over a cavernous space. Enormous glass tanks were in neat formations of rows and columns extending as far and as high as she could see, each swirling with vibrant hues of mauve around a glowing axis, and she realized this collective of cylinders was what kept the space illuminated. A series of walkways supported by curving trestles gave access to the tanks. Across them were dozens of white-clad figures appearing to be conducting tests and measurements, examining instrument panels and dials before conferring with clipboards and discussing their findings with one another.

               On the nearest walkway, the Director stood with his hands in his pockets, pleasantly looking into one of the tanks. He spoke briefly with one of the people nearest before giving a nod of approval and returning his attention to her as she descended the stairs. “These are the incubators.”

               “Are those dreams inside?” Hope asked in fascination.

               “Dreams of the Second Order,” said a thin voice from behind them.

               The tallest woman that Hope had ever seen approached silently. She was dressed in white like the others but had long straight hair that seemed to blend directly into her slender overcoat that was lined with several small and unidentifiable instruments that one could only assume were for some scientific use. On top of her head rested a pair of circular safety goggles. The lady stood with one gloved hand holding the other.

               “Hope, I’d like you to meet the Superintendent of Creation,” said the Director.

               “Hello,” said Hope.

               “These are dreams that occur while both asleep and awake,” the Superintendent continued, forgoing formalities. “And they do not have any direct connection to the dreamer’s reality. Only the light you see is the dream. The colors around it are the elements we keep circulating through to ensure the dreams stay well-balanced. It is a special combination of three parts imagination and two parts reality, the reality only necessary to make the dream believable in the way that old wives’ tales become legends. Of course, these are only the most basic of elements. Upon maturation, each dream receives their class and subclass and are then assigned a human. They can be transmitted simply even without books, making them the more common type of dream. It’s all a fairly simple process with very few incidents.”

               “Incidents?” asked Hope.

               “On extremely rare occasions, there will be an error in an incubator and the combination will get reversed to three parts reality and two parts imagination. It doesn’t hurt anyone, of course, but it makes for a rather boring dream.”

               “That’s not so bad,” Hope smiled.

               “Not for the dreamer,” the Superintendent said beginning a slow pace down the walkway. “But for us, it can lead to an array of complications in the reprocessing, and sometimes force the incineration of the dream due to its instability.”

               “Oh, my! That’s just awful.”

               “A dream with too much imagination can exhaust a dreamer to the point of insanity,” said the Director. “Too much reality can drive a dreamer to believe that there is some deeper meaning in the dream.”

               “You mean there’s not?”

               “You must understand that a Dream of the Second Order is no more than a hallucination, a manifestation of nothingness.”

               “They seem very real to me,” Hope replied, gazing intently into one of the tanks. “And they’re quite beautiful.”

               “It’s not that they don’t exist,” said the Superintendent. “A hallucination, though something unreal, is still something. Technically, nothing is something. It is the absence of a thing. It can be dangerous to misinterpret something as nothing, however, especially for humans. They have a bad habit of going overboard with it. Nihilists…” The Superintendent shook her head in annoyance.

               “I’ve had dreams before,” said Hope as they continued along.

               “Have you?” the Director asked.

               “I think I have, in a way. They were more like feelings, like the way I feel now in my stomach. It’s the same way that happens a lot while Lucy is reading, especially when she reads Matilda. She’s read it three times already, you know.” Hope tucked her arm over her middle and scrunched her lips. “It’s not a sick feeling, just peculiar. Exciting.”

               “Really?” asked the Superintendent with a hint of surprise. “What is your name, child?”

               “Hope,” she beamed.

               “Hope?” the Superintendent repeated with a raised brow.

               “She just arrived,” the Director explained.

               “Ah. Well then, that’s not so surprising,” she nodded to Hope. “Dreams such as those found in books are forever connected to their source, and it seems this is the connection you have made through that particular book. It is an occurrence we call Conception. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it is the reaction when a human’s hopes and dreams combine. These reactions form Ideas.”

               “I guess Lucy has ideas a lot,” she smiled.

               “Lucy…this is your human’s name?”

               “Yes. Sometimes her ideas don’t work out, and that makes her sad. Or she forgets some.” Hope looked out over the warehouse of dreams in warm reminiscence. “And sometimes her ideas do work out. And that makes her happy.”

               “Conception involving a Dream of the Second Order happens quite infrequently,” the Superintendent replied dryly. “However, it is not completely unheard of, and the Idea almost always results in being forgotten.”

               The tanks appeared to grow brighter as they neared an intersection of eight walkways where, in the center of the intersection, a book as old as the first lay on a pedestal. The Superintendent picked up two pairs of tinted glasses beside it and handed one to Hope and one to the Director. “Here. To protect your eyes.”

                After lowering her goggles, she ran her long, slender fingers around the edge of the book before opening the cover. There was another sudden flash of light and a weightless journey into the dark, but Hope soon found herself walking again through a lighted doorway. The three of them had entered another seemingly endless space filled with more glass tanks, though the light at their cores was incredibly brighter than in the previous area, and she was grateful for the glasses.

                “What are all these?” asked Hope.

                “These are Dreams of the First Order,” the Superintendent answered. “The kind you connected with in that book. Here they receive both the elements of reality and imagination. However, they also receive the third and most vital element for their development.” She pointed ahead to the top of one of the tanks. “See there?”

                Standing atop the glass tank were a pair of the same figures in white, one positioning a large hose above a steel port and the other connecting it to the tank with a ring clamp. Once they were certain it was securely connected, they climbed down a ladder. Two large valves on adjacent sides of the tank were then turned in slow, synchronized rotations. Above them behind the glass, a sudden burst of deep blue erupted into the swirling scarlet and crystal light until it had become a bright and shining violet. Hope took in a gasp of amazement.

                “What is that?”

                “That, my child, is Belief,” the Director said, smiling.

                “Belief,” Hope whispered. “It’s magnificent.” The Superintendent continued walking and they followed. “What does the Belief do?”

                “Dreams of the First Order are the dreams most often experienced while awake. However, they are not daydreams but inspired dreams, dreams that have the potential to influence and alter reality. In order for them to be effective, they must remain active for a much longer period of time than Second Order Dreams. This requires Belief. It is the lifeline of First Order Dreams, like a heart, or a brain. Without it, there can be no reaction with Hope and, as a result, no Idea to be conceived. It’s odd,” she continued after a pause, “how, just in the past five hundred years, the required amount of belief to keep one of these dreams viable long enough has increased almost to ten times what it was before. There is so much skepticism with these humans now.”

                “Maybe it’s another incident,” suggested Hope. “Too much reality?”

                “Oh, no.” The Superintendent shook her head. “That’s never happened to these dreams. The only truly awful occurrence was during a period which humans have since called the Dark Ages. Books were rare, locked away. It wasn’t long before we had a massive surplus of First Order Dreams, but the moment things picked up in Italy…Well, there is a reason they named it the Renaissance.”

                “Lucy loves to read. That must be why she’s always getting these wonderful ideas,” said Hope. “One time, she created a secret language that she and her two best friends only know. They call it Lucinese.”

                “Is that so?” The Director chuckled.

                “And another time, she helped her neighbors find their dog by putting fliers in everyone’s mailbox, not just on telephone poles.” Hope continued on, her enthusiasm increasing. “And she went door-to-door to collect money donations for animals displaced and injured by wildfires.”

                “Lucy sounds like a very compassionate and loving girl,” he said.

                “She is most of the time.” Hope looked down at her hands suddenly, twisting her fingers together. “Sometimes she gets angry.”

                “All humans do,” said the Superintendent. “That is their nature.”

                “But it’s not the same, I don’t think. Lucy doesn’t hate anyone. She’s just sad a lot. Her parents divorced, and she doesn’t know why. We used to hope that maybe someday they’ll be together again, but not so much anymore. It’s been months since she’s heard from her dad. Plus, Lucy had to start at a new school a year ago, and some of the older kids keep picking on her. There’s no one to talk to about it because her friends are at her old school, but then she made some new friends.”

                “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” asked the Director.

                “They’re different though,” Hope continued. “They never like her ideas, and no matter what we do in hopes that they’ll actually accept her, it never seems to work. She still doesn’t have anyone to talk to. It’s like she suddenly stopped mattering to anybody. Nobody has time. Nobody cares at all what she’s thinking or even bothers to ask. Nobody—” Hope stopped short, suddenly embarrassed for losing her composure. The Director said nothing, a deep frown on his face as the light of the incubated dreams reflected brightly off his glasses. “And she stopped reading books.”

                “Thank you, Superintendent,” the Director said after a long silence. “We’ll be moving along now.”

               “A pleasure meeting you, Hope.” The Superintendent bowed. “Director.” And without looking at them again, she turned and walked away.

               “Come,” said the Director.

               “Where are we going?”

               Without explanation, the Director led her down a hallway and into a room even larger than his office, filled with books as high and far as could be seen. In the center of the room was a projected holographic screen floating above a pair of empty pedestals. A scene played before them of a picturesque range of mountains with snow caps and towering redwoods passing far below in a birds-eye view. The horizon stretched farther than Hope had ever imagined, and she inhaled a breath of amazement. After nearly a minute, the scene faded away and a name and age appeared.

               “Jorge Devitas. Eighty-three years old,” Hope read. As though in response to her words, the infinite collection of books began to shuffle up and down and side to side until one book found itself beneath a spotlight. A bent old man with a flowing white mustache that matched his tunic and cane retrieved the book and took it to the pedestal. Carefully, he placed it and turned open the cover. In a flowing river of light and color, the screen appeared to stream into the pages of the book until there was nothing left. The figure then closed the book and returned it to the shelf.

               The hologram flickered back to life, and in a moment, a new image appeared of a monster with a contorted and frothing mouth and bloodshot, evil eyes. It slashed and snarled at them. Hope shuddered, and the Director put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

               “Welcome to the Reprocessing Center,” said the old man approaching with a limp. “I am the Chief Curator. I see you’re receiving the grand tour.”

               “What is that?” Hope asked, pointing to the hologram.

               “Those are dreams as they appear to humans,” said the Curator. “Wild and untamed things. They must be matched to those who are capable of surviving them.”

                “Surviving them?”

                “Even good dreams can kill,” he sighed. “In fact, they do more often than bad dreams. This is why we screen them. Technology has come quite a long way for this process. In the beginning, it was a judgement call. Now, we have algorithms to determine which human will best match with each dream. Of course, this isn’t a flawless system. Humans are creatures of continuous change and evolution. But nevertheless, once the dream has been assigned, transmitted, and used up, it returns here to its place of origin for reprocessing. This happens up to seven or eight times, and then it dies. Its elements are harvested and reused. This is the lifecycle of a dream.”

                Again, the scene stopped, a new name appeared, and the walls of books moved mechanically. Once more, the Curator took the designated book from its place and opened it for the dream to enter its pages.

                “Those books, are they people?”

                “They are the link through which dreams are transmitted,” said the Director. “And yes, there is a book for each individual human. Within the books are kept chronological records of the dreams transmitted.”

                “There’s a book for everyone?” asked Hope.

                “Everyone that has received a dream from this facility, yes.” The Curator coiled the end of his mustache around his finger as he returned to them. “Before you is the largest and most extensive collection of dreams in existence. I have the pleasure of looking after them all.”

                “What about Lucy Jane Bingham?” Hope turned to the Curator. “Do you have Lucy’s book of dreams?”

                “I should say so,” he replied. The Curator took a few steps toward the wall of books, then searched through his spectacles. “Ah! Yes. There it is.” He cleared his throat, then bellowed, “Lucy Jane Bingham!”

                For a third time, the walls moved in swift and monumental increments until a book, newer than many others, appeared in the spotlight. The Curator retrieved it and placed it in Hope’s hands. Hope was mesmerized as she looked upon the cover, a crimson pastel, smooth and soft in her fingers. Lucy’s name was embossed in gold, curling letters.

                “May I…”

                “Of course,” said the Curator, motioning to the second pedestal.

                Hope approached the hologram which appeared much larger than before as it hovered above her. She placed the book carefully upon the pedestal, and after an encouraging nod from the Curator, she turned the cover open.

                The same radiant color and light that had entered the other books began moving slowly upward from the pages and into the hologram. Lucy’s name and age were displayed in the top right corner of the screen, the number ticking down from twelve to zero. Gradually, moving and excited blurs filled the screen until the images were clear. Bright, vivid colors swirled and danced together before melting into grand scenes of the sky, green fields, smiling faces, and dogs. Lots of dogs.

                “She really likes dogs,” said Hope with a smile.

                The scene of a playground gave way to a dark shadow in a bedroom, a fast-moving train, and the sound of a screaming whistle. Hope covered her ears until it was over. The three of them stood watching for a long while, good dreams continuing steadily on with rare, intermittent bad ones making their appearance. As the dreams played through, so did Lucy’s age advance higher at a more rapid rate.

                “It appears that Lucy was paired with fewer dreams as she grew,” said the Curator.

                “Fewer dreams? But why?” asked Hope.

                “Well,” he began, looking into the book over his glasses, “it appears she was assigned plenty of dreams, but few of them survived long enough to be experienced, and that can be caused by a number of things. More than likely, she built up an immunity to belief, and that is generally a byproduct of something happening in reality.”

“We call this Realistic Saturation,” said the Director.

                “Something like what?” she asked.

                “That I have no way of telling you with any certainty,” sighed the Curator. “More often than not, however, I understand it to be a sign of trouble.”

                Hope stood staring up at the darkened hologram with steel brown eyes. “If I’m here, then I must be a dream.” She turned to the Director. “But I didn’t see myself anywhere in all those dreams.”

                “That’s because you’re Hope,” he answered. “Yes, in a sense you are a dream, but you don’t come from a place like this.”

                “Where do I come from then?” she asked.

                “You come from Lucy, of course,” the Curator explained. “Lucy created you with all the required parts, imagination, reality, and belief. But there is a fourth part that you consist of, a part which we cannot manufacture here.”

                “What’s that?”

                “Something that exists only in human beings. That is Ambition. And the four together create you: Hope.” The Curator smiled. “You are a remarkable creation, you know. Since the dawn of the human species, hope has been responsible for the perseverance of those facing certain ruin. It has freed slaves and enslaved dictators. It has sparked love and extinguished hate. Hope is the strength that balances the weak and the mighty. It is the whisper that can be heard in a sea of noise saying, ‘Hold on for just a while longer.’ With Hope, all things are possible. It is the most powerful element in the universe. Even more than love. Hope can outlast almost anything. Yes, you are quite remarkable.”

                Hope listened to his words carefully, and an expression of grave concern fell over her. “If that’s true, then what am I doing here?” she asked.

                “Do you not understand what this place is?” the Director asked. She made no response. “This is where dreams are created. This is where dreams are reprocessed. This is where dreams go to die.”

                “To die?!” she repeated.

                “Despite its fortitude, hope is not something that can exist on its own. As much as it is a creation of man, there are those who seek out and sever the bond between people and their hope. This is why it must be held close to the heart, or it could be lost forever.”

                “You mean…Lucy has lost me?”

                “You shouldn’t take it personally,” he answered. “No one ever loses hope on purpose. This is most often the work of Despair.”

                “Despair? But what will she do without me?” Hope asked, her voice rising in distress. “She needs me. I have to get back to her. She can’t face Despair all alone.”


                “She needs me!” Hope cried, grabbing the Director by the arms and shaking him. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “She needs me!”

                “You’re already here, Hope. There’s nothing to be done.” The Director held the child close. “There’s nothing to be done.”

                Hope wept, her body trembling in the old Director’s arms. Lucy had been her whole purpose for existence, and suddenly that existence was enveloped by a shadow that had somehow overpowered her. There was no way that she could reach any other conclusion but that it was her fault. That she had failed Lucy, and now, who knew what was to become of her?

                “With hope, anything is possible,” she whispered.

                “What’s that?” asked the Curator.

                “With hope, anything is possible. That’s what you said, isn’t it?” Hope looked at him, her sorrow having evacuated her countenance altogether.

                “Well, yes, but it’s just a figure of speech,” the Curator chuckled. “There are always impossibilities.” Hope stepped away from the two and closer to the screen where a seashell had appeared in the hands of a child, then running feet on cool, wet sand.

                “I can’t abandon Lucy, not without trying at least.”

                “Trying what?” asked the Director.

                “Young lady,” said the Curator, “I suggest you stop and think for a moment. There are processes that must be adhered to. This has worked for thousands upon thousands of years for a reason.”

                “The Superintendent of Creation said that dreams are always connected to their source. She said that I made that same connection. If I can get back to that dream…”

                Hope picked up the book from the second pedestal and placed it onto the first.

                “What do you think your doing?” the Curator demanded.

                Hope flipped from page to page, watching the hologram jump from one dream to the next. Suddenly she stopped, her eyes fixed on the image projected above them.

                “This is the one,” she laughed. “This is my dream!”

                “Hope, you’ll only destroy yourself,” the Director warned. “Do you think you’re the first to try this? If you do, there might be no hope in existence for Lucy at all. None!”

                “If I don’t try, there will certainly be no hope for Lucy,” Hope replied.

                With one unhesitant motion, she placed her palm flat on the page. A warmth began to climb upward through her fingertips to her wrist, then to her elbow. The heat spread throughout her whole body in a flooding sweep. She could not her the Director and the Curator anymore as the room began to whirl around and a forceful wind picked up. A light brighter than all the rest began to shine around her until she could feel the light, could sense herself becoming part of the light, until in a flash, there was nothing.

                The place where Hope had stood was vacant, only her handprint branded onto the page any indication that she had been there. The Curator and Director stood frozen in place, any and all words stolen for several minutes.

                “Did she do it?” the Director finally asked.

                “I don’t know,” the Curator answered. “I don’t know.”

                “Lucy Jane Bingham, don’t look at me like that. I know you’re mad, but that doesn’t mean you get to glare at me. I’m your mother, and I know what’s best for you. You’ll thank me someday for getting you away from this place for a while. You’ll see. There’s been too much stress lately. How could anyone expect you to keep up your grades? You used to be such a good student. Stop twisting your hair like that! You’re going to make it fall out. And don’t pick your nails. That’s disgusting. It’s no wonder you’ve never had a boyfriend. You’re always messing around like that, and you never wear the clothes I buy you. Always jeans and hoodies. You’re a girl, Lucy. You’ve got to start acting like that. Start looking like one. Try being pretty every once in a while. You’ll see, your Aunt Phoenicia will get you straightened out. Did I tell you she’s a home ec teacher? She’ll have you finding your way around the kitchen in no time. And, she puts your cousin Renee in beauty pageants. Renee has almost too many trophies. You’ll see. But it’s only a testament to your aunt. She clearly knows what she’s talking about. And I’m telling you what, Lucy Jane. While you’re there, you’d better learn from her or I’ll make you stay out there longer. See how you like that. Oh, sometimes I wonder if I failed you. I mean, you’re practically a tomboy. I didn’t raise you to be a tomboy. I should’ve never let your father get you into sports. God! The smell! He never did listen to anything I said. I guess it’s your father’s fault. He failed you. Not me. He failed both of us. That’s why we’re in this mess in the first place. I just don’t have time right now. That’s why it’s not fair for you to be mad at me like this. I didn’t do anything wrong to you. This is for your own good. Right now, you’re failing school, you’re unattractive, you’ always sulking and being difficult. But things are going to change, Lucy. It’s going to be so much better when you’re gone. I mean for you. When you’re there it’ll be better for you. You’ll see…”

                Lucy Jane Bingham slouched in the backseat of her mother’s car. There was no point in responding, she wouldn’t hear her anyway. Lucy was to be sent away to her aunt and uncle’s home, and that was that. They lived so far across the country that it might as well have been another planet. And she wasn’t even allowed to pack her things other than some clothes because her mother wants her to “purge the nasty.” Whatever that meant. Leaving them behind was difficult, but what made it nearly impossible to take was the knowledge that she would never see those things again. It would be less than a week before it was all in the dump, and she knew it. Everything that was anything was being ripped away. She would see, though. It was her mother’s new mantra, and ever time she heard it…

                “It’s me,” Lucy thought. “Mom just doesn’t want me anymore. And Dad would’ve done something about this if he cared at all. He doesn’t. Neither of them does. Neither of them wants me.” And this thought repeated itself over and again as she was driven to the airport.

                Her flight wasn’t for another hour, but her mother had a hair appointment she couldn’t miss. After waiting and walking through the search lines, Lucy found a spot on the floor against the wall of the overcrowded terminal. She tucked up her knees in front of her and buried her face in her arms. She cried silently so that no one would hear, a skill she had mastered in recent months as her mother had implemented the rule of no more crying.

                “Care for a book?” a woman’s smiling voice asked from above her. Lucy smeared away her tears on her sleeves as she lifted her head.

                “A book?” Lucy repeated. The woman was plump and motherly, pushing an assortment of books on a small metal cart. “No, thanks. I don’t have any money.”

                “Well, that’s perfect then, because these don’t cost anything. Let’s see what we can find in here for you…” Without waiting for a response, the woman began digging through the pile, speaking softly to herself. “Here it is! I always loved this one. Perhaps you’d like to read it.”

                Lucy stared at the small book extended to her. She remained still until the woman shook the book, urging her to take it. Lucy accepted it and continued to look upon the cover transfixed.

                “Thank you,” Lucy finally said, but the woman was already gone.

                Crossing her legs, Lucy rested her elbows on her knees and opened the book to the first chapter.

                “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers,” she read. “Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

               And Lucy laughed.          



Studies In gray.


Through the window of a diner, the sunlight was not a stream but a submersion, where, in a time far removed from the present, patrons soaked up the warmth and light. Comforting as it could have been, for Frida it was simply the familiar precursor to a half-baked afternoon. This was the feeling before the work began. Heat on the skin. Bright in the eyes. Smoke in the lungs as she leaned against the old gray pickup. That truck was wearing out, but something about the sight of it sitting in the dusty old desert gave her a fantastic chill.

                “There you are,” said Davis as he swung the door open and stepped hurriedly outside, a toothpick sticking out from between his teeth. “I been lookin’ all around for you. Didn’t you hear me callin’? I just about thought you left me.”

                “Thought about it.”

                “Look,” he began, then paused. “I think we should talk about—”

                “I don’t want to talk. About anything.”

                “But what happened—”

                “I said I don’t want to talk,” she insisted. Frida looked out at the lowering ball of fire setting off explosions of mirages across the endless miles of rocks, sand, and brush. She took a long drag of her last cigarette before offering it. “I’m just tired, Davis. I’m just really fucking tired.”

                “I’m not gonna say anything. No one’s gonna hear about it from me.”

               “Better not.”

               “We ain’t got much further to go,” Davis sighed. “Maybe fifty miles, and that’s assumin’ no quakes hold us up or make us circle ‘round. But I wouldn’t count on that.”

                “I wouldn’t either.” Frida looked at him. “Anything on the radio from the outpost?”

               “Nah. Nothin’.”

               Silently, Davis removed the stained and weathered Stetson from his head before whipping his fingers through his hair. Frida remembered when it was hardly more than a buzz cut. He’d always liked his hair short. Now it was a good five or six inches. Maybe more. It suited him though, and the beard.

               “I guess we’ll just have to hope that they’re okay. If not, this whole mission is nothing but a waste of time and resources.” Frida flicked the ashes from the end of her cigarette and took two consecutive puffs. Davis squinted at her.

               “You okay?”

               “What do you mean? I’m fine.” She tossed the cigarette and pushed herself off the truck to open the passenger door.

               “You seem off,” he said. “Like you got somethin’ eatin’ at you.”

               “I told you, I’m tired.”

               “Yeah, me too. But that’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

               “Davis!” Frida whirled around to face him. “I’m fucking fine, okay? Just knock it off with the questions!” They looked at each other for a long moment, and Frida took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling great.”

                “We should hit the road,” Davis said after a quiet stare at the dirt. “Need to make this light count. You check the cargo straps?” He walked around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.

                “Yeah. It’s all secure.”

                Minutes later, Frida leaned back in the passenger seat, her two naked feet propped in front of the side view mirror with the wind stealing between her toes. She’d always loved that feeling since she was young, closing her eyes, imagining she was walking on the breeze.  Frida closed her eyes again, and for a moment, she almost felt that it was her father behind the wheel, and that she was a little girl, and everything would always be all right.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                “You asleep?” asked Davis.

                Frida remained silent, listening to the strained hum of the engine. The odometer was coming up on 370,000 miles with parts stolen, rigged and repurposed from other disabled vehicles. Who knew how many miles that added up to collectively? Miles upon miles with nothing to show for it. Then again, this was a different time. Before the reckoning, miles meant something. It was a measurement between places that existed and had people and things happening. Now, miles were simply invisible points somewhere in the distance. Close or far, it didn’t matter if there was nothing at the end. It was all a globe of empty and infinite directions now.

                “Fri, I need you to navigate. The road’s disappeared.” Davis was squinting at the ground before them as she sat up, slipped her boots back on, and retrieved the map from the glove box.

                “When was the last mile marker?”

                “About ten miles ago, I’d say.”

                “Then we should be seeing it soon.” Frida scanned the skyline. “There,” she said, pointing to a distant rock formation carved by prehistoric waters.


                “Yeah. Less than an hour, Davis,” she smiled. “That’s all.”

                “You thought about what we’ll do if we get there an’…well, y’know? We keep hearin’ ‘bout these stampedes comin’ through—”

                “There’s no way that’s a real thing, Davis. Give me a break.”

                “How can you be so sure? Did you ever think ten or fifteen years ago that the world would look like it does now?”

                “Just drive,” Frida said.

                “What’s your problem?” Davis looked at her. “You’re scared.”

                “I’m not fucking scared.”

                “Yeah, you are,” he laughed. “Why the hell you always gotta act like Little Miss Badass? Nobody buys that shit, y’know.”

                “I don’t act like anything. And you’re one to talk considering you have to keep a bottle of that jet fuel by your side all the time.”

                “It’s moonshine that I made myself. It’s a goddamn art, an’ it keeps me centered.”

                “Just keep telling yourself that.”

                They each glared out into the desert. When the two-week mission had started, neither of them had anticipated hating each other by the end of it, despite cutting down the time by almost three days. It was supposed to be a simple resupply like all their others. But somehow, time had proven them to be less formidable a team as anyone had thought. Frida was done with him, and Davis was done with her. Once they got to Outpost 42 and delivered the cargo, she’d find another way back to the base. Or he could. Why should she have to give up the truck?

                “Why are you going so fast? You’re going to waste fuel.”

“It’s gettin’ dark. We can’t defend ourselves out here.”

                Giving no response to his concern, Frida took an expired oatmeal bar from her backpack on the floor and cracked it into halves. She handed one half to Davis who frowned at it.

                “I can’t wait to eat something that won’t break my teeth,” he said, accepting it. “What d’you think Bill and Jenny are cookin’ up for supper back at the base?”

                “I just want some protein,” said Frida.

                “A steak dinner sounds all right to me.”

                “I was thinking more like salmon…with a white wine sauce and steamed spears of fresh asparagus.”

                Davis leaned in with an enthralled smile. “Fried chicken.”

                “Shut up, Davis,” Frida said shaking her head. “There are just some things you shouldn’t joke—”

                “Oh, shit.” Davis’s eyes widened as he looked towards the right. The darkness had been descending upon the desert like a wave, and with it, a cloud of dust was rising.

                “What is that?”

                “We should’ve stayed at the fuckin’ diner,” Davis said, the panic in his voice elevating.

                “Just keep going. Turn the brights on.” The headlights pierced ahead into the darkening shadows before them, the ground beneath the tires throwing up dirt behind. The rumbling the two had thought was the truck riding over the unpaved land was growing in intensity, and it soon became apparent that it was originating elsewhere.

                “Is that an earthquake?” asked Frida.

                “No kind of quake I ever felt before.”

                “Maybe far away?”

                “It’s comin’ from the dark, Frida. That’s no earthquake.” The darkness and the cloud suddenly swallowed up all the world before them, the rock formation disappearing from sight. Davis cursed and suddenly cut the wheel. “We’re goin’ back.”

                “We can’t go back!” Frida yelled. “We have to make our delivery! We’re running out of time!”

                “If we don’t get away from whatever that is, there won’t be anythin’ to deliver!”

                Davis kept speaking, but Frida could hear none of it as the rumbling which was now behind them grew deafening, rattling their lungs and spines. Frida turned around in her seat and screamed a curse that could not be heard as the vibration cracked then shattered the front and rear windshields. She gritted her teeth from the pain, and Davis shielded his eyes with his arm as little glass shards embedded themselves into their skin.

                About thirty yards behind them, dozens of eyes reflected the little glimmers of light that hadn’t yet disappeared over the western horizon. There had been rumors about herds of the shadowlings having formed in the open plains and in the desert, but that had all been dismissed because no one had ever actually seen it, at least, no one still living. How it was possible, Frida didn’t know, and, in the moment, it didn’t matter. She reached behind their seats for the M16. There were only eighteen rounds remaining in the magazine, so if she wanted to make her shots count, she’d have to take them while she could still see.

                Frida aimed the rifle through the broken rear windshield, the eyes now only twenty feet behind. She watched as one by one, the pursuing eyes flickered away. The day was sending out its final feeble throws of light. Frida aimed between the last pair of eyes that remained visible, and just as they too disappeared, she pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash illuminated the space surrounding them, and a sea of pale contorted faces appeared with frothing hungry mouths and gnashing teeth. But, what was that? Frida saw something she’d never have expected or imagined in a hundred, even a thousand years. Before she could take the moment to process the information, however, she felt a sudden weightlessness lift her body from the seat.

                The ground before them had suddenly opened up with a thunderous groan, and the nose of the truck was tipping over the edge. With equal ferocity, a floor of solid rock charged up from the depths, catching them midfall. Both Frida and Davis were slung around the cab of the truck like dead rats in a flooded sewer. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the earth became still again, followed by the sounds of small rocks and pebbles settling until even the rumbling of the herd had become silent. Frida looked up at the edge, the taillights of the truck revealing what she’d thought couldn’t be real. They looked back at her, hungry and milling about in agitation, bathed in red brake lights.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the…

                Some unknown time later, Frida could see the glow of day through her closed lids. Every piece of her body ached as she sputtered a dusty cough. Her face was somehow against the floorboard of the cab, and the sickly-sweet odor of antifreeze filled her nostrils. She coughed again before reaching a blind hand to grab the shifter and wriggle herself up. A dirty tarp covered her body, and she pushed it off.


                Relaxing her body for a moment, she looked ahead and found the truck to be vertical, standing on its grill with its rear tires leaning against the cliff face. A river of pale blue sky was visible between the walls of the chasm that had been formed by the apparent earthquake. Her vision blurred, and Frida clenched her eyes shut and open again several times.


                Frida was finally able to turn her head to see that the driver’s seat was empty, and she momentarily forgot her pain. She tried to yell his name, but she couldn’t get a full breath while folded in her current position, legs on the seat, back against the glovebox. Using her elbows, she pushed harder until she was upright.

                “Davis!” Why wasn’t he answering?

               She estimated that they’d fallen fifty to a hundred feet, the lack of dimension the sky possessed making it nearly impossible to accurately discern any distance upward. The ravine stretched right and left, far and wide, until both directions made sharp turns. Frida looked herself over, finding only a few cuts and bruises, relieved that, to her best guess, she had no broken bones. She wondered how long she’d been unconscious. Long enough for the sun to be high again. Perhaps six hours? No more than eight or it would be dark again, unless she’d been out for twelve or more hours. There was no way to tell for sure.

               And where the hell was Davis?

               A thought suddenly overwhelmed Frida’s mind, and frantically, she scooted herself up and out of the truck, lied on the ground for a moment, then stood to view the truck bed. Her blood tingled, and her stomach knotted as she found the cargo gone, the straps that had been holding it into place unhooked. Swiveling her neck, she looked all around for the steel container. There was nothing on the ground but leaking fluids from the mangled engine. Frida began searching in widening circles around the truck until she found herself several meters from where they’d landed. No container. No Davis.

                “He must have it,” she thought. “He has to have it.”

                The only logical explanation to Frida was that he’d come to much sooner than she had, thought she was dead, and taken the cargo with him to find a way out. There was no way to tell which direction he might have gone, however, as there were no tracks to be left behind on the solid rock.

                “He would’ve tried to head northeast towards the outpost,” Frida said aloud. Realization striking, she reached for the radio. If she could reach them…No. A piece of metal was lodged in the center of it. She’d have to make her own way. A few moments later, she was holding her compass open in front of her but watched in dismay as the arrow spun around once, then twice, then ticked from north to south in slow repetition. She would have to guess. The position of the sun was unclear, but the direction of the truck suggested that the ravine ran east to west. She would have to hope that Davis had made the same deduction.

               Frida returned to the truck to retrieve her backpack and found their last five-gallon water can to have leaked at least half its contents through a crack in its side. This left her with an inventory of her compass, two water bottles, her father’s combat knife, three oatmeal bars, a small medical kit with two sterile bandages and five alcohol swabs, ten feet of paracord, a roll of duct tape, a tactical light for the rifle, the tarp, a sack of dried lavender seeds and leaves, one signaling mirror, a book of matches, four torch rags, one flare, and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. Unable to take both the water and the gasoline, she taped up the side of the water can and attached one of the cargo straps to work as a shoulder sling. She then emptied her two water bottles and filled them with fuel. The M16 she would carry at the alert, muzzle towards the dirt, the way her father had instructed her to do when patrolling on foot.

                Frida began walking, trying to stay within what little shade the depths of the chasm provided. The bedrock that had risen was jagged in places, the prehistoric lines formed under pressure and heat running across the walls and through the rock. She considered what kind of odds there were that she would be the first human to see what the earth had been mixing and mashing together in its belly. Of all the people that ever lived, she was the one to see it. Except for Davis.

                Her hopes that Davis had come that way were keeping her vigilant for signs of confirmation. Perhaps he had left some signal behind for her, though that was unlikely if he’d thought she was dead. Why wouldn’t he have checked? He had been a medic years ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to check for a pulse. Frida felt a splinter of anger poking through her concern for Davis’s welfare. If roles had been reversed, she would have never left him behind unless she knew with complete certainty that he was dead.

                The sun was well on its way to setting now, and a hot breeze was flowing through the chasm. Her breathing felt thick and heavy as the heat filled her nose and lungs. It was excruciating at times as her heart would not permit her to breath slower. Frida had to continue. If something were to happen to Davis and she did not press on, the delivery would be a failure. Outpost 42 would know by now that something had happened to them. Perhaps they would send out a search party. Perhaps they already had. Perhaps they’d found Davis and had gone back when he told them she was dead. Davis pissed her off sometimes, and she’d never restrained herself from pissing him off right back. Maybe this was his way of getting rid of her. Maybe he’d never liked her in the first place.

               “No,” she thought. “He wouldn’t do that to you. Not after all this time.”

               Frida and Davis had never been late on a resupply run in the year and a half they’d been running routes together, a fact they prided themselves on. After a while, the whole thing had become almost easy, and she wondered if this was all the product of their own complacency. They’d taken their time, searched and scavenged longer than was necessary. They could’ve made it to the outpost well before dark if they’d just kept going. Whose idea was it to stop, anyway?

               “I gotta go,” Davis had said.


               “You know…I gotta go.”

               “The world is a man’s pisser, isn’t it?” she’d asked. “Pick a place. Any place.”

                “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout pissin’.” He’d raised his eyebrows to help convey his meaning, and Frida had grimaced.

                He’d had to take a shit. That’s why they stopped. Fucking grown man couldn’t wait.

               Frida thought of the herd, of the perplexing thing she’d scene. It was a terrifyingly incredible thing, and the vision of the hundred or more shadowlings stampeding toward the truck would be forever imprinted into her mind. However, what would haunt her until the day that she died was the sight of mounted riders. They had been masked, wearing dark trench coats with white bands around their left arms. How something of that nature had happened, the taming of shadowlings, was a jigsaw of a mystery. Shadowlings were an inhuman breed of four-legged beasts, terrorizing the world by night, haunting the mind by day. They had come what seemed out of nowhere except the shadows. There was no explanation of their evolution other than the drastic change of the environment, but even that was a weak conjecture.

               Four years earlier, Lee Howard Hamilton had been the first person to ever survive a shadowling’s attack. They usually hunted in small packs, rarely alone. In Hamilton’s case, it had been a lone shadowling. Hamilton had managed to shoot it in the head, but not before it had bitten a chunk of meat from his leg. The wound itself wasn’t mortal, but the bite was festering. Within ten minutes, a human would usually be paralyzed, and their blood vessels would begin to petrify. To find a person that had died of a shadowling bite was the stuff of nightmares. Hamilton survived by chewing on lavender seeds, or so the story goes. Why he decided to chew on them or even had them at all was anyone’s guess. Either way, it worked, and the lavender flower suddenly became more precious than gold, while Hamilton became a legend who disappeared into obscurity. But the memory of the riders made her shudder, and Frida considered that there perhaps was something to fear greater than the monsters.

                The blue sky above was turning purple and gray, the chasm becoming dark much faster than she’d expected. Who knew how far Davis might have gotten? She wondered if the whole idea of catching up to him was foolish and cursed for being stuck in a hole in the goddamn ground. Frida began searching the rock wall for any large crevices that she could wedge herself into until it was light again. As the sun was nearly gone, she found one and quickly hung the tarp over it as a curtain and sprinkled a handful of lavender leaves on the surrounding ground, crumbling them between her fingers. It was a large enough opening to keep her pack by her stomach and the rifle pointed out. With the light mounted on it, she would be able to illuminate any threats and get her shots off quickly. Hidden in the wall, she was safe enough and had to only hope not to get buried alive by another earthquake.

                The ravine was eerily silent, the darkness so thick that she could hardly discern between her eyes being open and being closed. Every sound of the smallest rocks settling kept her at constant alarm. Frida breathed, resting her face against the rock. It was cool to the touch, the way it had been when she had gone rock climbing with her father as a girl. She’d been flat against the wall then, too, but only to listen. He’d rested the side of his face against the rock next to her, his steel eyes meeting hers, and he’d smiled.

               “What do you hear?” her father had asked.

               “I don’t know.”

               “Listen closer.”

               Frida had closed her eyes and focused all her thoughts on the sound. It was a hush, like the flow of water, and a rhythm like the heartbeat of the earth. She listened again now, eyes closed, and she smiled.

               One. Smell the rain.

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               Three. Smell the rain.


               Small rocks ground together beyond the tarp, then again, and a third time. Frida’s eyes shot open, and she halted her breath. Footsteps were slowly drawing closer, and she pressed back into the crevice, one hand on the light, the other on the pistol grip. Silently, she flipped the safety off, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “Frida?” a voice whispered.

               She froze.

               “Frida, are you there?”

               “Davis?” she finally replied breathlessly. “Is that you?”

               “Yeah! It’s me! Are you in the wall?”

               Frida reached out and turned back the tarp. Unable to see, she simply felt his hand on hers, and despite her anger, she couldn’t help but to inwardly acknowledge the relief that his touch gave her. Davis knelt beside the crevice inside the tarp.

               “What the fuck happened to you?!” Frida whispered a yell. “Why the hell did you leave me?!”

               “I didn’t leave you, Fri. Not really, anyway. I just went to look for a way out. I was comin’ back, but I guess you woke up and started walkin’ before I did. I knew you must’ve come this way since we didn’t run into each other.”

               “But why did you take the cargo?”

               “It just seemed like the smart thing to do since you were passed out. Whatever’s in there isn’t as heavy as you’d think, actually.

               “Wait…How are you walking around right now? It’s pitch black.”

               “Still got my night vision goggles from a couple years ago when we moved into that military base. You didn’t get a pair?”

               “No. I didn’t.”

               “Well, you need to when we get back.”

               “Who says we’re getting back?” Frida asked, and Davis said nothing. “Look…What happened up there, I don’t know if I can believe it all.”

               “I know. I thought the herd thing was far-fetched myself, but I guess it’s true. Wild ain’t it? At least we know we’re safe during the day. Out here, shadowlings are the only thing to worry about, and we can outsmart those things easy.”

               “Davis, I don’t think—”

               “We should probably stop talkin’ for now,” he said. “Let’s wait ‘til it’s light.”

               Despite her desire to share what she’d seen, she couldn’t disagree with him and remained silent.

               A few hours later, the sun had returned enough to emerge from behind the tarp, and they both took turns relieving themselves behind a boulder.

               “Nice work gettin’ the water,” said Davis. “I brought the gasoline. We can swap carryin’ them every once in a while, if you want.”

               “Sure.” Frida looked up and around the rock walls. “We just need to get out of here. You know earthquakes come in threes, right?”

               “So they say.”

               “It’s true.”

               “Earthquakes happen so often you could divide them any which way, and that’s how it’ll look. Threes, fours, tens, whatever.”

                “Do you have to argue about everything?” Frida asked, folding her arms.

                “I wasn’t arguin’,” he said.

                “Yes, you were. What the hell is your problem?”

                “What the hell’s your problem?” he demanded. “I walked ‘round this ravine in the middle of the goddamn night lookin’ for you, and I didn’t have to.”

                “No one asked you to,” Frida said.

                “No one needed to ask me to. I want us to both get out of here. We’re a team, Fri.”

                “Goddamn it! Stop calling me Fri!” She clenched and shook her fists.

                “But I’ve always called you Fri,” he said, puzzled.

                “And I’ve always hated it! So fucking stop it!”

                Davis shifted his weight, his hat cocked back on his head. He took out an old handkerchief and wiped the sweat from around his neck, then folded and returned it to his back pocket. Frida went to her backpack and began zipping everything up.

                “Are we gonna talk about what happened yesterday yet?”

                “Nothing happened,” she said without looking at him.


                “I’m walking now.”

                Frida stepped off once again toward the east, and Davis shook his head with an exasperated chuckle. She began to wish he’d just kept going the other direction, that he hadn’t been so gung-ho about teamwork and leaving no one behind. She was fine without him. Saner, anyway. There was no denying her relief when he appeared last night, however. But there was no admitting this to Davis.

                The two of them walked slowly along the floor of the chasm, the intermittent wind gusts beating the heat into their bones. Davis led the way for a short distance, then moved back behind Frida to avoid outpacing her. All the while, they remained silent except to warn each other of dips in the rocks or loose stones. Frida tried to think of a way to describe the riders on the shadowlings the night before, but was already struggling to maintain a calm, steady breathing pattern. Speaking would only worsen it.

                “Let’s take a rest,” said Davis.

                Without protest, Frida leaned against the rock wall, her forehead and cheeks streaked with dirty sweat. Though they both felt as though their throats were coated in sand, two sips of water each was all they would afford themselves. There seemed a fair amount of water at the moment, but if they weren’t careful, it could easily be gone by the end of the day, and there was no telling how long it would be until they reached a drinkable water source.

                “Here. Have a piece of gum.” Davis held out half a stick, and she accepted with quiet thanks. “You doin’ all right?”

                “Yeah,” she nodded. “I guess. How far do you think we’ve been walking? Four or five miles?

                “At least.”

                “We’ve got to get out of this ravine, Davis,” Frida sighed. “There’s going to be another quake soon. We both know it.”

                “Yes, ma’am, there certainly is.” A stranger’s words echoed down to them from the clifftop, startling them as they each pressed against the wall.

                “Hello, down there.” A man’s voice, deep and full called down. “I see you folks are in a bit of a predicament.” Frida and Davis looked up to see a heavyset man with a graying beard smiling down at them, a cowboy hat shadowing his eyes. The hem of his trench coat flirted with the edge of the cliff.

                “Who are you?” Davis asked.

                “I might ask you two the same question,” he responded. “After all, you are trespassing on my land.” Frida and Davis looked at each other.

               “We’re stuck in a ravine in the middle of the desert,” said Davis. “How are we trespassing?”

               “This is my desert which makes this my ravine,” he said. “So, I’ll ask you one more time. Who are you?” The man sighted in on them with a large, scoped rifle. Frida moved to aim the M16. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that, little missy.”

               “Look, we’re just travelling from Santa Fe to get to Deming,” said Frida. “We’re nobody.”

               “Quite a ways from the beaten path to be nobody.”

               “We got lost.”

               “Sure, you did.” He chuckled. “What’s in the box?”

               “What box?” asked Davis.

               “The metal box you’re trying to hide. What’s in it?” Davis said nothing. “I said, what’s in the damn box?” The man’s voice growled.

               “We don’t know.”

               “Where’s it going? And don’t tell me Deming.”

               “We’re trying to get to Outpost 42,” Frida said. Davis inhaled sharply and shook his head at her.

               “Outpost 42,” the man repeated. “I know the place.”

               “We’re on official government business, and we can’t afford any more lost time. Can you help us out of here?”

               “Government business? What government?” he laughed.

               “The United States government,” she said. Davis put his head down.

               “The United States government doesn’t exist.”

               “Yes, it does.”

               “Not out here!” The man yelled down angrily. “This is Shadowrider Territory, and we are the government!”

               “We?” Davis asked, “Who is we?”

               He smiled from behind his rifle before lowering it. Without a word, the cliff quickly became fully lined with masked figures in dark trench coats, white bands around their arms. Each held a weapon of some kind from swords and knives to pistols and submachine guns.

               “Shit,” Davis said under his breath.

                “We’ve got eyes and ears everywhere,” the man continued. “We knew you were coming. That’s why we sent the welcoming party last night.”

                “What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?” asked Davis.

                “I should’ve told you,” said Frida. “Last night when we were being chased…they were riding the shadowlings.”

                “Ridin’ them?! And you didn’t tell me?!”

                “We’re only interested in the cargo,” the man said. “Just hand it over, and we’ll let you be on your way.”

                “We’re federally mandated couriers,” Davis answered. “We won’t be handin’ over anythin’.”

                “Suit yourselves,” the man shrugged, handing his rifle to the masked man beside him. “Let me ask you though, how long will that water last you? A couple of days? How much food do you have? Starving to death is more painful than it sounds, you know. I’ve seen plenty of it out here. Who knows? An earthquake might close this whole ravine back up. They’re very unpredictable. Of course, that may actually be better than starving to death. Quicker, at least.”

                “If we did give it to you,” said Frida, “how would you open it? It’s locked.”

                “A lock is a lock is a lock,” he answered. “Anything can be broken into.”

                “This is a militarized cargo box,” she continued. “It’s rigged to blow if its tampered with.”

                “That even smells like bullshit.”

                “It’s not.”

                The man above crossed his arms and began to pace back and forth in a small limping line. “Do you know what’s in that container?”

                “It ain’t our job to know,” said Davis.

                “Of course, it isn’t. Well, let me enlighten you,” he said. “Inside that box is the greatest scientific breakthrough of any importance in the modern world. It will improve everything for everyone, everywhere.”

                “You don’t strike me as the type to care about the wellbeing of other people.”

                “I’m a part of this world just like you, aren’t I?”

                “A different part,” Frida said.

                “We don’t even know who you are,” said Davis. The man nodded.

                “Yes, you’ve got a point,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lee Howard Hamilton. You may have heard of me.”

                “We’ve heard rumors.”

                “Most of them true. Where is the credit I deserve for finding a natural antivenom for a shadowling bite? Oh, well. I don’t care about fame anyway. Fame doesn’t mean anything in a world like this. My only interest is what’s good for all of us. What you have in that box is the key to a new dawn of civilization.”

                “Unless it’s another moon, I don’t know how that’s possible,” Davis said.

                “No, not a moon. There was only ever one of those, and the government’s destruction of it cost the world everything.”

“It was accidentally destroyed while conducting lunar nuclear tests.”

“That’s what they told us, but we know the truth.”

“Conspiracy theories,” said Davis. “There’s no proof of that.”

“At this point, does it really matter what you believe?” Hamilton asked. “We can’t replace it. It’s too late. That’s why what you have in that box is so important.” He ran his fingers through his beard.

                “What is it then?” asked Frida.

                “It’s a seedling, the first of a new genetically engineered species of grain that can grow in any soil, in any climate, with varying amounts of water and light. It doesn’t grow according to any seasons, but all year round. Simply put, it’s the answer to the world’s food shortage.”

                “Then why are you trying to steal it if it’s such a good thing?”

                “Do you know what’s at Outpost 42?” he asked. “It’s the entrance to an underground facility where biological experiments are conducted on all types of species of animals. They develop viruses and the vaccines and the viruses to kill the vaccines

                “But why? What for?” Frida asked.

                “Control. Control of you. Control of me. Control of us all.”

                “You got no proof!” Davis yelled.

                “No? Where do you think the shadowlings come from? Not out of the shadows like people say, I can assure you of that.” The man laughed until he sputtered into a cough. “You don’t know which side you’re really on.”

                “We’re mandated couriers for the U.S. government,” said Davis, “and we’re not goin’ to—”

                A deafening gunshot reverberated through the chasm, and Davis’ entire body bounced against the wall behind him then onto the ground, an exit wound gaping in the back of his skull.

                Blood and bone were splattered onto Frida’s face, and in a sudden panic, she screamed, pressing her body against the wall. She began to cry tears of hate and fury. There wasn’t a modicum of cooperation left within her, but what was she to do?
                “I didn’t want to have to do that,” said Hamilton with a frown. “It’s always important to get a good understanding of one’s situation for just such a reason. I hope you understand yours.”   

               She couldn’t allow herself to feel it. She couldn’t allow herself to be the victim he wanted her to be. There was more to this than the cargo or her life or Davis’s dead body. There was no more room in the world for weakness. She turned her head against the stone wall.

               “Listen closer,” she thought, her eyes closed. “What do you hear? What do you hear?

               One. Smell the rain.

               “I hear them.

               “No, Frida. What do you hear beyond them?

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               “I hear…the wind.


               “The earth…it’s unsettled…

               Three. Smell the rain.


               “The earth is shaking…


               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “The earth is—”

               Frida’s eyes snapped open to see a small pebble trembling at her feet, then another and a third.

               “It’s a quake!” someone yelled from above. “Get back! Get back!”

               Frida looked up at the river of sky again, appearing almost like a flowing stream between the swaying cliffs. Hamilton and his band of shadowriders had disappeared from the rim of the chasm. She was about to die, and all for nothing. There was no way to change it, and in this knowledge, Frida forced herself to be still. Her final moments wouldn’t be wasted panicking. What was the point? She was about to be swallowed up into the earth. And all because Davis had to take a shit.

                “Look there,” Davis had said. “An old diner. Who knows? Maybe someone left some toilet paper behind.”

                “Just don’t take forever, okay? We’ve got to get to the outpost before dark.”

                “I know that, Fri. It’ll only take a second. Or two.”

                They’d pulled up slowly to the single cubed building with chrome and aluminum edging around the windows and roof. The sun had reflected off the diner and into their eyes giving it the appearance of a giant, dumpy gem. There’d been a dry layer of pale dust on everything, and their hands had left prints on anything they’d touched.

                “Holy shit. There’s power here.” The lights inside flickered on.

                “How is that even possible?” asked Frida. “Even if there was a generator, wouldn’t it have rusted or something?”

                “I don’t hear a generator,” said Davis.

                “This is fucking weird. I don’t know about this place.”

                They’d walked around cautiously from the front to the back, Frida carrying the rifle and Davis with his pistol drawn. The place had been stripped long ago, even of silverware, cups, and cooking equipment. Davis, who had searched down a short hallway, suddenly cried out.

                “Davis! What’s wrong?” Frida rushed to him, only to find him grinning.

                “They’ve got toilet paper.”

                After taking another look for supplies and finding nothing, Frida went back outside. She’d walked slowly around the truck, checking it for any leaks or damage that might cause any upcoming problems. Jumping up onto the bed of the pickup, Frida had begun checking each of the four straps holding the metal container in place. That was when the lid of the box had caught her eye. It was slightly ajar, unevenly locked. She’d knelt down, examined the gap, and after failing to press it closed, determined the only way to fix it would be to unlock and relock it. She’d typed in the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the electronic pad. It had beeped and lit up green. She’d opened the lid.

                What Frida saw was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Frida closed the lid and hated the world.

                Davis had never seen what she had seen, and now he was dead for protecting something he could have never fathomed. A decade ago, the thought would have brought her to tears. However, a decade ago there were no shadowlings, no Hamilton, no worldwide quakes, and the moon was still illuminating the night sky. The moon had been Mother Nature’s way of comforting the little humans that flourished on Earth when the sun was gone. But the little humans had killed her, and the moon had been soon to follow. Death had become nothing but an occasion as remarkable as a hiccup. Hold your breath, and it goes away without another thought until the next one.

               As though there actually existed a thing called fate or destiny, Frida survived the second quake. She didn’t bother reasoning why or how. The ravine had narrowed by several feet, but there was still room to walk through. As the walls had shifted, large pieces had crumbled, and as though a stairway to heaven, a steep grade was formed that could be climbed back up to the surface.

               Frida stood slowly to her feet, her knees unsteady, but she continued walking upwards with the locked metal box in her arms.  The sun was beginning another descent, casting fingers of color and light through a few distant clouds. She had seen it before when she was young, and her memory replayed the sound of her father’s voice as he’d read aloud from his poetry collection on the front stairs of their home. There was a particular poem that he was always sure to read no matter what. This poem by Longfellow was perhaps his favorite of them all.

               Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

               Life is but an empty dream!

               For the soul is dead that slumbers,

               And things are not what they seem.

               Life is real! Life is earnest!

               And the grave is not its goal;

               Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

               Was not…

               “Was not…Was not what?” Frida stopped walking.

               If there had ever been a question in her mind about how the worst things happen to regular people, it was answered now. She had been born in reasonable comfort. She’d gone to a good school, had a loving father who loved her more than any two parents could, played softball and field hockey, made up tunes on an old guitar, dreamed on a porch swing during midsummer nights about the wonderful future. Now, twenty years later, she was ascending from what had been a certain grave into a barren desert. The world had changed, and so her life had changed. She wanted to say it wasn’t fair. She wanted to say that there was something about it all that shouldn’t be happening to her. It was a life that belonged to someone else. Now, she realized that she had been that someone else all along.

                Frida continued until she reached the top and looked around. The stone formation that had served as a landmark was almost invisible in the distance. In the opposite direction, the diner glimmered, murky and fluid behind the rising heat. Frida sighed in relief and started up a quick pace with the newfound hope in sight, and she imagined quite clearly how refreshing and cool it would be inside with running water and electricity. She could hide there for a while, hide the box until it was safe again, until she could decide what to do with it. Hamilton might have been a murderer, the ringleader of a gang of evil shadowriders, but it didn’t mean that everything he’d said was wrong. She’d seen inside the box herself, and it had killed her trust in anyone.

                Frida had closed the lid and hated the world. It was a feeling she’d not ever experienced before, and she was torn between the beauty of what she’d seen and what she was surrounded by. All that she’d become accustomed to around her was now sickening. There was and would never be anything more wondrous than what she’d beheld in the box, and when she had returned inside the diner, she couldn’t contain her disgust and rage any longer. She’d smashed the mirrors with the buttstock of her rifle, smashed chairs and broken shelves. Davis had run out to her, wrapped his arms around her as she wept malicious tears. And he hadn’t asked her why, as though he’d already understood.

                The distance between Frida and the diner was closing more slowly than she’d anticipated. A familiar sound began to drone quietly, and she looked over her shoulder. In the distance, a large mob of shadowlings were bearing down on her with the creeping darkness. Frida began running awkwardly with her hands full, panting as the winds picked up again. The dust and dirt were forming clouds around her, and to her dismay, the visibility of the diner began to decrease. Her heart felt as though it might burst as each breath was accompanied with sand. Her legs were aching and trembling with exhaustion, and she begged them to continue, almost tripping over herself at times. Still quite a distance away, the diner disappeared completely. The dust storm had darkened the sky, and Frida’s eyes burned with tears. There was no shelter. There was no hope. She continued to run for a few moments more, then halted, realizing that she had completely lost any sense of direction. Without the diner as a reference, she might very well have begun to run in a circle.

                Frida dropped to her knees, a destitute at the mercy of an unforgiving universe. She stopped expecting. She stopped planning. There was only to wait. She sat down on the ground, eyes closed, as the wind swirled around her. There was nothing more to listen for.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                As quickly as it had begun, the winds died, blanketing an eerie silence over the desert. Frida looked up, the remnants of a flaming sky still visible in the distance, and the diner far away. She could here the shadowlings behind her, footsteps approaching slowly.

                “No more running,” said Hamilton, approaching from behind. He walked around to face her, and she looked up at him. “Open the box.”

                “Why?” asked Frida.

                “Because, despite what you might think, I don’t like killing women.”

                “But you do like killing.”

                “It depends.” He took a knee beside her. “I didn’t like killing your friend. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t enjoy it.” Frida folded her hands in her lap. “Open the box.”

                “You don’t want to see what’s inside,” she warned.

                “Yes, I do.”

                Hamilton waited several seconds before pulling a pistol from inside his trench coat. Frida looked around her as the shadowriders surrounded the two of them, mounted on their shadowlings whose snouts were muzzled with iron and chains.

                Frida reached out to the box and entered the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the digital pad, and the light turned green. She presented it to him silently, turning the box to face him. He holstered his pistol and reached down.

               As she watched Hamilton, the remainder of the poem sprang suddenly into her memory, and she smiled.

                Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

                Was not spoken of the soul.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                “This means a new beginning for all of us,” said Hamilton, brushing the dust off the lid.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                The final etchings of twilight stretched out from the horizon.

                Five. Smell the rain.

                Hamilton opened the lid and looked down at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                Six. Blow out the candle.



Studies In gray.


It wasn’t until the day after next that Edward Kind realized each day had been an exact repetition of its predecessor. What caught his attention, however, was not his watch’s weekday indicator remaining on Tuesday, not his schedule unchanged from the one previous, nor even his work documents’ digital stamping with yesterday’s date. Even as the conversations in passing at the office and later with his family at the dinner table remained the same, he remained oblivious. Though this all would have proven to be an extremely odd and noticeable occurrence for the average person, for Edward Kind it seemed only as a vague repetition, if not completely ordinary.

The thing about Edward Kind was that his life was already quite monotonous. He was just a family man with a wife, Marcy, their three kids, Adam, Kevin and Lois (in that order), a chocolate lab named Suffix, a fat cat named Schooner, and one hamster whose name changed with the days to whatever fancied Lois at the time. They lived in a brick, suburban house upon which was a mortgage he’d gotten at a fixed rate of 4.3% that would be paid off in only twelve more years—if they kept their payments ahead—just in time to send Adam to the university. Every morning, Edward would wake up at 6am, dress, and drink his coffee. He would eat his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove the practical family sedan to the metro station a mere fifteen minutes away without traffic. He’d catch the red line at 7:35am, stop to make a connection, wait on the platform for another seven minutes, and then be on the blue line at 8:10am until he reached the inner city. From there it was only a ten-minute walk to Edward’s office which was located on the second floor of a nine-story building. He was always there fifteen minutes early and always left five after five, following his customary phone call to Marcy informing her that he was on his way home.

After a reversal of the same route, Edward would arrive home no later than 6:30pm where he’d find Adam and Kevin doing homework. Lois would be either helping Marcy with dinner (as much as a five-year-old could) or be playing with her dolls. It was Edward’s duty as the protector and provider of the home to walk Suffix and pick up his excrement before and after dinner. The children would tell him about their day which was almost always the same. He’d say nothing of his own day generally for the same reason, and Marcy would keep him up to date on what’s on sale and where and why whatever it was was needed. He’d kiss and hug the three children before putting them to bed, and then, if somehow the dishes were washed and laundry folded before 9pm, Edward and his wife would do what every married couple promises to never let become infrequent and boring. It was.
Two days before the day after next, Edward Kind had already prepared his breakfast, driven to the metro station and was attempting to scan his gate pass. At first, he thought it was some sort of malfunction, but after five attempts, he realized that there was indeed something wrong with his pass that was keeping the gate from opening. Disturbed at the intrusion on his routine, Edward Kind demanded to know what was wrong with his pass and approached the station manager.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager swiped the pass in his computer and informed him that it had expired. Edward Kind, after a shake of his head, then paid for a new pass and was let through the gate, but not in time to board the red line at 7:35am. Edward watched in a stunned silence as it disappeared around the rail. He would have to drive to the connection in time to catch the blue line at 8:10am.

Edward Kind didn’t make it in time to board the blue line, however, as traffic became more congested with each mile marker he passed into the city. He would have to drive the whole way, arriving to work one hour and thirty-six minutes late. He had never been late before and was overcome with a feeling of helpless frustration at how much his routine had been shifted by such a trivial thing as an expired metro pass. By the end of the day however, things had returned to normal, and at five after five he informed Marcy that he was coming home. Edward followed his general custom of walking to the metro, taking the blue line to the red, then getting off at the platform where he always had before. That’s when he remembered he had driven that morning, and his car was all the way back at the office. Unable to reach Marcy on the phone, he was forced to hail a cab. He arrived home at 6:41pm.

Edward sat eating his meatloaf as his boys informed him of the unlikely demise of some comic book super villain, his daughter described the picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife informed him of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him. Once the children were in bed and the house was clean, Edward and his wife found themselves alone in their room before 9pm, and so, in the observation of tradition, did as married couples do with the same vigor and energy that newlyweds vow against.

At 6am, Edward was woken by his alarm. Remembering that he had left his car at work, he called ahead for a cab to take him to the metro where he would catch the red line at 7:35am. However, when he exited his home, he discovered his car sitting in its place, just over the dark spot on his paved driveway. Edward gave the cab driver a tip for showing up, then drove himself to the station. As he scanned his pass, the same problem occurred, and again, Edward demanded to know what was wrong with his pass.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager once again informed him that it had expired and issued him a new pass. Edward, perturbed that such a thing was possible, informed the manager that he had just received the card yesterday. Upon viewing the expiration date on the laminated card, Edward was forced to concede against his own recollections. A moment later, he was once again watching in stunned silence as the red line scuttled away.

Edward was one hour and thirty-six minutes late again and apologized to his supervisor for being late two days in a row. His supervisor was confused, and said he’d never been late to work before.

“You’ve never been late to work before,” said Edward’s supervisor. Equally confused, Edward said nothing and returned to his work. At five after five, Edward went back to his car and drove home, arriving at 6:54pm. Edward sat again eating his meatloaf, listening to his boys inform him of the unlikely demise of the comic book super villain, his daughter describe the same picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife inform him again of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him, nor that he already knew what they had to say. The same routines were followed, and Edward and his wife slept together again.

The day after next arrived, and Edward woke at 6am, prepared his breakfast, drove to the station, and scanned the metro pass to walk through. This time, it opened because he’d had the forethought that morning to borrow Marcy’s. Edward smiled in comforting satisfaction as he boarded the red line at 7:35am, arrived at his connection at 8:03am, caught the blue line seven minutes later, and after the ten-minute walk to his office, found himself seated at his desk at fifteen minutes to nine.

Over the next few hours, it seemed that all was normal to Edward Kind. He attended his meetings, submitted his paperwork, and put the day’s mail aside to open at the end of business. It was just before 3pm, however, that Edward received a call from a nurse at the general hospital. There had been a terrible accident.

“Mr. Kind,” said the nurse at the general hospital, “there’s been a terrible accident.” Edward listened to the information of his wife and children driving the minivan through a busy intersection, of glass shards and mangled aluminum and clouds of powder from inflated airbags. He hung up the phone.

After considering the fastest means of travel to the hospital, Edward Kind was running the twelve blocks down the sidewalk. His tie flailed behind him like a boneless appendage. What entered Edward’s mind as he ran were all the possibilities of what could have happened. He wondered what had caused the accident, why he hadn’t asked for details. It wasn’t, he thought, for a lack of caring. Edward reasoned that he was simply unprepared for this. It had never occurred to him that the fabric of his life which had been woven with such worn and fragile threads would be rent apart. He had only eight more blocks to prepare now, for it was never too late to prepare. Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Edward was out of breath and drenched in sweat when he arrived, shouting his wife’s name and that he was her husband.
“Marcy Kind! I’m her husband!” Edward gasped. “Where is she?” The head nurse insisted he calm down, though her orders were not enough to quell the need to see that they were all right, to see his sons discussing their favorite boy things, and his daughter doing what girls like to do with their dolls. He needed to see Marcy’s eyes look at him the way they did and hear how her voice sounded when she told him things. All this would happen again, he thought. They were normal, and unusual things didn’t happen to normal people.

He sat for almost thirty minutes by the nurses’ station, waiting for the doctor to make his appearance and informing him that, though some injuries were sustained, they’d all be good as new. Edward would go in, first to the kids, tell them a joke, make them laugh. Forget it all had happened, as if it was just a bad dream or some unsubstantiated scare. Then he’d go to Marcy, her neck in a brace, a cut on her lip. Perhaps a black eye. But she would give him a warm smile, pleased that he was there. They’d all be thankful. Maybe they’d start going back to church on Sundays, say prayers before bedtime. They’d be better people because of all this. They’d be stronger, wiser, closer. But when the doctor arrived, none of that happened, and Edward found himself trying to summon the definitions of words like blood loss and spines and fractures; words he knew but suddenly found impossible to translate into understanding.

Edward Kind had been thrust into singularity.

Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Over the next several hours, he was led like a blind man in a maze, aware of what was taking place but having no perception of where or why or what next. There was a chaplain who prayed with him, though Edward had already determined the uselessness of it. Two police officers informed him that his family had been killed by a drunk driver who had also died in the crash. A counselor consulted with him on the disposal of his family’s remains and left him with a pamphlet listing the steps of grief and how to cope. The next day, he opened Marcy’s address book listing all their relatives, though the names were as familiar as the ones under “z” in the phone book. He told them all, and they all told him they were shocked and sorry as if they’d been the ones who’d killed them. In a stroke of luck, the local funeral director informed him of the current buy-three-get-one-free special on the most comfortable coffins. His first word in that sales pitch was “coincidentally”.

Edward Kind buried his wife and children four days later.
That following Monday, Edward woke at 5:45am to walk Suffix, then drank his coffee and ate his bacon, eggs and cheese rolled up in a flour tortilla. Edward found each step through the house labored, forcing himself through silence that filled the space like sludge. He drove the fifteen minutes to the metro, caught the red line at 7:35am, waited at his connection for seven minutes, and then boarded the blue line. After making it into the city, Edward made the same ten-minute walk to his office arriving fifteen minutes early. At 5:05pm, he left work. He was about to call Marcy and tell her he was coming home but stopped since she would never answer. When he arrived home, Suffix had gotten into the garbage and had defecated on the floor. Edward scolded him and cleaned up the mess. He fed Schooner, changed the litter box, and checked on Lois’ hamster. It occurred to him that he had no idea what to call the rodent, so he named it Hamster.

The next day was the same, and the one after that. It seemed that every twenty-four-hour increment had become only separable by the different food he microwaved for dinner each night and the shows on television that put him to sleep. If anyone visited, he didn’t answer the door. If anyone called, he ignored the phone. A week later, he had the beginnings of a beard. He still had not entered his children’s rooms, leaving everything as it had been the day they’d died. Marcy’s silk nightgown remained at the edge of the bed, neatly folded in preparation for the night that never came.

Some weeks later, notices of overdue bills began to arrive in the mail and subsequently land in the trash can with the paper boxes of Chinese delivery. Edward had noticed the food beginning to pack the weight on around his midsection and face. One day, the garbage man left a note asking if he would like all the dead flowers to be taken off the porch. Despite walking past them every day in his commute to work, Edward had forgotten about all the bouquets and wreaths constructed of flowers and condolences. He likewise kept forgetting to write a response on the note, and so they all just sat there rotting.

It was on a Saturday without any particular relevance that a deep and intrusive knocking erupted on his front door. Edward stumbled over Schooner to reach the door and opened it to a middle-aged woman in a suit and a white lab coat. Her hair was pin straight and her glasses as circular as quarters. She introduced herself as Dr. Valerie Gunther.

“My name is Dr. Valerie Gunther.” Edward had never heard of her.

“I’ve never heard of you,” he replied.

“That’s all right. I’ve heard of you, Edward Kind, and I can help you get your family back.”

Edward sat listening to Dr. Gunther in his living room explaining the scientific process of her claim. Edward didn’t believe a word of it, but felt he had nothing to lose.

“I don’t believe a word of it, but what do I have to lose?” Dr. Gunther gave him only one warning.

“You must not stray from the path. This is my only warning.”

In his living room, Edward Kind was laid back several hours later on his recliner. A computer with three monitors was set up, countless colorful wires jutting out from the back and snaking to a headpiece that crowned Edward’s head. He hadn’t asked for an explanation of how it all worked, and Dr. Gunther did not offer one. It was as casual a transaction as in a convenience store. Edward listened to the clicking of keys then the buzz of circuit boards and hard drives in action. Dr. Gunther instructed him to focus on his wife, on his children, on their home, on their last day together. Edward did so, his eyes closed, his mind as busy as the computer. Then she informed him he may experience some discomfort.

“You may experience some discomfort,” said Dr. Gunther, and before Edward could ask what kind of discomfort, a bolt of force pummeled through his sternum and into his spine. His ribs quivered, and he thought for a moment that his heart would explode from the pain in his chest. But as quickly as it had begun, the inner quake was over, replaced by a fuzzing of his eardrums that he could feel pulsing from the center of his head. Edward felt his limbs relax, then more core and more chest. His neck no longer held his head, but rather was relieved by a perceived lack of gravity. In his vision, a tiny hole appeared, a white void growing like an enveloping cloud, consuming him, until it had become the universe.

Edward was standing, or what he thought was standing, for though his feet were below him, there was neither shadow nor depth to judge his surroundings by at first. After several moments, lines and shadows began to form in small particles. There was a shelf, a window, a chair. It was his living room, the one he’d existed vaguely in for the past few months, except it was not gray or quiet. It was alive, and from the kitchen, Edward heard voices familiar and exhilarating. He entered quickly, and there at the counter was Marcy, her ivory smile, those glimmering hazel eyes. Her black hair fell as it usually did about her shoulders, framing the dark cream of her skin.

Edward sat at the dinner table eating his meatloaf, discussing with Adam and Kevin about the unlikely demise of their favorite super villain who was half man half crustacean living atop a giant skyscraper in the center of the city. He imagined Lois’ drawing as she described it, a sun over their square house, and outside the house were all of them including Suffix, Schooner, and the hamster DeeDoo. Edward asked Marcy about anything new before she could tell him, and he listened about the new stylist named Karen who came all the way from some fancy cosmetology school in New York.
Edward and Marcy ushered their children through the process of preparing for bedtime. They joked and played along, landing everyone in their beds like airplanes. Together, they washed the dishes, saying very little, though it was just fine, and together they went upstairs, moved to the bed, and made love.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am. He dressed, prepared his breakfast, then was about to get in his car when he remembered the pass problem at the metro. He considered what Dr. Gunther had told him but concluded that getting the pass would only keep him from straying on the path. He returned to his room to retrieve Marcy’s pass. From there, all was as normal.

Edward Kind answered his office phone just before 3pm.
Tears were blistering his cheeks as he ran, faster than the first time, curses of bitter betrayal and anger filling his cheeks like the air he gasped. They were dead, and again, Edward was thrust into that wretched singularity.
It was all the same—the doctors, the police, the funeral director, the graves. The difference, however, was that while he mourned and the flowers rotted, he waited.

There was a knock at Edward’s door.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Dr. Gunther.” The doctor already knew.

“I already knew,” she said frankly. “I’ve been waiting for you as well.”

Dr. Gunther entered the house and together they sat in the living room as before.

“Why did they die again? Why didn’t they stay alive?” Edward demanded to know.

“You strayed from the path, Mr. Kind, as I told you not to the last two times.”

“What do you mean the last two times?”

Dr. Gunther held in her breath before telling him the truth of it all. Edward saw.

“I see.”

“You have a choice to make now, Mr. Kind.” Edward chose.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am, and he slapped his palm down upon the snooze button before opening his eyes, before turning to his side and taking in Marcy’s sleeping visage. The blankets over her rose and fell softly with her breaths, the lashes of her eyes fluttering slightly with her dreams. Edward decided to never leave that place again, that to stay was safety. Quietly, he scooted himself off the bed and into the hall, stopping at the rooms of his children to look in on their peaceful figures before sneaking downstairs and into the kitchen.

There were eggs to be scrambled, strips of bacon to be cooked, pancakes to be mixed and griddled, and he did it all within thirty minutes, setting five places at the table with silverware and glasses of orange juice. As he did all this, it occurred to him that there was no need to stay in the house, to keep them there hoarded away, and an energy Edward had never felt before filled him with the happiness that only a regaining of what had been lost to eternity could produce. He thought about all they’d do with their new lives, with his decided freedom. They’d go to the park and walk the trails stretching through the trees by the river. They’d take a vacation to Florida like Marcy and he had been meaning to do for the past eight years. They’d go get ice cream and spend the evening under the illumination of the drive-in movie, curled up together in the car with popcorn and hot chocolate. He wouldn’t stray from the path. He would make his own.

The sound of steps in the living room pulled Edward’s attention back in, and he hurried to scoop portions of eggs onto each plate with the bacon and pancakes. “I’ve got breakfast on,” he called with a smile, anticipating the surprise on Marcy’s face. Edward stepped through the doorway and into the living room where she was seated on the couch facing the window, unresponsive to his words. “Marcy?” Moving around the couch, his eyes fell upon her face, and the granite of joy that had been sculpted suddenly disintegrated into a heap of rubble and dust.

Where Marcy’s face should have been was a featureless sheet of skin stretched over a shapeless frame. She sat with her hands folded, unmoving, unseeing, unhearing. Edward fell back against the wall unable to breath, strangled by his horror, his lungs shriveling like grapes under an unforgiving, desert sun. He floundered with his hands, moving back toward the kitchen, unable to avert his eyes, unable to comprehend the sudden catapult from immeasurable happiness into infinite madness.

“Adam! Kevin!” Edward bounded up three steps at a time, down the hall to their rooms. Personless forms sat upon their beds in his children’s pajamas. “Lois!” Entering her room, the arms of nobody cradled a stuffed kitty cat as if it still offered security. He shut their doors, then shut himself away in his bedroom, falling breathless upon the carpeted floor of the spinning reality.
“Dr. Gunther!” Edward cried out as if to god. There was no answer.
Edward screamed and cursed, wept and crawled, then finally lay at the foot of the bed staring at the ceiling. It had been hours he felt and in a hopeful courage ventured out to see if perhaps he’d been wrong in what he’d seen, knowing that he had not, and proving it to himself. Eventually the well of tears ran dry, and exhaustion set in, sending him into a black, dreamless sleep.

Edward was shaken awake still on the floor of the darkened bedroom, and when he looked up to see Marcy’s face, he jumped back and away from her. She furrowed her brow, puzzling at him.

“Edward, what are you doing on the floor?” She smiled and kissed his cheek before pulling him into a sitting position. “I have dinner ready. The kids are anxious to see you.” Marcy stood up and disappeared into the hallway from where the voices of Edward’s children were echoing. He emerged slowly from the room, looking around to see that all was as it was supposed to be. Downstairs he found his family at the table, waiting and smiling.

“You’re all here? You’re… you’re all fine?”

“Of course,” Marcy laughed. “Just like every night. Come sit so we can eat.”

Edward knew he had ventured into the unknown when he created his own path and explained away the day’s freak occurrence as the reaction of reality to his aversion. It needed only to balance after being shaken.
Once the meatloaf was consumed, the discussions had, and the children tucked in, Edward and Marcy made love. The dim glow of a streetlight cut in through the lace curtains of the window, and Edward was convinced that all would be well from there. The universe had fixed itself, and it was that self-assurance that finally lulled Edward into sleep as the shadows of branches danced across the ceiling above them.

At 6am, the alarm buzzed again, and again Edward slapped it off, looked at Marcy sleeping with her hand on his chest. This time he wouldn’t get up, he thought. This time he wouldn’t move. Her head was nuzzled against his shoulder, and he held her hand, feeling the warm breeze of Marcy’s exhales over his knuckles. An hour later Edward opened his eyes again having drifted back to sleep, and a lock of her hair had settled under his chin. He looked up, wishing he could see through the ceiling into the sky. It was then that Edward noticed that the subtle breeze had stopped. The body in his arms was still. When he couraged a glance down at Marcy, the bridge of her nose, the curve of her cheekbones, the shadow of her brow had all been smudged out again, and the horror filled him once more. Unable to contain himself, he cried out in panic, jumping out of the bed and backing out of the bedroom. The thing moved to a sitting position and rose mechanically and without character or effort before the feet shuffled across the room. It followed Edward down the stairs and took its place once more on the couch.

Dr. Gunther had warned him about straying from the path so far as he had. It was volatile and unstable. Edward had taken the chance anyway, determining that there was just as much a possibility of her being wrong about it as much as right. It was a wager he’d made and lost.
Edward Kind decided to return to the path.

Edward’s family transformed back to their normal states that evening, ate the meatloaf, said the things they would say, slept soundly. Edward stayed awake, sitting, watching his wife sleep, drinking one glass of whiskey after another. None of it was real, he thought. It was just the skipping record of reality.

As the birds began to awaken in the twilight outside, he clicked off the alarm, for he was already awake.

Edward Kind dressed, drank his coffee, and ate his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove his practical family sedan to the metro station about fifteen minutes away without traffic. His metro pass failed, and he received another from the station manager after being informed that it had expired. Edward watched through bleary eyes as the red line moved away, and he walked slowly to his car. Edward sat silently in traffic, emotions weighted by the inevitable, and words weighted by the emotions. He arrived at his office one hour and thirty-six minutes late, though he saw no reason to present himself to his supervisor and apologize.

Edward remained in his office, excusing himself from his meeting. At noon, his coworkers invited him to lunch, but he declined, preferring to go alone to the bar down the street. Between shots of bourbon, he watched as the second hand of the clock on the wall ticked by, the minute hand begrudgingly following.

It was just after two that Edward returned to his office and the mail boy was rummaging through his cart outside his door. Edward took his mail, not returning the smile that the young man offered. He thanked him, sat behind his desk, then stared down at the correspondence. As his eyes studied white and manila envelopes with blurred vision, his fingers moved on their own, reaching out to them, nudging them apart. Then in the middle of the pile, he recognized a handwriting, and with an exalted explosion of passion snatched up the envelope and tore it open to reveal its contents, a single sheet of paper. Edward read the letter line by line.

This was the moment that Edward Kind realized each day had been exactly the same as before.

Once finished with the letter, he sat perplexed for several moments, then without a word bolted from his office, through the halls and down the emergency stairs, for there was no time to wait for elevators.

Behind the wheel of his car, Edward swerved in and out of the city traffic, pushing the limits of his possible speed until he came to an intersection where he cut left, then right again. The tires spun, losing their traction, and he found himself spinning towards a minivan.

Weightlessness. Glass shards and mangled aluminum. Clouds of powder from inflated airbags.

Edward Kind lay staring up at the sky, bright gray with spots of blue. Like inverted clouds. Approaching footsteps. Voices of panic and control. His eyes and a line of blood descended from his ears. Then the sky was obscured as a face looked over him.

“You did it, Mr. Kind. You did it.”



Studies In gray.